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Memphis mayor meets with gang leaders to request ceasefire in effort to curb city’s gun violence

<i>Joe Murphy/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource</i><br/>
Joe Murphy/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource

By Ashley R. Williams and Victor Blackwell, CNN

(CNN) — A record-breaking 398 people fell victim to homicides in Memphis last year – a noticeable jump from the 190 reported five years ago. And with more than 600 major violent crimes so far in 2024, including at least 40 homicides, Tennessee’s second-most populous city is off to another turbulent start.

The Justice Department underscored these worrying trends recently when it said violent crime in Memphis had reached a 17-year high.

In an effort to curb criminality, Memphis Mayor Paul Young, who took office in January with a focus on public safety, recently met with some of the city’s highest-ranking gang leaders in Memphis and crafted a ceasefire between the groups for seven days.

“My ask for them in that conversation was, ‘Can we get a seven-day ceasefire? Just seven days where there’s no shooting, no killing?’” the mayor said during a youth development panel discussion, CNN affiliate WMC-TV reported. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we would be willing to do that,’ and they gave me a couple of caveats.”

Some of the requested terms included assurances their rival gangs would agree to the ceasefire, as well as help getting well-paying jobs and the training needed to access them, WMC-TV reported.

Only 1% on path toward a living wage

Young told CNN Saturday that what he described as an endemic issue of car break-ins in Memphis has stemmed in part from a lack of job opportunities for gang members. Those break-ins are part of more than 3,500 major property crimes reported in January, according to the Memphis Police Department.

“What they said was … ‘Our young guys just need something to do; they steal cars because it’s fun, because there’s a lack of activities in their communities,’” Young said. “They need ways to earn income.”

More than 45,000 out-of-school and out-of-work young adults ages 16 to 24 live in the greater Memphis area, nearly half of whom live in poverty, according to Memphis nonprofit The Collective Blueprint.

The group says by the time those young adults turn 28, only 1% of them will be on the path toward a living wage.

During the recent panel discussion, Young cited a study that aligns with his hopes for Memphis’s at-risk youth, including young gang members.

The Chicago-based study found violent crime arrests among young adults who received job or internship opportunities went down by 45% over the first year.

When asked if he was able to achieve a seven-day ceasefire, Young said the city did not observe any shootings from the gang groups whose leaders attended the initial meeting.

‘We just want to stop the cycle’

In his weekly update on February 23, Young addressed part of his administration’s plan to tackle gang violence, stating they had begun using data on the origins of criminal behavior “to drive coordinated gang and gun violence intervention programs to neighborhoods of need.”

The city runs a violence intervention program aimed toward those considered at-risk who have been impacted by or are vulnerable to gun violence or retaliatory violence, according to the city.

One of the program’s methods involves street intervention, where trained interventionists from the community group 901 Bloc Squad help participants change their behaviors through promoting positive choices and offering access to services that can support them.

The 901 Bloc Squad and another Memphis-based community nonprofit, Heal 901, organized the meeting between Young and gang leaders last month.

“You can’t change anything without bringing the individuals to the table that are causing the issue,” Heal 901 founder K. Durell Cowan told CNN.

“This is one of the poorest cities in the area. We have to change the narrative if we want to stop crime, we have to get jobs paying living wages,” Cowan said. “This was a request of some of those gang leaders – ‘We need something to do.’”

He said the city has seen an increase in violent firearm-related incidents due to the state’s open carry law enacted in July 2021, which has made firearms more readily accessible.

Tennessee ranks 29th in the United States for gun law strength and has one of the highest rates of gun-related deaths in the country, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Despite the open carry law, some establishments prohibit guns from being brought inside, leaving patrons to keep them in their cars, according to Cowan.

“Now, they’re going into vehicles stealing nothing else out of the vehicles, just looking for firearms most of the time,” Cowan said. The gang lifestyle has drawn in children as young as 8 in the city and has reached “epidemic levels,” he said.

“We just want to stop the cycle,” he said. “We must do something.”

Like Young, leaders in other cities including San Diego and Baltimore have previously taken similar approaches of calling for gang-related ceasefire to curb gun violence.

Cowan says he believes a ceasefire among Memphis gangs is possible, but with at least 30 hybrid gangs existing in the city that have spawned from around five gangs that once dominated the streets, it will take more than one meeting to achieve the goal.

“Because of those different nuances, he can’t (have) one meeting with leaders and see effective change citywide. There will be a series of these meetings going forward,” Cowan said.

During a Friday budget meeting, Memphis city council members expressed a commitment to finding ways to allocate resources toward supporting organizations that help change the lives of young people, Young said.

“We’re going to find those resources and make the investments necessary,” he said.

“The things that our community needs aren’t new … it’s just something that we have to lean into and make happen,” Young said. “This is going to be a living dialogue.”

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