No votes were taken. No official action occurred. No one was under any illusions that any problems were solved.
But Tuesday’s Fort Wayne City Council meeting was one of the most emotional – and according to some the most significant – in recent memory as members and community representatives spent two hours discussing the epidemic of violence that has pushed the number of homicides in Allen County to 39.
“We’ve had a lot of important discussions around this table, and a lot of Fifth Tuesday discussions about important topics, but I think this is probably the most important one yet,” Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, said.
Over and over, council members heard that while most of the homicides might have involved black males and that while most have occurred on the city’s southeast side, that the violence affects the entire city and people of all backgrounds. And you only had to look around the room to see it was true: At the head of the table was Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, whose uncle Jim Didier was shot to death in 2000 in a botched robbery. At the other end was Crystal Bush, part of the Building Bridges to a Better Community effort to stop the violence. She is a school principal, but last month, her 23-year-old son was sentenced to 45 years in prison for a deadly drive-by shooting.
“Don’t disconnect from the problem, because you never know when it will knock on your door,” Bush warned.
Fort Wayne Urban League President Jonathan Ray, who was instrumental in organizing Building Bridges to a Better Community, said the effort is aimed at transformative change, change that begins with the root problems, not just the symptoms, and the root problems are economic. He cited statistics showing that black males are almost three times more likely to live below the poverty line than white males, and are 2.4 times more likely to be unemployed. He pointed to a map showing that most of the homicides occurred on the city’s southeast side and said it is no coincidence that more than 40 percent of the people living there do not have a high school diploma.
“You have high poverty and high unemployment anywhere in the world and you have high violence,” Ray said. “It’s not just Fort Wayne.”
He gave the Council a list of 10 things Building Bridges to a Better Community wants the city to commit to, including a focused effort to increase economic development on the southeast side, developing a new community-policing approach to build trust between the police and residents and improving transportation so people can travel to jobs.
Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, drew applause from the more than 80 spectators when he said that all of the issues cited can be tied to single-parent households. He cited statistics showing that those who finish high school, are employed and wait until they are 21 to get married and have children have only a 2 percent chance of living in poverty, while those who do not have more than a 70 percent chance.
“Whether they’re white, black or Hispanic, they all have more problems,” Crawford said. “It’s not a racial issue, it’s a socio-economic issue.”