They lost loved ones to gun violence. Then their grief was politicized

·8 min read

William Gude spends his days trying to hold the police accountable. As the creator and outspoken monitor behind @filmthepolicela, a Twitter account that’s attracted thousands of followers, he regularly critiques the LAPD by filming and tweeting about their activity – from traffic stops to confrontations with protestors.

But one night in June, his tweets got personal. That night he told his followers that his son, Marcelis William-Gude, had been shot. After hitting send, Gude drove to the hospital where a doctor told him that his 22-year-old son died after being shot multiple times in South Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gude said, adding that he couldn’t bring himself to even view his son’s body. “He loved life and the world is not a better place now that he’s gone.”

Related: Pandemic gun violence surge was not linked to rise in gun sales, study finds

But just days later, Gude saw a headline from a local ABC affiliate that stopped him in his tracks. “Outspoken LAPD Critic now Relying on LAPD to Find Son’s Killer” the now-deleted headline read. A Guardian request for comment from the news organization was not returned.

Gude says his criticism of the LAPD should have no bearing on finding the person who killed his son, any more than suing a doctor would bar you from future healthcare. “Apparently there are those who think that if you force the police to follow the rules then somehow it hurts their ability to solve my son’s murder,” he said. “And that makes no sense.”

Gude joins a cohort of families whose lives have been thrust into a national debate over calls to defund police departments, a movement that has gained steam over the past year and even seen some cities begin to shift funds away from policing and towards violence prevention efforts. But the debate has also become increasingly politicized, as politicians, police unions and others latch onto the narrative that rising homicide figures are evidence that defunding the police has and will continue to lead to more violence.

It’s the latest chapter in an old playbook, in which the devastating toll of gun violence on Black and Latino communities is used to call out the supposed failures of progressive policies. And along the way, the stories of Marcelis William-Gude and others like him are caught in the middle, heightening the trauma for grieving families.

“You always have the potential for people’s harm to be politicized and that can compound the grief they’re experiencing. It’s a part of the politics of crime fighting.” said Nikki Jones, an African American studies professor at UC Berkeley. “But we have to figure out what it means to keep people safe so we can have a conversation that’s not about fear, but about developing solutions.”

Moreover, the “rising crime” narrative often lacks important context – for instance, overall US crime rates are not surging. However, murders have sharply risen since mid-2020 and the gun violence that appears to be driving the increase is not evenly distributed. Rather, the shootings remain concentrated in lower-income Black and Brown communities that have long shouldered the burden of gun violence, and where the outreach work in schools and hospitals that helped at-risk residents stay alive was disrupted by the pandemic.

Violence interrupters and grief-stricken family members say these political debates obscure the alternative, holistic solutions to gun violence, and reduce gunshot wound victims to anonymous or complicit pieces of the discourse around crime, violence and policing.

There is a broad range of views among Black Americans who have been impacted by gun violence and crime. Some are critical of police and would like to see their budgets allocated into community-based intervention efforts. Others feel safer with more police patrolling the areas where violence is concentrated. Yet even crime survivors with varying views find common ground in the importance of healing and prevention in disrupting the cycle of violence.

“I see that victims and survivors want justice and for the person to go to jail for what they did – especially if they took a life. I also see that law enforcement has done a good job of harnessing that trauma for their narrative,” said Paul Carrillo, community violence initiative director for the Giffords Law Center.

“It’s an effective way of making the case that police need more funding,” he continued. “But, I would expect those same officials and law enforcement personnel to help those survivors with whatever they need to get back on their feet.”

A young man’s death, caught in Oakland’s policing debate

When Teyanna Johnson woke up to two missed calls from Precious Lewis, her niece’s mother, on a Saturday night last month she knew something must have been wrong. The last time Lewis called her like that was to deliver the news that Johnson’s mother had passed away. She returned Lewis’s call the next morning and learned that her nephew, Da’Shawn Rhoades, had been shot and killed. Upon hearing the news, Johnson fell to the floor, unable to breathe, and began sobbing.

You always have the potential for people’s harm to be politicized and that can compound the grief

Nikki Jones, UC Berkeley professor

Rhoades was one of eight people shot, but the only one killed, at Oakland’s popular Lake Merritt during a Juneteenth celebration. Johnson remembers her nephew, who they affectionately refer to as “Dede”, as a caring father who loved hip hop and would even rap along to DMX lyrics as a toddler. “Everyone in our family is broken because his energy, his laughter and his spirit was so free. And it’s so crazy that we won’t get to see a piece of that,” Johnson said.

But before Johnson could begin to process the murder of the young man she helped raise, she saw an onslaught of articles suggesting that Rhoades’s murder was possibly tied to an ongoing feud among regional gangs. Oakland police maintained that the shooting appeared to be gang-related in a statement to the Guardian, but would not disclose which, if any, groups were involved.

Police officers on the scene at Lake Merritt in Oakland, following a shooting on 19 July.
Police officers on the scene at Lake Merritt in Oakland, following a shooting on 19 July. Photograph: Dylan Bouscher/AP

Johnson watched how the coverage of the shooting quickly shifted from shock to suspicion about gang activity and whether pushes to defund police were to blame. The shooting also coincided with a hotly debated vote over the Oakland police department’s budget, which ultimately saw the city divert $18m away from police and towards social services and a non-police program to respond to mental health calls.

For Rhoades’s family, the ensuing media coverage and political debate were “a whirlwind”, Johnson said. “They tried to portray him as being in a gang and he wasn’t.”

As this narrative gained traction there was pushback from local officials and Rhoades’s family. Family members including Rhoades’s mother and other aunts emphatically defended him in interviews with reporters, while organizers took to social media decrying what they saw as racist stereotyping of a young Black man.

Related: ‘A slap in the face’: crime rise warnings ignore years of work by local organizers

“This is a recurring issue when we lose our young men,” Johnson said. “And the media is trying to depict my nephew as a gang member as if he deserved what happened to him. No, his life mattered.”

Families and survivors call for community efforts

“Those conversations continue the perceived pathology of victims and the people who look like them without ever dealing with the source of the issue,” echoed Carroll Fife, an Oakland city council member, who has called for transparency in the police’s investigation of Rhoades’s case.

Local officials and police officers have leveraged Rhoades’s murder as a reason to increase police funding and dismiss efforts to reallcoate their budget elsewhere. “The litany of violent crime victims has already demonstrated that Oakland’s ‘defund the police’ strategy has failed,” said Oakland’s police union in a statement following the council’s budgetary decision, just two days after Rhoades’s slaying.

But Johnson said that she’s not sure that more police on the street would have saved her nephew’s life, especially given the fraught relationship between officers and Black and Brown residents.

If our tax dollars pay for their salary, why are we paying to get abused by officers in our communities?” she questioned. “Ever since I was young I knew the police weren’t gonna save our lives, especially if policing is causing more tension and aggression.”

Johnson would rather see the money put towards community efforts, particularly helping young people with the “depression and trauma of fighting a war that started long before they were born”, she added.

For William Gude, this experience has opened his eyes to the myriad of ways that violence can be prevented without police involvement. He recalls wanting revenge after his son’s murder, but credits a wellspring of friends, family, and online supporters for calming his nerves, helping him see past his grief and anger, and beginning to heal.

“Police don’t prevent crime, they investigate after it happens. And they get a disproportionate amount of our money but we’re not getting the returns,” Gude said. “Police often wanna roll out crime survivors and families to say: “see we need police.” But I wanna see people be offered grief counseling and preventive things.”