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‘We’ve seen lifelong friends kill each other:’ How a state capital became one of the deadliest US cities

<i>Edmund D. Fountain for CNN</i><br/>Police respond to a shooting outside a food market in Jackson. The city recently raised starting pay for new police officers to  $30
Edmund D. Fountain for CNN
Police respond to a shooting outside a food market in Jackson. The city recently raised starting pay for new police officers to  $30

By Peter Nickeas and Priya Krishnakumar, CNN Photographs by Edmund D. Fountain for CNN

Around Thanksgiving, this crisis-plagued state capital saw a series of shootings that pushed the year’s homicide total past 130, setting a grim annual record for a city that over the last two years has quietly become one of the country’s deadliest.

The killings, like so many in another record-setting year of American gun violence, are not the kind that receive national attention. A local business owner was shot outside a barbershop while sitting in his car. A few days later, a man was killed in a shooting that also wounded a 13-year-old boy. A 22-year-old inside a car was sprayed with gunfire at a gas station. A 63-year-old man whose death by gunfire is still largely unexplained.

In the state’s most populous city, a former Confederate stronghold that would later give way to thriving Black business districts and serve as a hub for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, residents are now grappling with a gun violence epidemic that spiked at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and shows no signs of abating.

“We see lifelong friends kill each other, we’ve seen a son kill his mother and sister, have seen crimes that are based on social determinants and an inability of people to be engaged in institutions in which they thrive,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN during a tour of the city.

The rising gun violence has further exposed the city’s deep-rooted social and political problems, none with easy or tidy solutions. And everyone working against this wave — from the city’s civic, law enforcement, faith, and street outreach communities — is competing not just with spiraling violence, but with a pandemic that laid bare all of society’s inequities when it became ever more difficult to address them.

There have already been 150 homicides this year through December 21, according to police, nearly all of them shootings. The city’s homicide rate is 97.6 murders per 100,000 residents, 15 times higher than the US rate of 6.5, most resulting from gunfire.

“When you get up to 80 per 100,000 in a city with more than 100,000 people you’re dealing with a vanishingly small number of places with homicide rates that high,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

To put the numbers into perspective, in 2020 St. Louis was the country’s deadliest large city, cataloguing 87 homicides per 100,000, “and that was clearly at the top of the list of larger cities,” Rosenfeld said. “Jackson is now exceeding that level.”

For nearly every major American city, the end of spring in 2020 marked the beginning of an historic wave of homicides. By the end of the year, homicides were up by 29% from 2019, the largest year-over-year increase ever recorded by the FBI. Across much of the country, homicides spiked over the summer, following the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

That heightened violence has continued through 2021 for many large cities.

More than two-thirds of the country’s most populous cities have seen more homicides in 2021 than last year, a continuation of the troubling increase in homicides that began at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, according to a CNN analysis of over 40 major cities.

Jackson, a solidly Democratic city in a state that is solidly Republican, shattered its homicide record in 2020 with 130 — the previous high of 92 homicides in 1995, about the time when homicides in America peaked.

The city’s challenged public institutions, including the police department, parks and social services, all faced immeasurable strain during the pandemic. Earlier this year, Jackson gained national attention when it joined the list of impoverished American cities where crumbling infrastructure gave wake to unsafe drinking water.

Mississippi is an open carry state

All of this came to a head in March 2020, when lockdowns began across the country. It’s impossible to ignore the role that guns play: city officials, police officers of different ranks, and outreach workers have all cited the ease of obtaining guns, their open display and availability during high-stress times, and the inability of police to act when they see a gun as contributing factors for the spike in homicides.

Mississippi’s gun laws are among the most permissive in the country. In 2013, the state’s heavily Republican legislature made Mississippi an open carry state, meaning that anyone over the age of 18 can carry a handgun or rifle anywhere they choose without a permit.

But in April 2020, Mayor Lumumba was worried that a mix of pandemic-induced toxic stress and the proliferation of guns might lead to an uptick in violence, and so he issued an executive order banning the open display of guns in public in the city’s 113 square miles.

In his address, Lumumba cited the shooting deaths of two children  weeks earlier, neither of whom were intended targets. Lumumba reviewed the body-worn camera footage from one shooting where a 5-year-old girl was killed, and was struck by the trauma of it all — the victim, the victim’s family, the officer who found her — and noted he had a child the same age.

“I had a 5-year-old at home at that time … And that baby was doing the same thing that my baby was: playing on an iPad.”

He declared the order  “necessary for the protection of life and property in this moment of great distress and economic tension.”

But it immediately put Lumumba at odds with other government officials, who were swift to condemn both the mayor and the policy. The state’s attorney general asked Lumumba to reconsider. Days after the announcement, the city council denounced the ban  in a symbolic vote.

The order was short-lived and was not renewed. The city council agreed to ban any further attempts to limit open carry, and the US District Attorney for Southern Mississippi called the ban a “publicity stunt” in a tweet. In June, a federal judge ruled that Jackson could not ban the open carry of firearms.

In a YouTube address announcing the order, Lumumba said he had “no principled disagreement with the Second Amendment,” but he believed that  open carry “escalates conflict beyond the point of resolution.” He also cited the stress that came with the economy grinding to a halt, and the sense of fear and intimidation that open carry allowed during what was an unprecedented time. He had faith in the idea that taking guns from people who shouldn’t have them would limit their potential for damage.

The open carry limitation only lasted days, and an escalation of violence continued. By mid-July 2020, the city had surpassed 2019’s homicide totals. The violence has not abated since.

Community leaders point to the pandemic’s erosion of Jackson’s already frayed social safety net, saying that the pandemic-caused closure of community institutions like churches, parks and other services almost certainly contributed to the uptick in violence.

Lorenzo Neal, a pastor at New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, said kids who used to play at a park across from his church and sit on his steps to use the WiFi don’t come around anymore, even though the parks have reopened. In the middle of the summer, in the middle of the day, the parks were empty. He worries about the development of children who’ve been exposed to violence, even if they haven’t themselves been victimized.

“It’s affected how they operate [in] school, and how they function in school is affected, how they relate to their families, and how they relate to their other friends,” he said.

Drastic demographic changes in the city

Jackson, a largely Black metropolis in a state with the largest share of Black residents in the country, has undergone drastic changes in the past half century. Its economic decline has occurred rapidly over the past two decades, fueled by population decline and demographic shifts.

These shifts began in the 1970s, when Jackson was mandated to desegregate its schools following a 1969 Supreme Court ruling. The case came a decade and a half after Brown v. Board of Education, but Mississippi schools had been slow to comply until the 1969 ruling, which marked a turning point in the city’s trajectory.

Following the decision, Jackson lost 10,000 White students to nearby suburbs or new private schools set up by  ”citizens’  councils,” segregationist groups formed in response to the Supreme Court decision ending school segregation. Their membership often overlapped with the Ku Klux Klan, according to Robert Luckett, historian at Jackson State University.

The ruling also coincided with multiple blows to Black economic opportunity: Lynch Street, a Black business district, was closed after police killed two people during protests that erupted over the rumor of a civil rights leader’s murder and against the war in Vietnam.

The ’70s also marked a downturn in Jackson’s Farish Street district, once a destination for Black southerners barred from White-owned stores and an early source of Black wealth in Jackson. Luckett says that as the city became more integrated — especially following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 – the area declined, as Black residents began to spend their money elsewhere and White residents began to move to the suburbs.

By the ’80s, many of the stores on Farish Street closed and efforts to revitalize the district came in fits and starts. Now the area lies mostly abandoned, though it’s been the target of redevelopment efforts over the years.

In the 1980s, Jackson changed its form of government from two elected commissioners and a mayor to a city council system with a seven-member council and a mayor. This changed the form of government from one where three people were elected citywide to one with the city carved into seven city council districts, which led to greater representation for women and Black people in government and marked the beginning of drastic demographic changes.

“People in the city of Jackson were demanding that they have some representation, and until that time … it was guaranteed that as long as the city was majority White and people who voted were majority White, it was guaranteed to elect three White men in a city that was majority Black or close to it,” Luckett said.

The city’s population shrank from almost 200,000 in 1990 to about 160,000 in 2020. Its decline in population in these three decades was driven almost entirely by White flight. The city was 56% Black in 1990. By 2020, 82% of the city’s residents were Black.

“People who left were people who have means to do so. Not everyone can pick up and move to the suburbs,” Luckett said. “Losing tax base, losing property values. And (the city was) dealing with state government based in Jackson that, because of those factors, was increasingly hostile to city of Jackson.”

Changes in power and demographics led to the election of the city’s first Black mayor in 1997 — by 2000, the White population of Jackson had dropped by 16% from the previous decade.

Inside city hall, photos of the previous mayors line a grand staircase, with the White mayors on one side and Black mayors on the other.

Neither of the two Black business districts survived into the ’90s and 2000s, and neither did the downtown district. A stretch of Lynch Street was absorbed by Jackson State University and the other two still have buildings but many are vacant. Over the years, the city continued in a slow, spiraling decline of population and ability to deliver and maintain basic services. The decline has been protracted, painful — stores in the city’s only mall closed one by one before the shopping center finally closed for good in 2018. The city hasn’t had an open movie theater in years.

The median income in Jackson has also rapidly dwindled, while neighboring suburban communities have grown wealthier over time. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line.

Much of the city’s White flight appears to have been to nearby Madison County, where the population has doubled since 1990, and it was the only county in Jackson’s metropolitan area with a greater percentage of White people in 2019 than 1990.

Community members say a lack of social services, jobs and resources can make violence seem like a viable option for teens.

“(There’s) no economic growth, nowhere to work. Nowhere. A young person can only work at a fast-food restaurant,” said Timothy Finch, a violence interrupter in Jackson. “If I can’t work, what am I going to do? I sit at home all day. Idle time makes an idle mind.”

Finch said he and another violence interrupter approached two kids recently who were sitting on a brick wall near a park, thinking they were scheming either to snatch a woman’s purse or break into a car.  When they approached the kids, they confirmed Finch’s suspicions almost without hesitation. But he understands the impulse.

“There’s nothing for them to do,” he said. “Being in Jackson, man, it’s almost like being in prison. Only difference is that instead of being in my zone or in my cell all day, the whole city is the cell … Just like a big jail house, nobody’s doing nothing.”

It can take hours for police to respond

Jackson’s decline has also weakened its police force, and the pandemic has only accelerated the challenges the department faces.

The police department, like much of the city’s infrastructure, has suffered. The city recently raised starting pay for new police officers to  $30,000 per year.

As the city’s population has withered and its tax revenues declined, the department shrunk from a peak of more than 520 officers to about 290  in 2021. Another 20%  of officers are retirement eligible.  And though the department is budgeted up to 350 officers, it’s a struggle keeping up with attrition, attracting and training new recruits.

“When I came on in the 90s, law enforcement was a very appealing job,” said Assistant Chief Joseph Wade. “At certain points, we’d have an application pool of 200 to 300, now it’s 50 or 60 people we’re having to vet for recruit classes.”

The city is competing with higher-paying departments in the nearby bedroom communities that grew as Jackson contracted. Those communities make up about two-thirds of the metro area’s total population. They also have less crime and calls for service.

Because Jackson is so large, and police staffing is so light, it’s not surprising for calls to take hours to get to — a single major incident could draw three or four officers in a precinct that might have only a dozen officers working, and calls stack up. And when residents call 911 and an officer doesn’t arrive for hours, it breeds mistrust.

The police department recently opened a new command center, but with the troubles staffing the department in general, it’s difficult to meet basic public safety obligations, let alone fully utilize the new technology center.

Reliance on ‘credible messenger’ program

While Jackson’s understaffed police force certainly has a role to play in crime reduction, the mayor says they can’t bear the sole responsibility for the city’s ongoing crisis.

“I think you’re working behind an 8-ball if you think you can out-police crime,” Lumumba said.

Organizers, advocates, and politicians all emphasize outreach and community-based solutions for long-term, sustainable violence reduction.

“Every block is going to be organized by somebody, right? It’s either going to be organized by a positive force or negative force,” Lumumba said. So much of outreach work is just showing kids something different.

These types of programs once existed — and thrived — in Jackson. The National Youth Sports Program, which ran at 200 colleges for children in impoverished areas, allowed kids a place to be with their friends each summer, and created continuity and stability in their life during a time when violence usually spikes.

The program also guaranteed kids at least one FDA-approved meal each day of camp, but most days the staff also ensured kids got hot breakfasts and an afternoon snack.

“[After] five weeks, kids would be crying knowing it was over. That’s how connected these programs were with kids and the staff we hired,” said Rochelle Taylor, who served as president of the program.

It ran from 1969 to 2005, and when funding looked like it would run out, a plea from a local newspaper spoke to its need, saying, “Senators must be aware how crucial this program is to the well being of so many underserved young people. It will cost society more to remove the safety netting that our National Youth Sports Program provides.”

Now, initiatives in Jackson focus on violence interruption, a tactic that uses known members of the community to de-escalate conflict before it turns violent. The success of these programs can vary. Locally, well-respected messengers can help negotiate a truce or somehow otherwise stand in the way of warring groups.  But violence interrupters have not yet led to a total, sustainable crime reduction across an entire city.

Strong Arms of JXN, a community organization formed by Benny Ivey and Terun Moore, aims to reach kids early in life. The program is affiliated with the People’s Advocacy Institute, a Mississippi-based community engagement nonprofit.

Ivey rose to leadership in the Simon City Royals, a gang rooted in Chicago and now one of the largest White gangs in the Mississippi prison system. Moore killed a man in 1998, was convicted when he was 17 years old, and was paroled out after the US Supreme Court ruled mandatory life-without-parole unconstitutional and the state  supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Strong Arms of JXN is a “credible messenger” program,  a term used to describe violence interruption and other street-level outreach work. Such methods can be controversial because they rely on someone’s criminal or gang history to reach young people who are either flirting with or actively involved in crime.  The group’s activities range from museum tours to court-ordered after school programs.

These programs face an uphill climb to success. It’s not just about connecting with the kids — they need wide buy-in from institutions often with different goals, including juvenile courts, police stations, hospitals and schools. But once that credibility is established, the relationships may last years.

What foothold Strong Arms of JXN has now is by the approval of Judge Carlyn Hicks, whose court orders some kids into the program.

“It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing for me to be collaborative and responsive, as opposed to reactive, to (a child’s) actions,” said Hicks, who authorized the program in juvenile detention and as an intervention program for teens who’ve been arrested.

Every child in her jurisdiction tried as an adult has a child protective services history, Hicks said.  Unaddressed trauma turns into other behaviors, and juvenile delinquents may graduate to more serious violent crimes.

“Data will show, studies will show, statistics will show, that if we don’t have meaningful intervention at that stage, there will be manifestation of (violence) in the future.”

While community organizers work toward long-term solutions, Jackson city officials are scrambling to find something to stem the violence happening right now. At the beginning of November, Lumumba convened a multi-agency summit for community leaders to discuss solutions, but the event was closed to the press and public. Since then, community leaders have hosted several other forums in the city’s wards.

Just before Christmas 2021, Strong Arms of JXN got keys to a former community center in South Jackson that sat unused. It will serve as an anchor for the program. Ivey, one of the co-directors, said he’s already ordered PlayStations and other provisions to make the space an inviting one for teens.

“We’re excited. We’ve been trying to do this spot to spot, it’s not as effective. We need to be able to hunker down in one area, it’s disintegrated more than any part of the city the last several years, and that’s where we want to be anyway,” Ivey said. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe God gave us that.”

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