By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Even elected officials who live in their communities are not immune to the gun violence. Birmingham City Council President Wardine Alexander, a lifelong Birmingham resident who represents District 7, which encompasses southwestern Birmingham neighborhoods that include Oxmoor, Garden Highlands and Powderly, said she’s become aware of her surroundings, especially since her 39-year-old son, who survived a robbery, was shot in 2020.
“It makes you take into account how you move about, to and fro within the community. Of course, you want to use more caution. You want to be alert and be knowledgeable of the surroundings that you’re in,” Alexander said.
Councilor LaTonya Tate, chair of the public safety committee, said it can make sense that people are fearful, given that some residents are recklessly firing guns in the city.
“As a city, and as a whole, one would be fearful…I think people don’t want to be fearful when they go out and travel around town. I think people want to feel as safe as possible, but when you have people that are totally disregarding life…then that becomes an issue,” said Tate, who represents District 9, which encompasses northwest Birmingham, including neighborhoods such as Acipco-Finley, North Birmingham and Druid Hills.
In March, Tate’s nephew, 21-year-old Aven Deione Mitchell, was killed, while riding on the passenger side of a car into which shots were fired.
Tate said she does not let the fear deter. On Sept. 26, she held a “State of the District” meeting at Protective Stadium Club downtown, where Tate, city representatives and others shared information and answered resident questions on myriad topics, including public safety.
“Nothing can change if the community doesn’t come together. You have the opportunity to change anything that you need to change, and that’s just coming together as one,” the councilor said.
Just because a resident becomes an elected official and serves in city government doesn’t mean they turn a blind eye to what’s going on, she said. “If you want your communities to be safe or the way that you would like to see them, that’s going to take the work of all of us. That’s just going to take everybody working hand in hand.”
This year, Birmingham so far has seen 117 homicides through Tuesday Oct. 11 according to AL.com. Homicides in the city are up 33.3 percent this year versus the same time last year, according to the Birmingham Police Department. Currently, the city is on pace to reach nearly 150 homicides. The highest number in recent memory was 141 in 1991, according to AL.com’s Carol Robinson.
With those numbers seeming to increase daily, AL.com and The Birmingham Times will collaborate on a series of reports focusing on the contributing factors that may have fueled the high rate of homicides in 2022 and magnifying the voices of those who are affected by violence or working in areas to reduce some of the crime.
Council President Pro Tem Crystal Smitherman, who represents District 6, which includes the Titusville community and neighborhoods including Arlington-West End and much of Five Points South, agreed.
“I think it’s really up to all of us, government, nonprofits included, to come together and help people and figure out what are the causes of crime. I think it’s making sure that people have the mental health services they need, the job development support,” Smitherman said. “I just feel like the community is crying out for help, and it’s time for all of us to come together to help out.”
“…a lot of times people will witness violence, and then when they don’t get those [mental health] services, they go kind of deal with that trauma in a very unhealthy way,” Smitherman said.
In her district, Alexander said, she and other residents want the old feeling of the community back.
“I’ve seen my district change over the number of years and want it to be safe, filled with families again, and I feel that my residents have the same sentiment. They want to feel safe in their homes, they want to be able to move about, and they just want their community revitalization to be positively impacting, to bring that change into the neighborhoods,” Alexander said.
Councilor Carol Clarke, who represents District 8, which includes neighborhoods Ensley Highlands, Belview Heights, Fairview and much of Rising-West Princeton, said familiarity and living in her community has paid off in a number of ways. Clarke said she has even approached at least one young person with a gun.
“I did see a young boy walking up the alley near our community garden with a big gun, a gun so big he couldn’t hide it, so I didn’t run from him. I asked him, ‘So where are you going? Why don’t you just come and volunteer at the garden?’ I’m not afraid. I mean, they’re people,” Clarke said.
“They’re not bad people, they’re just doing dumb stuff, and for whatever reason, [that dumb stuff is] helping them feel more affirmed based on whatever community they’re a part of, so I think we can’t quit on them. I don’t see how we can,” she added.
Previous articles part of the Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series on gun violence in the city