City government held a press conference about violence in public housing. It was nothing short of horrifying.

I am checking in with my people this morning about the mayor’s press conference yesterday. We are horrified. I believe you should be too. Here’s why:

Our mayor believes this conversation should not be led by discussion of policy

There is no city government-led conversation about community violence that sits outside the realm of policy. This claim, made so early in the mayor’s statement, cues us to the extent to which the city of Richmond is unwilling to take responsibility for decades of poisonous policy that frame violence that happens here.

Confusingly, our mayor followed his statement that this meeting was “not about policy” by addressing a large range of policy issues, most centrally public housing in RVA. We should all be very very concerned that the city has decided to frame violence as an issue of housing and not poverty writ large. Why? Targeting poverty would require the city to launch policies to alleviate the problem, which is massive. This would be wonderful. Targeting housing allows the city to bypass governmental responsibility, pushing solutions onto private development championing mixed income housing. In short: privatization and displacement. This will be traumatizing. In this way, the mayor’s renunciation of policy sets up the city’s position on violence: when poverty leads to violence we will pretend policy cannot solve the problem. Instead, we will bulldoze public housing and push low-income residents out.

Our police chief is comfortable placing blame on the communities most likely to be targeted by violent crime

While I would love to feign surprise at the audacity of a police chief who demands the most-policed people in the city show the same faith in police as the least-policed people in the city, there is no shock to be had. The only response I have here is rage. This is another example of city government side-stepping a conversation about poverty by erasing it, here placing unclear and absurd demands on the public. Our police chief states that the police are perceived as the enemy in our poorest communities. Rather than take responsibility for the brutal history of policing in richmond, however, or recognize the extensive financial and social impact of incarceration policy in our city (a policy that drives poverty, creating more rather than alleviating it), he shames the victims of violent crime for not doing the work of police. That he describes the Richmond Police Department as underfunded is simply remarkable. No one knows better how much money our poorest communities give to our criminal justice system than the people who live in public housing. No one knows how little the police serve the city’s poorest residents than those residents themselves. Finally, we don’t need to live in public housing to see how insincere the police chief’s words are when he says “at the end of the day, I own it.” This is an uncontrolled tirade against residents, to which he returns after each person present has made their statement.

The CEO of RRHA threatened to address violence through evictions

Evictions will not reduce violence. They will, as testified by the east end and north side residents who attended this meeting, increase poverty, desperation, and violence. Evictions do not serve the needs of the public or the needs of the residents. They, do, however, empty units and pave the way for redevelopment.

Evictions are and will continue to be ineffectual, and that should be reason enough to resist them, but they are also extrajudicial and profoundly unethical. When homicides happen, we have a legal system in place that codifies our response.* People accused of violent crime have a right to due process of law. It is unconscionable to use eviction in lieu of legal process. Evictions target not only individuals suspected (not convicted) of a crime; evictions target their families, including their children. Evictions take action against whole communities of people without legal oversight. This is a an atrocious response to violence. That the CEO of RRHA can say, with so little concern, that the children of evicted residents will be the problem of “the foster care system and the legal system” is horrifying, and should alone be grounds for the entire city to push back against the proposed response. In no decent city should this total lack of empathy for the families living in public housing go unchecked.

It was only through the insistence of residents and activists that members of the public had a voice here

There are a wealth of things to be concerned about here, including the absurd statement that social media drives gun purchasing, the distressing suggestion that all the streets in public housing should be monitored by 24 hr video surveillance, etc. etc. But what concerns me most are two things: the ease with which our city government has washed their hands of responsibility, openly blaming our poorest communities, and the confidence with which the city will “solve” these problems through development. Our city government’s message is clear: if poverty causes crime we will push poor people onto the streets and outside of city limits. This allows us to develop, creating space for middle and upper income residents.

Omari Al-Qaddafi quite rightly indicts city leadership when he says:

“I hear all this talk about the communities not helping…but the community wasn’t invited here, and when we tried to come in here we were met at the door and told this was for press only…I don’t think you really understand the real issues. That’s going to increase poverty, increase evictions, increase homelessness, and increase crime in the community. How can you seriously say you want the community to help when the community isn’t here?”

The greater Richmond community owes these individuals thanks for showing up, demanding space, refusing to be overlooked by mayoral staff, and speaking truth in a press event that would otherwise have controlled the narrative of these shootings by shifting blame to public housing residents and encouraging the broader public to imagine a Richmond where mixed income housing and private development is an easy solution. Take note from these leaders: don’t let those who stand so clearly against all of your interests control the narrative.

One of the activists present here is Lillie Estes, who in her capacity as a member of the tenant council, has very bravely spoken out against the city’s ongoing campaign to rebuild public housing without input from residents. Read more about her concerns and the city’s plans here.

You can watch a video of the press event here (links to facebook).

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*I am openly critical of that system and suspicious of its efficacy, but I recognize it exists and is supported by rule of law.

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