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Under the Gun 

Every year, I spend some time in Jackson, Miss., at the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Conference. This year, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with real, live human beings who were much older than me now, but who had been my age and younger when they became activists. They were black and white, male and female, educators and students, abled and disabled, and gay and straight.

What united them were not corny phrases, or their desire to sit next to one another in restaurants. What united them was an idea of hope, an idea whose gravitational pull drew them all to Mississippi.

Some grew up there. Others had transferred due to a job, family or school. Still others chose to leave their relative Northern comforts, jumping on the bus as "Freedom Riders" and risking their lives for the idea that all human beings are, truly, created equal. But they all believed they could change the infrastructure of a city: Jackson, Meridian, Biloxi. And guess what? They not only changed a city, or even a state ... they helped change the country and inspire the whole world.

Still inspired by their energy and vision, I am confused by the fact that we are so confused by the violence permeating our city, especially its black neighborhoods. Really, folks, there's no need to play mystery dinner-theater on this issue: People are getting shot in record numbers because they are dealing drugs and/or are in gangs.

They are getting killed because the gun trade is obviously quite successful here, and because young kids are being recruited into this lifestyle by predatory uncles, older brothers and male "friends of the family" who would risk ruining the life of a child rather than get caught and sentenced as an adult.

Black women, meanwhile, fill the prisons by protecting their boyfriends and husbands by hiding drug paraphernalia or other such items in their purses -- and, in extreme cases, inside their bodies. Young white folks from the suburbs, meanwhile, fuel the death and destruction of young black men by purchasing the extreme violence, selfishness and misogyny of so-called "gangsta rap." For them, it's a perfect tool for sublimation -- just as long as they don't actually have to live out any of these ridiculous fantasies.

Let's call all victims of the resulting violence "casualties of war" -- an economic war and the lost war on drugs. It's a death march with an entire soundtrack.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's seven-pronged approach to curbing violence concerns me. Certainly, seeing cops "on the beat" in our neighborhoods has the potential to be helpful, just as the presence of cops Downtown every day assures commuters that their trip to their vehicles won't be filled with the horror of victimization. But to not immediately address the relationship between education and crime, or the lack of (real) job opportunities that can compete with the paranoid lifestyle of always watching one's back ... it stretches belief.

I am confused by the confusion over what is causing this deadly phenomenon. It looks like denial. We all know there is an element of every neighborhood -- an element of the human species -- intent on living "on the edge" and committed to a lifetime of criminal activity. But I get the distinct impression that most young black men who are falling down faster than domino tiles are not that deeply committed, no matter how many times they might blast 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" through their speakers.

African Americans, in particular, need to be the vanguard for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn't completed. We failed to organize the final push for our human rights. And the hopeless have remained so as a direct result of our collective inactivity.

Pittsburgh is behind other cities in the United States. But the United States is behind the rest of the world in figuring out how to do justice to a diverse population of inhabitants. We still haven't figured out how to shake ourselves out of the legacy of public-policy neglect, or how to stop criminalizing the poorest and darkest of our population.

If we can figure out how to do that in the city of Pittsburgh, PA, there should be no doubt that we can change the entire world -- again.

Dr. Goddess says: Thou shalt shake thyself out of denial.

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