Editor's Note: The real crime is our poverty rate

IT WAS a week of nightmares: Within a day of two TV journalists being murdered on camera in Virginia, a Savannah State University student was shot and killed at the Student Union on campus.

It’s ironic that of all the 26 murders in Savannah so far this year, the SSU fatality was the one that made CNN, almost certainly because it was on a college campus.

Horrifying as it was, the SSU shooting is perhaps least indicative of our problem here, since the victim and almost certainly the still-at-large shooter are from out of the area, and Metro police have no jurisdiction there (the GBI will handle the case from here).

But that’s how it is with gun violence. It takes on a life of its own, and once out of control goes in all kinds of directions you previously saw only in your scariest dreams.

The gun debate is complicated for a number of reasons, not least among them the fact that though the NRA is consistently blamed for gun violence, actual card-carrying NRA activists make up the tiniest fraction of a percentage of the people out there blowing other people away.

You can certainly make the case that the NRA’s influence has made it nearly impossible for elected officials to address gun control, but still... the NRA isn’t pulling those tens of thousands of triggers.

Then again, if it weren’t a complicated debate, we’d have solved it years ago.

If you ask people in Savannah what is the main problem here today, I guess 75-80 percent would say “crime.”

When I was growing up, you could ask people the same question and you’d have gotten the same answer.

You can redirect all the City’s resources to fighting crime if you want. Certainly more should be done, including redoubling efforts to address the ridiculous understaffing and attrition rate of Metro police.

It is mind-boggling how glacially slow the pace of reform has been on this issue, but understandable when you realize the foot-dragging has its roots in the long-tolerated corruption of the upper ranks.

This corruption was aided and abetted by the same incumbent politicians now asking for your vote again this November.

They ask for, and indeed expect, your vote again, despite dragging their heels on police reform and new hiring and compensation packages even as I write this.

It took the City eight months after hiring yet another consultant to institute the recommended pay raise—and as recently as two weeks ago it looked like that pay raise still might not even completely go through!

They ask for your vote again—despite coming perilously close to screwing up the entire City/County police merger itself, within weeks of hiring a new police chief to replace the one they previously hired that just went to prison!

Too few of us, though, would point out the core factor of most all our problems here, including crime: Poverty.

The City of Savannah still remains at a stubborn 26-28 percent poverty rate, about the same rate we’ve had for decades.

The poverty rate disproportionately impacts the local African American community, also the community most disproportionately impacted by violent crime.

This of course is no coincidence and is hardly rocket science, but for some reason many people have problems connecting the dots.

One person who doesn’t have that problem is Shaundra Smith McKeithen, challenging Estella Shabazz for City Council’s District 5.

The Fifth District is probably Savannah’s most impoverished, and only getting more so. In a Facebook post over the weekend, McKeithen said:

“In 2011 Estella Shabazz, Alderman for the 5th District, baited many of us unassuming voters by saying ‘I want to focus on economic development and quality of life improvements in the district.’ That was good bait because with the 56% poverty rate in the 5th District at that time we sure needed economic growth, and that surely would have lead to a better quality of life for many,” she wrote.

“Thanks to the good old bait and switch, now we have a 60% poverty rate in this area and the quality of life has gotten worse. My children alone have had 6 bikes stolen between the two of them. Our parks are not safe to play in so both of them are overweight, and my house was broken into 4 times in a 2 year period and my car once before we got an alarm system,” said McKeithen.

“So now her slogan is ‘Put The 5th First.’ Is this a statement, a wish, or something that’s going to be done at a future date? My thought is that 3 1/2 years ago you should have started putting the 5th first and we would have had economic growth and a better quality of life,” McKeithen wrote.

I doubt many white people in Savannah can even conceive what 60 percent poverty looks and feels like. I certainly can’t.

It’s a life we tend to view purely through the lens of what new violent crime has been reported in those low-income areas. But it’s all related.

Don’t get me wrong: addressing gun violence in Savannah is something that needed to happen yesterday. It needs to be addressed through fully staffing the police, through improving the court system so repeat offenders will stay behind bars, and through breaking the code of silence in bullet-torn neighborhoods.

But there’s little point in addressing crime unless you also address the economy.

The economy isn’t the only thing influencing the crime rate, but that’s the thing most directly in local control.

Otherwise, the violence will always return. As it has.

And we will keep having this same conversation, year after year after year.

Tired of it yet?

In a town this deceptively small, where everyone knows everyone else, every remark is taken personally, and petty vendettas last a lifetime, it takes real personal courage to address these issues.

I want to point out how courageous Ms. McKeithen is, and how much she deserves your respect whether or not you can vote in the Fifth.

Alderwoman Shabazz and her husband —a County Commissioner in the vein of political power couples now so fashionable in this area—have gained a reputation even among the African American community as frankly, bullies. But still, they are not people to trifle with.

For Savannah to have any chance to break the decades-old cycle of poverty and crime, leaders with courage and skin in the game will be sorely needed, and they will need your support.


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