A YEAR AGO to the day from last week’s horrific and surreal tragedy in City Market, I wrote a column headlined "The new normal of crime downtown."
I could write virtually the same column in the wake of the deaths this past Fourth of July holiday of Scott Waldrup, Gabriel Magulias, and Spencer Stuckey in a bizarre shooting/car chase in the tourist district.
All the sage social critics in town have weighed in with various hot takes on what they think is the single, game-changing solution to all our problems — if only the world would take note!
However, I’ve long said that the solution to crime here will involve a multi-pronged approach incorporating many ideas from many different points of view.
In that spirit, all I have this year is a list of observations, sage or otherwise:
• Everyone hates lenient judges until they’re the one on trial. Savannah’s favorite parlor game now is blaming the legal system for failing to imprison accused killer Jerry Chambers for an armed robbery in the Savannah Mall parking lot in June 2016, which supposedly set the stage for his actions in City Market.
People with little knowledge of the legal system — nor apparently of basic Constitutional rights — have decided Chambers’s crime last week was the fault of a bad judge and a too-good defense attorney in 2016.
It is certainly true that Chambers’s lawyer at the time, former Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm, has been a strong advocate of leniency for first offenders, especially for young African Americans like Chambers, 16 at the time.
Recorder’s Court Judge Harris Odell, at one point involved with the Chambers case, was harshly called out by name a year ago by Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin as being particularly soft on crime.
That said, Chambers has the same right to due process as anyone else. It’s entirely possible that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict.
There was a strong case against him, but apparently not quite strong enough.
Which leads us to point number two:
• This is what leniency for juvenile offenders looks like. For those who support a less-harsh juvenile justice system in order to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline for young black men like Chambers — a noble goal, to be sure — this case serves as a sobering rebuttal.
Chambers seems to have been fortunate in getting an opportunity in 2016 to avoid the justice system and turn his life around. He allegedly chose to disregard that reprieve, and three people are now dead.
Does this mean everything would have worked out great if Chambers had been sentenced to time for the Savannah Mall robbery? Not by any means.
He might have rehabilitated himself. Or he might have come out a more hardened, budding career criminal.
The point is that if we even have to face a choice between rehabilitation or resignation, we’ve already lost the battle.
Which leads us to point number three:
• Fighting poverty won’t fix everything, but it will fix a lot of things. Sometimes young people make terrible decisions regardless of what you do to help them. Children from great backgrounds can do awful things, and children from awful backgrounds can do great things.
But sometimes society makes it very difficult for young people to make the right decisions in the first place.
More than one in four Savannahians lives in poverty. We’ve known this for decades and have done almost nothing effective about it.
It’s hard to “lift yourself up by the bootstraps” when the only educational system available to you is one of the worst public school districts in the country.
It’s a lot to expect young African Americans to just ignore all the negative social and cultural messages all around them and behave themselves, when people with far more resources are often rarely able to do that (cough, Shia LaBeouf, cough).
Whether we set Jerry Chambers free or put him to death, until poverty is addressed more seriously there will just be another Jerry right behind him.
And another. And another after that.
Adding surcharges and hiring “ambassadors” and surrounding City Market with gates and metal detectors may all happen. But none of them will solve a thing.
Which leads us to point number four:
• People say they want grassroots until they see the grassroots. I've seen a good bit of disgruntlement among some in Savannah about the amount of mourning being shown for the late Scott Waldrup, beloved employee of The Grey.
Where’s the march and vigil for all the other homicide victims in Savannah, some ask. What’s so special about Waldrup that he, among the dozens murdered here each year, gets this kind of outpouring, they want to know.
Social justice activists, take note: This outpouring of emotion in Scott's memory is a grassroots effort of the type you always say you want to see more of.
The effort to memorialize Scott Waldrup is organic. It isn’t driven by money or politics or race.
It is driven by concerned citizens. It is driven by the LGBTQ community. It is driven by young people.
It is driven by the food and beverage community, i.e., the service workers that activists always say they care about.
That’s the thing about grassroots: They grow their own way.
Does this incident expose serious fault lines in Savannah? Yep.
Are we going to have to talk about these fault lines at some point? Yep.
But how and when people choose to mourn is a deeply personal decision. And trying to shame people for doing it seems counterproductive to say the least.
If we can't agree on something as basic as that, then we really are in trouble as a community.
Which leads us to the final point:
• Savannah is deeply dysfunctional. Almost nothing here works well. The schools are terrible. City and County government is mostly a nepotistic and corrupt circus. Racial discord is off the charts.
Taxes are too high for services received. The regulatory system only works for those with pockets deep enough to manipulate it. Water bills were screwed up for a whole year.
Savannah is considering setting up a new municipal court because the people at Recorder’s Court can’t get along. Think about that, and about the ramifications for efforts to decrease crime.
Our local society has largely failed at almost every level. Everyone at some point has played a part, and I certainly include the media on that list.
Is it really so surprising that our collective dysfunction would play out at the individual level as well, and that totally innocent people would pay the price?