Reducing violence in St. Thomas

Erinma Bell during a panel discussion at the 2013 Rotary International Convention in Lisbon, Portugal.

Erinma Bell during a panel discussion at the 2013 Rotary International Convention in Lisbon, Portugal.

By Erinma Bell, a graduate of Rotary’s Peace Center program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand

Revenge and retaliation killings amount to 60 percent of street violence/homicides in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

By any standard, historic or comparative, the Virgin Islands experiences extremely high levels of violence. Reducing violence was cited as the territory’s number one priority in a recent survey of citizens. Violent crime, and the fear of it, has changed the way people live.

I was asked by the Rotary clubs of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Thomas Sunrise to come as a guest speaker, as a Rotary Peace Fellow, to share my experiences working to reduce violent street crime in Moss Side, Manchester.

In Manchester, I organized a “guns amnesty” program with the permission of supporting police officers to collect guns and weapons from individuals without having to collect any names and addresses.  This was important because at first the Home Office insisted we collect that information. But I insisted it was more important to get the guns off the streets than get names.

I personally had spoken to parents, and more so grandparents, who knew that a family member had a deadly weapon under his bed, but out of love for their child or grandchild, would not bring it to the police’s attention.  If St. Thomas were to undertake a similar amnesty program, I am sure they would be surprised at the number of weapons handed in. This was a way of getting buy-in from the community while working with the police. Guns were collected in “dustbins” outside police stations.

Another experience I shared was when Tony Blair (former prime minister of the United Kingdom) decided to have a “gun summit” in London. I at first objected strongly, on the grounds that a bunch of middle class white men shouldn’t be discussing the gun issues of Moss Side, Manchester, without any of the local community present.

This soon changed when I was asked to chair the meeting, and invite the right community members. When the meeting started, the prime minister wanted to discuss the problems of Moss Side, but I shifted the discussion to possible solutions for him to consider. The learning here was twofold. First make sure that you have the right people around the decision-making table, especially when the decisions are about them. And second, don’t waste time talking about the problem, always brainstorm solutions.

More than 100 stakeholders, from government officials and community leaders to concerned residents, came together 19 February for what may be the largest anti-violence gathering in the territory to date. I really do hope that they learned a few new models that will work for them.

Source: Rotary Voices

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