A few weeks ago a former student of mine named Demetrius Flemming-Davis was killed by a stray bullet in Oakland. In a bit of cold irony, his funeral service was held on what would have been his 19th birthday. It was a funeral I could not attend because I was working on a project in London, England. It was harder having to grieve from five thousand miles away. A few years ago I was his chess and jiu-jitsu teacher, as well as his life mentor; and his future was bright by all accounts. Demetrius was a tall, slim teenager with caramel-colored skin, and a jawline Pharaoh Akhenaten would have been jealous of. He was known for his contagious and charismatic smile and his ability to make people laugh. His death cut the community deep. 

Briahn Badelle is a former Trauma Medical Social Worker at Highland Hospital in Oakland. She worked closely with Demetrius in high school. She tells me the ripple effect of the pain is much more far reaching than it seems. "People think that when a student dies that it is just the family that feels it," Badelle says. “The teachers, neighbors and students have trauma from the violence as well. This is not something people are taught to deal with in their training. School staff are not taught how to bury their students. You see the best in them and you want the best for them— and then things are cut short.”

Dying by the Gun

To understand the magnitude of the violence in the United States, perhaps a comparison would be useful.  Consider, for instance, the United Kingdom, whose Office of National Statistics recorded 33 firearm fatalities in 2019 —a mere 3 deaths higher than the prior year. Compare that to the United States, where the Center for American Progress reported more than 342,439 firearm deaths from 2008 through 2017. The center’s same reporting estimates that in the United States, a gun death occurs every 15 minutes.

Damien Posey, aka “Uncle Damien”, is founder of Us 4 Us Bay Area and is a frontline worker engaged with youth on a daily basis. His work takes him between helping young people in juvenile hall and working to quell street violence in some of the toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland, among others. 

Posey himself was shot at the tender age of 12; and over the years he has been shot on three different occasions, sustaining a total of 5 bullet wounds. Because of this traumatic history, Posey has dedicated his life to local Bay Area youth, and he helps kids and parents heal from the physical and mental scars left behind by violence.

Says Posey of the aftermath: “Some of the kids go into a shell and others get more aggressive on the streets.” 

He also fears that social media is feeding into the cycle of violence. “There is fear,” says Posey. “But it is also becoming normalized. Many of the young people are expecting to die young.” 

Posey and others have pointed out that dying young has become something of recurrent cultural theme in minority and poverty-stricken communities.  And this has been reflected for quite some time in the music that features prominently in the cultures of these communities.  One can think back to Ice Cube’s Dead Homiez, the iconic Crossroads by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas’ Just a Moment or the unforgettable Thugz Mansion by Tupac in which he raps, “No one knows my struggle, they only see the struggle // Not knowin’ it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you.”

Today’s rappers carry on the tradition of writing odes to lost lives, with an artist such as Roddy Ricch penning Die Young, whose title is self-explanatory. Far from glamorizing violence and death, these songs point to a collective exhaustion with violence in communities where the shooter and the victim frequently resemble one another in terms of the trauma they have lived and the roles they feel destined to play.

Adding fuel to the fire of this crisis is the availability of firearms in inner city communities. Whether bought legally, sold on the black market, or printed using 3D printer technology (so-called untraceable “ghost guns), guns are a persistent feature of the American landscape that create opportunities for tragedy at scale many of our most vulnerable communities cannot afford. 

And with the COVID-19 crisis driving increased unemployment, depression, and drug use, a perfect storm of despair-driven violence has descended upon cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and South Central Los Angeles. 

A Crisis of Leadership 

The current rash of gun violence cannot be understood without examining systemic pressures that have plagued the Black community for decades, dating back to J. Edgar Hoover’s policies as the head of the FBI, especially during the period of 1950 to 1970.  Hoover pursued a policy of community destabilization through the targeting of Civil Rights era leadership.  His stated fear was the rise of a “Black Messiah,” which put charismatic Black leaders and personalities such Malcolm X, Fred Hampton Jr., and Billie Holiday in his crosshairs.  Even John Lennon, whose role in the counterculture movement of the 19060s was viewed as threatening, didn’t escape Hoover’s microscope.  Anyone who showed potential in empowering Black communities and lives was targeted, and undercut. Sometimes it feels like Hoover achieved his goals.

As a result of this targeting of leadership, Black and minority houses of worship no longer anchor communities.  After all, it was from Black houses of worship that the Civil Rights movement arose, and with effective leadership scuttled, these places have become less attractive to youth compared to the allure of glamorized street life.  What we now see are aging congregations of elders who quite literally fear their own children and grandchildren, and have simply run out of ideas on how to face this crisis.  And though we applaud the achievements of Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris, at the highest levels of government, our communities are still waiting for local solutions that have not been forthcoming. 

Sadly police departments are not exactly seen as keepers of the peace, and with a seemingly never-ending string of hashtags invading our social media timelines, memorializing the latest victims of police violence (e.g. George Floyd, Breyonna Taylor, Mike Brown, Mario Woods, Daunte Wright, and others), the situation seems dire indeed.

PNAS recently reported: “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 years and 35 years for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.”

Meanwhile for many of the youth, gun violence has become a certified badge of honor. The violent killings of rappers such as Pop Smoke and King Von, message to youth that street credibility might be gained through violence.  And it doesn’t help that numerous young rappers, such as Lil Durk, have taken to creating music that mocks the deaths of their rivals.  Clearly this is not helpful, and is a far cry from the aforementioned laments offered by more thoughtful artists.

Perhaps, the last best hope for our communities lies with our politicians.  It was President Joe Biden who recently questioned current gun policies asking: “Who in God’s name needs a weapon that can hold 100 rounds or 40 rounds, or 20 rounds?  It’s just wrong, and I’m not going to give up til it’s done.”

But Biden faces an uphill battle with an unyielding Republican party that seems intent on remaining forever wed to the NRA.

For the sake of the family members of young men like Demetrius, and for the collective sake of our communities, we hope he prevails.

Adisa Banjoko is a Hip-Hop curator based in SF Bay Area and London. He also hosts the Bishop Chronicles podcast streaming on all platforms.