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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 Tapper on Sunday on “State of the Union.”
Biden’s push for an overhaul of legislation on policing and guns — two issues that often come up in the national conversation about crime — have faced uphill battles in Washington, where Democrats enjoy narrow majorities in Congress and are themselves divided over both issues, particularly policing.
Bipartisan negotiators on policing signaled they had agreed on a framework last week, although a deal is still elusive and talks are continuing. One of the lead Democratic negotiators, Rep. Karen Bass of California, told CNN last week she’s worried that the uptick in crime could eventually be “used as an excuse” to say “we don’t need police reform” — a message already emerging from some Republicans.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for the uptick in violent crime that many towns and cities are seeing as Americans resume their normal activities after the pandemic, and it is a topic of intense debate among criminologists. Many law enforcement officials have pointed to the proliferation of guns, a rise in people exhibiting mental health disorders and the year of economic turmoil caused by Covid-19, which has left many Americans out of work and still struggling financially.
After meeting with Biden and other law enforcement officials at the White House last week, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul noted the unusual nature of the past year and how it has fed into rising crime.
“We all know that there was a lot of interruption of normalcy, a lot of stress, anxiety, economic hardship that was presented when the Covid crisis started,” Paul told reporters outside the White House, also pointing to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “That, too, agitated scars in communities all across America.”
He noted that the 2020 election also divided the country. “All of those things create trauma. We don’t like to talk about it,” he continued. “But the reality is those sequence of events created trauma in this community. What direct relationship it has on crime, we really don’t know. But we do know that the data is different.”
Lack of opportunities for teens and young adults
Many of the people CNN spoke with, who confront crime outside their front doors every day, aren’t so much focused on a quick fix; Instead, they’re desperate to see investment in the kind of long-term infrastructure that they think could save the next generation — like after-school programs.
About 300 miles north of Houma in Monroe, a city of about 47,300 in Ouachita Parish not far from Louisiana’s border with Arkansas, Naomi Gholston, 62, said she watched from her windows earlier this month as dozens of teens argued in the street.
The argument led to the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Sherman, a recent graduate of Richwood High School who had served as the school’s quarterback.
“Bullets don’t have a name on them,” Gholston said during an interview last week at home in the Robinson Place neighborhood on the south side of the city. “It could’ve been one of my grandchildren.”
She said she’s so nervous in her neighborhood that she sleeps with her own guns beside her bed, and never leaves home after 6 p.m. She is trying to create a different life for the next generation as she works with young children as the manager at a day care center.
“The way I feel right now is that the generation is completely lost,” she said, referring to older teens.
Church and community activists in Monroe are having many of the same kinds of conversations that are taking place in Houma about how to curb the altercations among youth, particularly when the job opportunities in the region have winnowed.
“These kids are trapped in, they don’t have a lot of things to do, and that's not just here in Monroe, that's everywhere,” said Tyrone "K-9" Dickens, a 51-year-old activist who runs a nonprofit in Monroe that provides resources to children and the elderly in the community.
Over the past two decades, a series of major business closures has hit the community hard — from the shuttering of a State Farm operations center to the closure of a General Motors/Guide Corp. auto and truck lighting plant that had helped anchor the south side to an International Papermill plant that employed people in Monroe before it closed its doors.
Many residents point to those closures as the moment when the investment in community programs began to dry up, leaving kids with fewer opportunities for after-school activities and recreational sports leagues. Those losses were compounded by the prevalence of illegal or stolen guns, Monroe community activists said.
Two Monroe shootings between June 18 and 19 led to three people being shot, according to the Monroe Police Department. One of them was Sherman.
In an interview shortly after attending Sherman’s wake, Vance Price, the senior pastor at New Saint James Baptist Church, underscored the sudden nature of the tragedy. In May, he said he met Sherman in a tuxedo as a groomsman celebrating his brother’s wedding, which Price officiated. A month later Sherman was in a casket.
“Young people’s lives have just been shattered,” Price said, noting their anger, frustration and confusion. “They’ve had to come face-to-face with their mortality.”
Several area residents said more gun laws wouldn’t solve the problem. “We don’t need any more regulations to say we’re gonna make it harder for you to get guns,” said Na’Tasha King, a mother of three whose children attended Richwood with Sherman. “We have to get the ones off the street.”
Elaine Clark, the office manager at First Baptist Church in Monroe, feels like the laws on the books aren’t enforced anyway.
She wants answers about why it’s so easy for teenagers to get their hands on weapons: “I don't know if we’re giving our kids options than to just sit around and decide who should live and who shouldn't,” Clark said.
In a series of written answers to CNN’s questions, Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis, who was elected in 2020, said crime is not up in the city recently. There were 95 shootings in 2020 and 29 shootings so far in 2021, according to city spokeswoman Michelli Martin.
Ellis wrote, “I understand the perception that exists, but we believe that if crime continues to drop as the numbers show, then we believe the perception in the community will change.”
Monroe’s Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Baton Rouge struggles with long history of violence
Among Louisiana’s larger cities, the violence in Baton Rouge has long made national headlines, leaving residents weary and at a loss for answers about what exactly government officials can do to stop it.
A recent shooting occurred at a bar and grill a few doors down from the seafood shop where Aldric Byrd works, and he called shootings a common occurrence.
“All throughout the city, (there’s) no pinpointing where the next event is gonna happen at, because you got a lot of people that's cut loose with guns," Byrd said in an interview last week. "They think they got three lives."
Casey Phillips, the executive director of the nonprofit The Walls Project, which works on social justice and community issues, said the pandemic had exacerbated myriad factors contributing to the violence. Many children who relied on school for both education and stability faced disruptions from Covid-19 last year; people fell on hard times and lost reliable access to food, he said.
“You're looking at economic despair, mental health, a lack of access to critical needs on top of a lack of hope and no real path forward,” Phillips said. “People are just taking things into their own hands.”
Like so many others CNN met in Louisiana, Phillips is skeptical about measures that Biden outlined to address rising gun violence, but he tries to maintain an optimistic outlook. He points to the efforts closest to the ground in his city as those that can make an incremental difference.
One of them is the organization run by Elizabeth Robinson of Baton Rouge, whose 29-year-old son, Louis, was killed in a shooting three years ago. She started an anti-gun-violence organization called CHANGE after her son’s death, canvassing high-crime neighborhoods in her city with about 10 other women, most of whom she said have lost their sons or nephews to gun violence.
They try to reach out to other mothers during their walks, offering to get rid of any guns in their homes if they have children and worry those weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Robinson also talks directly to the young men carrying guns, who, she said, often tell her they do so because they need to protect themselves. She says she can’t tell them to put their guns down, because she knows the fear for their lives is real. “It’s just about you pulling that trigger,” she tells them. “Sometimes you got to walk away. Sometimes you got to be the bigger man.”
As hard as Robinson and the other women work, she acknowledges that it is difficult to fully comprehend the dangers until you lose someone close to you. Last week, shortly before she spoke to CNN, she got a Facebook message from another mother.
“Good morning, love,” the message to Robinson said. “I never thought I would see this day, but yesterday it was my son that got killed.”