This Page is Jennifer Ross Update 3: January 8, 2006
- Finally: Public Recognition That Savannah is Racially Divided -
Journalist Cameron McWhirter of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution weighs in on the firestorm that is building in Savannah, Georgia. See article below:
Debutante's slaying splits Savannah
Downtown crime: Response to tragedy may bring change, but highlights racial & economic divide.
By Cameron McWhirter
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/08/06
Savannah — They started coming to St.
John's Episcopal Church off Madison Square by 9 a.m. Thursday. By 11 a.m., an
hour before the funeral started, mourners packed the pews and lined the walls.
Others spilled onto the street. By noon, when weeping pallbearers carried
Jennifer Ross' casket up the steps, more than 500 people sat or stood inside and
500 more had gathered quietly on the sidewalk.
The number of wealthy, mostly white mourners was a solemn tribute to the popularity of this 19-year-old debutante killed by a mugger. But the assembly of Savannah's elite in the heart of the city also served a political purpose, putting the Coastal Empire's politicians on notice that they want violent crime in the city's historic downtown to stop.
"Crime in Savannah now has a face, and it is the face of a 19-year-old girl who is the daughter of a friend to many of us," David Simons, a Republican political consultant, wrote in an e-mail sent last week to local politicians and business leaders. "The wake up call has been sounded and we must respond."
The e-mail was seen by many business leaders as a catalyst leading to the creation of a new anti-crime citizens group called Save Our Savannah.
But exactly whose Savannah is threatened has become an increasingly bitter point of dispute, hashed out in public meetings and City Council hearings, on local radio and in the opinion section of the Savannah Morning News.
Slaying touched a nerve
It all started with tragedy.
At 3 a.m. Christmas Eve, Ross was walking with friends through Orleans Square after leaving a cotillion. The well-dressed children of Savannah privilege were approached by three black men demanding money. When they grabbed for Ross' purse she resisted, and one of the men shot her. The muggers are still at large.
The shooting — which resulted in the young woman's death New Year's Day — has sparked a firestorm.
What began as outrage over the death of an innocent has degenerated into an increasingly bitter exchange among political leaders. Anger and bombast have obscured a family's deep loss, and reopened old wounds in this port city that has long struggled with race, class and crime.
Simons says the core issue is simply how to stop criminals in downtown Savannah.
"It's not about black guys shooting white guys, or white women," Simons said. "It's about freaking criminals out there robbing and stealing with no regard for human life."
But racial divisions appeared soon after Ross died.
At a recent public meeting about the shooting, one white man suggested building walls around public housing to keep in criminals and posting video cameras on all city lampposts. In the Savannah Herald, a black weekly, columnist Michael Porter wrote last week about the shooting, arguing that the core issue of crime is this: "The 'system' works for Whites and does not address the true needs of Blacks. ... Are Savannah's political and business elite concerned about helping to erase or reduce Black poverty?"
Political divisions have become apparent as well.
Simons, as well as Jennifer's father, "Rusty" Ross, vice president and chief legal counsel to Savannah's largest hospital, both have strong ties to the Republican Party. Helen Stone, a Republican county commissioner, was Jennifer Ross' godmother.
Both Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson and Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Pete Liakakis are Democrats.
Johnson has been singled out for criticism by white leaders who say he has not done enough to combat crime, a claim Johnson denies. Johnson says he worries racial divisions will undercut any progress on crime prevention.
"We've got to get past the emotional part first before we have a rational discussion. We aren't there yet," he said. "I am praying every day that we get there in a hurry, because we are teetering on a brink of it going in the wrong direction."
'It's a city. There's crime.'
Savannah has transformed its downtown into a beautiful district of million-dollar homes, high-end restaurants and antique shops. The center city area's residents and visitors are mostly white. Yet outside downtown, much of the city of about 130,000 has remained, for the most part, squalid, poor, crime-ridden and black. Savannah is about 60 percent black and its median household income is below the national average.
Josh Mauser, 19, a sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design, said students get mugged "all the time."
"People fall into a complacency, I guess," he said. "They think 'it's historic Savannah, how could anything go on here?' It's a city. There's crime."
While crime in the city as a whole has gone down in recent years, according to police statistics, violent crime has recently spiked in the downtown area. Across the city, views of the city's violent crime problem tend to differ based largely upon race.
Carrie Michlig, 29, a white woman who moved to Savannah from a small town in Wisconsin about a year ago, said she was surprised at the amount of crime in the city and moved to Pooler, a suburb, for safety reasons. Standing outside a parking lot only a block from where Ross was shot, Michlig said black leaders in the city bring up race when they talk about crime.
"When there is a crime, the racism card comes out," she said. "It's getting old."
Inga Kahn, a historic district resident who gave her age as "middle," said she felt safer when she traveled to New York on business than she did in her home, where she has twice had young men try to break in. "The crime is just too much for a small, little town," she said.
But violence in the poor sections of town doesn't engender the same outrage among whites who live in the suburbs or downtown.
Simons said many murders in the poor areas are of little concern to average citizens.
"We don't really care if a couple of crackheads want to shoot each other," he said.
Mayor Johnson calls that remark racist. And in the poor sections of the city, people echoed Johnson's view. Blacks in a run-down section of East Savannah said crime in their neighborhood does not spark concern from civic leaders.
"When a black person gets killed, it will be on the news, but when a white person gets killed, they launch special committees to look into the problem. It makes you wonder," said Vivian Cooper, 55, standing on her stoop across from what used to be a drug house.
Angel Young, 24, walking down Waters Avenue past empty lots, said her cousin was killed nearby and police never charged anyone with the crime.
"It's more of an issue when a white person dies," she said.
The differing views among some whites and blacks have political leaders anxious.
County Commission Chairman Liakakis said the board was working to keep the issue of downtown crime from becoming partisan.
"Accusations are not going to solve the situation we have," he said.
No memorial to Ross
So far the board has set about putting county deputies on city streets on overtime pay to supplement city patrols and fill vacant police posts.
The city is planning to implement more crime prevention plans in coming months, Johnson said. Since he took office, the council has been working on a crime prevention strategy paper. Save Our Savannah, the fledgling group backed by the Ross family and leading members of the city's business community, last week released its own plan. It has as its first item to simply "admit we have a crime problem in Savannah," implying city leaders have not publicly acknowledged the downtown crime.
Other proposals call for the group to monitor crime and raise money to combat it. The plan also calls for legislative changes to increase funding for crime prevention downtown.
In a public meeting last week, Johnson and City Council members painted the group as a Johnny-come-lately on the issue, complaining that most of the proposals already were part of the City Council's plans.
Such open bickering has sparked divisions in the city that are only expected to widen as Savannah and the county head toward their next elections. No one is sure — only a week after she died — how Ross' death will affect the city's future.
In Orleans Square, where Ross was fatally shot, not even a simple bouquet of flowers memorializes what happened there. For a city that habitually marks every tragic event that occurred within its boundaries, from duels to epidemics, the lack of any marker speaks to the political and racial sensitivities surrounding Ross' death.
The modest park, blocks from River Street, poorly lit and less ornate than the popular Forsyth or Johnson squares, has never been a tourist destination. Yet now Orleans Square — its trees draped in Spanish moss that waves in the wind like spectral hair — adds its own tragic story to this haunted city.