IN TALKING to people about the rapid and horrifying deterioration of law and order in Savannah, one inarguable fact emerges above the political background noise:
Criminals here simply no longer fear the police.
As this past weekend showed, shootings and armed robberies are now pretty much a daily occurrence in Savannah’s Historic District, the economic engine that drives the whole train here.
You’re not safe in City Market or Ellis Square at night. You’re not safe walking to your car on Jones Street. You’re not safe in the middle of the afternoon near the Juliette Gordon Low House.
It’s only a matter of time—if that time isn’t already here—when the violence will become so commonplace it will seriously disrupt our tourism industry.
And then the dominoes will really begin to fall, one after the other.
Understaffing of police is one thing. A lot of things are understaffed. Connect Savannah is understaffed. But for us that’s baked in the cake—we knew that deal from the get-go.
(Also this: The most dangerous thing we hunt around here is a pair of errant scissors.)
But the understaffing of the local police department is actually one of the few problems we have that can be fixed by throwing more money at it. God knows the City of Savannah has the cash, there is a way forward, we just have to find the political will to do it.
(My own recommendation is to start by voting out every single incumbent on City Council.)
Even worse than the issue of police understaffing is the sense among criminals that they now have a larger and more effective support network than the police, than law-abiding people.
That’s why the previously sacrosanct Historic District is now a shooting gallery.
Make no mistake—that’s no accident. It’s a statement. Criminals are letting us know who’s in charge.
I understand I’m supposed to be quick to point out, as I’ve pointed out many times, that a shooting on the impoverished Westside should concern us at least as much as a shooting in the Historic District. Which is certainly true.
But we can be fair-minded without being naïve. And it’s naïve to think that a city largely dependent on the tourism industry can thrive when its major attraction is seen as too unsafe to visit.
I suppose the deep progressive argument would be that in order for all of us to feel the pain of the most impoverished and underprivileged among us, we must spread that pain around so that the most wealthy and privileged feel it, too. We must show in graphic terms that Savannah needs a more holistic economic approach other than promoting its downtown brand at the expense of our other neighborhoods.
That’s probably true in an academic, activist sense. However, in the Vietnam War there was a cynical euphemism for that way of thinking: “We had to burn down the village in order to save it.”
Savannah has been mired in either/or, black/white (literally) thinking for way too long. The truth is we have to find a way to address crime and address poverty simultaneously.
Anyone—rich, poor, white, black, liberal, conservative—who tells you the entire answer lies only on one end of that equation is part of the problem themselves.
Crime and poverty are connected not only in root cause but in root result: If we let crime get too far out of hand, we’ll all be in poverty soon enough.
Our village will indeed be burned to the ground.
We can start by being frank about this, and about the place we find ourselves. The worst sin is to become complacent.
I’ve noticed in this time of dire crisis that the police department and local media are seeking solace in euphemisms. Euphemisms, weasel words, and bureaucratic language mark the beginning of complacency.
For example, the death of Frank Wilson this past weekend after being shot near City Market is still being called a “shooting,” or a “fatal shooting.”
That it was. But a fatal shooting is a homicide. A murder.
It needs to be called that. Not just a “shooting,” fatal or otherwise.
I also see press releases now which talk about a “gun discharge.” Which is usually more accurately called “Attempted Murder.”
Sometimes we get information about a “cutting.” Which used to be known as “Stabbing.”
The euphemisms have to stop. Savannah doesn’t like being frank. We don’t like being forward. But there’s nothing more frank or more forward than a bullet.
The wrong people are in charge of Savannah now. And I’m not just talking about incumbent politicians.
To take back control of our government, we have to vote. To take back control of the debate, we have to take back control of the language and the ideas.
And to take back control of our streets, we have to take back control of fear. Ours, and theirs.
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