BIRMINGHAM, Ala.— When Randall Woodfin received the call that his older brother, Ralph Jr., had been shot, he rushed to the scene in the Southtown public housing community.
Then an assistant attorney for the city of Birmingham, Woodfin couldn’t bear to call his mom, so he called his dad and asked him to let her know: Her eldest son was gone.
Today, as the mayor of Birmingham, Woodfin is calling for a communitywide commitment to end gun violence. It’s a city long plagued by trauma in a state named by the CDC as the second deadliest in the nation for rate of firearm deaths. In 2017 in Alabama, there were 1,100 deaths by firearm — 573 suicides, 506 homicides, and 21 accidental discharges, according the Alabama Department of Public Health.
In 2018, 107 people were killed in Birmingham.
Stories of victims offer brief glimpses into the lives lost: a 17-year-old girl who dreamed of being a nurse, shot accidentally by a classmate at Huffman High School; a 16-year-old captain of his high school football team shot in his bedroom while sleeping; a 63-year-old nursing supervisor shot at UAB Highlands Hospital during her shift.
While there is no singular portrait of the dead, demographics reveal troubling patterns: Suicide victims are 90 percent white men in Alabama, while 82.6 percent of gun-related homicide victims in Birmingham are African American men ages 19 to 34, according to the latest Jefferson County Coroner report. The majority of perpetrators and their victims share the same race, according to the latest FBI data. Perpetrators are commonly victims of domestic or sexual abuse, assault or attempted homicide. The majority of homicides occur because of a dispute, whether in the moment or longstanding, retaliatory or not, in neighborhoods reckoning with generational trauma.
What’s happening in Birmingham is really a national public health crisis: In the U.S., homicide is the leading cause of death for young black boys and men.
Despite the American Medical Association and other major organizations declaring gun violence a national public health crisis, communities are mostly self-reliant for solutions. “The 1996 Dicky Amendment essentially halted federal funding for any research involving guns, which has severely limited our ability to perform unbiased, nonpartisan research into the gun violence problem,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kirby, the director of acute care surgery at UAB, where he oversaw the treatment of 697 gunshot wound victims in 2018, who had a 90.7 percent survival rate.
With a progressive 37-year-old black mayor and a coalition of public health, faith and grassroots groups, the city known for the civil rights movement might lead the nation again.
Woodfin says prevention methods must be informed by empathy for the victims and the perpetrators, many of whom grow up in working-class, disenfranchised neighborhoods with scarce opportunity where social scientists say structural violence informs individual actions.
“That’s racism. That’s disinvestment. It’s those big things that trickle down and cause circumstances in people’s lives that eventually lead them to being violent on a one-on-one level,” said Brandon Johnson, director of the city’s office of Peace & Policy.
As the mayor puts it, too many Birmingham residents live with “present traumatic stress.” During a grassroots campaign as a mayoral challenger, Woodfin’s team knocked on 50,000 doors, talking to residents who said the city’s renaissance wasn’t improving pockets of concentrated poverty where grocery stores are rare, blight is rampant, schools are failing and public transit isn’t reliable.
A few weeks before his election, the unimaginable happened: Woodfin’s 17-year-old nephew, his brother’s son, Ralph Woodfin, III, was also shot and killed. During his victory speech, the mayor-elect honored the young lives lost and the youth he hoped to uplift, reminding the audience of the struggles young black men and boys face daily. He called to the stage his brothers from Morehouse College.
“Black men know how to be brothers,” Woodfin said. In videos of the speech, you can hear audience members repeating his words to one another.
A year and a half into his tenure, the city is ready to see how Woodfin is making good on his campaign promises, including gun violence prevention. He increased the number of detectives in homicide and robbery, the Birmingham Police Department said via email. The number of homicide cases closed has increased from 30% to more than 50%. Since Jan. 1, BPD has removed more than 500 unlawfully held guns from the streets.
This March, the mayor’s office joined the Jefferson County Department of Public Health in declaring gun violence a public health crisis. The city’s Peace & Policy office released the #IncreasePeace plan. In it, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama, Jay E. Town, echoes research that shows gun violence is a severe economic burden, writing: “Birmingham’s socio-economic future will not consistently thrive so long as these [violent] conditions exist.”
During a Feb. 28 press conference, mothers of slain children called for unity with a more urgent appeal. “I had to walk behind the casket of my dead son’s body. I’m asking you to walk with us today, so it won’t be you tomorrow,” Carolyn Johnson said. Woodfin called for the community to take part in neighborhood watches and training sessions for the “Stop the Bleed” campaign, during which the health department would train residents (similar to CPR training) in how to slow gunshot bleeding. (The mayor discussed the plan in an interview.)
Overall, #IncreasePeace was initially met with skepticism, with one critic calling the policies mentioned in the press conference “a literal Band-aid.” Activists called for resources to be directly invested in revitalizing high-crime communities and grassroots solutions.
But if Randall Woodfin, a man whose own life has been deeply affected by violence, can’t lead the city to peace, then who will?
Peacemakers ‘refuse to be afraid’
Onoyemi Williams is terrified of guns.
She was 12 when her uncle was shot and killed. More than a decade later, when Williams called her family to say she was enrolling in the police academy, her family worried: How could Williams be a cop if she was afraid to hold a gun?
After struggling through the weapons course, Williams became a parole officer for the state, working with drug runners. She didn’t use a gun at work. She says she worked “building hope.” Throughout a 14-year career, she was proud of her successes helping folks who made mistakes live better lives.
“I’ve never met a drug dealer that didn’t want the same things for their children that a doctor wanted for theirs,” Williams said.
Today, Williams, 42, works as a health insurance analyst and is the mother of three teenagers (two biological, one foster) in Smithfield, a neighborhood on Birmingham’s west side, where the majority of the city’s homicides take place. Three years ago, frustrated by City Council discussions of crime that she saw as buying into stereotypical narratives, Williams began to organize around violence reduction. She connected with Faith in Action, a national network of faith organizations addressing injustice. Locally, 60 houses of worship — from synagogues to strip mall churches — represent the Birmingham chapter. Williams jokingly calls herself the good heathen of the bunch.
Leaning on the lessons she learned as a parole officer, Williams co-chairs the “peacemakers,” a group committed to ending gun violence. The Rev. Gregory Clark of New Hope Baptist Church founded the local group and serves as Williams’ co-chair, attending meetings with the city and community stakeholders. In early meetings, Williams says people wondered if the peacemakers should have police escorts when they entered high-crime communities for their weekly “peace walks,” where they go door to door, talking to residents with a simple goal: “Listen, love, learn.”
Williams says that was a slap in the face. “I refuse to be afraid of my people,” she said.
“It goes back to the way our community has been painted for so long — [that black men] are just a bunch of barbarians killing each other,” Williams said. Erroneous assumptions when talking about crime and race are rampant, she said: that every black person understands gun violence, that black people have equal opportunity for justice. “That’s just not true,” she said.
In a city where there’s living memory of Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor attacking black children with fire hoses and German shepherds, Williams believes the police cannot spearhead violence reduction efforts in predominantly African American neighborhoods. The city’s findings confirm a deep distrust of police among most residents. A recent study showed 71% of Birmingham residents don’t trust the police while 68% believe obeying the law benefits the whole community.
Past city efforts to end gun violence have widely failed. Launched in 2015, the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative intended to identify criminals prior to a crime taking place. Community organizers criticized the program for relying on militarized police tactics to arrest and traumatize people who had not committed any crime. An outside review by John Jay College found the program lacked clear direction and failed to reduce homicide by firearm or nonfatal shootings.
In 2018, the City Council approved surveillance cameras in high-crime areas for $670,000 annually. Studies show cameras to be effective crime deterrents when coupled with other prevention methods like lights or security guards. It’s a start, but Woodfin acknowledges cameras on every corner wouldn’t stop every shooting.
Some of the state’s largest nonprofits and religious institutions have also declared a commitment to ending violence in the city without much impact. Most recently, the multicampus Church of the Highlands announced it was opening a campus on Birmingham’s west side to “help fight crime.” The church had no comment about its plans or in what ways it was investing resources from its deep coffers.
Meanwhile, the city’s homicide numbers continue to reach record highs.
Listening to struggles, successes
In West Birmingham on a chilly Monday evening in March, the sky’s pink dims behind a row of modest houses as the peacemakers knock on doors.
It’s cold for early spring in Alabama. A woman and her son rake the last leaves from their front yard. The street is quiet except for the nearby train and a barking dog. The ministers joke about which one of us might outrun the pooch if he breaks loose from his chain.
“You forget this is where most of the killings in the city take place,” Williams says. “Any given night, shots might ring out.” She’s often the only woman walking, directing the men, reminding them of resident names and circumstances. All the peacemakers are African American.
“The people being killed are black men,” she explains. “They need to make a connection with other black men.”
Thirty-two peacemakers are here tonight, split into different groups, donning neon yellow vests as they talk with residents at home and on corner hang-outs.
Dennis Leon Brown, 62, grew up in West End and is now the minister at nearby West End Hills Missionary Baptist Church. Brown explains the group picked these blocks in the 35211 based on the high concentration of homicides. Lonnie Hannon, associate professor of sociology at Tuskegee University and researcher for the city’s office of peace, found 85 homicides occurred in this ZIP code between 2013 and 2018.
Brown says there were 10 homicides in the 15-block area in 2017. Since they started the peace walk, there’s only been one.
“We’re not trying to be the police department. We’re not trying to be evangelists and get people to come to our churches,” Brown says. Their goal, he says, is to understand why violence is happening and what they can do to prevent it, which starts with listening.
Larry Moultrie from New Hope Baptist Church is 61, tall and lanky with a quick smile. “I was a dope dealer. I was a drug user,” Moultrie says, crediting the church for saving his life. A few days before this walk, his nephew was shot and killed. He’s candid with residents who are candid in return.
“Once they get to know you, they have confidence in you, and once they have confidence in you, they confide in you,” Moultrie says.
Throughout the night, residents share their daily struggles: unpaid light bills, family members fallen ill, kids at college who don’t call home. They share successes, too: On one porch, there’s dancing, a celebration for a new job.
Tonight, residents welcome the peacemakers. There’s Roosevelt Hill, 44, who began remodeling homes on this block because he was tired of waiting for someone else to revitalize the neighborhood. He says there’s been a domino effect: “The neighbors are starting to do work on their own properties.”
There’s Ms. G., who recently purchased one of Hill’s renovated properties with her husband despite the neighborhood’s reputation. “We have to show these kids what it’s like to be a community,” she says. (She asked her full name and age not appear.)
There’s 59-year-old Pat Leavy, who steps reluctantly onto her porch in her pajamas. A painting of magnolias over her sofa matches her white hair. She tells us she’s getting her GED after being out of school for 50 years. “We just need to pray for Birmingham,” Leavy says, joining hand-in-hand in a prayer circle. “It’s just too much killing out here.”
The peacemakers weren’t always this welcome. At first, residents were skeptical of the men in yellow vests, thinking they were the police or scammers. Most folks tonight offer a piece of personal or neighborhood news.
Suicide researchers use the word “contagion” to describe the copycat effect in communities after a death. Could the positive growth heard about tonight be contagious? Williams nods, says it’s invaluable to empower people to envision a better life in a neighborhood where people had “lost the ability to dream.”
The city’s peace plan says gun violence is born of a reckless disregard for another’s life when you don’t see your own as valuable. “When people start seeing someone else sees their self-worth, they start to see their own self-worth,” Williams says.
It sounds simple, but Russell Griffin, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UAB, points to research that shows homicides are clustered by personal and geographic social networks. “Kind of a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon effect,” he said.
Peace might arrive similarly.
In that way, Griffin said, Faith in Action and the “door-to-door peace work can have beneficial effects of decreasing homicide incidences.”
Plan to build path away from ‘gun lifestyle’
The peace walk is a small but integral part of a much larger vision:
Modeled after and in partnership with national organizations Live Free and Cease Fire, Faith in Action is fundraising $500,000 to launch a five-year program, expanding throughout the city in hopes of halving homicide by gunfire. The group is two-thirds of the way to its funding goal.
The program includes an intervention method targeting people not currently addressed in the city’s plan, which emphasizes prevention (youth) and reentry (after prison or parole). With nonprofits, including the Community Foundation and Urban League, Faith in Action hopes to create a networked pathway out of the “gun lifestyle,” offering counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, workforce training, job placement and mentorship for young men. A Victim Response Team will offer assistance applying for a federal grant that offers up to $25,000 for victim families. The team is also geared to prevent retaliatory crimes. “It’s part of getting in there and being able to know who’s hot in a way that’s safe for the family,” Williams said.
Faith in Action claims to have had contact with 105 of 107 families who lost someone to homicide in 2018 in Birmingham.
Fundraising will continue this summer, as the city’s Peace & Policy office is slated to announce a grant program for violence-reducing social programs.
Williams wants Birmingham to commit to righting the wrongs of the city’s history of disenfranchising black communities. The peace walks might be returning hope block by block, but for Faith in Action and other gun violence reduction programs to thrive, the city’s neighborhoods must thrive as well.
“We don’t have a magic pill,” Williams said. “We’re looking for a significant investment in a population of people.”
This story has been updated.
This story was produced in conjunction with AL.com. It is part of the JJIE’s project on targeting gun violence. Support is provided by The Kendeda Fund. The JJIE is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.