A few thoughts on the connection between “nonviolent” street crime and really violent street crime

So we had a big night on Tuesday — a new mayor and two new city council members were elected.

And for a handful of families, it was a tragic night.

I hadn’t been in bed very long when I heard a burst of gunfire (“burst” seems the right word, but I was pretty groggy), followed by the usual sounds of Savannah at night: sirens.

About 1:30 a.m., there was a shooting near the intersection of 33rd and Barnard streets — about three blocks from my house — that left one person dead and sent three others to the hospital. Police believe there were at least two shooters, but there has so far been no word on arrests. Click here for details directly from the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department.

In the midst of the ugly news out of San Bernardino, the Washington Post is calling the incident in my neighborhood The other mass shooting that happened today:

The local news media barely acknowledged the murder: One local television station covered it in three paragraphs.

And the world spun on.

I don’t know any of the victims of last night’s shooting at Barnard and 33rd (or the single shooting on Howard Street that may or may not be related), and I have no idea what any of those victims were doing at 1:30 a.m.

But you know what? I’m routinely out at 1:30 a.m. It’s America; we are allowed to be out late.

There is something I do know, however. I know that Barnard Street between 32nd and 33rd streets has had active prostitution and perhaps drug dealing for years. If I’m on my bike, I stay away from that stretch after a certain hour, but in my van I’ve often seen a prostitute on that block — sometimes even on the steps of the large church there.

[UPDATE: Since posting this, I’ve seen a comment from someone who lives even closer to the crime scene that I do. That person noted persistent and obvious drug dealing on a block of 33rd right off Barnard.]

Last year, I was talking with a former student and learned that he had moved to an apartment in the immediate area. I expressed concern about the blatant crime that he must see all the time, but, like so many newcomers to neighborhoods like that, he assumed that he could just sort of live with it. Given how blatant much of the street crime in Savannah is, new neighborhood residents typically don’t even bother to call the police about what’s going on.

When the crime is so glaringly obvious, how could the police not already know? Often, the criminal activity on Barnard is within plain sight of the new fire station a block away. There is a police precinct just three short blocks away.

I have written often over the years about Savannah’s long history of toleration of open street drug dealing and prostitution. Since being hired a year ago, Chief Jack Lumpkin has really been the first major Savannah official to talk about the obvious connection between “open air” drug markets and violent crime, but so far I have seen little evidence that the SCMPD has been able to put enough officers on the street to address the most persistent pockets of criminality.

Can anyone be surprised that the “nonviolent” but unchecked criminal activity on a particular block should suddenly turn into horrible violence?

The simple truth is that street level drug dealing and prostitution — crimes that Savannah has simply tolerated for decades — are their own kinds of violence. They destroy residents’ senses of safety and eventually destroy neighborhoods. Ironically, that neighborhood destruction is what has set the stage for the rapid gentrification in the area around last night’s shooting. But that’s another Savannah story.

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