Alderman Tony Thomas: We've got to stop making excuses about not doing things until the new chief comes in place. If we wait for the new chief to get in place and get his feet wet in this community, when are we talking about? June. I'm asking for a report to see what our police department has been doing so far. I want to know, because I don't think enough is being done.
Alderman John Hall: But why do we need it? What are we supposed to do with the report?
— From last week’s City Council meeting
THIS PAST WEEKEND was an incredible snapshot of what Savannah has become.
Saturday morning, the Forsyth Farmer’s Market was bustling. Closer to the waterfront, huge crowds made their way to River Street for the wiener dog races at Oktoberfest. Simultaneously, the Savannah State homecoming parade festively wound its way through downtown.
Massive new hotels continued rising at both ends of Bay Street. Ben Carter’s developments around downtown continued apace, with even more properties apparently acquired.
Meanwhile out on the Southside, the parking lots were jammed with happy shoppers happily spending money.
Sunday night, a record-breaking crowd came to enjoy perfect fall weather at Picnic in the Park. (Traditionally, crowds for Forsyth performances are informally measured by how close they extend back to the tennis courts. For the first time I’ve ever seen, the Picnic crowd went all the way back. We are finally approaching Peak Park.)
Savannah has come such a long way in such a short time. It’s amazing, and inspiring, to see.
But the past week also showed a much more disturbing snapshot of another side of life here.
A different homecoming celebration never happened, as Savannah High School cancelled all weekend events, including the homecoming game with Johnson, because of a pair of shootings near campus.
In those shootings, a 15-year-old was shot in Avondale and a 16-year-old was shot on Hawthorne Street.
That wasn’t all.
On Tuesday a bizarre extended gun battle happened in Gordonston. Twenty-three shell casings were found.
On Thursday a 30-year-old man was shot at Seiler and Live Oak.
On Saturday morning, a fatal shooting on Waters Avenue.
On Saturday night, a shooting on Damon Street.
Also on Saturday night, a shooting at Oglethorpe and Wilder.
All on the heels of a summer of two dozen shootings, culminating in the officer-involved killing of Charles Smith last month.
The unvarnished, unsentimental fact of the matter is that one part of Savannah has already left the other one behind in the rearview mirror.
One Savannah, largely white and prosperous, has become a vibrant New South hub, envy of its region.
Another Savannah, largely African American and low-income, is plagued by out-of-control gun violence and societal distress.
One Savannah doesn’t understand why the other refuses to talk to police and isn’t more vocal about crime, why they march in anger about a black man killed by a white cop but seemingly won’t make a peep about relentless black-on-black crime.
The other Savannah is tired of explaining why they don’t trust police or politicians, why they long ago stopped believing the promises, why they aren’t as excited about the new planters on Broughton Street.
The gap in mutual understanding is vast. And the unfortunate, uncomfortable truth is that the gap could continue to widen for a long time to come, with disastrous results.
There is every likelihood that downtown Savannah will continue morphing into a Disneyfied entertainment/tourism zone of corporate interests catering to affluent visitors, ringed with and surrounded by uncertainty and socioeconomic despair.
The near-inevitable split of the City/County police merger will only highlight our racial and class divide. Once again we’ll have a City police force patrolling the low-income, high-crime areas and protecting the tourism zone at all costs, and a County police force mostly concerned with speeding tickets and DUIs in the unincorporated areas.
You may know Pastor C. MeGill Brown of Second African Baptist Church from these pages, in our ongoing contributions from Canyon Ranch Institute and Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care, whose board he chairs.
More to the point with regards to local crime, Pastor Brown is not coincidentally a police chaplain and a Savannah High grad.
Commenting on the recent avalanche of shootings, Pastor Brown nailed it when he told WSAV:
“I was waiting this morning. When I got up this morning I’m going to get calls from the NAACP. I’m going to get calls from the County Commission, I’m going to get calls from the City Manager, I’m going to get calls from the community leaders. That we need to continue to march, we need to protest, to do something about this. And my phone didn’t ring. Nobody said a word.”
For the Savannah left behind, the only chance for salvation—in every sense of the word—is for more leaders like Pastor Brown to emerge.
Young, engaged, refusing to accept the status quo, and yes, a bit disgusted.
The current crop of politicians, black and white, isn’t cutting it. As the last Council meeting showed, many have lost touch.
Others have simply thrown up their hands. And some don’t seem to really know why they’re in office at all.
It’s not all their fault. Unlike so-called strong-mayor cities such as Charleston, Savannah’s city charter grants our elected leaders very little actual power. Even Mayor Edna Jackson is essentially only one vote out of nine on City Council.
For better or worse, all political power in the City vectors through the City Manager’s office. That fact not only makes it easy for our elected officials to duck accountability, it makes it easy for big money and big developers to continue having their way with downtown Savannah—as many of its surrounding neighborhoods continue to decline and the bullets continue to fly.
Simply put, both Savannahs are approaching critical mass, but in very different directions.
It’s time for a new crop of leaders to emerge who are up to the double-edged challenge.