Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A string of killings opens old wounds for Tacoma

“It’s been a terrible week,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told me Tuesday from her office on the 12th floor of City Hall.

It was an understatement.

Hours earlier, on the Hilltop, at least 50 people gathered for a “Moment of Blessing” led by Associated Ministries on a quiet spot along the sidewalk on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The solemn crowd came together to reclaim the location where Steven Speakman, a 26-year-old intellectually disabled man, was shot and killed seven days earlier.

Neighbors reported hearing gunfire at 5:55 a.m. on the morning of Speakman’s death. It jarred them.

The murder, and the two that followed closely thereafter — including the broad-daylight killing of 19-year-old Philip Ryan Jr. on Saturday, just across the street from where a makeshift memorial for Speakman had already started growing — have jarred an entire city.

“Whenever something like this happens in the community, it shakes you, it scares you, because it’s so senseless. Especially when people that young lose their lives at the hands of guns,” Strickland said.

“It shakes people to their core.”

And it should.

As City Manager T.C. Broadnax said Tuesday night, the three recent tragedies — which also include the ambush of 18-year-old recent Lincoln High School grad Elijah Crawford on Nov. 2 — have only one connection: gun violence.

But the fact that they happened in Tacoma, with two on the Hilltop and one on the East Side, have connected them in another way.

Together, these incidents have opened up the stinging wounds of a city that prides itself on having moved beyond an ugly history of street violence and death.

That’s not wishful thinking, either. Prior to the three recent murders, Tacoma had experienced 10 homicides in 2015. While one homicide is too many, a comparison with the notorious late-’80s and ‘90s — when News Tribune archives show the city recorded as many as 34 homicides a year — tells a tale of significant improvement.

Still, for some, the devastating string of tragedies have led to a flood of memories and unease. It’s been a week filled with tears, vigils, and — for our city — questions about where we go from here.

“The initial reaction was, ‘Oh my god, we’re slipping backwards,’ ” Kevin Grossman, the president of the Hilltop Business Association told me Tuesday. “The human tragedy is just crazy when you start having people gunned down in the street.”

Grossman, however, sees a community “coming together as it hasn’t for years over this.” While he’d like to see more “meaningful support” from the city to deal with what he perceives as just a handful of “bad actors” on the Hilltop, he calls the last week “galvanizing."

There are no silver linings in death. But there is something hopeful to be taken from how Tacoma has responded to these tragedies. As Strickland told me, “In many ways, our reaction to this tells us that this is not normal for us anymore.”

“I think it says people want to rally and show support for each other and the neighborhood, and make a statement that we’re not going to shy away with this stuff,” Grossman continued. “We’re going to deal with it, and figure out how to move forward positively.”

Vince Vaielua, a gang intervention specialist who’s worked in Tacoma for the past 15 years, is just one of many people searching for answers.

The founder of Project 253, an organization that works to unify communities and “empower youth to lead the change,” Vaielua helped to organize a meeting Wednesday night to start planning a peace march for later this month, and more importantly identify what we can offer Tacoma’s young people to help curb gun violence.

“There’s already a lot of great work happening in our community, but there needs to be more. It’s not enough,” Vaielua says. “For our young people, our young men … to feel like it takes a gun to solve their problems, it makes me feel like we’re not doing enough.”

These are sentiments shared by the mayor.

“What happened in these young men’s lives where they thought it was acceptable to get a gun and take another person’s life? I don’t have the answer to that. But that’s the thing that weighs the most heavily on my mind,” Strickland told me.

“Government alone cannot solve this problem. We have to have people in our community stepping up and taking responsibility. We can march. We can walk. We can gather. But we have to act. We have to be more involved in the lives of the young people in our community.”

As they have since Associated Ministries started conducting Moments of Blessing in 1998, on Tuesday Speakman’s included a reclaiming ritual known as the “Blessing of the Water.”

Reading from a sheet of paper provided to all on hand, those gathered pledged the following:

“This which was taken from us by violence and death, we reclaim as a place of life, community and hope. We pledge to work towards a world free from violence and full of love and hope. We commit ourselves to building community that is humane, compassionate, and just.”

It will take all of us.