The city's chapter of the NAACP wants to send a message to violent criminals: We're not going to tolerate the damage you do to our community any longer. But at least early on, the message may not have come through as intended.
In a late-October press release, M. Gayle Moss, president of the local NAACP, announced that the organization "will no longer tolerate the senseless shooting in our neighborhoods, our communities and in our city." Quoting the gun-rights adage that "[g]uns don't kill people, people kill people," the release pledged, "The NAACP Pittsburgh will support the prosecution of any person convicted of gun violence to the fullest extent of the law.
"We will be in the courtrooms during trials to ensure these perpetrators feel the full extend [sic] of the law," added the release. "Our communities must come together in complete support."
But at least one community activist, Paradise Gray of One Hood, an anti-violence group, has taken issue with the hard-line rhetoric. In an open letter to the group, Gray contended "more oppressive incarceration, stiffer penalties/prison sentences is NOT the answer!"
Gray worried that a push for maximum punishment would exacerbate existing racial disparities in sentences -- "As if young black males are not getting the maximum sentences possible already."
Young African-American men, Gray tells City Paper, "are between a rock and a hard place" when they are put in jail, where there is little to no job training or education, and exposure to hardened criminals. And when they are released, he says, "there are no opportunities."
"It is easier in our community to get a gun and an ounce of drugs than it is to get a job with minimum wage if you're an African-American man," he says.
According to a 2007 report by prison-advocacy group The Sentencing Project, by 2001, one in six black men in the United States had been incarcerated, and blacks were incarcerated at a rate nearly six times that of whites. The report further states that if current trends continue, "one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime."
Gray advocates for eliminating prisons and "[educating] young people so they're not committing the crimes in the first place. And we should also be rehabilitating the people who are in jail so that we help them become a good citizen when they are released."
That's a similar approach to the one the NAACP advocates on the national level. Moss wants to reach those youths coming through the educational system now "because once they're gone, they're gone." She says the NAACP also plans to go into communities to work with single parents, connecting them to resources, and to work with their children.
And Moss says critiques of the NAACP statement may miss the point. She acknowledges that there are programs to help offenders, but notes there are some criminals "who are past that." She cautions that the local NAACP doesn't necessarily support maximum penalties, but "the appropriate punishment based on sentencing guidelines. ... We just want to support the process."
Moss says the NAACP is borrowing a strategy used by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose members make courtroom appearances to underline the seriousness of alcohol-related vehicle offenses. With a stronger presence in the courtroom and neighborhoods, Moss says, the NAACP can send a similar message: "Put down the guns."
"If they're doing the crime they have to be prosecuted and prosecuted [for] what they've done wrong," she says. "We need to show solidarity when these cases come up and let people know the community isn't backing you for doing wrong. This seems like what is happening. We have a lot of people who hide predators in this community."
The NAACP's initiative comes on the heels of a spate of shootings. Gunfire caused a city polling place on the North Side to relocate on Election Day. Jeron Grayson, an Uptown resident and son of well-known preacher Glenn Grayson, was fatally gunned down at a party on Oct. 17. On Oct. 4, 22-year-old Justin Strothers-Owens, of Wilkinsburg, was fatally shot getting off a bus.
In some cases, police don't always find the suspect because the community is afraid to speak out, Moss says. In October, for example, prosecutors dropped homicide charges against a man accused of fatally shooting a woman in the head because the witness wouldn't testify.
Only time will tell whether the NAACP's efforts will be able to change that dynamic. Even Moss acknowledges the challenge in assuaging such fears.
Pittsburgh City Councilor Rev. Ricky Burgess advocates for prevention and rehabilitative initiatives, and helped the city launch the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime. That effort seeks to offer both a carrot and stick -- offering social services to potential wrong-doers, while also coming down on the whole group if a crime occurs. But Burgess admits that one challenge is a "disconnect" between police and neighborhoods often subjected to drug sweeps and "intense police action."
"When you take those attitudes and combine that with natural fear that some perpetrators may retaliate against witnesses," Burgess says, "you have a devastating effect."