Op-Ed: The Second Pandemic New York City Must Address: Gun Violence

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken so much from New Yorkers this past year. From job losses to sickness to lockdowns, it’s been an incredibly difficult year. With the news of more vaccines and the light at the end of the tunnel in sight, we cannot forget about the second concurrent pandemic our city has been dealing with: gun violence.

In 2020, gun violence rose to record levels in New York City. The over 1,500 shootings in 2020 represented a 97% increase compared to 2019. Homicides spiked 47% in the same time frame. These numbers don’t even begin to express the trauma families have suffered with the increase in violence.

I know the pain that the families and communities affected by these thousands of tragedies have experienced. My daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, was shot and killed in West Harlem in 2011 as a result of a rivalry between groups of young people.

A few years later, law enforcement launched what was the largest gang raid at the time, arresting over 100 people. My son, Taylonn Jr. was one of those young people arrested and indicted.

Taylonn Jr.’s trial lacked physical evidence and instead rested on whether his social media posts could prove he was a violent gang member. He was sentenced to 50 years to life largely because of the friendships he made as a young Black man in Harlem.

With the death of my daughter and loss of my son to the criminal justice system, I began to think hard about how often poverty and mass incarceration perpetuates cycles of violence instead of breaking them.

The violence between the groups of young people that ended up killing my daughter has been happening for decades.

The tactics used to address violence in my case (and thousands of other cases) included a traumatizing gang raid where hundreds of young people who weren’t accused of violence were swept into the criminal justice system. These arrests and prosecutions didn’t address public safety, and made no long-lasting impact on the levels of violence in my neighborhood.

Had some of the resources spent on arresting our young people been redirected toward proven community-based solutions, like peer mentors to facilitate restorative justice, we would be able to begin breaking down this cycle of violence and mass incarceration.

The importance of alternatives to incarceration cannot be overstated. In 2012, I founded the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy foundation that trains credible messengers to prevent violence and mediate altercations before they escalate. This work is so important, it empowers people who grew up in and know the community to help resolve conflict and mentor young people.

New Yorkers will elect a mostly new slate of leaders this June to steer our city post-pandemic. Voters in Manhattan will also be able to choose their next District Attorney: someone who could perpetuate systems of violence and mass incarceration without reducing the tragic gun violence, or someone who will take this crisis seriously and use all available resources to address it, including restorative justice programs.

The next District Attorney must act boldly to keep our streets and our communities safe. We must finally tackle gun violence with the urgency it deserves but has not received.

I hope New Yorkers will take a look at the scope of candidates’ plans in this issue and their experience. I’ve been impressed, for example, with Dan Quart’s plan. It includes working to stem the influx of guns and weapons into Manhattan from other states, providing assistance to local precincts to solve gun violence crimes, and supporting organizations like mine that interrupt violence, provide job training, peer mentorship and support for kids in my neighborhood.

I believe that to reduce gun violence, we must use all available, proven strategies. In this race, there are 5 former prosecutors running. If I thought the same narrow approach to reducing gun violence that prosecutors have relied on would solve it, I wouldn’t do the work I do every day. The next District Attorney must play a pivotal role in ending gun violence and I urge voters to choose someone with a bold vision and the right experience to do just that.

Taylonn Murphy Sr. is a gun violence prevention advocate who lost his daughter to gun violence in 2011 and founded a model restorative justice program in Harlem to prevent it.

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