Cluster buster? Lawsuits delay Shawnee liquor sales ban; judge’s decision expected soon

At its heart, September’s wet-dry vote in the Shawnee neighborhood — part of the 5th Metro Council district, which had the fourth-highest percentage of issued liquor store licenses in the city, as LEO reported at the time — was a frustrated community’s attempt to find a direct-action strategy to deter crime and ameliorate poor living standards in their neighborhood. The special election drew an 86-percent thumping, banning liquor sales in four precincts (N104, N105, N107 and N109), an area that also includes a sliver of Portland.

However, less than a month later, the election was entangled in litigation, challenged in two lawsuits, filed on behalf of a handful of Shawnee residents and mostly Palestinian-American storeowners. Because of the suits, the liquor sales ban has yet to take effect. Last Friday, Circuit Court Judge Martin McDonald heard arguments from both sides, and is expected to make a decision within the next several days.

“The Shawnee community had the nerve and resolve to vote for what they believed,” Metro Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, said at the first “Respect the Vote” rally, held last Tuesday at the Spirit of Love Center, which has been the headquarters of the movement since early 2007. During the lead-up to the vote, Hamilton was a visible supporter. However, since the lawsuits were filed, she has been reticent — until last week.

“They’re making ridiculous accusations,” she told the audience.
Together, the lawsuits allege, among other things, improper electioneering, use of illegal polling stations, racial discrimination, that residents were ignorant about the implications of their votes, and that at least one registered voter was turned away.

If they could, residents would simply vote the loiterers, drug dealers, stick-up kids, street gangs and murderers out. Unfortunately, those groups make a living off of disregarding others’ wishes and well-being. That leaves liquor outlets as the only viable culprit around which to circle the wagons. Whether factual or anecdotal, liquor stores get typecast as everything wrong with the inner city.

Initially, organizers only wanted to restrict new stores, according to the Rev. Geoffrey Ellis, pastor of Greater St. James AME, who moderated the Respect the Vote rally. After learning that a store was opening across the street from Shawnee High School, residents were fed up, Ellis said. He told LEO that meetings with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board of Kentucky failed to convince state officials to step in and regulate. Ellis called the wet-dry vote “the last viable option.”

Another tipping point involved crime statistics provided by the Louisville Metro Police Department, which organizers said offered a valuable map of violent crimes in the neighborhood, a map that clearly formed a pattern near and around alcohol outlets.

Yet LMPD has never directly attributed the incidents to the businesses. And few can convincingly argue that a person buying a glass of wine causes a shooting, rape or robbery. Even a study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which dry supporters gave LEO as a more academic rationale, says it “cannot pinpoint exactly why having more outlets in a small area” results in more violence.

“It’s not the liquor by itself,” said the Rev. Clay Calloway, a dry supporter who has become more voluble of late. Calloway readily admitted that other factors are at play, but thinks the dense population of those stores is a sort of breeding ground for a culture of criminality. Joined by the Rev. Derrick Wilson, pastor of Spirit of Love Center, they told LEO that the vote was never about prohibition or banning liquor consumption altogether. Rather, it was a start to revitalize an underdeveloped community beginning with addressing crime.

If alcohol sales do contribute to violent crime, opponents highlight the exemption of precinct N106, which sits in the middle of the other four precincts. Within that area is Shawnee Market, a tiny mall where one store sells alcohol. Opponents argue that the precinct was exempted from the special election because Shawnee Market owner Anthony French has contributed more than $1,100 to Hamilton’s reelection campaigns since 2002.

“People will just walk 100 yards to Shawnee Market,” said attorney Thurman Senn, who represents three of the storeowners who sued after the vote.

In a phone interview last weekend, Hamilton denied the implication of favoritism. She said no one from that precinct stepped forward or volunteered to take part in the wet-dry vote.

“We weren’t trying to run everyone out,” she said. “We weren’t trying to tell the whole district what to do, either. (Anthony French) had nothing to do with it.”

French, also a longtime friend of many of the clergy supporting the dry vote, could not be reached for comment.

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