Times like these seem to demand divine intervention. Mass violence erupted last week in Aurora, Colo. A man with a small arsenal and Kevlar clothes opened fire in a packed theater before glumly surrendering to authorities.
In Syria, an oppressive government is killing hundreds of its own citizens, driving thousands more into exile. Black smoke rises above apartment blocks in Homs.
And here, in Las Vegas, at least one neighborhood wrestles with the scourge of persistent violence — an epidemic of robberies, assaults and drug-related shooting. Crimes such as these constitute a kind of urban white noise. None of them are national tragedies. They don’t provoke conversations about gun control and movie violence. But they terrorize hundreds of neighborhoods across the country.
Capt. Vince Cannito of Metro’s Southeast Area Command says his district is one of the worst. Criminals usually target other criminals, as in a recent rash of robberies perpetrated against drug addicts. The thugs set up drug deals, only to rip off their would-be customers, often making off with hundreds of dollars in cash, Cannito said.
“Some people would say, ‘Who cares?’” Cannito said. “But there are kids who live in the complex where these things are happening.”
On Saturday, officers and church members from across the valley met at Mack Middle School, in the Sunrise Manor area, to do something about it. The school is surrounded by trailer parks and apartment complexes, a modest neighborhood of senior citizens and struggling families.
A man with an acoustic guitar sang spiritual songs to an audience of marchers. Most of the neighborhors weren’t out in the midday heat.
In addition to families, the area has criminals. They aren’t necessarily gang members, Cannito said. Most of the crimes are robbery, burglary and dope deals. The stubborn persistence of these assaults has fostered more crime, more violence and more bad examples for the students at Mack, which recently had a teacher arrested for cocaine possession.
Rachael Richardson and her husband own God’s Way Cleaning, which services homes, small businesses and automobiles. They live and work in the neighborhood and have been touched by its crime. Criminals have broken into their cleaning van and business to steal equipment.
For five years they’ve raised their four children in the midst of the violence. To fight back, they attend Victory Outreach International, a nondenominational church.
On Saturday, they and other church members joined with Metro to pray for the community. They walked through the Karen Pines Apartment Complex, which looked nearly deserted as they sang and prayed in its courtyards and parking lots. They encountered a couple of residents in a car trying to leave the complex, who got caught up in the impromptu parade.
Cannito and his officers collaborate with area churches and pastors to reach out to the community. Together they sang, prayed and proselytized. Then they held a barbecue in an area park.
Churches can be great resources for families in need. But prayers may not do much for a community plagued by crime. Violence is a disease; it spreads from person to person like the seasonal flu. Praying for its disappearance is like praying for a cancer cure.
Metro’s enforcement strategy might create better results. Cannito and his officers will be cracking down on all the criminals in the area, even for petty offences like jaywalking. The goal is to get all the criminals off the street and in the justice system, where many of them will be turned over to HOPE for Prisoners, a re-entry program run by Jon Ponder.
“Basically, they are going to arrest them, and then turn them over to us,” Ponder said.
Instead of cycling through the jails, they hope to put petty offenders on the right path before they commit more serious crimes.
In the cafeteria at Mack Middle School, about 100 people prayed for the neighborhood. They prayed for the police and for the families in Aurora, Colo.
Right now, the nation is looking for answers in Aurora. The cycle of post-atrocity punditry has already begun, with the requisite stops at gun control and media violence.
People are trying to find a solution so communities like Aurora never have to suffer such bloodshed in the future.
Solutions are hard to find in southeast Las Vegas. An organization called Ceasefire in Chicago has succeeded by using violence “interrupters,” trusted members of the community who break the cycle of violence and retribution. The interrupters seek out people who are prone to violence, teenagers who want to fight or relatives of a murder victim who might retaliate, and talk them down.
Maybe something like that could work at the Karen Pines Apartments near the middle school, which has been the site of several recent robberies. Or maybe the prayers, goodintentions and big ideas will come and go and everything will stay the same.
“It is not enough just to lock up criminals,” Cannito said. “We need to find out what is causing people to become criminals.”
The march ended with a barbecue. The marchers, most of whom came from other parts of town, made up most of the crowd, but a few area families joined the festivities.
“This is not a cast-off community,” Cannito said.
The goal is to prevent the students at Mack from getting swept up in the violence that surrounds them. Of course, if these solutions were easy, the community wouldn’t have been praying for a peaceful suburb two states away. Talk and the prayers have their place. But it’s going to take much more than spiritual songs to fix the problems in this struggling neighborhood in southeast Las Vegas.