Wilmington: A City with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

“Can you tell me which direction I should walk in order to get to Middletown?”

I had been looking at the sidewalk trying to avoid the worst of the slippery ice, so at first the disembodied words didn’t register.

I looked up to see a young woman with a grey scarf wrapped around her face.  She was holding it tightly.  I noticed her nails were painted bright blue and her fingers were reddened with the cold.  I looked into her prematurely aged, brutally wrinkled face.  She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two years old. Her watery blue eyes gazed pleadingly into mine.

“You’re a crack addict,” I silently thought. 

But I answered out loud, “You walk South-- sort of parallel to I-95.”

She looked surprised.  Once again, my thoughts were silent. “You wanted me to ask you how on earth were you going to walk all the way to Middletown, didn’t you?  Then you were going to ask for a ride or for money.”

“I wonder if you would...” 

I stopped her in mid-sentence. 

“No,” I said out loud this time. “I won’t give you money.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you for nothin’.” Her voice took on a whiny tone.

“Yes, you were,” I said.  My eyes stung. “Yes, you were.  I can’t give you money.”

I began to walk toward my car, torn by pity but knowing full well how she would spend any cash I gave her.

I barely reached my car when another woman literally ran up to me.  “What in the world is going on,” I thought.

“Please,” the woman said.  “Would give me money for a sandwich?”  Her ravaged face was that of an eighty year old, but she could not have been more than in her mid-forties.

Another addict.

“No,” I said as gently as possible. “I can’t do that,” I said.

I got in the car, holding back tears.  “Jesus,” I said aloud, “Sometimes I just don’t know the right thing to do.  I feel heartless.”

As former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith wrote in his classic The Twenty-first Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, crack cocaine hit his city with the force of a tornado. 

He stated: “The impact of crack on the nature of crime is unprecedented.  It is cheap, easy to get, and highly addictive.  Young mothers prostitute themselves to obtain it, and appallingly young children participate in its sale.  Wherever crack is found, violence is widespread, vicious and completely irrational.”

With the advent of crack cocaine, murder rates soared.  The breakdown of institutions that help people to resist crime -- family, religion, education -- meant that gangs became the primary institution in many inner city areas.

Goldsmith nailed the problems that presently afflict the city of Wilmington, Delaware, including the area in which I live.  My little city of Wilmington is now ranked by Neighborhood Scout as the 15th most dangerous out of 100 crime ridden cities in the United States. The collapse of traditional firewalls has created a sea change that officials, courts, police and communities are hard pressed to effectively address.  

But drugs are not the main problem. The drug trade and the accompanying violence are symptomatic of the city’s deeper troubles.

The real problem is crack ideology, beliefs about causes of crime and how to deal with crime that create an emotional, feel good high, but which actually transfer the problems to others and to the past -- but which solves nothing.

There are proven solutions to the rise in crime, but the city’s leaders are blaming the soaring violence and corruption -- you will never guess it -- on slavery in the America of the past.  Slavery has caused collective mental illness among the city’s youth, who are suffering from a sort of post traumatic stress syndrome because some of their ancestors were slaves.

City councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz actually has called for the Federal Center for Disease Control to conduct a study, calling the rise in gun violence a “pandemic” that needs to be treated.  (I hasten to add I know the councilwoman, who has been a guest in my home.  I think she is a decent person.  But I also think she and the entire city council, which apparently is in agreement with her, are terribly and indeed almost fatally mistaken in their diagnosis of the city’s ills.)

Shabazz said:

“There is a well known fact that the African American community here in the United States of America is still suffering from the traumatic syndrome of slavery. That is compounded with the many effects that are happening in today’s society with our young people and the things they are seeing, and there is definitely a shift of mental capacity of their ability to make good decisions. That results in gun violence.”

You read that right. 

Ignoring the pragmatic diagnoses and suggested cures of such seasoned and wise mayors like Stephen Goldsmith, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Rendell, Wilmington’s leaders are trotting out the blame game instead of listening to those who have been there and done that; leaders who have employed solutions that worked. 

What might some of those solutions look like? 

Well, for one thing, they don’t include the diagnoses of mass mental illness going as far back as four hundred years ago.  They deal with actual crime rather than concocting imaginative scenarios that wind up paralyzing any action at all.  Blame solves nothing.  Pragmatic diagnoses and implementing plans that have proved workable do.

Instead of blaming post traumatic stress syndrome due to slavery, Goldsmith suggests “a new vision of policing, one that joins the community and police in a mutually supportive partnership...We need to go beyond merely arresting people; we need to actually prevent crime.  Police officers need to do more than patrol communities; they have to become part of them, as indeed they used to be...Community policing means two things: bringing police and citizens into working partnerships, and giving the police responsibility for identifying and solving neighborhood problems.”

He goes on to suggest bringing back the policeman who walks a beat.  “Putting more officers on the street will not stop crime, but it sure helps...an hour on the street [is] more valuable than an hour spent on paperwork at headquarters.”

Noting that disorder often serves as a precursor for crime, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani acted on George Kelling’s advice (Fixing Broken Windows, 1996).  Giuliani had the police department increase arrests for small offenses such as clearing street corners of rowdy types, adding light fixtures to dark alleys and public spaces.  Getting rid of graffiti and repairing defaced properties help make a difference, as do small and doable beautification projects.

Police and community residents can form partnerships to rid neighborhoods of nuisances like open-air drug markets, crack houses and seedy liquor stores attracting rowdy types ranging from drunks, drug dealers and the lawless.  (I’d like to see the City close down the sleazy liquor store just around the corner from my house.  That would be a good start toward cleaning up the neighborhood.)

Goldsmith also points out juvenile crimes grew by 400 percent when crack cocaine hit his city.  He believes that if offenders received more than a hand slap from authorities, crime would fall precipitously:

“States that have seen the largest decreases in crime are those with the largest increases in incarcerated criminals.  Tolerating crime when it can be deterred benefits neither the criminal nor the community...The violent youths I met...reminded me how fragile cities are and how much havoc a few really angry, amoral young adults can cause.  Nevertheless:

--Community policing can help solve the problems that breed crime and encourage residents to fight back.

--Retaking public spaces and removing nuisances tell everyone that honest citizens are in control.

--Locking up violent offenders will reduce crime. ”

Last but not least, community church leaders can partner with police to help make their neighborhoods safer.

A good beginning would be for inner city pastors to reassess their theology.   Most believe the gospel of Christ redeems fallen humanity.  They need to grasp the broader implications of redemption.  They should reject the idea that there is no deliverance from the past of slavery.  Such a heresy is inimical to the idea that salvation by grace frees from the past and engenders renewal of the human spirit.  The idea that the sins of the fathers will forever and inevitably haunt generation after generation like a genetic spiritual curse is in direct conflict with the idea of redemption. 

In brief, Christianity has nothing to do with fatalism and everything to do with deliverance. Preach that, brothers and sisters!

It is time for Wilmington’s city council to stop blaming the past for the city’s present troubles.  The City does not need to contact the Center for Disease Control to analyze the “disease” of violence. 

It is time for Wilmington’s leaders to put proven solutions to work for the once lovely city.  Failure to take action while permitting lawlessness to flourish will only create more damaged people, criminals and victims alike. 

Taking sensible actions against crime will see a decrease in the numbers of those destroyed by crime, including a decrease in destroyed women like those poor creatures who accosted me for money to support their habit. I wish those women no harm, nor do I judge them.  I hope they will come to their senses before they kill themselves or are killed.

But one day I hope to have friendlier conversations outnumber on any given day than the conversations I had with them.

Such friendly conversations may be in Wilmington’s future if Officer Krupke returns to walk the neighborhood, getting to know and to hear out the decent, law abiding citizens of the city, most of whom have genuine concern for the less fortunate.  Let’s hope Officer Krupke, having heard excuses for years, doesn’t have to put up with excuses for criminal behavior like the lingering effects of slavery’s post traumatic stress syndrome on the City’s youths.  

Let’s hope Wilmington’s council begins to offer real hope to the city rather than settling for fatalistic proclamations offering no solutions.

Fay Voshell, who was selected as one of the Delaware GOP’s “Winning Women,” Class of 2008, is a frequent contributor to American Thinker and other online publications.  She may be reached at fvoshell@yahoo.com

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