Louisville’s Youth On The City’s Violence: ‘A Lot Of People’s Needs Aren’t Being Met’

Violence in Louisville is surging.

As of Oct. 25, there have been 161 homicides reported this year, which means that Louisville will almost certainly break last year’s all-time high of 173 not long after you read these words. Last year’s 173 was 81 more than 2019, and nearly 60 more than the previous record set in 2016.  

Of this year’s homicide victims, roughly three-quarters are Black. A third haven’t made it to 25. Twenty-one haven’t made it to 18. Almost all the killings are shootings. 

The loss of life is devastating, but there are other costs as well: According to the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, homicides in Louisville cost taxpayers more than $150 million last year. 

Amid the unprecedented level of bloodshed in Louisville, in mid-October, LEO Weekly organized a panel of local high school students and recent graduates to talk about the violence occurring around them, their lives, hope and whether things can get better.

The young people were selected by Eddie Woods and Nyree Clayton, both of whom also attended the panel and shared their thoughts. Woods is the CEO of No More Red Dots, an organization that takes a hands-on approach to interrupting cycles of violence by talking to those involved. Clayton, Kentucky’s 2019 elementary school teacher of the year, is the founder of the nonprofit Hip Hop Into Learning (HH2L).

They were joined by Monique Williams, the director of the city’s Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, which is leading the city government’s violence-prevention efforts. The office views violence as a public health issue.

Here’s what they had to say: 

ON WHAT IS DRIVING VIOLENCE IN LOUISVILLE

DaVonn Pitney, 15, duPont Manual High School: One thing that I want to say I definitely feel like has heavily affected not only the way that people are acting, but mental health and violence, is the pandemic. I feel like ever since COVID hit, people didn’t know how to react. I remember at the beginning of COVID, it was when like the whole Breonna Taylor thing was going on and I feel like during that time a lot of people were losing their lives and it was just like a purge moment. So I feel like COVID is something that definitely affected the gun violence in our community. 

Jeriah McMillian, 15, W.E.B. DuBois Academy: I feel like Blacks not getting their “forty acres and a mule” is a problem for gun violence. Because if you think about it, whites have more income than Blacks, and if we all get our forty acres and a mule, that will kill the difference between Black income and white income.

The panel talked about policing, mental health, hope and more.

Keshawn Johnson, 14, Central High School: One thing that’s causing a lot of gun violence is the lack of generational wealth. I say this because a lot of people’s needs aren’t being met. So like robberies and gun violence and all of this is they’re killing people to get their needs met, for them to get other people’s money that people work hard for. They didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. But in the Black community it’s hard to go find a high-paying job. When you try to go get a high-paying job, they judge you off of your appearance. Once they see your hair and it’s not like what they call “professional” they automatically don’t want to give you the job. Now that we got the CROWN Act passed it’s somewhat easier for us Black people to get a high paying job. I feel like that will break some of the gun violence because we will have more wealth in the Black community. 

[Signed into law in July of this year, Louisville’s CROWN Act bans discrimination against people based on their natural hair or hairstyle.] 

Meliah Griffin-Stone, 18, graduated from Iroquois High School: We never think about the fact that due to some Black men in the community not really having a Black father figure in their life and have a place that they call home, but don’t feel like home due to the problems there, they run to the streets to cope with their issues. We need to think about the fact that they run to the streets strictly because that’s who feels like family. The streets and these gangs give them a place to feel like they can be theirselves and to feel like “Oh, if you do this, I got you. If this happened to you, I got you.” They haven’t heard that before. They never heard somebody genuinely have unconditional love for them like that. Even though it might not be unconditional, it feels unconditional.  When you never really have love in the first place, that first hint of love is what you’re going to run toward to because it feels nice, it feels good to finally have people that care about you.

ON THE IMPACT OF COVID

Michael Robinson, 20, graduated from Iroquois High School: Needs are not being met. COVID hit, a lot of people lost their jobs. Times are changing and there are no solutions being provided at all. And if they are, they’re not long-lasting solutions. There’s no building being put in place to help them with their mental health or for when everybody lost their jobs to COVID, no more jobs were being provided. They — they being the people of power in the city — assume that DoorDash, UberEats, that’s a big thing for providing jobs, but that’s not it. Especially for people who lost a job but don’t have a car. That is a main part of this problem.

Monique Williams: Where you have issues already, the pandemic just put issues on top of issues. When you think about what the pandemic did, it shut everything down. From the perspective of youth violence, you took away some of the things that we consider protective factors against violence for young people: You closed schools, you had people isolated in their homes — some people’s homes aren’t safe spaces, they didn’t have that safe caring adult, they didn’t have that support, they didn’t have community centers open, they didn’t have activities to do with the time that they had. So you had protective factors that were closed, so we created barriers there. On top of that, you add the economic piece to it where essentially people with lower socio-economic status, with the positions that were closing within that population, now in survival mode. So you had people who were, by any means necessary, doing what they needed to do to survive. So you increase that survival population. Which is why we started seeing violence spread out into places we don’t generally see it. Because, at this point, it’s by any means necessary. So we have an economic crisis on top of a health crisis on top of the mental health issues that were pervasive because of COVID.

Eddie Woods: One thing that a lot of folks who don’t actually do very much hands-on with shooters didn’t pay attention to is shooters didn’t go by any CDC rules or none of that. Their whole thing was that targets weren’t available because the clubs were closed. Targets weren’t available because the community centers were closed. But they were still inside making the noise that you make when you’ve got social media as your backdrop. You can basically do what you need to do to incite people. Not only were people buying guns, but they were not putting guns in protected areas. So folks are breaking into cars and getting guns, they’re into houses and getting guns, they’re taking guns from individuals on the streets who had guns and didn’t even know the first thing about how to use them.

ON THE POLICE

Meliah: Cops doing what cops do, that’s not the issue. When there’s a robbery and they come, that’s no issue. When they help us, that’s no issue. But when they do stuff that’s wrong and they don’t get the justice for it and then get mad at us for raising up and speaking up about it? That’s where we draw the line. We’re not going to let y’all come and disturb our community and get away with it. We’re not going to let y’all use y’all power and abuse it and get away with it.

Monique Williams, director of the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods listens to Meliah Griffin-Stone, 18.

Te’Andre Blincoe Thompson, 20, pursuing a career in music production: A lot of kids that I grew up with when I was younger used to say, “I want to be a fireman, I want to be a police officer.” And I looked at them and the part of me that was supposed to be like “Oh yeah, you know you should” felt weird. I never knew why until I got older. Because from what I’d seen of the police, I never got the good side of a cop — never did. A lot of people didn’t know this, but the first Black cops weren’t even allowed to arrest white people. The way we use the word “cops” is as if they’re their own minority group. As if they’re their own people. These are people who have chosen to take a job. That “blue lives matter” — throw that in the garbage. There are no such things as Blue lives. If that was the case, Sonic would be a cop.

Eddie: It is not going to be a police fixed issue. Police cannot, on any level, fix the gun violence problem. It’s a community issue. Until the community takes ownership of the problem and everybody else understands the magnitude of it… because most people think it’s something you can fix the way you would fix at a Boy Scout meeting, set up a Kumbaya, let’s have a barbecue. This is way deeper than anybody’s conversation. You got people right now planning the next move, the next drill all of that. They’re planning all of that right this minute while we sitting here talking. This is way more than we can fix in a hurry. But we got to keep trying. 

ON MENTAL HEALTH

DaVonn: I feel like a lot of Black people self-invalidate their mental health because society sees our skin color as a weapon. So stereotypes like “Oh you’re violent, you’re this and this and that.” So with people telling you “Oh, all Black people are angry. All of these people act a certain way.” Eventually, after hearing it for so long, hearing it your entire life, the stereotypes that you are hearing they sort of seep in. And you feel like, “Since people already see me this way, I’m just going to continue to feed into the stereotype.” 

Keshawn: A lot of us hold a lot of stuff in, and we just become numb to a whole lot of stuff. I have friends right now, talking about they want to kill themselves. And just holding this in for so long until they couldn’t hold it in anymore. There’s people that tend to kill people just because of everything that’s going on in their household. Tend to go do anything, just because of stuff that’s going on in their house. They hold stuff in so much that they became numb to it. So they just don’t care about themselves or anything around them. So they just do anything. I feel like if there were more mentors we can calm the murder rate down. Because when you live in a neighborhood and all you see is gun violence and gangs and drugs and different things like that — all the negative — there’s nobody talking to you about the positive, about growing up and being a real man.

ON HOPE

Eddie: One of the things we have not done a good job of — and they are pointing it out to us right now — we are not doing a very good job of building a sense of hope for them. They’re not tuned into the fact that there’s some opportunities and chances that are being developed as we sit here and discuss this. We gotta include them in the building of the hope. 

Te’Andre: A lot of us don’t get the opportunities that we are looking for. We don’t even get introduced to said opportunities to even think they exist. Nobody wakes up and goes, “You know what, those big old buildings downtown? I wonder what they’re for.” Nobody thinks about that. They’re always worried about, “That’s where all the white people are, we just going to leave that alone.” There’s money over there. There’s opportunity over there. If you wanted all the things that you literally shooting, killing, stealing for, you can get it in a faster time by just helping somebody out. 

Michael: Gun violence is getting out of control. I’m not going to say it’s going to decrease anytime soon — I do not see a short-term solution coming up anytime soon. Long term? Hopefully. If there’s more programs being introduced like No More Red Dots, then possibly, but that all depends on the people who are controlling Louisville and pass laws and stuff like that. So as a community we need to come together. 

Jeriah: I want to leave Louisville, because me growing up, I always wanted to see different parts of the world. And I always wanted to be a zoologist. When I researched that I wanted to be a zoologist, there’s only a few things that could help me get there in Louisville. So then I had to think of another option, which was to leave even though I don’t want to leave because of my family. In order for me to reach my full potential of my future career, I have to leave. A lot of kids now can’t say that for themselves. A lot of kids nowadays, when they’re growing up they know exactly what they want to be. But in their other mindset they’re growing up around all these other things, like shooting and killing. When they’re growing up they’re like “I want to be an NBA player or an NFL player” or they want to be a scientist. But all these other things are going around and they’re hearing that it’s cool to be a gangbanger. It gets to the point where they forget their dreams.

ON WHETHER THE REFORMS AND FUNDING THAT CAME AFTER PROTESTS WILL LAST

Keshawn: Over the summer [of 2020] I protested. I led marches, did many different speeches from my own poems and stuff. As you can see, there was laws passed because of us coming together and protesting and doing marches. But once we stopped, there hasn’t been too much heard about Black Lives Matter, there hasn’t been too much heard about different laws being passed because of Black Lives Matter. When you try to come together for a short period of time and you don’t keep going, that’s not going to keep getting pushed. Once you come together you gotta stay together, you gotta keep pushing what you want to get pushed. 

Central High School student Keshawn Johnson makes a point during the panel.

Monique: I would definitely say the office [Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods] was underfunded before as it relates to trying to achieve what it was meant to achieve. So you have the city agency in charge of alternative public safety strategies for your entire city with a very small budget. And I’ll say even with the budget increase of this year, it was very helpful with us being able to establish the infrastructure from which we can facilitate the work that needs to be done. Is there such a thing ever as enough money? I don’t necessarily know. I think as a city, we have yet to shift our paradigm to understand truly what the causes of violence are. And so I think a lot of people in decision making, power positions are still of the traditional mindset that law enforcement is going to be the thing that gets us to where we need to be. And we have to help people understand and see that there are alternatives to law enforcement. Law enforcement is necessary for what they do, but when you talk about prevention, we’re way down the pipeline from where we could be with all of the opportunity that there is to intervene before law enforcement is even needed. So helping people truly understand violence as a public health issue, understanding social and structural determinants that impact the outcome of violence. The more we have a city-wide paradigm shift, I think the more you will see support for the efforts that are geared towards violence prevention.  

Eddie: It’s a sad flash in the pan is what it is. I’ve been in cities that are getting 18, 12 times what we’re getting — to do less. They’re not even as good at it as we are. They’re not even coming together with the people that they need to come together. But somebody threw money at it and that’s supposed to fix it. And it hasn’t happened in that way yet. I’ve got to really compliment Monique’s leadership with the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. She refuses to take less-than. And that’s our solution: We gotta fix it and we gotta fix it where it’ll have some longevity.  

No More Red Dots CEO Eddie Woods listens as Te’Andre Blincoe Thompson speaks.

ON WHAT GETS TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS

DaVonn: I did not know what Juneteenth was until like two years ago. Which is crazy. Like, it’s so much stuff, like my own history, that’s like stripped away from us when we step into a school building. And I feel like incorporating critical race theory and talking more about Black students and our history and where we descend from could be something that could be really productive.

Jeriah: There’s a lot of information that they cut off from African American students when we’re in our social studies class. There’s a lot of things they will keep away from us that we really need to know. I didn’t even know Claudette Colvin was actually the first person to sit in the front of the bus. I recently just learned about how it actually happened and that’s something that I feel like more students should know about. I feel like if I didn’t go to the school I’m at now, I wouldn’t have learned any of that.

Meliah: They didn’t tell us about the lives of African American people unless they were slaves. They didn’t tell us about the positive stuff that we was doing unless it was Rosa Parks or Malcolm X. They’re telling us these repetitive names, and they want us to be like, “Okay, let’s figure this out on our own.”

Nyree Clayton: I’m an educator. I would say one thing I believe that people don’t see is — and some of the changes that need to occur — is just how we deal with the population of our Black children, especially in schools. Schools are traditional. They are very based in white culture. And as African Americans, that’s not how we learn. We are community-based. We set up to commune. And that’s another reason why COVID was so hard on many of our African American students — because they were left to their computers. And as much as people say we need technology, we learn that technology is not what is going to save us. It is us communing. It is us being one and being together. That is one of the things that I believe that as we talk about ending violence, one of the aspects needs to be, how do we come together?

MESSAGES FOR LOUISVILLE AND ELECTED OFFICIALS

Keshawn: If I was talking to a councilman or a state representative, I would want to say: I feel like if you grew up in the suburbs, please don’t try to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who grew up in the hood, because you could never fully relate to what they went through.

Jeriah: If I had to talk to a state representative, my message to him would be: If you live in a gated community, don’t act like you know what’s going on in the hood.

Meliah: Don’t tell me how I am supposed to feel about a situation. Don’t tell me how I’m angry about a situation just because you wouldn’t be angry about it. Because you don’t have a reason to. Just educate yourself.

This converstation has been edited for length, clarity and structure.

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