Gun-violence town hall focuses on need for community involvement

Gun-violence town hall focuses on need for community involvement

CHAMPAIGN — Six weeks after shots were fired as a basketball game was letting out at Central High School, nine panelists assembled at a town hall meeting agreed: Gun violence is a symptom of broader issues.

Sherri Williamson, president of Unit 4's PTA council, said she felt compelled to organize Wednesday night's event after watching how people reacted to the incident on social media.

"The problem is that we disengage and blame local leaders," Williamson said. "We want to educate the public on how you can get involved and how you can support the leaders up here."

When Williamson asked whether panelists believed the community response to gun violence had become "more urgent" since the shooting outside Central, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz responded that the issue has been a high priority "all along."

"Outside of our school is no different than it happening outside of the Douglass Center, or in a neighborhood, or outside of a gas station," Rietz told the gathering at the Illinois Terminal downtown.

"I think it's important that we're having this discussion because of what happened, but it's no more important than any shooting that's happened in our community over the past years."

Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb said that for many people, urgency only comes from proximity.

"Most of the time, it's not urgent until it affects you," Cobb said. "Let's take care of our community because it's our community."

Panelist Nicole Anderson-Cobb, a local arts administrator and advocate, suggested that conversations about the issue largely tend to focus on young men.

"The one thing that I wanted to add to the conversation is talking about masculinity," Anderson-Cobb said. "My concern is that when young men feel powerless — when they don't have economic power, when they don't have social power — then what are we doing to dismantle the idea that you can't be powerful and successful without a weapon?

"Far too often, young men of all races believe the only way they can have power is to be armed, even locally."

Rietz agreed that focusing on young men is important, but also believes turning attention to the people caring for them — mothers, aunts and grandmothers in particular — too often gets forgotten.

"We can talk all we want about young men," Rietz said. "But those who are caring for those young men need our support, maybe more, in order to really be able to help them."

Between speakers, Williamson repeatedly took the microphone to reiterate the necessity of community involvement as the ultimate solution to gun violence.

Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola said community action matters in schools because students bring what happens in their community into the classroom.

"Realize that tomorrow, I have 1,900 employees who are going to be driving a bus, who are going to be serving food, who are going to be cleaning up a mess on the floor, and all of that in the community lives in (the school system) every day," Zola said. "We'll continue to work hard, but we become the receiver of what continues to play out in our community."

Although the event was billed as a town hall, few members of the public were actually able to address the panel directly. Instead, their questions — written and submitted on notecards — were asked by Williamson.

Anderson-Cobb challenged everyone on hand to not let Wednesday's event be the last word on the issue and to spend time focusing on failures in addition to celebrating successes.

"A lot of times, we put on a community show and then we go back to the same trauma we've been experiencing," she said. "My challenge is to this room: We spend a lot of time rehearsing and preparing and dressing up when we need to figure out how to engage one another."

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GLG wrote on January 18, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Reitz is a prosecutor, start prosecuting! If she wants to be a social worker fine, Resign and do that, untill then do you job, maximum charges, No more probation for these "Gun" criminals!

Commonsenseman wrote on January 19, 2018 at 6:01 am

how can anybody take a person with purple hair seriously, this stereotypical millenial malcontent costume is ridiculous, the issue here isnt "empowerment" is lack of enforcement of laws