Six weeks ago in this space, I wrote of my attendance at a press conference held at Wiggins Park, in the southwestern area of Birmingham. Organized by District 7 City Councilor Jay Roberson, the event drew more than 40 people, including Mayor William Bell, Police Chief A.C. Roper, and Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little, whose home is a block from the park. As I wrote at the time:
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.
Now, before proceeding with this week’s column, I will, as is my custom, provide a necessary and appropriate disclaimer, which is as follows: I don’t know anything about the status or progress of the plan Councilor Roberson announced six weeks ago. I don’t know whether any of the “closed” meetings have been held. I don’t know whether the councilor, or Mayor Bell, or Chief Roper, or Commissioner Brown, or anyone else who showed up at Wiggins Park to shake their heads and cluck their tongues and acknowledge the need to — to borrow a phrase that former Mayor Larry Langford once used to good effect — “do something” about Birmingham’s murder epidemic, is in fact doing anything.
If any of them are, Godspeed to them, because what I do know is this: With the death last week of Dedrick Jordan — a 38-year-old husband and father who took a bullet to the head from a hail of gunfire emptied into an outdoor gathering in Ensley, and died at UAB Hospital two days later — Birmingham suffered its 28th homicide of 2017, the 11th since the February 13 presser in the park, and the 233rd since December 31, 2014.
Assuming that no one is killed in Birmingham in the three days and change remaining in March as I write these words — an assumption that, statistically speaking, is highly likely to turn out to be wrong — over the past 27 months, our city has averaged 8.6 homicides per. In real terms, that means that, for two years and counting, Birmingham has lost a person to violence — a husband or a wife, a father or mother or grandparent or aunt or uncle or boyfriend or girlfriend or child — every three-and-a-half days.
And the problem, at least as it now stands, is getting worse. In 2015, Birmingham suffered 100 murders. In 2016, the number was 105. So far this year, we’re on track for 117. If that pace continues, 2017 will be the city’s highest single-year murder total in over two decades, since a six-year run in the 1990s in which a total of more than 800 people were killed in Birmingham (just for reference, as I mentioned in my prior column, the ‘90s were by far the deadliest decade in the city since the 1930s, with an average of 119 homicides per year; the high was 148 in 1992).
Concerned yet? If not, maybe it’s because you own several guns that you figure will give you all the protection you need in case some punk decides to engage you in an Old West-style shootout (in which case, you just might be part of the problem; but that’s a topic for another day). Otherwise, maybe you should be asking the same question as a certain person of my acquaintance whom I’ve been trying to convince that Birmingham is just the place for them. I was sharing with this person some of the numbers I’m quoting here, when I was interrupted with what I had to admit was a legitimate query.
To wit: “And tell me again why it is you think I should move to Birmingham?”
Now, selfishly, I’d love to answer that by saying that the violence is confined to one or two areas where you just don’t go unless you’re looking for trouble. But there are a couple of issues with that response, starting with the sheer presumption of it, the vague notion that as long as violence does not occur routinely on my street, or in the immediate vicinity of places that I generally frequent, then violence in Birmingham is not something with which I have to concern myself.
The second issue with that response is that it just isn’t true. I have numbers to illustrate that, too:
If you plot on a map the 233 homicides that have occurred in Birmingham over the past (almost) 27 months, and divide the city into quadrants with Interstates 65 and 20/59 as the axes, you’ll find that no area of town is escaping the violence. Indeed, the near equality with which our murders are distributed by area just might be the most chilling thing of all to anyone who truly wants to contemplate the magnitude of the present situation. Consider:
- 62 homicides have occurred west of I-65 and south of I-20/59
- 58 homicides have occurred east of I-65 and north of I-20/59
- 57 homicides have occurred west of I-65 and north of I-20/59
- 56 homicides have occurred east of I-65 and south of I-20/59
You tell me: Where is the problem?
My answer? It’s everywhere. It’s our problem, meaning Birmingham’s.
Of course, there’s a problem there, too. Namely, that after more than two years of escalating homicide numbers, the people who are in the best position to do something about it — high officials of our fair city — honestly don’t have any idea what it is that should be done.
That was the upshot of the February 13 press conference — which, let’s face it, would never have been organized in the first place but for the killings of two 17-year-old high school students less than two weeks apart. Remarks were made, and hopes were expressed, but other than the announcement of a vaguely defined program being run out of a city councilor’s office in an election year, what was said represented something fairly close to a collective throwing up of hands.
“It’s time to address this problem.”
“You have cycles, and we’re in one of those cycles.”
“It’s not just a police problem and the police can’t solve it alone.”
“We have to do some things we have not done before.”
I’m not saying that those statements aren’t true. I’m just wondering why they took two years to occur to the people who made them. I’m wondering, too, when we might see some actual initiative — maybe I’ve missed it, but in the six weeks since the press conference, I haven’t heard a word about the murder rate emanating from City Hall — let alone actual results.
Or, who knows? Maybe we’ll get into a better cycle.
On another topic relative to this election season, I received a few days ago a private message that has stuck in my craw ever since. This message was from a person whom I respect, who is very much engaged in community affairs, and whose concern for the betterment of Birmingham I judge to be genuine.
Still, the message bugged me a little.
The message was this: There aren’t any women in the mayor’s race.
Like the statements made at the February press conference in Wiggins Park, this is one with which I cannot disagree. That’s for the simple reason that no female candidates have announced their intention to join the field for the mayoral election this August.
Beyond that — unless the sender was under the impression that they were passing along a news tip (which I’m sure they were not) — I’m not certain what it is I’m supposed to do with that observation. Am I to write an editorial demanding that some qualified woman step forward? Am I to get into Birmingham’s history as a socially conservative, male-dominated town where women — in politics, in business, in any position of leadership — have had to be twice as smart and work twice as hard as their male counterparts to gain influence over community affairs?
Am I to opine that the present field of candidates is not good enough, and won’t be until it includes a woman?
Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do any of those things. Actually, I’m not going to do the first or third one — but even writing the second one makes me think that it’s something I absolutely must do at some point, because it’s absolutely true.
But it’s not my place to call for a female mayoral candidate. Not that I’d be hesitant to vote for one, if I believed her to be the candidate who’d make us the best mayor; to the contrary, I’d be delighted. But, you see, that’s just the point: Birmingham is at a critical point in its history, and I’m convinced that the election coming up will prove a pivotal one when the story is written of this era of our city’s history.
That pivot could be for the better, or it could be for the worse. And what we need to be looking for — what we need to be paying attention to — is which candidate, whether among those already announced or others who may yet enter the race, will be the mayor Birmingham needs.
For my part, I don’t care if that candidate is male or female. I don’t care about their race, their religion, what schools they attended, or whether they do or don’t believe that Oswald acted alone.
I care about Birmingham. I care about our city doing the best it can do, getting the best it can get, electing the best mayor we can elect, whomever that may be. That’s why I’m paying attention, and why I hope you are, too.