Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown speaks in East Garfield Park in May at a news conference on public safety, where he was joined by Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right).
A friend down at the dog park asked about my wife the other day. She and her girlfriend had taken a long weekend trip to visit a former roommate. My friend wondered if I thought she’d be safe from crime in Chicago. Isn’t that a terribly dangerous place?
This is a common, media-driven perception here in Little Rock, where our per capita homicide rate is actually worse than Chicago’s. And yet our view, his and mine, as white men of a certain age who go around accompanied by large dogs, is that local crime is more a nuisance than a threat.
At least that’s how we act. My friend has never visited Chicago. I told him there are large parts of that city — particularly around Wrigley Field, the area I’m most familiar with — that are every bit as safe day to day as our own Hillcrest neighborhood.
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It’s not crime free, certainly, but not an urban war zone either. Out in rural Arkansas, however, Little Rock itself is viewed as terribly dangerous. Our friends in Perry County (population 10,000) worried when we moved back to town five years ago. Only the local cow whisperer, who moonlights as a Little Rock firefighter, understood.
“You cain’t keep no Little Rock girl on a gravel road,” he said, “if she cain’t drive.” Diane’s diminished eyesight made moving imperative. But people were scared to death for us all the same. Pretty much all violent crime in Perry County is family related.
Some would say I’m living in a dream world. That I should be more fearful. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear gunfire at night. But nobody’s shooting at me. Local TV broadcasts lead with shootings more often than not — even if they have to send crews to Pine Bluff or Hot Springs to film crime scenes. That’s only occasionally necessary, however. Young Black men are killing each other on Little Rock streets at an epidemic rate.
Indeed, unless it’s a particularly grotesque incident — houses strafed with automatic weapons, a 7-year-old girl killed in crossfire on her way to the zoo, a 3-year-old grievously wounded because her mother left her in a car with a loaded pistol — they’re normally one-day stories.
My friend Rex Nelson, a strong local patriot and an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist of the non-Trumpist Republican persuasion, did his best to confront the situation.
“In Little Rock, where Black-on-Black shootings have dominated the news this year, we’re in what I would describe as a triage situation,” he wrote. “If [city directors] were to travel the state as much as I do, they would realize that Little Rock’s image across Arkansas is being damaged in ways that will take years to turn around. Do they not understand that there are major economic consequences as rural Arkansans quit coming to the capital city for medical appointments, to shop, to eat out and to attend events?”
Chances are, if you live in an American city, particularly in the South — the most violent part of the country since forever — these things are familiar to you. Locally, violent crime has become a salient political issue partly because Little Rock has its first Black mayor, so he gets blamed for violence he’s done nothing to encourage.
Nor much to discourage, his opponents say. Promised increases in police manpower haven’t taken place. The Little Rock Police Department has long suffered from racialized infighting. I used to joke that when it came to scheming and backstabbing, the LRPD was like a college English department with guns. Quick fixes are unlikely.
Violent crime was far worse here and everywhere else during the 1990s, but nobody blamed the mayor. Even so, Nelson provides some sobering statistics: “A Black male is killed about every six days in Little Rock. Little Rock is 42% Black, but more than 90% of homicides are committed by Blacks in a typical year.”
It’s like that in your hometown, too. Nationwide, Nelson notes, “homicide is the No. 1 killer of Black males ages 1-44.” He quotes his old friend Fitz Hill, a Black former football coach and college president, who says pretty much what every preacher of the African American persuasion has been saying since Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder: The problem is spiritual, and the community must heal itself.
Heaven forbid that anybody mention guns. Only in America would we fill our cities with handguns and then express amazement that people are getting shot. People are carrying around semiautomatic weapons who probably shouldn’t be trusted with pocketknives. They leave the accursed things in cars, where they get stolen and fall into criminal hands.
But gun control is another futile daydream. Particularly in the South, guns have become quasi-religious totems. If the hothouse flowers of the Republican Supreme Court get their way — and there’s no real hope of stopping them — the TV stations will never run out of corpses to film.
Honestly, that’s how we seem to want it.
Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”
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