August 27, 2006
While the Memphis City Council snapped their fingers and created a summer jobs program, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said little and at least in the public's eye, did even less.
When asked by The Commercial Appeal's Jacinthia Jones, he pooh-poohed the possibility of instituting a curfew for minors and waved away talk that city cutbacks on youth programs were to blame for the increase in violence.
"You could have 100,000 programs, and they wouldn't have been in one," Herenton told Jones in June. Never mind that while today's young criminals may not have been in a summer program, perhaps his would-be successor, or his next victim, might have been.
If seeing is believing, Memphis needed to see more of the mayor this summer to believe that, as he has said, he wants to solve problems with real solutions.
Not grandstanding, not speechifying, but perhaps walking through North Memphis or South Memphis -- where the mayor has said the "real" people live -- in a meaningful show of solidarity.
Instead, the city saw the mayor's tough stance on crime when it landed at his doorstep -- or make that his dinner plate.
Earlier this month, Herenton and his security guard were enjoying a late lunch at a Piccadilly's restaurant in Whitehaven, when a cashier yelled out that she'd been robbed.
"This guy was really quite daring. He has to be to rob the place with the mayor and a police officer right there," Herenton told a reporter. "It's astonishing to see a robbery in progress."
I'm going to guess that the witnesses to the other 500 or so business robberies reported this year were astonished too. Or maybe not so much astonished as shocked, dismayed, angry and scared.
In times of crisis, and the summer crime wave certainly feels like a crisis, the citizenry takes its cues from its leaders.
Confidence and courage can be contagious. A calm voice can help to steady us. You want those in charge to be bold and decisive -- like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after Sept. 11, not FEMA director Mike Brown post-Katrina.
The mayor's spokeswoman, Gale Jones Carson, assures me that Herenton and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin are in contact nearly every day.
"Anything pertaining to police, he lets the police department be the spokesperson, because his department is dealing with it every day," she said.
Carson rightly points out that there's no easy way to win the visibility war: If the mayor held a press conference after each homicide -- well, first of all, he'd be doing nothing but standing before a gaggle of mikes, and secondly, he'd be accused of capitalizing on crime for political purposes.
But surely there's got to be a balance between overexposure and invisibility.
Herenton's response to the rise in violent crime simply hasn't been big enough, loud enough, strong enough.
Memphians need to feel like Herenton is fighting -- not against Joe Frazier or the council, but with us, the people who are double-checking locks and looking over shoulders and noting the height, weight and clothing of every stranger we see.
Compared to this time last year, crime in Memphis is up, if only slightly, in every category except auto theft, where it's down 17 percent. Homicides, the offense that gets the most attention, are up 13 percent.
Even those of us who have not personally been the victim of rising crime rates find our activities, our freedom stifled by fear. I don't need the mayor to answer the phone when I call 911, and I don't want him to keep a roll of crime scene tape in his pocket.
But I do need to know -- and need to see, as often as possible -- that Herenton is in our corner.
Contact Wendi C. Thomas by e-mail, or call (901) 529-5896.