By Shea Howell
August 9, 2011
There is an edginess in Detroit. The most disturbing reflection of this is the increase in the number of murders in the city. The Detroit News reported that homicides are up 15% over last year and if they continue at this pace we will face one of the highest murder rates in years.
There is nothing new in media reports about murders in Detroit. Our city has long been cast as one that is crime ridden. More than a quarter of a century ago Time Magazine described us as a city where “guns come close to ranking as household appliances.”
What has gotten much less media attention is that fact that for the last three decades violent crime has actually been decreasing in the city. In 2010 not a single Detroit neighborhood was listed among those in major cities with the 25 highest crime rates.
The response to this increased violence by Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee has been to find ways to put more officers on the street. While many welcome his efforts, the idea that more police on the street will make us safer is one that no one really believes. It is an illusion of increased safety.
Much of the violence we face is the kind that erupts inside the walls of our homes or between friends and neighbors. All too often it is the first response by a young person to a perceived insult or threat. Petty crimes escalate into senseless shootings.
The underlying conditions that contribute to violence have long been factors in Detroit life. Unemployment and poverty are our constant companions. These do not explain the increased tensions among us.
The Mayor and the business-foundation complex that have been leading the charge to remake our city bear much of the responsibility for increasing tensions. In their zeal to justify their grand schemes they have created a heightened atmosphere of assault, emphasizing the deficits we face. They have fostered a language that disrespects the residents of the city, categorizing us as illiterate, incapable, unintelligent and needing guidance. After more than a year of this kind of steady dehumanizing talk, people find themselves internalizing the worst of these images.
Public conversation impacts individual lives and creates a cultural context that we all have to respond to in some way. When an elected mayor refers to the city he governs as “a hell hole” it has an effect that reverberates far beyond his later efforts to explain away the comment. When business and foundation interests justify their actions by claiming much of the city is illiterate, they sows seeds of doubt among people about their own capacities. When children are portrayed as incapable of learning and schools cast as disasters, we lose faith in ourselves and our future.
The constant reference to winners and losers, the unwillingness to foster compassion for one another or to celebrate the creative and enduring qualities that have sustained Detroit for decades contribute to a corrosive atmosphere in our city.
In contrast to this coarse public discourse, community organizations are finding new ways to create peace in our neighborhoods. The Coalition Against Police Brutality has initiated a Peace Zones for Life program. They are calling upon the City to help facilitate community based conflict resolution strategies.
But they are not waiting for such help. Instead the coalition is actively creating circles for peace, drawing upon trusted individuals in neighborhoods to become mediators and counselors. These efforts help us all transform ourselves into people who help each other find our way to healthy, respectful relationships.
Instead of pulling officers from behind desks to patrol streets, Chief Godbee would do well to find new ways to work with those in the neighborhoods who know our safety comes from how we learn to treat one another.