Pastor Michael McBride serves as the Director of LIVE FREE—a national campaign led by faith-based institutions that works to reduce gun violence and the mass incarceration of young people of color.
As part of our campaign to #EndGunViolenceTogether, we sat down with Pastor Mike to discuss gun violence, his work and a united way forward.
1. What drives you?
When I became a pastor, I was working at a continuation school in Berkeley. We had a lot of students from the Bay Area—many were victims or perpetrators of gun violence—and we had a funeral for a young man named Larry who was shot in a liquor store. There were about 500 young people at the funeral, and I asked, "How many of you have been to more than one funeral?" Everyone raised their hands. So I asked, “How many of you have been to more than two funerals—more than three?” They still had their hands up. They were teenagers.
I got to ten funerals. Half of them had hands raised, and they were weeping. It really underscored [the fact] that violence in urban communities is an intergenerational reality that’s created a lot of trauma, and we who lead have to figure out how we can bring the full weight of our institutions to create more peaceful communities.
Often, young people victimized by violence don't have the opportunity to live in or imagine a space where violence is not at the center of their lives. So it creates—as Dr. King says—a spiral into darkness.
2. Tell us about LIVE FREE and the type of work you’re doing.
When we first launched LIVE FREE, we called it Lifelines to Healing. The idea was that people need a lifeline—a way out as real and concrete as the violence they’re stuck in. We wanted to change their material conditions. Even if there’s political intractability. Even if jobs don't come.
So, we thought, “What would it look like to unleash the power of love, peace and healing in houses of worship and faith across the country?” And we spent 3-4 years traveling across the country and really evangelizing.
Less than 0.5% of a city’s population can drive as much as 60% of the violence. These are the most important people in the city. The question is: How do we intervene with them before they shoot—or even after they shoot—to break the cycle? We were very aware of strategies that were working in Boston, New York, Chicago. But they were siloed, and as we organized to scale them up there were no resources to make them sustainable. For many of us, this is a multi-disciplinary effort to figure out how we make healing a communal, systemic and structural reality.
Violence is solvable. We have solutions. We just need the political will and the resources to scale up.
3. We can all agree that gun violence is a problem, but progress has been slow coming. What do you think are some of the greatest obstacles?
This country has perfected the politics of fear. Everybody believes that the “other”—whoever that is—is out to get them. We all want safety. We want our communities to be safe. How do we walk towards each other in a way that demonstrates these commitments and out-organize those who would try and prey on our fear of each other?
I think that “dark skinned bodies are dangerous” is the most problematic notion, and I think that “owning a gun makes you safe” is a false reality. We need to push back against this criminalization narrative of dark bodies, of immigrants, of “others,” and against this idea that guns make you safer.
So, how do we change people’s hearts and minds? If we go back to the civil rights movement, we remember the freedom riders sitting down at lunch counters and willingly being assaulted. They had dogs trained on them—some were killed. These images were broadcasted nationwide on the 6 o'clock news and they shifted public opinion.
What is the equivalent of that proclamation—that radical re-shifting that overcomes fear? I think it’s the mass shootings. I think it’s the energy of the youth; a public health narrative.
We must organize truth in a way that counteracts the lie—the big lie—that says violence is intractable, black or brown people are inherently violent and our resources should be spent policing and jailing people.
4. So, how do we make proclamations real?
Policies and programs. Rhetoric can dissipate. Policies are important because they demonstrate our ability to capture our values and institutionalize them. But we have to figure out how to capture values we know are about peace, or we'll always have more weapons at the expense of food, housing, healthcare, jobs and schools.
Programs make our policies live on the ground. In Oakland, we had about 300 individuals driving violence. We averaged an officer-involved shooting every 6 weeks for almost 20 years. We averaged 110 homicides and 600 shootings a year for the 25 years leading up to the launch of Ceasefire [a violence reduction strategy]. In 2012, we had 126 homicides and at the end of that year, we launched Ceasefire.
So, we implemented public health initiatives, violence reduction strategies, cease-fire hospital interventions—the whole gamut. Now, we’ve gone 2 years without an officer-involved shooting. We had 126 homicides in 2012. Last year, we had less than 65.
The institutionalization of our values helps people see hope.
We have to become more skilled at moving
between proclamations, policies and programs
in a way that saves lives and creates safe, secure communities.
5. Where do we start?
We need to start where there is agreement, versus where there is disagreement. If everybody keeps going into their own corner, we'll find what we want quite elusive. Having said that, I always believe those closest to the problem should be centered in solutions. This principle should be reflected in all of our work at the local, state and federal level.
People should have self-determination. They should have the ability to decide what’s best for themselves and their families, but with an appreciation for our connectedness as human beings.
The last thing I'll say is that often, the people who are shooting have themselves been shot. The false distinction between the offender and the victim—particularly in urban communities—creates good guys and bad guys unnecessarily. It doesn't take away from the reality that people are making very violent and harmful decisions, but I always ask folks to wrestle with this.
What does it mean to give offenders the opportunity to be treated as victims? Can they get healing? Can they get restoration? Can they get second chances?
Inspired by what you read here? Visit TOMS partner LIVE FREE to learn how you can become a peace ambassador in your city.
Written by Kendall Pilgrim