By John David Dyche
The great Scottish poet Robert Burns penned the memorable line, "To see ourselves as others see us." How must people in the rest of America, and especially those thinking of visiting or moving here, see Louisville now?
The answer seems obvious. Louisville looks, and is, violent and unsafe.
Last weekend a series of what some are tactfully calling “disturbances” shut down the Mall St. Matthews, which is located in Louisville’s relatively affluent East End. Rather than rely on reports by local news outlets, let’s look at how a national network described the incident for the rest of the world.
On its website, NBC News described "hours-long chaos" in which "chain-reaction brawls involving up to 2,000 people erupted in one of Kentucky's largest malls Saturday night, forcing the entire mall and businesses in the surrounding area to shut down."
A police spokesperson is quoted as saying, "This was a riot. It was crazy." Yet police apparently made no arrests and arranged public transportation home for the rioters.
Some question whether the incident at the mall was really all that bad. Even if it was not a riot and was smaller than reported, however, it was still bad enough.
This outbreak of violence comes near the end of a year in which Louisville’s murder rate has spiked. According to WFPL News, as of Christmas Eve there have been 85 homicides in Louisville this year.
That report continues, "The average annual homicide count dating back to 1970 is 63, data shows. Police data also shows the homicide rate so far this year is 11.1 murders per 100,000 residents -- more than double the FBI-calculated national rate in 2014."
WFPL also reports that no arrests have been made in nearly half of Louisville’s homicide cases this year. High profile unsolved murders from prior years include a barn worker at Churchill Downs and a Kroger employee gunned down as he left work in St. Matthews.
Arrests were made in one of the year’s most highly publicized killings. A trio’s violent crime spree on Kentucky Derby Day culminated with the murder of a Canadian visitor who was walking back to his hotel from Churchill Downs after the city’s signature sporting event.
The mall riot brought back memories of last year’s mob rampage in downtown Louisville. The city begrudgingly took some actions after that orgy of indiscriminate destruction and violence, but there was apparently not much, if any, accountability or punishment for the responsible parties.
There is also increasing concern about safety in Louisville’s public schools. A Jefferson County Public Schools spokesperson recently stated that, "In fiscal (year) 2015, JCPS teachers filed 107 reports of assaults or threats by students. Of those, teachers chose not to prosecute in 67 cases, 15 cases were prosecuted by JCPS security, and 25 were prosecuted by local law enforcement."
WDRB education reporter Antoinette Konz recently wrote that the problem is not limited to classrooms. “Fights on buses have soared this school year, according to a WDRB News review of JCPS data," Konz reported. "Through the first 70 days of this school year, there have been 306 student fights on buses -- a 31 percent increase from the 234 student fights on buses last year."
Some of these situations predictably elicited calls to hold parents responsible. That is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately parenthood as many of us conceive of or remember it is increasingly a quaint, endangered and often wholly inapplicable concept.
Race is also a big part of some people’s reactions to the episodes described above. We neither can nor should ignore objective facts in this regard, and nobody should be demonized as either racist or anti-police for merely dealing in hard data.
For myriad reasons some social conditions that contribute to increased violence are indeed more severe in minority communities. But it is a big mistake to believe these maladies are somehow confined there.
In his 2012 book Coming Apart, social scientist Charles Murray made a compelling case that developments among America’s non-Latino whites during the period 1960-2010 had created a “new lower class” that was experiencing the "unraveling of daily life in small ways and large." He showed the decline in two "founding virtues" -- industriousness and honesty -- and two institutions that promote them -- marriage and religion -- in arguing that America is experiencing a dangerous and widespread social disintegration.
Other big cities are suffering from the same sort of problems as Louisville, if not worse. But Louisville is our city.
Law, order and public safety may not be nearly as interesting for a city to pursue as are some other subjects. But law, order and public safety are fundamentals without which ambitious transformations cannot succeed and ordinary citizens cannot be prosperous and secure.
Admittedly, these are big, hard issues and many people of good faith inside and outside of government are already working hard on them. All of us, not just our government, must do much more for this place we love.
Let’s really and truly make non-violence and public safety top civic priorities that receive more public and private resources along with sustained, visible attention and commitment. It will simply not suffice to take up these topics reluctantly, sporadically and only as needed to make ourselves look a little better in others’ eyes.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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