Darlene Spot’s 8-year-old granddaughter, Treyce, was killed in a shooting on March 22. “Every month on the 22nd, it’s a reminder,” she said. “We just want justice.” (Edmund D. Fountain for CNN)
HOUMA, LOUISIANA — Darlene Spot often sits on her front steps in this small city about an hour southwest of New Orleans. It’s where she feels closest to her 8-year-old granddaughter, Treyce, who was killed in a shooting three months ago as she and her mother were driving home from a restaurant.
Near those steps, Treyce — a tiny dancer who loved butterflies — filmed TikToks. From there, she often took off on bike rides with her six cousins. On a recent day, Treyce’s 3-year-old cousin made a peanut butter sandwich and said it was for her.
But Treyce is gone, caught in the crossfire of gun violence that is ripping apart lives in cities like Baton Rouge that are known for high crime rates, but also smaller cities like Houma, population about 32,700, in south Louisiana, as well as Monroe in the northern part of the state near the border with Arkansas.
Houma is a small city about an hour southwest of New Orleans. (Edmund D. Fountain for CNN) Louisiana had the highest rate of homicides and one of the highest rates of violent crime per 100,000 people in 2019, according to a CNN analysis of the most recent data available from the FBI. But the statistics and political talking points about violent crime have often glossed over the experiences of the people whose day-to-day reality is shaped by it. Interviews with more than two dozen residents last week in three Louisiana cities, chosen for a mix of sizes, exposed the excruciating human toll of violent crime — and not just on the victims’ families.
When asked about their perceptions of crime as normal life begins to resume after the pandemic, some residents said they are scared to walk outside after dark. Business owners have had to temporarily close their doors. And teachers are left wondering whether their students will make it back into the classroom alive the next day, let alone graduate and have a future.
English teacher Alicia Calvin said her students in Monroe have routinely dodged bullets in their daily lives. She even lost a student to gun violence two years ago. “The children need to know that we care and that there is a better way — and not just saying that, giving them hard proof.” (Will Lanzoni/CNN) Spot cries each day for her granddaughter, who was a bright light during family fishing trips and gatherings. “I pray and I look at her picture,” she said in an interview last week, as the awning above her concrete front porch shielded her from a light rain.
These days, she said, all she hears about on the news are shootings, and so many seem to involve children: “Gun violence — it needs to stop,” she said. “The devil’s really doing his job.”
The violence, and the debate it’s sparking both in communities and on the national political stage, isn’t isolated to the Pelican State. Nationally, recent numbers from the Major Cities Chiefs Association show that homicides and aggravated assaults were up in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year and the year before.
Here in Louisiana, the frustration and despair run deep, with many residents affected by violent crime skeptical of any one quick fix. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up: Many are trying to make their communities safer from the ground up — from engaging teenagers in after-school activities to trying to remove illegal guns.
From left, Fred Sibley, Michael Adams and Adell Brown of 100 Black Men of Metro Baton Rouge pose for a portrait outside the Triple S Food Mart, where Alton Sterling was fatally shot by Baton Rouge police officers in 2016. 100 Black Men is a national organization focused on mentoring Black youth. “At one point, I thought maybe you could run from it,” Brown said of gun violence. “But now there is nowhere you can run from it. It’s in the schools. It’s in the churches. It’s everywhere.” (Edmund D. Fountain for CNN) ‘It’s crushing’ Even when lives aren’t lost, violent crime is threatening livelihoods.
About a month after Treyce was shot in Houma, another shooting just 5 miles away forced business owner Lenny Swiderski to close his doors.
Gunshots were fired in his nightclub in the early hours of April 25, Swiderski said in an interview last week, sending customers running for the doors and jumping behind the bar to take cover. Five people were shot, the sheriff’s office said. All survived.
Swiderski has owned several clubs and bars in the area over the decades. For 30 years, he said, “a bad day was a black eye. Now five people get shot.” Near the bays and bayous that surround the Intracoastal Waterway, Houma was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody. But the gun violence has “just steadily gotten worse and worse and worse,” Swiderski said.
Lenny Swiderski closed his bar and nightclub in Houma for remodeling after a shooting on April 25 injured five people. (Edmund D. Fountain for CNN) “We’re not Atlanta, we’re not Chicago, we’re not Los Angeles,” he said. “We’re south Louisiana.”
Terrebonne Parish, which includes Houma, saw nine homicides in 2019 and seven last year, according to data from the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office. About halfway through 2021, the parish has seen five homicides. Officials with the sheriff’s department told CNN that violent crime has increased over the past 10 years, with shootings rising steadily while homicides have remained about the same. The Houma Police Department did not respond to questions about shootings in the area.
Since the new sheriff took office in July 2020, the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office has formed a Violent Crimes Division and a gang unit, which led to 13 indictments of suspected gang members in one gang that accounted for a large number of shootings in the area, according to Capt. Kody Voisin, chief of detectives with the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office. In a statement to CNN, he added that the department has also been trying to reduce crime perpetrated by repeat offenders by offering the incarcerated more access to drug rehabilitation programs and options to take GED and college courses, while also enhancing work release programs to make sure they are lined up with jobs when they leave.
Bullet holes remain in the ceiling of Lenny’s club. (Edmund D. Fountain for CNN) Despite those efforts, community members like Swiderski are feeling the rising crime. Today, Swiderski’s club in Houma is closed for remodeling. Bullet holes litter the ceiling, pieces of lumber are piled in front of the stage and plastic drop cloth covers liquor bottles behind the bar. Swiderski says he has to rebrand, because Houma now associates his club, Lenny’s, with the shooting.
He wanted one of the slogans for Lenny’s to be “more memories for another generation.”
“These are certainly not the memories that I want to give anybody,” he said. “It’s crushing.”
Crime as a political talking point The spike in violent crime nationally has raised questions about what the role of the federal government should be. But in these Louisiana communities, there is pessimism about any fixes coming from Washington, where crime is just as much a political weapon to be used against opponents as it is a problem to be solved.
Crime has long been a potent campaign issue — but like many issues boiled down in 30-second campaign ads — the complexity is often obscured. Some of the most progressive members of Congress have sided with liberal activists who want to “defund the police,” while more moderate Democrats, including President Joe Biden, adamantly oppose those calls. Some prominent Democrats like South Carolina’s Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most senior Black lawmaker on Capitol Hill, have acknowledged how damaging the “defund the police” slogan was to his party in last year’s elections.
People walk down a street near the White House painted with the “defund the police” slogan in June 2020, during the nationwide protests after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images) During the 2020 campaign, Republicans effectively politicized the looting and destruction that followed some of the protests against racial injustice and tried to tie all Democrats to the “defund the police” movement. Former President Donald Trump doubled down on those attacks, seizing on recent stories about rising crime, in his first post-presidency rally last weekend.
Biden, cognizant of how Republicans intend to use the spike in crime as a line of attack against vulnerable Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, sought to get ahead of the issue last week by announcing a slate of new measures to reduce gun violence.
“You have to prevent the crime from happening, and when it happens, support the police so that they can solve it and move on from there,” White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman, told CNN’s Jake
The harrowing reality of gun violence in Louisiana
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