Monday, July 20, 2009

Murder on the block

Two nights ago, three doors down from my house, a man stepped out of his car, took a few steps across the parking lot toward his apartment building and was shot dead.

I pause here now at the curb on the following Sunday morning, on my way to the park for a walk with my wife and daughter and dog, looking at the police line tape that has fallen slack and sways weakly in the breeze, trying to place where the body fell, looking for bullet holes in the wall, hoping not to see a blood stain, wondering why I didn’t hear the shots or sirens and trying to convince myself that things like that don’t happen in my neighborhood, even though it just did.

This has been a violent year in Akron, and especially within the past few weeks, when the news has played against a drumbeat of shootings and beating and stabbings. On the Fourth of July, a family was attacked by a mob of teenagers as they walked home from a fireworks display. Two nights later, a man stabbed his brother to death. Two days after that, a man walking near a park at dusk was shot in the back. The following night, a store owner shot and killed a robber. And then the next night, in this parking lot at the corner where my kids make the turn on their bikes, another man was murdered.

This was the city’s seventh homicide of the year, and the third in the past two weeks. As I write this, police are investigating another. Akron’s not the kind of place where news like this is so common. In a relatively stable city of just over 200,000, most of us feel secure. In Ohio, one of those states that always seems to be watching its back, Akron has reliably ranked among the safest places. When we learn of a violent crime here, we in the middle class scan down through the newspaper paragraphs, looking for the neighborhood, expecting that it happened “there,” in a place we might expect this sort of thing, a bad part of town, a neighborhood we can avoid.
But this year, it all seems, literally and figuratively, closer to home.

So we’ve been looking for different answers, and focusing on the one that seems to be the theme of everything this year.

Is it the economy?

That’s the logical question, the main variable that sets this summer apart from others in the recent past. My wife asked a friend on the police force that question.

Maybe, he said, his uncertain answer revealing a more likely truth: he doesn’t know. None of us knows. Much of the violence appears to carry the familiar back-story of drug dealing and street feuds. The man killed in my neighborhood was charged earlier this year for beating and robbing a man who was to testify against him in a cocaine case. His own sister told the Akron Beacon Journal, “We think his lifestyle probably caught up with him.”

Somehow, I’m supposed to draw comfort from that, but I don’t. This year feels desperate in so many ways that it’s hard to separate one aspect from another. Almost every working person I know has lost a job or taken a buyout or accepted a pay cut or seen an increased workload or just generally sweated out the constant tension of a situation that has left almost no one feeling safe.
The other night I was talking to a friend who has had his pay reduced and hours increased because of staff cuts, and his reaction was that he’s relieved just to have kept his job.

Akron’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, close to twice what it was a year ago. People don’t have money to spend. Nothing feels secure. No one knows what’s around the corner.

So it’s hard not to extend that anxiety to the worst parts of human nature. Society’s a system and when the entire system is under a strain, it stands to reason that most extreme responses to hard times will be magnified.

Is the economy to blame for this yellow tape stretched across the parking lot?

As we say when we really don’t know: maybe. But even if I knew for sure, I wouldn’t feel any better.


  1. We've seen an increase in crime in my neighborhood in Chicago. Traditionally this neighborhood is very safe, but lately there have been guns drawn and muggings in broad daylight. Unemployment has reached 10% here, too, and people feel desperate.

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