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Opinion | Stiffer laws won’t stop gangs, just ask the people in Montgomery

Alabama’s capital city is a case study in how decades of racism and conservative public policy have led to gang problems.

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Last week, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall hitched up a pair of parachute pants, double-knotted his Chuck Taylors and stepped into a payphone booth outside of a Radio Shack to phone in an op-ed about locking up “gangbangers” and imposing stiffer jail sentences – including broadening the adult charges imposed upon teenagers. 

It was rhetoric not typically heard since the early 80s, and even then from the fringe-right simpletons who were only looking to scare up cheap votes by promising to lock away the scary Black kids. Which, I guess, pretty well sums up what Marshall was trying to accomplish. 

Honestly, to even publicly write such racist drivel, much less transfer that drivel into a piece of actual legislation that will cause irreparable harm to thousands of kids – while doing little, if anything, to enhance public safety or even advance the laws already on the books – is nothing short of a love letter to Bull Connor. Or at least to Bull Connor’s overly simplistic, sadistic approach to law enforcement. 

Now, I could run through all of the ways that Marshall’s ideas are ignorant and outdated and unhelpful, but two things: 1. al.com’s Kyle Whitmire has already done that in a column a few days ago, and 2. I’d rather show you. 

Because there’s actually a pretty good example of where Marshall’s way of thinking and policing takes you. It’s the town where he currently resides – Montgomery. 

You may or may not be aware that Alabama’s capital city has been going through a “surge” in crime. Actually, it’s not so much a surge as it is a shift in crime. Actual rates for most crimes in the city have remained relatively even, but where some of those crimes are occurring today is a bit different. And by “different,” I mean whiter and greener. 

The “increased crime” talk has been a particularly hot topic in Montgomery of late, after the release of a series of recordings allegedly featuring Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed making derogatory comments about his need for Black voters, about Maxwell Air Force Base and about the lack of investment from old South conservatives. 

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Those recordings are being used to drive a wedge between the city’s Black voters in the hopes that a group of conservative business leaders can push a white conservative back in the mayor’s office this fall. And the “out of control crime in Montgomery” is one of their top talking points. 

To hear some people tell it, all of the crime in the city started the moment the people elected Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor. And the only ones who could possibly solve this issue before good, law-abiding, God-fearing white folk are murdered in the streets are the law-and-order conservatives utilizing the sort of policing tactics for which Steve Marshall is advocating – locking up 16-year-olds and throwing away the key. 

But see, I know something about Montgomery that a lot of people seem to forget: It was the law-and-order conservatives who broke the place. 

With their stupid, overbearing policing tactics. With their racist policies that stripped investment away from schools and certain business districts. With their idiotic “cost saving” decisions that stripped away after school options for poor children in some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. 

It’s insane to me to watch some people in that city – people who have been part of the city leadership for decades – bemoan its state and pretend that their decisions didn’t lead directly to its current issues. Making it even more remarkable is the fact that hundreds of people told them at the time this would be the result of their actions.

Actions like stripping away middle school athletics from hundreds of kids in a cost saving measure. Those programs were once supported by the city’s parks and recreation department – had been supported for decades, in fact – when Montgomery officials, in the late 2000s, decided to stop. 

I worked at the Montgomery Advertiser at the time. I remember the overwhelming number of stories from youth coaches and former players talking about those middle school coaches essentially serving as the father figures for hundreds of kids every year. Taking them home at night, making sure they did their homework, putting them on a sports pathway that would keep them off the streets and out of gangs. 

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People literally begged the city council not to do it. They did it anyway. 

Some of the middle school programs were sort-of salvaged over the years, but others went away and the city lost a whole squad of substitute fathers when the coaches went too. The cost in lives has to be into the hundreds by now, if not significantly more. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s also not forget the closing of six community centers over the course of a decade for funding purposes. 

Those centers, again, provided kids with an opportunity to connect with adults, to get off the streets – particularly in the summer – and to get a meal or homework help. They also provided an opportunity for kids to meet and interact with cops, because quite a few of them, in the late-1990s, early 2000s, would volunteer at the centers and hang out with the kids. 

But while there was plenty of money for a ballpark and downtown development, the money just wasn’t in the budget to keep those centers open. 

 Now, add those actions to a city already teeming with racism – from a segregated school system where Black students make up 99 percent of the under-funded public school enrollment while the city’s private schools are 90 percent white, to a racist transportation system that for years essentially cut Black citizens off from certain areas, to a city led for years by a mayor who was openly racist and encouraged police brutality against Blacks – and you get a nice recipe for disaster. 

A recipe for children who grow up in homes dominated by poverty and dysfunction, who live amongst unspeakable acts of violence and drug abuse and physical abuse. Who watch their parents and loved ones get carted off to jail for just trying to survive. Who are born angry and spend their whole lives looking for love. 

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If you think some stiffer jail sentences are going to deter a kid turning to a gang because it’s the only group that’s offered him any sort of love and support, you don’t know humans very well. Or you simply don’t care about them. 

Thankfully, Reed and MPS have made gains in reopening some of the community centers and restoring the middle school athletic programs. They’re not where they need to be, and there has been some public complaining about the speed of rebuilding the centers, but things are at least moving in a better, more helpful direction. 

Because they’ll prevent far more crimes – and save far more lives – than any new, “tougher” law ever will.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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