Residents of Asheville and surrounding communities may not realize that they live in one of the safest areas in America. Our violent-crime rate is fully one-third lower than the statewide average and even further below the national average. Those are impressive statistics, and our police, district attorney, courts, educators and employers all deserve our gratitude — as does the community at large.
Our city’s crime numbers tell us we’re doing a good job; but as with all things human, there are deeper truths here that aren’t so readily expressed by a flow chart, graph or statistic. Consider the following poem, written by a fourth-grader living in one of Asheville’s public-housing developments. This young lady gives us an anguished glimpse into the harsh reality of the crime that we do have and the lives on which this dark shadow falls:
Where I Live
Where I live is a dangerous place.
It’s not a safe place where children can play.
There’s shooting everywhere.
When children get scared, they run under
their beds and tables and hide in their
I hate where I live.
It’s not a safe place to stay.
If you go out there,
You’ll probably fade away.
Public housing is just that — housing that is partially supported by public funds. But that doesn’t mean the residents should have to live in fear, shame or isolation. No Asheville neighborhood, whether publicly supported or not, should be a place where such poems can bloom in the mind of a child. Despite our clear successes in containing crime, however, public-housing developments and other neighborhoods remain where hard-drug users and dealers continue to poison our city like a toxic waste.
The APD estimates that 80 percent of the local crime we have is directly or indirectly related to drugs. The majority of the problems we see in our city schools can be traced to the impact of homes where drug users undermine the growth, happiness and hope of their children — and thus affect all of our children. If your car or home is broken into, if a child is abused or neglected, if someone is murdered, if a spouse is beaten or a neighborhood blighted, the odds are that drugs are lurking in the background somewhere, calling the shots.
For too long, we as a culture have simply accepted as inevitable the damage drugs inflict on our cities and their people. We have called it “war” but failed to give our law-enforcement professionals the weapons they need to strike at the heart of the drug problem. We were right about the need for a war but wrong in our choice of battle plan. Because we will never win, or even come close, unless we more realistically address — right here at home — where the money comes from and where the drugs go to. Who’s funding the drug trade, and who’s consuming its devastating wares? This is everybody’s problem, and coming to grips with it will require the entire community’s diligence, persistence and compassion.
In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt observed, “The one thing which corrupt machine politicians most desire is to have decent men frown on the activity, that is, efficiency, of the honest man who genuinely wishes to reform politics.” And in our fight against hard-drug use today, a shift from paralysis and ineffectiveness toward decency and efficiency is long overdue. Those who traffic in hard drugs are counting on us to continue our long-standing pattern of mustering a short-lived enthusiasm during times of crisis that gives way to indifference as the need for protracted hard work becomes clear. Drug dealers applaud those who protect the predator rather than the victims, as well as those who cling to the comfort of the status quo rather than embracing the hopes and possibilities that might inspire us to try to find a better way. We must do everything we can to disappoint those who ruthlessly prey on our community.
To our credit, we have already begun. Our city leaders are uniting in an increasingly realistic approach to drug policy. Our police are stepping up with an enduring commitment to authentic public safety in all our neighborhoods. And as a community, we’re beginning to get the message that we can ignore our brothers’ plight for only so long before — in one form or another — it comes knocking on our door.
Enforcement alone won’t do the job, but it is certainly the place to start. Nothing good happens in a place where people aren’t safe. Right now, that little girl and many like her aren’t safe, and we shouldn’t rest until she’s writing poems expressing joyful optimism and the visions of a young mind unbridled by fear and dread.
If we choose to turn away, it will be to our shame. But we’re betting on human decency and the firm belief that there are enough good people willing, instead, to turn toward the shadows and proclaim with a common voice, “Enough!”
[Terry Bellamy serves on the Asheville City Council; Carl Mumpower is the city’s vice mayor.]