Baring Cross

June 22, 2008

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The one time in his life Kenneth Nichols wanted a police officer to stop and talk to him, several just drove past.

It was late Thursday. The sun was going down. Nichols had organized a cookout to celebrate his brother’s life and denounce his death, another killing in a neighborhood that has seen five since October.

Nichols, 38, stood on the front lawn at 1501 Crutcher St. in North Little Rock. His younger brother, Tim, known to almost everyone as “Dreads” for his hair and love of reggae music, had died there a week earlier, shot in the back after telling a drug dealer to keep away from his son.

In a span of 20 minutes, three police vehicles drove by the small white house — first a SWAT team Dodge Durango with four people inside, then solitary officers in two different patrol cars. Each had one window halfway down. None stopped. From inside, officers just stared as they drove slowly by.

“Damn, they can’t even stop?” Kenneth Nichols said, shaking his head. “They’ll stop if they want to see if I have insurance, but they can’t even stop to say ‘We’re working as hard as we can, sorry for your loss?’”

It was just as well, he said. The police weren’t the solution anyway.

“It’s on us now,” Nichols said. “It’s up to us to do something about this, to make something happen. Police, they got their role. They need to arrest the people who killed my brother. But this kind of nonsense and black-on-black crime can’t keep going on.”

But that’s just it. Talk to people in the neighborhood and they say there’s nothing they can do.

“The most important thing for me is raising my son to be a good man,” said RayShaun Wilson, 26. “All the violence out here, all the drugs. Man, I just try to keep my head down and keep out of the way. You try to stand up around here and you just become a target.”

After Tim Nichols was killed last weekend, a few names of people who might have shot him saturated the streets.

“Ain’t no secret around here,” said Kelton Lowe, a cousin of Nichols’ and whose mother lives two blocks from the site of the shooting. “But the people who saw it won’t come out and say nothing. I know they won’t.”

North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley finds that sentiment confounding.

“We hear what they hear,” he said. “But we need evidence. There’re people who know firsthand who did it, and they’re just not talking.”

Bradley said there is only so much the police can do when a neighborhood seems unable to help itself.

“It’s not just the police that’s responsible for making that area safe — it’s everybody’s responsibility,” he said. “We will never get that job done on our own.”

FEARFUL AND POWERLESS

People in the neighborhood say the same thing. Yet fear keeps them quiet. And feelings of powerlessness keep them quiet.

“We don’t march, we don’t fight back,” said Eula Scroggins, 52, for 24 years a custodian at Boone Park Elementary School. “Because we know what could happen to us if we do. I have no idea if the good people are the majority around here anymore.”

This North Little Rock neighborhood north of Baring Cross is home to less than 10 percent of the city’s population of almost 60,000, yet almost half of the city’s dozen homicides in the past year happened there.

Compared with the rest of the city, census data show, this neighborhood is more poor, more black and has a smaller proportion of people employed full time.

On nearly every block, at least one house is for sale, for rent or available to rent to own. Often, those signs have been up for months. The streets can feel claustrophobic, narrow and crowded with large, overhanging trees, the houses low and mostly decaying. Cut off from North Little Rock’s resurgent downtown by industrial sites east of Pike Avenue, it is not a place people go to accidentally.

Residents talk about the plagues of drugs and disrespect that drag them down further.

“You should never see a 7-year-old child coming in here with four, five hundred dollars in his pocket, thick gold chains on his neck,” Scroggins said. “But it happens.”

The drug of choice, residents and police said, is “sherm,” cigarettes dipped in formaldehyde and smoked. Sometimes some of the tobacco gets replaced with marijuana. Each “stick” costs about $10 — cheaper than cocaine and giving a longer-lasting high.

Wilson said part of the reason he keeps his apartment and his 5-year-old son hospital-clean is because he feels grimy walking outside, hearing neighbors tell people in cell-phone conversations that they can pay their debts in cash or sherm.

“It just ain’t right,” he said.

NO EASY THING

Benny Johnson said it isn’t easy to stand up, but it’s necessary.

As a campus security official at Little Rock Central High School in 1991, he founded the group Stop the Violence after a student, Carlos Patton, was shot and killed that December. Through the capital city’s infamous mid-1990s gang violence, Johnson gave a face and a voice to those who would not or could not fight back in their neighborhoods.

He said he got over any fear or doubt he felt because he knew in his heart that God called him to this work.

“There’s nothing about this that’s easy,” he said. “It’s hard every day. But somebody has to do it.”

He said he spoke with members of Tim Nichols’ family and advised them to start a neighborhood watch.

“That’s the first step,” he said. “Get to know people. Share information.”

But, he said, he doesn’t believe it will happen there.

“I’m sorry, but this is just what happens in black neighborhoods,” he said. “You go into a white neighborhood, you go into the Heights, and if something happens, man, people know a man’s height, weight, their clothing, eye color, shoe size and the color of their underwear. Yet in a black neighborhood, 100 people could have been there, but nobody saw nothing. That’s what has to change.”

In the meantime, even the people who pray hard daily that things will change have to respect the code, the informal and unwritten rules, that govern the streets there.

“You’ll find in places like this one — all over the country — that even people who are the good people, the decent families, have to teach their children about the code to stay safe,” said Ryan D. Schroeder, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Schroeder said the lack of trust in police can lead to a lack of trust in neighbors, especially in a neighborhood like this one in North Little Rock with a large share of renters. From that lack of trust, he said, grows doubt and fear and feelings of powerlessness.

THE WAY IT IS

Wilson said he tells his young son something different than what he learned as a child in a Chicago housing project selling drugs to get food money for his mother.

“I tell him, ‘Nobody is going to give you anything, so you have to work for it,’” he said. “That’s why I have two jobs, to be an example. Too many people around here think that nobody’s ever going to give them nothing, so they have to take it.”

In the 2000 book Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson argues that the insular nature of such neighborhoods — rarely does anyone go there without intending to — breeds a distance from laws and social norms. Those who are left scrap and fight for primacy, demanding respect, punishing perceived slights and rewarding fealty.

The alienation from other neighborhoods and authority figures, Anderson wrote, leaves many people to feel they have no alternatives.

Bradley said he sees that sense of defeat in the neighborhood residents.

“I have to tell you I would be pleasantly surprised if someone were even able to organize a march,” he said.

Johnson said it takes just one person, one person willing to be humiliated or spit on or cussed at, to get a movement started.

Someone might even have to be willing to die.

“That might be what it takes,” Scroggins, the custodian, said. “And maybe that’s what we’re waiting for. We’re waiting for our Martin Luther King.”

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