Matt Driscoll

Violence is wracking Tacoma. It’s on all of us, not just the mayor, to find a way to stop it

It’s been a bloody summer in a city that has seen bloody summers before.

It’s brought pain, heartbreak and death. It’s brought breaking news stories, fear and an increased sense of unease. It’s brought back bad memories in a place that already has far too many of them.

In the first eight months of 2019, Tacoma matched the total number of homicides for all of the previous year.

Not all have been gang-related, but too many have.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards grew up here and is old enough to remember the 1980s and ‘90s, when gangs and senseless violence put Tacoma on the map for all the wrong reasons.

She’s aware of the lasting stigma the gang wars left on the city she now leads. She knows that when we talk about gang violence in Tacoma, it stokes perceptions and stereotypes that the city has worked for decades to overcome.

Still, this week, Woodards — along with her City Council colleague Catherine Ushka and city manager Elizabeth Pauli — publicly acknowledged what we should all be painfully aware of by now.

Something is wrong in the City of Destiny. Very wrong. And unless the community galvanizes and confronts both the gun violence and its contributing factors, the death toll and the number of broken families will rise.

“It acknowledged the fact that we know there’s something that’s happening, and it’s not common,” Woodards explained of the statement issued by the city. She added that while spikes in violence during the summer are not unusual, “this spike was bigger.”

“There is something specifically going on right now in the city that needs to be addressed,” she said, describing the last few months in Tacoma as a “barrage of shootings and killings.”

She isn’t wrong.

“I can’t take another email. I can’t take another notification. I can’t take another call,” Woodards said of the stream of crushing news she’s received over the last few months as Tacoma’s top elected official

Last week, when a 19-year-old was paralyzed after a drive-by shooting on Tacoma’s Eastside — a shooting The News Tribune described as “yet another on the city’s Eastside believed to be part of an intensifying gang feud — Woodards says she reached her breaking point.

“I think it was just the magnitude of all of that at one time,” Woodards said of the rash of gun violence and the cumulative effect it’s taken on her.

“My heart breaks,” the mayor said.

“Enough is enough,” she added, before tacking on the accurate qualifier, “It’s always enough is enough.”

She’s not wrong about that, either, though the statement also leads us in an uncertain direction.

What are we going to do about it?

Speaking with The News Tribune, Woodards identified some steps already underway. She talked about prioritizing public safety, assigning detectives and the importance of working with community partners and having people on the ground who know the pulse of the city and can defuse potential violence before it erupts.

Woodards also spoke of the recent 2019 Gang Assessment and the directives it provides — including grappling with not just the violence we see but the disparities and systemic challenges that often contribute to it.

Woodards also acknowledged the obvious: Many of these things will take time, and time is a luxury we don’t have.

“What it says to me — and I’m OK saying this — is that what were were doing worked for a while, and the way we were doing it worked for a while, but obviously something changed, and now so do we need to change,” Woodards said.

“We can’t bury our head in the sand.”

That’s true for Tacoma’s elected leaders, but it’s equally true for all of us.

There’s a monument at South 23rd and Alaska streets on Hilltop, not far from the first home my family owned in Tacoma. It was erected because of the efforts of Larry Norman, a Hilltop advocate who — back in the early ‘90s — was sick and tired of the senseless gang killings.

When my oldest daughter was learning to ride her bike, we would pass the site on our training-wheel loops around the neighborhood.

The monument — a tribute to the lives lost to gang violence nearly three decades ago — bears a simple, powerful message: all lives are precious.

“Enough was enough,” Norman told The News Tribune in 2016, echoing Woodards’ words from the present.

The monument, Norman explained, is “for people who kept our community strong” during the violence, adding that “even the gang members and drug dealers had gotten tired of it.”

This is 2019, not 1991 — when the FBI declared Tacoma the most violent city in the state.

Much has changed, and there’s no doubt we’ve come a long way.

But as summer turns to fall and we collectively reflect on the violence and death the last few months has wrought — hoping and working to stem the tide — there are lessons from our past that would serve us well to remember.

One of the most important?

This is our city, and it’s up to all of us to respond.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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