Little Rock seeing its tranquillity shattered by blunt force of rising crime Troubles with gangs, guns, drugs rival woes of big cities

January 31, 1993|By Erik Eckholm | Erik Eckholm,New York Times News Service

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Around the intersection of 15th and Oa in the center of the town that just gave the country a president, the streets are lined with trees and small wooden houses with yards, the picture of an older Southern neighborhood. On a cold winter's day the sidewalks are empty save for a cluster of teen-agers who melt away as two strangers cruise by slowly.

The placid-looking corner is the city's most violent spot. With three killings there in four months last year, all in broad daylight, VTC and six there or nearby in two years, it may be as dangerous as any place in America.

Those disappearing kids, it turns out, are gang members selling crack, and this is territory where rival gangs cross paths.

Little Rock, with a modest population of 177,000, is experiencing a big-city epidemic of gangs, guns, crack and slayings. It had a record 61 killings last year, up from 52 in 1991 and an average of 37 over the five years before that. For the past two years, Little Rock's murder rate in relation to population has equaled that of New York or Los Angeles.

Since the mid-1980s, many smaller cities and towns have seen devastating increases in assaults and killings, led by a doubling in the murder rate among juveniles. Most of the killers and most of the victims are young black men.

Perhaps nowhere has the change been faster than Little Rock, for reasons no one can explain beyond the area's chronic poverty. "This hit Little Rock with the power of a sledgehammer," said County Coroner Steve Nawojczyk, whose job includes picking up the bodies from the streets and who has made the study of teen-age gangs his avocation.

Mr. Nawojczyk describes an evolution that is typical. What were bands of delinquent kids only four or five years ago, he said, have quickly grown into crack-selling gangs with caches of semiautomatic weapons.

In the last two years, drive-by shootings and what are known as walk-by shootings (for those too young to drive) have become common.

Most of Little Rock, about two-thirds white, one-third black, remains peacefully suburban. But a 20-block area surrounding Central High School, where federal troops were sent to enforce desegregation in 1957, is now known to police as the war zone.

Mainly black and poor and infested with crack and weapons, this neighborhood and other areas to the east are riddled with gang graffiti, the coded boasts and taunts of Bloods and Crips, Vice Lords and Folks, names borrowed from Los Angeles and Chicago gangs with which some local groups are loosely affiliated.

To the initiated, the scrawlings tell menacing tales. On one wall is inscribed "187" -- the California penal code number for homicide -- someone's threat or declaration of achievement. On another is a pitchfork signifying the Folk Nation, and on another is "SLOB," the Crips' insulting name for the Bloods. More and more, too, does "R.I.P." appear, monuments to slain comrades.

With one crack gang lurking eight short blocks from the governor's mansion, Bill Clinton was well aware of the increasing violence and helped promote countermeasures like counseling and summer activities for teen-agers. But officials have learned how hard it is to combat trends rooted in decades of poverty, rising teen-age pregnancies, broken families and broken communities.

In Little Rock, as much as in New York or Los Angeles, more and more killings seem senseless.

Some involve fights over drug turf or drug deals, like the drive-by shooting of 18-year-old Cedric Fowler in August as he rode his bicycle at 15th and Oak. Some, like the nearby killing of 17-year-old Kevin Gaddy last February for his Sporter athletic jacket, seem more a reflection of greed and coldbloodedness.

Many shootings result from nothing more than gang bravado. Nineteen-year-old Kelvin Cohen had traded opposing gang hand signals with the occupants of a passing car when they opened fire, leaving him dead on the street in September. While residents of gang-plagued neighborhoods say they cower nightly to the sickening rhythm of gunshots, most people here, especially in the better-off area to the west, feel scarcely touched.

"Some people think it's a black issue, but it's everyone's problem," Mr. Nawojczyk said. "How many of these kids do you think have health insurance?" he asked, noting the burdens the violence was placing on city emergency rooms and the enduring expenses of those disabled by gunfire.

He also noted that one of the most violent gangs is composed of white middle-class children in the southwest part of town.

Sharon Priest, who just stepped down as mayor, said, "When you have kids shot in a drive-by shooting, that tends to get your attention."

In 1991, as the violence rose, Mr. Clinton called a meeting of civic leaders, and the county and city started several new youth programs as well as community policing. But the gangs were already entrenched.

Mark Stodola, the chief prosecutor of Pulaski County, said his office had identified 41 named gangs in the county, most involving young black men but including at least two female gangs and a few white gangs.

His new gang unit has identified 500 members by name, but thousands of teen-agers and young adults are believed to be involved to some degree.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.