In 1997 my uncle Brian died, prey to America’s inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis in the '80s. A heterosexual male with a wife and kids, he was infected by an unscreened blood transfusion after the Reagan administration and the rest of Puritan-reflux, cis-het America found it more appropriate to judge and crack jokes for the better part of a decade, rather than getting a jump start on the treatment and prevention that could have saved his and many others' lives.
I mention Uncle Brian’s passing after the recent observation of World AIDS Day, Dec 1st, because America's inaction in the face of that burgeoning crisis—inaction that led to his and many others' untimely deaths—bears a disturbing resemblance to a new inaction, one that has already led to at least 100,000 unnecessary deaths in American cities.
In the mid-90s, when America was just starting to admit that HIV/AIDS was a real crisis and scrambling to scale treatment and prevention programs nationally, a gun violence epidemic was taking root in the nation’s cities. Like AIDS, it affected mostly men, and, in particular, young black men in densely populated, hyper-segregated, economically poor neighborhoods. As with the outbreak of AIDS, the pearl-clutching public responded not with sympathy or a redoubled emphasis on public health, but rather by hyperventilating, judging, and fear-mongering, using terms such as superpredator, thug, and gangbanger.
Though the proximate cause of these two epidemics bear little comparison, it is in the cruel, vicious pubic response—given that both were later found to be completely preventable epidemics—wherein the analogy, and hopefully solidarity, lie. From the time AIDS first appeared in a medical journal in 1981, to the time Ronald Reagan first spoke the word in public, approximately 21,000 people had died. In all, roughly a million people lost their lives before the public came around and treatment and funding finally caught up.
Similarly, with the epidemic of gun violence, criminologists at Harvard and the University of Chicago learned how to turn it off and prevent it completely—and I mean that literally—in 1996. That year a program later dubbed the Boston Miracle ended teen gun deaths in Boston for 29 straight months. A similar thing happened in Chicago, where a like program cut gun violence by as much as 73% in target areas, and cut retaliation shootings by as much as 100%.
With AIDS, the non-LGBTQH public eventually came around, if reluctantly, and with proper treatment the disease can today be managed—it's no longer a death sentence for those infected. On gun violence, however, despite 20 years of data showing that such deaths are likewise entirely manageable, the public stubbornly refuses to come around. Jurisdictions with the worst gun violence epidemics in the country continue to underfund, ridicule, and axe the programs that have been proven to save so many lives, and for the most part the general public has remained completely silent.
Boston, which I mention because it was the first city to pilot Operation Ceasefire (the program responsible for the Boston Miracle) abruptly discontinued it in 2000, causing teen gun homicides to more than double. By 2005 homicides in Beantown spiked to a 10-year high. Today that city spends $318 million on police salaries and $1 million on program salaries for a streetworker program similar to Ceasefire—that’s a 318:1 ratio of what data has shown doesn't work to what data show does work, for those who are keeping track.
In Chicago, a city with one of the nation's worst gun violence problems, rather than scaling programs like Ceasefire to all of the city's hotspots, city and state leaders cut funding in 2007 and then cut it again in 2013. Today, with homicides at the highest level seen in 20 years, city officials vehemently claim that they have no answers and that there's simply not enough money for life-saving programs such as Ceasefire, even as they dig up more than enough funding from city coffers to cover an astounding $521 million in police misconduct judgments by Chicago Police.
Baltimore, another city with a severe gun violence problem, has seen similarly inexplicable cuts and inaction. Charm City adopted a version of Ceasefire in 2000, which it called Safe Streets, and piloted it in four of the city’s eleven hotspots. Twelve years later, a team of expert statisticians at Johns Hopkins reported implementation sites saw “large, statistically significant, program-related reductions in homicides.”
Not only had the trial sites seen large reductions directly related to the program, but in May 2015, Baltimore’s most violent month in the city's most violent year on record, the Safe Streets site in Cherry Hill reported there hadn’t been a gun homicide in over a year. Another site, Mondawmin, hadn’t had a shooting all month. Same in Park Heights, another site. Meanwhile, in the police-only hotspot areas where Safe Streets was for some reason still not operating three years after the Hopkins data had been published, the city saw an 83% increase in shootings, more than three a day, with 29 people shot over the Memorial Day weekend alone. Like Chicago, Baltimore city officials claim no money while spending $5.7 on police misconduct—a sum that could have scaled Safe Streets to all eleven of the city's hotspots.
With the recent passing of World AIDS Day, we've seen what can happen when a nation recognizes that it's wrong to stand by and judge while people die from a totally treatable and preventable epidemic. Baltimore sees around 300 gun homicides a year, Chicago around 800, which amounts to roughly 24,000 unnecessary gun deaths—since treatment programs were first discovered in 1996—in those two cities alone. Nationally, with roughly 11,000 gun homicides per year, the death toll stands anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 preventable deaths to date. It’s long past time that we recognize as a nation that if it was wrong to stand by and do nothing during the AIDS epidemic—which everyone now universally agrees it was—then it's also wrong to stand by and do nothing while young black men lose their lives to a completely preventable gun violence epidemic in America's cities.