True story: Every time I’ve sat down to write the first sentence of this week’s column, I’ve gotten interrupted by news of another shooting. Or the police helicopter buzzing overhead. Or a cop car chasing down a suspect outside my office window.
The constant sirens and gunfire and constant media coverage of Savannah’s gun violence have reached next-level magnitude, and it’s feeling pretty terrifying out there. I don’t think I’m the only one who ducks and swerves every time a damn acorn hits the roof of the car. (It is small consolation that the live oaks and squirrels remain blissfully unaware of our human condition.)
Though many folks celebrated a “new dawn” for Savannah after last week’s election run-off, it’s clear that we’re still deep in the dark of night. In one week we’ve seen bullets exchanged on busy roads, a high school on lockdown, seven murders (or is it eight?) and the windshield shot out of a moving firetruck.
We’ve been characterized by the Washington Post as the site of “the other mass shooting” that occurred the same day a couple stormed a San Bernardino social services center and killed 14 people and injured 21 others.
As the internet quibbles over the definition of “mass shooting” (is it three people shot or four? Does the perp need to be mentally ill or completely sociopathic?), not even the cheeriest publicist can pretend that our pretty little city isn’t a disturbingly embattled place.
There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a bloody and brutal struggle. We are angry and traumatized. But after I saw a friend’s Facebook plea that we stop calling it a “war zone,” I have to agree.
In these times of subjective discourse, language—and literality—is more important than ever. War only begets more violence. War breaks the spirit.
In the words of General Sherman—the man who deemed Savannah too lovely to burn—war is hell.
I don’t want to live in hell. Do you?
For some, it’s probably easier to believe that the answer to the jacked–up violence is as simple as ridding ourselves of “the enemy.” Except that Savannah is not under attack from some foreign force.
We know that many of those pulling triggers and committing crimes are young men of color, but they are no army. The ones terrorizing our streets aren’t even organized enough to be considered official “gangs”—the police now refer to them as “groups,” three or four youth from the same block, according to Chief Lumpkin, who addressed a press conference last week about the implementation of the city’s long-awaited anti-violence initiative, End Gun Violence: Step Forward.
“Most of these shootings are retaliatory,” said the chief. “It’s not unknown to unknown.”
The provincial origins do not diminish the stark horror of hearing a spatter of gunshots while walking the dog. But it might be helpful to understand that these are acts carried out by individuals and not coordinated efforts by some unseen evil mastermind.
Don’t get me wrong: Those endangering public safety absolutely need to be put in jail. By eliminating plea deals that enable violent offenders to serve just a few months in prison, part of End Gun Violence (formerly known as Operation Ceasefire) means more and harder prosecutions at the federal level, with no probation or chance for parole.
But the initiative has also partnered with Armstrong adjunct professor and professional criminal justice advocate Dr. Maxine Bryant, who addresses factors of mental health and substance abuse.
Her progressive stance towards recidivism includes better opportunities for education for the thousand or so ex-convicts who return to Savannah each year—many of them in their early 20s—stripped of their right to vote and cut off from the already pathetic job market.
Anyone paying attention knows a tremendous part of Savannah’s violence comes from a thriving drug economy that’s a far more attractive way to make a living than slinging grits for less than eight bucks an hour at some fancy tourist restaurant.
Many of these shootings are claimed as “just business.” In a city of less than 150,000 people and 25+ shootings a week, ain’t it obvious by now that it’s everyone’s freakin’ business?
This is greed and incompetency come to roost: We have kids who have been failed by a city and social service system that eats our tax money but delivers little in the way of education and occupation. And until we restore the rights of young offenders—or at least provide opportunities to earn them back—nothing will break the cycle.
But our issues aren’t simply “crime” or “systemic poverty”—though these abstracts are the only way most of us can contextualize the desperation and hopelessness for which guns are the ultimate conversation ender.
Some of us still suffer from the supreme delusion that the people killing and shooting and dying are somehow different from us, that their lives matter less.
That’s what war does, fabricates divisions and suffocates compassion.
There are those who continue to stitch the divide. For the last few months, the activists of Solidarity in Savannah showed up with banners of support at the site of every shooting—until there were so many that the small crew couldn’t possibly keep up. Now they’ve consolidated their efforts at weekly “hotspots” on the west and east sides, where they’ve exchanged the signs for real talk.
“The signs were a good thing—it brought awareness to these communities, but it wasn’t reaching the people we wanted to reach,” says SIS head organizer Ylana Abbott. “So we’ve been going to them, meeting them where they’re at, asking what they need.”
The aim is to “change community norms” about violence using a public health model that disrupts retaliatory violence with mediation, and SIS is slowly building a street team of ex-offenders to build those relationships.
While law enforcement’s strategy will surely round up more drug dealers and criminals as it offers information about services, SIS intercedes where cops can’t.
“More jail time isn’t a deterrent like it used to be,” says Ylana, shaking her head. “A lot of these guys don’t expect to live past 20 anyway.”
It’s tricky and sometimes frightening work, but you might be surprised that the number one request SIS gets from the streets isn’t for more ammunition: It’s for children’s books and art supplies. Should you feel inclined, there’s a drop off box at the SIS office inside Sulfur Studios.
No one’s saying a copy of Curious George is going to solve this, but every effort to engage helps.
“There is a lot of anger out there,” acknowledges Ylana. “But don’t underestimate the small gestures.”
As I’m tapping out this paragraph to meet my deadline, another shooting just came over the wires, real close to the heart of town. Maybe it was a “domestic dispute”—whatever the hell that actually means—or maybe another kid who can’t read, write or fight. Maybe it was just business. Does it matter?
War presumes “us vs. them,” but I just can’t see Savannah that way.
What would happen if we realized the people pulling the triggers are not enemies but our neighbors in extreme distress?
What if there is only “us?”