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Why has Milwaukee seen a spike in violence, and who's doing something about it?

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Marti Mikkelson
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Milwaukeeans have been protesting gun and other violence for years, as seen in this 2018 anti-gun violence rally. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, homicide numbers have gotten worse.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee was on a four-year historic decline in homicide, with around 100 homicides total in 2018 and 2019. All that changed in 2020, when the city saw an astronomical rise in violence — nearly doubling those numbers in 2020 and 2021. As of Wednesday, the city has had 74 homicides, about 45% more than at the same time last year.

Jamaal Smith is a community injury and violence prevention manager at Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention. He says the uptick in violence reflects the pain, frustration and anger that exists in Milwaukee communities from the emotional toll of the COVID pandemic, as well as the generational and current trauma that many people have experienced.

He points out the disparate impact of public health measures to address COVID-19, including "Safer at Home" mandates.

“We have to first understand (that) everybody who was at home was not safe at home, even during that mandate, which is why we also saw an increase in domestic violence as well,” he says. “So, when you think of lost wages, a lot of people, before they started to implement the eviction moratoriums, people lost homes, they weren't able to pay their mortgages or pay their rent.”

He notes people were struggling to pay for groceries, while children were figuring out ways to still be educated and go to school from home. People were trying to figure out how to coexist in a home space when they’re normally out and about.

“And it brought a level of anxiety, brought a level of stress, it brought frustration, brought anger. And most people didn't know or still don't know how to cope with those feelings,” he says.

Adding on to that, he says, nationwide gun sales skyrocketed in 2020 to 23 million guns. That’s 64% more than were sold in 2019.

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Jamaal Smith with Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention.

“And we're not even talking about the black market guns. We're talking about legal gun sales,” he says. “So you (combine) mental anxiety, emotional toil, with an increase in gun possession, that's a recipe for disaster."

He notes the disparities had that already existed for Black and brown communities were exacerbated even more when COVID hit. He says this has all contributed to the historically bleak homicide numbers in Milwaukee.

“So in order to really deal with the problem, you first have to acknowledge all of the complexities of the issue, and then figure out the solutions,” he says. “Right now, we're still trying to wrap our minds (around) the extent of what COVID really did to the city, and nationwide.”
The Office of Violence Prevention put together a Blueprint for Peace that is an ongoing, community-driven public health plan to curb violence. It identified 10 priority neighborhoods for investment of resources, where youth and families are often exposed to individual and community trauma resulting from structural racism, concentrated disadvantage and violence.

Smith says enacting the Blueprint for Peace and violence prevention efforts in those and other neighborhoods requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“We have to (implement prevention strategies) more innovatively and collaboratively,” says Smith. “We've talked a lot about siloed approaches. Now we're in a space where silos just cannot be an answer anymore. Collaboration, communication, (and) cooperation are necessary in order for there to be a transformative change in the city.”

Smith says the Office of Violence Prevention centers its work around healing and highlights the work of Ajamou Butler at Heal the Hood.

READ: ‘Heal The Hearts, Heal The Homes, Heal The Hoods. We Givin' The Hood Hope': Milwaukee's Ajamou Butler

He gives a nod to their Commission for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the Beyond the Bell program, which is working with youth development organizations to increase youth services for the city, the Coaching Boys into Men program which is building mentorship opportunities through sports, the BUILD Sherman Park program with many community partners to bring health equity to Sherman Park, the SAFE MKE program based on the Cardiff Model which is talking about violent trends in neighborhoods and bringing solutions and many other efforts by community activists and their organizations.

He says there’s a lot happening within the city and wants to see that highlighted. “As much as we talk about everything that's happening within our city, we also have to talk about the many wonderful initiatives that are happening to end to work towards prevention, or even reducing or preventing violence.”

He says there are a lot of people at the table working diligently to do that.

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