Hard to watch

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Most videos of vicious criminal attacks like the ones released this week from New Orleans and Georgia carry a warning: “Contains graphic content” or “Viewer discretion advised” or “May be disturbing to some viewers” or similar. Inevitably, what frequently appears next on the screen should be extremely disturbing to all viewers.

Ironically, these types of videos are typically captured by security cameras, often without audio, and usually with a “wide angle” lens that minimizes detail. Thus they’re nowhere near as graphic as the simulated violence projected on massive movie screens, which features gruesome closeups of blood and gore and amped-up sounds for blows and gunshots.

But even the most empathetic moviegoers understand, deep beneath their artificially induced fears and horror, that these are all actors. They are people pretending to be bad guys. As soon as the camera stops filming, they all laugh and joke together.

There’s no real violence, no real blood, no real harm. Movie pseudo-violence is, in essence, a conjoined twin of fake news.

In contrast, watching security-cam footage of an attack invokes a series of shattering realizations: These really are bad guys. Those really are innocent victims. They really did get hurt. This actually happened. I’ve been in similar places and situations—it could happen to me!

In case you missed the revelatory and very disturbing videos that have gone viral in recent days, here’s a recap.

The first video shows a Bostonian pair strolling along in the French Quarter last Saturday night (in New Orleans for a religious conference, as it turns out), when suddenly a group of young men is seen running up from behind them.

One of the ambushing attackers leaps onto the back of the tourist on the left and drags him down in a choke hold, as another pummels him.

The other tourist turns, startled, to see what’s happening to his friend.

Ominously, the largest of the attackers is right behind him—unseen—with his arm back and ready to strike.

His full-force right hook blindsides and cold-cocks the tourist, who tumbles face-first onto the sidewalk, where a pool of blood forms beneath his motionless head.

In 15 short seconds, it’s all over. The victims are robbed and left to deal with the aftermath of their injuries.

The tourist knocked unconscious is still in critical condition.

Just hours earlier, a few blocks away, another video surveillance camera captured a lone man walking on a sidewalk—as another man trails him.

Suddenly the trailing man begins to trot, and as he gets within striking distance he unleashes a vicious roundhouse blow from behind to the right side of the victim’s head. When the slugged man staggers back to his feet, the attacker resumes swinging.

Ultimately the victim is able to flee across the street and out of camera range.

Over in Baxley, Ga., an assault on a female food-stand owner was video-recorded last Thursday. Two customers, a man and wife, evidently complained about their chicken being cold.

The owner apologized and refunded their money.

That wasn’t enough for the pair, who began hurling obscenities at the woman. When the owner came outside to tell them she had called the police, the female suspect went berserk in a flailing attack that broke the owner’s nose and backed her up against the wall.

What unfolds next on the video is chilling and indeed hard to watch.

The owner’s 15-year-old daughter gets out of their truck to help her mom. On the video she can be seen focusing on the female attacker. She is not watching, and does not see, the very large male attacker outside her frame of vision.

In a split second, he steps forward and drives a blindside straight-right punch into the petite teen’s face.

Her head is savagely snapped back and she is knocked off her feet. She tries to stand up but is visibly dazed as passers-by arrive to help.

“Who does that?” her mother said later in an interview. “Who punches a child like she’s a grown man standing there?”

The Baxley police chief said, in his 41 years on the force, “I have never seen anything like this.” If you watch the video, you’ll likely echo his sentiment.

Assaults are the most common of all violent crimes. Nationally, the rate of aggravated assault is nearly 50 times that of murder.

Louisiana has been a top-10 state for assaults for decades, and it also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the land—for the past 27 years.

But cowardly criminals ambushing vulnerable victims pay little attention to state borders. With video cameras becoming ubiquitous, we’re all able to witness more criminal brutality at its ugliest.

Most of us cannot imagine blindsiding a stranger to steal his or her wallet, or slugging a child in the face when she’s not looking.

We must commit to more deeply study the factors that cause anybody in an advanced civilized republic to behave that way as a normal course.

It’s not only a shame that our society discounts concussions and broken jaws as “minor” injuries when dealing with violent criminals. It’s a national disgrace.

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The campaign non-issue

Posted on May 23, 2014. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s a dismaying irony that on Election Day, I saw a Facebook post that shared KTHV’s online news story about Little Rock being listed at the top as the “least safe mid-sized city” by the Movoto blog.

Movoto is an online real estate outfit that churns out “Top Ten” lists using a wide range of demographic data and other statistical analysis. For its safe/dangerous lists, it relies on the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report.

The day before Election Day, the home page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was dominated by capital-city crime stories: one about a bank branch being robbed, one about two people wounded in “crossfire” at a gas station, and one about an armed assailant fatally shot after he tried to rob an off-duty police officer in a parking lot.

There were also stories of robberies and shootings in Pine Bluff, Bald Knob and Garland County.

The irony is that, to hear most of the political candidates talk, violent crime is a non-issue—or at least not one worth wasting words on.

I got a Google goose egg when I searched the news category for Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross and “crime” and “speech.” When I broadened it to “crime” and “issue” more results popped up, but none involved the topic as part of this campaign.

There isn’t a mayor’s race in Little Rock this year, but on the city’s website (littlerock.org) under the mayor’s office, the bio on Mark Stodola leads with prioritizing public safety and proudly lists reductions in homicides and violent crime since 2007.

Sure enough, the FBI Uniform Crime Report shows Little Rock’s murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate down from 27.6 incidents per 100,000 population in 2007 to 23 in 2012.

However, as selective PR spin would have it, the homicide rate has spiked back up higher than 2008 (19.7), 2009 (15.8), 2010 (12.9) and 2011 (19).

There’s no doubt that crime can be a confounding issue, which likely explains at least in part its conspicuous absence among candidates’ sound bites.

It’s impossible to eradicate, to begin with. Violent crime is as old as humanity itself, figuring prominently in the biblical first family.

It’s often racially charged, and there are no easy answers or solutions. No nation, state or city ever achieves zero crime.

But it’s also not an issue that will heal itself.

And let’s get real here—political leaders are supposed to tackle tough issues, not dodge them.

For heaven’s sake, it’d be one thing if Little Rock’s violent-crime numbers landed it in the more anonymous midsection of Movoto’s most dangerous mid-sized cities list.

But to be Number One, the Top of the Heap? That demands acknowledgement.

It might not be possible to explain why the violent-crime rate in Little Rock is 20 times higher than that of Cary, N.C. Or why, with essentially the same population as Yonkers, N.Y., residents in Little Rock are subject to 14,000 more total crimes (violent and property) every year.

Those are uncomfortable facts. To read about, and to swallow.

And they warrant more than silence from the men and women who would lead us.

There’s simply no reason why, in a state with regnat populus as our motto, the city of Little Rock should top such a list. Some of our lowly brethren have borne a bad reputation for crime for decades.

No. 2 Flint, Mich., is virtually a municipal synonym for “crime-plagued.” Lawlessness in No. 3 Jackson, Miss., is legendary.

It doesn’t matter that Little Rock’s (and Arkansas’) crime numbers may be a little down in the last few years if everybody else’s are down more. That still spells F-A-I-L-U-R-E on an issue that consumes enormous economic and social resources and contributes mightily to other low-rung state ratings.

The thing about crime is that, despite the FBI’s nomenclature, it isn’t uniform. The Little Rock Police Department crime data aren’t evenly divided across the city’s geography.

Statistically, for comparison purposes, it’s true that a person living in Little Rock has a one in 132 chance of being a violent-crime victim, and someone living in Napierville, Ill., has only a one in 1,819 chance.

But realistically, there are good neighborhoods in Little Rock where the chance is as remote as in Napierville, and bad neighborhoods in Napierville where it’s as likely as in Little Rock.

So many of us, including most political candidates, are fortunate enough to live on streets where random gunfire is so rarely (maybe never) heard that crime is not viewed as “our” issue.

The editorial board at the Chicago Tribune embarked last year on a “New Plan of Chicago” project as a challenge to readers, and its crime editorials highlighted a public-safety gap that exists almost everywhere: Even though crime rates are down overall, in some neighborhoods they are higher than ever.

The Tribune started its challenge by asking readers for ideas. If politicians won’t bring it up, maybe that’s where we need to start, too. Let the letters start flowing!

There’s still time before the general election to insist on some accountability from candidates on this often truly life-or-death issue.

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