Part I: Homicide in Louisville — Engaging the people with the guns

This is the first in an occasional series of stories about Louisville’s youth violence problem and the record homicide rate, examining their causes and the ways in which the city and community are fighting for peace.

On the same day that Muhammad Ali passed away last summer, Eddie Woods was trying to save a young woman’s life.

After hearing about the boxing legend’s death, Woods, director of No More Red Dots, had been on his way to Ali’s boyhood home on Grand Avenue when No More Red Dots Coordinator Norman Martin told him that several girls had jumped a young woman who was eight-months pregnant. And now she was afraid to go home because she thought they might still be looking for her.

Calls like this one are why No More Red Dots exists.

Named for the red dots police put on maps to track homicides, Woods’ group works to prevent violence from happening and, perhaps more important, to prevent it from escalating into a series of reprisals, or all-out war, between individuals or groups of people. In the case of the young woman, Woods and the people who work with him began talking with their contacts on the street to get the story and figure out how to resolve the issue. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

“We were somewhat familiar with the people that kicked her butt, and we were able to get them to back off. We’re not always the answer in these situations, but we’re usually a good place to start,” said Woods, 69, who has been working to end violence in Louisville for nearly 30 years.

Small victories like this are the reason Mayor Greg Fischer included No More Red Dots in a grant for street-level violence interrupters last month. It is part of the city’s fight for peace: Jefferson County just sealed 2016 with at least 116 homicides, six more than the previously-known record set in 1971. By comparison, there were 86 homicides in 2015 and 57 in 2014. In addition, the University of Louisville Hospital Trauma Center has treated more than 600 people for gunshot injuries over the last two years.

Boston has a similar conflict-resolution program, Partnerships Advancing Communities Together, but it is operated by the Boston Police Department. By contrast, No More Red Dots has been an all-volunteer organization — part of a network of anti-violence groups working in the city. This year, No More Red Dots will receive $150,000 to help stop the escalation of violence in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. The money will be administered by the Urban League.

Woods is glad to see increased public support for No More Red Dots, although some have accused it of interfering with police investigations, rather than helping them.

But a police spokesman said in an email to LEO that the program has played a role in helping stem the violence. “The LMPD believes No More Red Dots and Pivot 2 Peace (another Woods program) are helpful to the LMPD as well as the overall community since both programs are focused on the reduction of violent crime. No More Red Dots has not hampered any of LMPD’s investigations.”

Eddie Woods, director of Street Peace: No More Red Dots, calls Norman Martin, his childhood friend and Street Peace’s team coordinator. (Photo by Brian Bohannon)
Eddie Woods, director of Street Peace: No More Red Dots, calls Norman Martin, his childhood friend and Street Peace’s team coordinator. (Photo by Brian Bohannon)

‘A signal that it could get really bad’

Although No More Red Dots didn’t start until 2012, the origins of the program can be traced back to 1996, when Louisville’s homicides jumped from 50 in 1995 to 75.

Woods got a federal grant to do conflict resolution with the people involved with the violence. Duane Campbell, author of the book “From Preschool to the Penitentiary” and Woods’ partner then, remembers the chaos. “That was really tenuous time. Back in 1996, Louisville had the second-highest murder rate per capita. It was ridiculous. We would get calls from kids and parents at three in the morning to come to the projects. There would be bullet casings in the streets. We were right in the middle of that.”

The reasons for the jump in killing then was the same as today — drug use and trafficking, the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods, the lack of affordable housing outside those poor communities and the easy accessibility of guns. Woods believes history is repeating itself because the city didn’t take its lessons to heart after that earlier savage period. “People talk about the violence getting worse, but we let it get worse. In 1996, we should have taken that as a signal that it could get really bad. But we didn’t really tune it in like that. We had everybody tuned into having meetings about it, but not the awareness piece. Someone needed to be ringing the bell to let people know danger was coming,” he said.

Woods believes that one of the reasons Louisville was able to decrease the violence in the late ‘90s was that multiple organizations were coordinating their efforts. His conflict resolution group was supported by the Louisville police and Housing Authority under a federal crime prevention grant. If he had kids who weren’t attending a session, Woods could ask the police to do extra patrols so the kids would want to get off the street. He doesn’t see that same level of cooperation today among the various groups confronting the latest rise in homicides.

“We keep throwing money at cosmetic things like balloon launches and vigils and marches. Those are the things that are not going to be effective because the people with the guns don’t pay attention to those types of things.”

Norman Martin, left, Street Peace’s team coordinator, laughs as Eddie Woods, director of Street Peace: No More Red Dots, kids Markell Carter as Keivon Birdsong, right looks on Monday, near Whitey's Grocery in the Parkland neighborhood. (Photo by Brian Bohannon)
Norman Martin, left, Street Peace’s team coordinator, laughs as Eddie Woods, director of Street Peace: No More Red Dots, kids Markell Carter as Keivon Birdsong, right looks on Monday, near Whitey’s Grocery in the Parkland neighborhood. (Photo by Brian Bohannon)

‘Not to Hurt Them’

Woods and Martin identify with troubled kids because they come from the same environment. Woods grew up in the California neighborhood, where he ran with a gang that was mainly interested in gambling, chasing girls, and selling dime bags of marijuana. After graduating from high school, he studied art at Eastern Kentucky University. When painting failed to pay the bills, he went back to school. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Louisville in Criminal Justice and Public Administration, and a doctorate in Criminal Justice from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

One of Woods’ first jobs out of LaSalle was at an institute for the criminally insane. He quit after a short time because he felt the place wanted a babysitter, rather than someone to help its teenage clients get better. Woods drifted from government job to government job, until he went into business for himself as a consultant. He mostly led seminars on safe neighborhoods, but then he reconnected with Martin, a childhood friend who was working at the Parkland Boys and Girls Club.

“Norman had these kids he was working with from the Cotter Homes Housing Project. It turned out that the kids had been participants in a homicide, multiple killings in fact. But they trusted Norman; they knew to come to him. So, I developed the same trust with them just from being with them,” Woods remembered.

Thus began a partnership that continues to this day.

Martin comes from a similar background as Woods. He was one of six boys raised by a single mother in College Court, a housing development off Kentucky Street. He left a good job at DuPont Chemicals after 10 years because he felt he needed to do more for the community. A job at Metro Parks led him to work with youth in the Cotter Homes and Beecher Terrace housing projects, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and now Neighborhood House.

The kids involved in violence today are sometimes the children or grandchildren of people whom Martin encountered in his programs. His reputation as someone who cares is the reason the pregnant, young woman reached out to him after she was beaten. “She called us rather than the police because she heard about things we did in the past,” Martin said. “People know that anything they say to us is going to be used to help them, not to hurt them. We don’t share information with the police, unless somebody has told us they are going to kill themselves or somebody else. Then we have to play all the cards we can to save a person’s life.”

A Street Team Leader wears a Street Peace T-shirt that says, "Don't Rage, Engage." (Photo by Brian Bohannon)
A Street Team Leader wears a Street Peace T-shirt that says, “Don’t Rage, Engage.” (Photo by Brian Bohannon)

How it works

No More Red Dots usually shuns media attention, because going public could interfere with its work, but Woods made an exception for LEO. One stipulation was the newspaper would not show the faces of the members other than Woods’ and Martin’s. Janene Shakir, who handles administrative duties and works in the streets for No More Red Dots, said anonymity is important for the group to continue its work. “The reality is that what we do is dangerous,” she said, “and we need to have some kind of anonymity so that we can move around. People know me as Miss Gene in the streets. Some know my last name and some don’t. I have not been accosted or approached, but I know when I am in hot water.”

No More Red Dots is essentially an information network. The program’s members, called Street De-escalators, are people who already have connections in the gang or drug world. Martin and Woods recruit mostly from people who have taken part in one of their programs. The De-escalators spend most of their time gathering information on potential conflicts and relaying the information back to Martin and Woods, who have been known to gather rival gang leaders in the same room for peace conferences. If there is a violent incident, operatives reach their contacts to find out the source of the friction and bring the warring sides to a resolution without more violence. Sometimes that could include promising to help the shooter navigate the legal system if they get arrested.

The Street De-escalators are trained in conflict resolution, but people also listen to them because they have street cred. Woods believes his operatives typically are more effective than the police, because they were born and raised in the neighborhoods they patrol. “We give them names like Street De-escalators for grants. It’s a line-item. They are people who understand the streets and have relationships with the people who have the guns. How they know them varies. But they can make inroads to start conversations. We deal with people on both sides of the line, the victims and the aggressors. You can’t be afraid to engage with a cat you know has a gun. Finding out who has got the gun is the hardest thing. We seem to know a lot quicker than the police,” Woods explained.

George Hill is one of the Street De-escalators and an operative for Pivot 2 Peace, which links adult survivors of gun and knife injuries in emergency rooms to community resources. Hill was once part of the problem on the streets, but now he spends his time trying to defuse violent situations. The 21-year-old said many of the people he encounters on the streets, and in emergency rooms, are the younger siblings of the guys he ran with when he was getting into trouble. They tell him about beefs, because they trust him to help them out of tough situations.

“One time I actually got between a guy and someone he was trying to shoot. He kept yelling, ‘Move, move.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to let you throw your life away. If one person dies, we’re all going to die today.’ Thankfully, he listened to me.”

Engaging the shooters

Woods said what makes No More Red Dots so effective is that it realizes the shooters need as much help as the victims. After killings, the media usually focus on the victims, lamenting their lost potential. But Woods said that people are rarely killed for no reason. They usually are shot because they messed up someone’s drugs or money. The key to stopping the violence is showing everyone involved a better way to live.

“You have to engage the people with the guns,” Woods explained. “You can’t engage them with talk from the moral perspective. You have to engage them with something else to do and be willing to resolve their issues with the court, conflict with other people, and with family management type of thing … We make ourselves available to people on both sides of the gun. If they need somebody to go to court or to talk to someone they have issues with, they pretty much know to call us.” •