Mayor Fischer's remarks for Capturing Ali's Spirit: Creating a city of peace and safety

July 6, 2017

Mayor Greg Fischer's prepared remarks from Capturing Ali's Spirit: Creating a City of Peace and Safety on July 6, 2017 at the Muhammad Ali Center:

 

One measure of a life is the kind of stories people tell when you’re gone. And by that measure alone, Muhammad Ali was truly The Greatest.

My favorite Ali story is actually the story of the week last year when The Champ came home.  During the procession, when we turned onto Grand Avenue, it was so full of people celebrating the life of Muhammad that I felt my SUV was floating like a butterfly down the street, carried by the energy, pride and love of his west Louisville brothers and sisters.

It was an unforgettable moment. An unforgettable week. There was mourning, mixed with an overwhelming sense of pride and unity, joy and peace.

That peace was because of Muhammad, but it wasn’t just Muhammad who made it happen. It was something the people of our city did together.  Louisville showed the entire world how a city unifies to create something beautiful we could all share.

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That was heartening for me and for all of Louisville.  And while I am here tonight to talk about some of our challenges, the facts show that our city has incredible momentum.  In the last six years, we’ve seen:

  • 63,000 new jobs;
  • 2,900 new businesses;
  • Unemployment is down from 10.4 percent to 3.9 - with nearly 30,000 open jobs in the city today.

More Louisvillians have a postsecondary degree today than at any time in our city’s history. In 2011, we were even with the national average. But we set a bold goal, and now we’re 4 points ahead. Our Cradle to Career framework has made great progress.

Household incomes and median wages are up. In 2015 alone, more than 10,000 Louisvillians lifted themselves out of poverty. And, more than 7,000 Louisville families joined the middle class.
Since 2014, we have seen over $11 billion of projects announced, completed, or under construction – a record. 

And that includes unprecedented levels of investment in west Louisville, including:

  • The $200 million mixed-income, mixed-use Russell neighborhood transformation;
  • Waterfront Park Phase Four, from 9th to 15th Street along the River;
  • The 18th and Broadway resurgence, with Passport Health Plan moving its corporate headquarters to the west side, and a new YMCA complex on the east side. And that intersection will be a key stop on our city’s first Bus Rapid Transit service running from there out Dixie Highway;
  • Other corporate headquarters have moved west of 9th Street, like Kentucky Peerless Distillery, Heine Brothers, Facilities Management Services and Interapt.

Altogether, we are seeing over half a billion dollars in west Louisville projects like those -- a great down payment on the overall need.  These investments will mean better jobs, more opportunities, and a better quality of life.   

We know that the best way to ensure future investments is to make sure that these ventures are successful – for every stakeholder.  And as part of our overall economic plan for west Louisville, we will continue to work to make sure west Louisville businesses, minority-owned businesses, and residents will benefit from these opportunities.

So we are at an unprecedented time of investment in our city. And as your mayor, it’s my job – and our job - to shout out our successes to the world, because success begets more success!

But I have to be clear about our challenges as well.   

Like any city, we have problems to overcome.  It’s not enough for Louisville to just be the hometown of The Greatest. We have to aspire to be the greatest ourselves.

And that means we must be accountable as individuals, parents, families, and as a city – and face our challenges with open eyes, focused minds, and a willingness to do the work together to create a better future – for all.

That means we have to make sure that all these billions in investments pay off for our entire city. Because we know that if everyone from every ZIP code does not feel that they are part of this renewal – then we are squandering potential.

And, we’re only interested in growth and progress that everyone in Louisville can be a part of.

We have to deal with rising addiction rates and overdoses from opioids like heroin that are affecting neighborhoods all over Louisville and communities all over our country.

And we have to deal with the rise in homicides and violent crime we’ve seen over the last two years. 

I want to focus on homicides tonight because it’s a big issue and something citizens ask me about a lot as I travel around the city. It’s usually one of three questions:

  • “What is happening with homicides in our city?”
  •  “What are you doing about it?”
  • And the question that ties in most directly with the spirit and legacy of Muhammad Ali: “What can I do?”
  • So let’s take each of those questions one at a time:
  • “What is happening with homicides in our city?”

Our city government is recognized around the world for our use of data to address challenges – and I’m going to go over the relevant data in a minute.  But it is important to remember that each homicide involved someone’s child, someone’s sibling, maybe someone’s parent. 

Like the two that happened last Thanksgiving at Shawnee Park.  I was there along with thousands of other Louisvillians to watch the traditional Juice Bowl football games.

If you’ve never been to the Juice Bowl, it’s really wonderful, sort of like a giant multi-family reunion.  It was a lovely day until around two o’clock; I was talking with some people, and we heard pop, pop, pop. And from about 200 yards away, we saw people running, commotion. 

I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of people as we all realized what was happening: Fear, sorrow, disappointment, disbelief.  “How could our Juice Bowl be sullied this way?”

The Juice Bowl has been a peaceful gathering for generations of Louisville families. For our whole community, this was a punch in the gut. Especially when we learned that two people had lost their lives.

I’d been to crime scenes, but I had never been that close to a homicide as it was happening.

Yet for too many of our fellow Louisvillians, that’s a prospect – and for some a memory – they live with every day.

Those were two of the 117 homicides in our city last year – the kind of record we never want to break.

To understand what’s happening, let’s look at homicides going back to 1971, when the previous record was set.   

Just counting the number of homicides only tells part of the story. In 1971, our population was less than it is now. So the standard comparison metric that cities use is the number of homicides per 100,000 people.

And until two years ago, Louisville was well under the national average for cities like ours, which right now is 12.5 per 100,000.

Last year, we were seeing roughly 15 homicides per 100,000 people, and we’re a little ahead of that mark right now.

Just like the opioid crisis, or employment or education or any other issue a city faces, to understand what’s happening here and to determine if there is a bigger national issue at play, we look at what other cities are seeing - to gain context. 

For comparison, in 2015, St. Louis and Baltimore were around 60 homicides per 100,000; Cincinnati was 22, Indianapolis 18.

Additionally, we find violent crime and homicides are on the rise in roughly 60 percent of America’s largest cities.

Clearly, this is something that’s bigger than any one city.

And while all that’s helpful to know, my focus is Louisville. And my belief is that one Louisville homicide is too many.

Like cities all over the country, we are trying to identify why homicides are up and how we can reduce them. There are certainly factors we can point to.

Most of our homicides involve people who are already engaged in criminal activity.  

And like other cities, we have gangs.  Some have defined hierarchies. Others aren’t nearly that organized.  Many of our gangs are in the illegal drug trade.

The rise in homicides coincides with a significant shift in the illegal drug economy. Closing down the pill mills made opioids more expensive. That fueled the heroin market. And when competitors in this economy have disputes over territory or market share, they don’t sue each other.

 They use violence that often ends with one or more of those involved dead, in the hospital, or in jail. 

Combine that with the fact that we have more guns on the streets than ever.  And that ease of access has led too many people to turn to guns to settle personal disputes, some of which get started or get worse on social media.

Many times, the shooter and the victim know each other. This violence is not random. But as we’ve seen in heartbreaking cases like Ne'Riah Miller and Dequante Hobbs. Bullets don’t care who they hit. 

Also, almost 40 percent of our homicides take place indoors, meaning there are often very few witnesses. That’s one reason our case closure rate has hovered around 50 percent the past two years. That’s much lower than normal.

And while there are people with information on our unsolved murders, they’re often reluctant to share what they know with the police, because they’re afraid of retaliation.

And I completely understand that fear.  That’s why we will always urge folks to use 574-LMPD, our anonymous crime tip line.

We never see who or where the tips come from, so people can share information with a call, text or online, and remain totally anonymous.  Crime is a challenge we must have citizens’ help to resolve.

So, next question: What are we doing about the homicide spike?

Our action plan for violence reduction has been created by local experts like Yvette Gentry, our Chief of Community Building and a former LMPD deputy chief; Anthony Smith, who helped create our Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods and is now the head of the national organization Cities United, which is dedicated to reducing violent deaths among young men and boys of color;

Chief Steve Conrad, Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, the director of our Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, Sadiqa Reynolds, President of the Louisville Urban League, as well as faith and community leaders like Dr. Eddie Woods and the Rev. Vincent James – and many others.  

And our action plan has been reviewed and endorsed by national experts.

It is a targeted action plan with strategies that both fight and prevent crime.  And one pillar of this plan is law enforcement. 

Because we have to give our LMPD officers the support they need to get our most violent criminals off the streets.

We’ve invested in hiring an additional 55 new positions for LMPD in the last year and are at an all-time high in terms of manpower with just under 1,300 officers.

We have a federal task force working with agencies like the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshal, ATF, and U.S. Attorney’s Office to arrest and prosecute our most dangerous criminals.

LMPD’s Places Strategy puts more officers in place in high-crime areas during times of greatest need.
We created the 9th Mobile division to focus especially on where the most criminal activity is happening. And that usually involves narcotics, gangs and guns.

Narcotics, because that’s at the root of most of our violent crime. Gangs, because they are involved in the illegal drug trade.  And last year, LMPD took about 1,700 guns off the street. That’s the highest total since merger.

I’d like to thank the men and women of LMPD for their dedication, courage and compassion in service to our city.

And, I continue calling for common-sense gun laws from Frankfort that respect the rights of lawful gun owners while making it harder for criminals - and children - to get their hands on guns. 

As I said, law enforcement is just one component of our strategy to make our city a safer, healthier place.    Just hiring more officers and making more arrests will not get the job done. 

Let me ask a question: If the number of homicides in our city returned to the level where it was four years ago – 48, instead of 117 – would that be enough? 

Of course not. 

My goal from the moment I was sworn in as mayor has been to do everything I can to help every citizen in every neighborhood reach his or her full human potential.

I believe everyone, given the right opportunities, can achieve a healthy and prosperous life.

And the truth is that the challenges we face as a city, as a country, are bigger than one type of crime.

To further understand these challenges, let’s look at where most of our homicides take place.

 

You can see the Parkland neighborhood, which includes Muhammad’s boyhood home at 3302 Grand Avenue, has, at this point, some of the highest homicide numbers in the city.

The uncomfortable fact is that while homicide and violent crime affect every demographic and happen in different parts of our city, they plague Louisville’s African-American community, especially in a handful of neighborhoods, in an unfair and heartbreaking way.

Virtually everyone in these neighborhoods wants what we all want – a safe and healthy place to live. 

And it’s not just crime. In these same neighborhoods, we see similarly troubling statistics on health, employment, income and more.

We just celebrated our country’s 241st birthday. And inherent in the idea of the American dream is that all of us have the right to liberty and justice. This promise implies access, opportunity, and certainly personal accountability.  But it’s undeniable that many of our citizens face challenges determined by social, historic and environmental factors that greatly affect their odds of success. 

While we all have challenges to overcome to reach our potential, not all of those challenges are created equal.

For our city to reach its full potential, we have to look at our history, again, with open eyes and focused minds, to create a more constructive way forward – for everyone.

None of us created the world we were born into, so let’s not burden this conversation with guilt or finger pointing.

Our citizens – our children – deserve action.

The truth is that we don’t all find the same things in the world when we’re born and as we grow. 

For many Americans, their race, ZIP code and lack of access to resources and networks for safety, education and career advancement make it virtually impossible to achieve the American dream.

And there are particular challenges that Americans of color face that are the result of a legacy of exclusion. Our books are full of this history.

There’s redlining, a banking practice aided by the federal government that denied housing loans to African-Americans, and denied so many the opportunity to buy homes and build wealth they could pass on to their children.

And that’s not just part of history. Today, we see digital redlining, in which the residents of many neighborhoods of color lack access to the high-speed internet that serves as a conduit to 21st century opportunity.

Another historic example of discrimination that created the conditions for many of our challenges today, particularly in west Louisville, is urban renewal.

Renewal — sounds nice.  But while the stated goal was to remove urban blight, we’ve learned that blight tended to be in the eye of the beholder.  Take the Russell neighborhood.  In the 1940s and 1950s, this area had a thriving commercial and residential district. 

It was called the Harlem of the South because it was rich with black-owned businesses.  And even though a majority of its houses were deemed to have met code standards by the reviewers, a decision was made to demolish whole blocks of homes and businesses.  This is an interview former Mayor Charles Farnsley gave in 1970. 

 

 

That is our history talking to us.

Because of urban renewal, along with the discrimination in home loans, business lending and employment, African Americans here in our city had very little opportunity for upward mobility, and limited options for places to live. 

Over time, this contributed to the phenomenon of concentrated poverty, which describes an area far below the citywide average for income, employment, education and health.     

Poverty, so often, is at the root of much of our crime.

Today, 1 in 7 Louisvillians lives in concentrated poverty.  One in seven. 

That’s close to the national average.

And that’s unacceptable – for our city and our country.

We must always stay vigilant, call out and stand up against institutional practices that put poor and minority communities at a disadvantage.  

That’s why we’re working with the city’s internet carriers to erase digital redlining, and why we are investing your taxpayer dollars in efforts like Louisville Fiber Infrastructure Technology to extend high-speed internet infrastructure into west Louisville and throughout our city. 

So this is our opportunity – to make our own history, mindful that many of our systems are as outdated as the prejudiced thinking behind redlining or urban renewal.

Our social welfare system is not effective at providing a pathway out of generational poverty.  Our education system isn’t designed to meet the health, social and emotional development needs of the whole child. Instead, it follows a model created for an agrarian society and a traditional family structure that doesn’t resemble today’s world.

Unfortunately, our country is getting the results that now antiquated systems are designed to produce, and they are especially failing our poor and communities of color.

One challenge local governments like ours face is that state and federal governments are reducing their level of support for programs like urban housing, transportation and education, even as the needs grow. 

For context – consider this: Since 9/11, the federal government has spent about $5 trillion in the war on terror.

While of course we have to keep our country safe, imagine what could happen if also we made that kind of national commitment to our communities here at home, where we lose 14 young African-American men and boys every day to violence.

Fourteen a day. That’s more than 5,000 per year. That’s unacceptable.  If 14 people were killed by terrorism in suburban malls around the country every day, our country would do everything possible to figure out the problem – and solve it!  

That’s why I am calling on the federal government to listen to the people – we are sick and tired of the bickering and partisanship. Talk. Compromise, as the founders intended. Find middle ground that helps all of our citizens. Our country needs a new social contract that reflects the reality of the day and the desire for all of us to move forward. Good politics requires accepting shared facts and reality.

Reform education, so it continuously builds skills that are relevant to a rapidly changing global and technology-based economy.  Instead of generational poverty, reform welfare so skills and living wages are the result.

And I am calling on the state government to – yes, fix the state pension system and tax code. And rework our education investments so we can join other forward-looking states that are investing in universal pre-K.  It’s better, smarter economics to invest in our children early so when they arrive to kindergarten, they are ready to learn, rather than spending money to incarcerate too many of those same citizens when they grow up. 

These are things I believe. And these are messages I will keep on delivering to Washington and Frankfort on behalf of the people of Louisville.

Here in our city, we have to do what my mother would always tell me when I would complain about what someone else was doing. She’d say “take care of your own back yard first.”

That back yard is our city. My home – your home.

 And that’s why this is a challenge and an opportunity for all of us, no matter our ZIP code, skin color, age or background. We are in this together.  

And even if we’re not responsible for creating the world as we’ve found it, we are responsible shaping it for the people around us, and the people who come after us.   It’s our job to create a new legacy for our city.

So how do we do that?

One way is to look for role models. And I can’t think of a better role model for how to shape the world than Muhammad Ali.  Here’s an interview he did with the BBC in 1971.  He’s talking about when he was on the medal stand at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. 

 

In that story, Muhammad takes a painful moment and uses humor to make it a story that enlightens people. Muhammad saw that something was wrong in the world around him. And he found strength, support and community in his faith, and in his sport, where a compassionate police officer, Joe Martin, introduced him to the world of boxing.

We have a whole generation of young people in our city, particularly young people of color, searching for that same strength and support and community.

And that’s where the rest of us come in. Each of us has the capacity to bring compassion, clarity and opportunity to young people who are growing up in a complicated and confusing world.

And if you’ve done that kind of work before, you know the sense of satisfaction and contribution that brings.  And there are real economic and public safety benefits to our city from getting involved in this work.

Our plan – which some of you here tonight helped design –  is informed by an understanding of our city’s history, the most up-to-date data and research, and our vision for the future of Louisville – a city where everyone’s human potential can flourish.  

At your tables and at louisvilleky.gov, you’ll find our action plan. It’s built around six pillars:

  • enforcement,
  • intervention,
  • prevention,
  • community mobilization,
  • organizational change, and
  • re-entry.

We’re working in these areas because I agree with the Rev. Kevin Cosby, who recently wrote in The Courier-Journal that when injustices are caused by the government, “then the government has both a constitutional obligation and moral responsibility to remedy it.”

And Government works best when it works in collaboration with citizens and community partners.  That’s why this isn’t just a plan for government action.  

It’s the answer to the third crime-related question I get asked by citizens: “How can I help?”

And that answer is: Be the One.

As you’ll see, within the pillars of this plan are opportunities for citizens, businesses, faith groups and others to help us meet this challenge, one person at a time. 

Online and on your tables, there are flyers that detail the many ways you can Be the One. 

Enforcement: Sign up to participate in one of LMPD’s many community-based initiatives- or donate to the Louisville Metro Police Foundation.

Intervention: Mobilize your house of worship, volunteer at a community center, or with Youth Detention Services.

Prevention: Talk to your employer about joining SummerWorks. We started with about 200 youth our first year. This summer more than 5,000 young men and women are employed through SummerWorks, gaining the skills and experience they need for a better future, and experiencing the satisfaction of earning a paycheck. 

YouthBuild is another education and job-training program for young adults, and 88 percent of YouthBuild graduates go on to college and career.

Community mobilization: Take part in one of our Brightside cleanups. Join your local neighborhood association.

Organizational change: We’ve got boards and commissions that make critical decisions affecting our citizens and neighborhoods. Join one.

Re-Entry: If you know someone, especially a young person, who’s returning to society after incarceration, point them toward resources like our ReImage program, which helps connect them with employment and education. Or volunteer to be a ReImage mentor.  One of the big challenges with re-entry is recidivism.  Among participants in ReImage, the recidivism rate is less than two percent.

These flyers on our Facebook and twitter feeds, so if you people who might be looking for an opportunity to help, please share these on your own social media accounts. 

And we have folks at tables in the next room who can help you, your business, faith group or others connect with opportunities to show your compassion and your passion for our city.

My main objectives for this speech were to provide context for violent crime so we have a shared understanding of the relevant history; to describe our action plan: and to ask for your help.

I know that there are those who will look at the challenges we’re facing in some of our neighborhoods and the long history behind those challenges, the scars we want to heal, and say, “Mr. Mayor, this is impossible.”

Well, let me ask you this: Is it more or less possible than a kid from one of those same neighborhoods becoming the most famous and beloved figure on this earth?  Is it more or less possible than that same young man, who faced prejudice on these very streets, never losing his love for, or faith in, his hometown? Is it more or less possible than this same man, this same champion, welcomed home to his final resting place with a hero’s welcome, embraced by the world - unlike anything humanity has ever seen?

You know what Muhammad would say:

"Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." 

Anything is possible for our city when we come together.  We proved that during Ali Week 13 months ago.  I have one final video to show you. To remind us all of what we did, what Louisville did, that historic week:

 

 

Let’s build on this uniquely Louisville legacy.  This is our model.  This is who we are. Every week. Louisvillians are people of:

Compassion.

Pride.

Hope.

Resilience.

And a deep and abiding love for our hometown. 

That’s the spirit of Ali.

That’s the spirit of Louisville.

Let’s nurture it in all of us, in each other and in our children.  Ali’s story is far from over. And ours is just beginning.

One where everyone in every neighborhood has an open path to greatness.

Let’s write that story together. Please join us. Be the One.

Thank you.