If you were walking downtown in Savannah this Saturday morning you probably wondered where those police SUVs were going in such a hurry with their lights on.
Not one, but three police cars cordoned off Ellis Square across from City Market as shouts and seemingly angry words echoed off the tall buildings as far away as Johnson Square and City Hall as tourists took a wide berth of the usually packed square which sits over an underground parking lot where the old Savannah Newspaper building used to be located.
Camera crews arrived shortly after the police cars and many people feared a riot was taking place, but it was just a peace rally to gather votes for upcoming political candidates and encourage young black teens to register to vote.
Several pastors were on hand giving speeches as to what was wrong with today’s society and while only one Caucasian female was at the rally, there was really no racial prejudice going on.
The rally was held in an effort to address multiple shootings that have taken place in downtown Savannah over the summer months, most all involving young black males and mostly thought to be retaliatory and possibly gang related.
WTOC News quoted Reverend Matthew Brown, pastor at St. John the Baptist who said, “If a child sees violence, a child will grow up being violent and as the pastors of this community and across this city we are overwhelmingly concerned about our children.”
The marchers told WTOC they were fed up with the rising violence and crime in the city. This summer was particularly plagued by youth violence and many blame the parents who don’t set curfews, teach moral values or encourage education as a means to get out of the poverty stricken areas of town, where typically single mothers care for multiple children by multiple fathers, draining the resources and patience of the tax paying public who see welfare and the irresponsibility of non-working mothers as the main cause of teen violence.
Others feel the police and government are failing the youth and that the culture discourages children of at-risk neighborhoods from working hard, getting an education and finding a way out of the endless poverty.
Teens in poverty riddled neighborhoods say it is hard to study when their moms work multiple jobs, they have to help raise the children and their friends are more into running the streets and having fun, than working hard to improve themselves.
“We need to go back into times where parents hold their kids responsible and other community leaders hold the parents responsible,” Shaw Tray Grant, Savannah High Alumni President, told WTOC. “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
Many “villages” don’t want to raise someone else’s child and feel if the parents do not have the means to keep their children civil then they should not have children at all, but others agree that it is a community-wide effort that is needed to keep the children off the streets and focused on higher goals than gun fighting in the streets, which affects everyone whether they have children or not.
Demonstrators shouted, “No Peace, No Justice” as curious passersby headed to city market took alternative routes, looking nervously across the square expecting a riot breaking out, but the demonstrators were peaceful with some of the younger children acting bored and looking around trying to find something to do while their parents focused on the speaker who urged them to change things by getting out and voting in the upcoming November election.
As the group in Ellis Square began to settle down, a loud shout from a bull horn reverberated off the buildings on Johnson Square as a police vehicle led a group of marchers from other sites in six different areas of the city where rallies were being held simultaneously as the one in Ellis Square.
The group said they wanted to include all neighborhoods, not just those that are typically the brunt of black on black crimes.
Mounted Police patrolled nearby areas and many patrol vehicles were seen traveling throughout the city, but no incidents occurred.
Leaders said they were not just protesting to end gun violence or police targeting young African American males, but were also protesting against domestic violence, bullying and senseless crimes where people were taking the lives of others for no reason.
The group wants the whole community to help stop the violence and keep the peace, but at the Ellis square gathering few solutions were offered on how this could be achieved rather than electing new city officials and the same old rhetoric did nothing to inspire those who were just passing by and didn’t stop to listen to more.
A crime map of the city of Savannah shows that the majority of the crimes take place in the midtown and historic districts where populations tend to be denser than in the outlying more suburban regions.
Crime rates in Pooler and Richmond Hill, just outside the city limits, are much lower by comparison.
The Stop the Violence march drew a lot of attention downtown, but not for the right reasons. Many people were more afraid of the protest and feared getting near enough to hear their message.
The Savannah Youth City organizers in Ellis Square had a peaceful, though boisterous gathering, but the only ones listening were the event goers themselves. Everyone else steered clear of the event and were more repelled than drawn to it.
All Savannians agree that the almost weekly shootings need to go. While event goers said that putting down the gun and picking up the ballot was the answer to the problem, most Savannians, while they would not disagree with that sentiment, feel that parents and youth organizations are not doing enough to put racism and gang violence aside and work on integrating youth into the mainstream system.
Many whites are put off by young black teens sporting gangster clothing styles and attitudes that seem disrespectful and associate such behaviors with bad manners and high crime, not upstanding citizens willing to work hard to bring values back to America.
“It creates a fear atmosphere,” said one woman who was frightened by the commotion.
“I just came downtown to enjoy the nice weather and check out some of the shops and the protest really upset me.”
She said that she had seen the rioting in Ferguson on TV and thought the same thing was happenng in Savannah. She also said she could think of better ways to spread the word and that if the group really wanted to include all people, then maybe a more peaceful gathering with less shouting and more information or, better yet, an open dialogue discussion might be a better way to accomplish it
To be fair there was a more relaxed gathering at Daffin Park after the rally with a picnic complete with free food, bounce houses and more motivational speakers.
While many would like to think that police officers and elected officials can stop crime, the truth is, it is up to the individuals. While curfews can be put in place and police drive-through and civic events can cut down on some criminal activity, until at-risk youth are given a better way and better opportunities to rise out of poverty through honest, obtainable goals, crime will always exist.
If young men and women value wealth and power and respect and feel they can not earn it, they may turn to gang violence and bullying in order to lift themselves up and race does not really matter.
All people want respect. They want to have a voice. They want to have a means to a better life and until these issues are addressed, the crime will continue to rise and teens and young adults will continue to be placed at risk no matter who is running this town.
Pastors and churches can help prevent crime, but it takes more than a lecture and a free lunch and it can be dangerous.
It is easy to point the finger of blame at parents, but who your child associates with can lead to them acting out in ways they might not normally act and if you live in a bad neighborhood, it may be hard to limit your child’s interaction with the criminal element.
Voting in new officials has never really helped the issue, though creating programs to get teens off the street and teaching them a better way of life has been shown to be effective.
Let us hope that area churches and civic groups can reach these teens and young adults and make a difference in their lives and if your child is going down a wrong path, don’t let them get arrested or shoot someone before taking action and doing something about it.
There are numerous organizations that can help. If a child has goals and desires to accomplish them, they are less likely to take up with the criminal element, so encouraging youth to act with kindness and focus on a greater good can go a long way to finding a solution to the violence.