Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.
These words, from Aristotle, came to mind on Monday afternoon, the 13th, as I drove a circuitous route through the southwestern section of Birmingham. I was headed back toward Weld’s offices in Avondale, having attended a press conference organized by City Councilor Jay Roberson, whose District 7 takes in most of the city’s southwest.
Held at Wiggins Park, off Jefferson Avenue in the Wenonah area, the press conference was attended by more than 40 people. That number included not only Roberson, but also Birmingham’s Mayor William Bell and Police Chief A.C. Roper, along with Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, who lives a block from the park.
The stated purpose of the gathering was to announce what a preliminary news release called a “response to the recent rise in violence in Birmingham.” The centerpiece of that response is Roberson’s plan to convene a series of “small group discussions to identify solutions to the frustrations leading to violent activity.” The discussions, which will take place in closed sessions, will include current and former gang members, as well as residents of communities where violent crime has been on the rise. Roberson said that information and ideas gleaned from those sessions will form the basis of a detailed action plan that his office will release.
“It’s time for us to address this problem,” Roberson said. “And we’re going to have to do it in non-traditional ways. It’s time to go to the source, and revisit what it’s going to take to steer young people away from participating in violent activity. That’s what we want to achieve by bringing all of these parties together in these sessions.”
Beyond announcement of the discussion series — which Roberson said will take place in locations across the city — it bears noting that there were two mitigating events in the announcement’s timing. One was the spiking murder rate in Birmingham in general, the other the outcry among residents of the southwestern area over two recent killings in particular.
The recent murders, which took place in separate incidents, were those of Juzahris Webb and Isaiah Johnson — two 17-year-old students at nearby Wenonah High School. Webb died on January 31, in his own neighborhood, while walking home from school, and reportedly after arguing with one of his accused killers — four young men, the youngest of them 15, were arrested, and two of them have been charged with capital murder — over a girl. Johnson died on February 11, after being shot in the alley behind the LIV Parkside building, near Railroad Park, during an attempted illegal sale and trade of guns; as of Weld’s press time, no arrest has been made in the case.
During the press conference, Roberson called the deaths of Webb and Johnson “the match that lit the flames” that will galvanize the community and enlist the public directly in efforts to reduce and prevent violent crime (most specifically, murder). Understandable, and even laudable, as it is, that statement gives rise to a number of questions, which we’ll get to in due course. First, however, it seems wise to consider the issue at hand from a statistical perspective.
Start with southwest Birmingham itself. From January 1, 2015, through the first six weeks of this year — 25-and-a-half-months — 221 murders were committed in the city as a whole (to put it in even more startling terms, that’s two murders per week). Of those 221 murders in just more than two years’ time, 50 of them have taken place in southwest Birmingham. That’s nearly a quarter of all murders occurring in an area of the city that accounts for maybe 12 percent of its population.
As for the bigger picture, the 105 murders that took place in Birmingham in 2016 were the highest total in 10 years; likewise, the two-year total of 205 was the most since 2005-06. Thus far, 2017 is on pace for 111 murders, which would be the first time in two decades that the total has exceeded 100 in three consecutive years — since 1997 was the last in a run of nine straight years with more than 100 people killed in Birmingham.
The 1990s were by far the deadliest decade in the city’s history since World War II. And, for a lot of people who either don’t know any better or don’t care to, that violent decade remains the prism through which Birmingham’s relative “safety” is perceived, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary.
Since those nine straight years of triple-digit murders, the city has exceeded 100 murders only four times in 20 years (the four times cited in the previous paragraph). In the other 16 years combined, the average number of murders in Birmingham has been 72 per year.
More recently, the 337 murders reported in Birmingham from 2010-14 were the city’s lowest five-year total since the mid-1980s. Of the six times since 1970 that fewer than 70 murders have occurred in Birmingham, four have happened in the past seven years. The 62 murders reported in 2014 were the fewest in the city since 1984, and the second-fewest since 1967.
Without laying it out in such detailed terms, Mayor Bell used his time at the podium to make the very same point about the incidence of crime during his tenure as the city’s chief executive. He pointed out (correctly) that the overall incidence of crime is down, and while acknowledging the need to address the recent uptick in violent crime, noted (also correctly) that to some extent, the numbers in Birmingham are reflective of a nationwide spike.
“We’re seeing it across the country,” the mayor said, in response to a question. “You have cycles, and we’re in one of those cycles. We’re all looking for ways to address it.”
For this particular effort, Bell pledged resources and support from his office and the Birmingham Police Department. He also said that city personnel would coordinate with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration in carrying out what he called an “unorthodox” approach to reducing gun violence and drug activity — keys, the mayor said, to bringing the murder rate back under control.
“We have to find ways to interdict ahead of time,” Bell said. “We have to do some things we have not done before. We are looking at what people need to be able to withdraw themselves from a life of crime.”
There were other speakers, from Chief Roper (“It’s not just a police problem, and the police can’t solve it alone”), to Commissioner Brown (“We’re talking about 10-year-old kids whose parents don’t even know where they are at night. This is real”), to longtime community residents who have already committed to participate in the program, like Delvin Masters (“Ninety percent of our youth are doing the right things. We don’t need to fail that 10 percent”) and Mike Davis (“This is about saving kids’ lives”).
Those are strong statements, as are those made by Mayor Bell and Councilor Roberson, almost all of which are inarguable, as far as that goes. But without necessarily arguing the points being made, and certainly without casting undue doubt on the sincerity of the sentiments expressed, legitimate questions present themselves nonetheless.
What questions? Questions about the persistent rise of violent crime — most specifically, murder — in Birmingham over the past two years and counting. Questions about what we are doing to reduce violent crime — including the Violence Reduction Initiative that has been underway for some time, as well as Roberson’s new program — and how we will measure and track results substantively over time. Questions about how individual programs and initiatives fit into an overarching, long-term citywide strategy for reducing violence and preventing crime. Questions about how that strategy, in turn, contributes to the broader goals of reducing poverty and expanding prosperity.
Some of these questions were asked, in one form or another, during and after the press conference at Wiggins Park. I’m not being overly critical when I tell you that none of the answers I heard from anyone there in an official capacity were more than perfunctory. For instance, there was Mayor Bell’s response when I asked how the success of Roberson’s initiative will be measured.
“When the number of homicides goes down, we’ll be successful,” was Bell’s response. Which, of course, is basically a non-response. When the number of homicides goes down compared to what? The prior month? The past six months? The last year, or two years, or five years? What is the objective, and how will we know when we get there?
One question that was answered without being asked — which is not necessarily a good sign — was whether the timing of the rollout of this new initiative might be construed as being political in nature.
“This is not about government or politics,” Roberson said, “It’s about community.” Likewise Commissioner Brown, who, presumably was alluding to both Roberson and Mayor Bell when she said, “This is not about re-election. This is a problem, and we have people who are working on it.”
Fair enough. But I also spent a fair amount of time after the press conference talking to people who were there in non-official and semi-official capacities — neighborhood residents, representatives of nonprofit and other community-based organizations, community activists — and I plan to spend a good deal more in the weeks ahead.
Why? Because what I heard from every person at Wiggins Park, from Mayor Bell on down, is the acknowledgment that Birmingham has a problem that we’re not quite sure how to get a handle on. Regardless of questions about timing and motivation and so on, it’s an acknowledgment that must be made before we can even begin to address it in any substantive way. And guess what? I didn’t speak to a single person who wants us to fail.
Stay tuned. I sure plan to.