HuffPost came to Little Rock ready to listen, and the city gave the New York-based website an earful.
A yearlong plague of homicides (45 as of last week) dominated discussions as HuffPost, the renamed news site founded by entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, brought its “Listen to America” bus caravan to town 10 days ago. The goal is to discover the heart of America in a 7-week, 25-city road trip, and Arkansans who met the bus declared love for their city, but also acknowledged its scars.
“My daddy was a gang banger,” Brian Silva told HuffPost’s Max Strachan and Marci Manley of KARK-TV, who co-authored a deeply reported look at the city’s gang-driven killing spree. “My uncle was a gang banger, so when my daddy went to prison, all I had left was the memories of gang-banging, selling drugs and living the street life.” Silva’s great wish is to find a good job and support his child, but a prison record has so far spoiled his prospects.
Leifel Jackson, a onetime Crips leader who was featured on HBO’s “Gang War: Banging in Little Rock” documentary in 1994, the last time killings were so rampant in the city, offered a blunt summary. “We’re having gang wars all over again,” he said. That became the web article’s headline, and the subheading went deeper: “Gang violence has returned with full force, as those who want to leave it behind struggle to find jobs.”
Jackson, now a youth counselor, was a panelist at a HuffPost forum at Philander Smith College co-sponsored by KARK and sister station KLRT as part of their “Victory Over Violence” campaign. Channel 16 anchor Kevin Kelly led the talk with Jackson, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, Tristan Wilkerson of the college’s Social Justice Institute and Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner.
The panelists described a shifting gang landscape — less tied to specific gangs and territories and more allied with extended families. Money is a factor in the killings, but vengeance often looms larger, and speakers said the parole of some ‘90s gang veterans had reanimated feuds.
Jackson and gang experts also cited social media as an immediate prod to violence that leaves cooler heads no time to prevail. “Back in the Banging in Little Rock days, whatever I did, I wasn’t going straight out and putting it online,” Jackson said. Crime witnesses refuse to talk to police, either out of loyalty or fear, Buckner said, adding that every cop must build trust to scale that wall of silence.
Elliott faulted Little Rock’s business leaders, too, saying that more jobs could save young men at risk. “Until every business person out there can see themselves in others, they’re part of the problem,” she said. “We talk about gun violence, but a lot of violence is done up in those high-rises by people with ink pens.”
Executives should stop reserving jobs and education for their own privileged circles, she said. “Someone with a job or marketable job skills is going to be less likely to hit you on the head at an ATM machine.” Troubled neighborhoods must be revitalized, she said, so that success will no longer mean getting out, but building up the community instead.
Manley, KARK’s investigative reporter, is proud of her work with HuffPost; the site praised her in return, along with news director Austin Kellerman. A multiple local Emmy winner honored for journalistic enterprise at the Mid-America Emmy Awards just weeks ago, Manley said today’s crime reporting requires context that goes beyond the stereotype of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
“We devoted time and resources to partner with HuffPost as a national medium,” Manley said. “We shot a ton of footage, including raw tape that lets people hear what the interviewees are saying in their own words.”
The results overflowed the station’s broadcast time, so Manley and her colleagues produced a Facebook Live segment every weekday, creating a seven-part series. “We certainly approached it with a sense of gravity, because you’re talking about people’s lives, and we’re looking for solutions. It’s not just hypothetical.
“This is our home, too, and you don’t make things better by ignoring problems. And who knows? After being in the national spotlight, we may hear about ideas that have worked elsewhere.”