- Brian Chilson
- POWER ULTRA LOUNGE: The scene the day after the shooting.
"Everything changed at about 2:30 a.m. July 1," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson wrote recently about the Power Ultra Lounge mass shooting. "Everything. Nobody at Little Rock City Hall seems to understand that. The city sustained a body blow as a new month dawned."
If anyone reading Nelson's article thinks that a crisis began 2:30 a.m. July 1, 2017, then he hasn't been paying attention to Little Rock. That's not to diminish the severity and seriousness of the incident that occurred at Power Ultra Lounge. But our city has been experiencing challenging circumstances for a long time. It has been obvious to me and those who look like me, grew up where I grew up, or grew up in my economic environment that the city has sustained multiple body blows over recent years.
After the mass shooting, I recall a woman saying that she overheard someone say, "This was not supposed to happen [in] downtown [Little Rock]." In response to hearing this statement, she said, "Well ... where was it supposed to happen?"
I also heard another Democrat-Gazette columnist, John Brummett, say recently that the shooting is "a city tragedy because it happened downtown." Again, this sentiment, whether unintentional or not, implies that violent crimes are not a "city tragedy" when they happen on Baseline Road, Colonel Glenn Road or Asher Avenue. Unfortunately, these are not just words, but a sentiment that has guided how dollars are spent and policies are drafted. I understand that the Power Ultra Lounge mass shooting made national news, but if we needed a story in The Washington Post to make us care about all parts and all people of our city, then we need to do some major re-evaluating.
In another column, the Democrat-Gazette's Nelson wrote, "Little Rock has a major gang problem, just as was the case in the early 1990s. Most gang members are young black males." You do not have to dig too deep to extrapolate from that assertion that black guys are the problem in Little Rock. To be clear, I know Nelson, and I know that is not what he meant. Unfortunately, I also know that some people saw the column as a means to reinforce the notion that "we need to get these black males under control."
I disagree with painting with such a broad stroke because I'm not much different than those "problem gang members." I grew up without my father in my household. My mother passed away when I was 13. I have incarcerated family members and I have lost siblings to gun violence. I lived in four different households all over Little Rock and North Little Rock. Additionally, I know that my education was not much different than those so-called, stereotypical gang members: I attended nine different schools before graduating from John L. McClellan High School. Now, when I'm not at work at Wright, Lindsey and Jennings, I'm sure that to some people I look just like those problem gang members. I'm not different, but my opportunities were.
My story — from McClellan to a top-five-ranked liberal arts college to law school to partner at a prestigious law firm — should not be a novel exception of some young black dude "making it." Arkansas Commitment, a leadership development program for academically talented black students, provided an opportunity for me to be exposed to a world that was mostly unknown to me. I was able to intern at local businesses and build relationships that are lasting to this day. These experiences were invaluable and have been critical in my professional development. Arkansas Commitment is an amazing program, but our community needs more programs like it to provide opportunities and exposure to an even greater number of people who otherwise would not have it.
I'm sure my life would be different if those opportunities were not afforded to me. People invested time and resources into programs and events that allowed me to become who I am today. We need more of that.
We need to invest in opportunities for all people in Little Rock, especially the perceived gang members or those from neighborhoods that have not received adequate capital investment. We need to be painstakingly deliberate about investing in mission-driven organizations to provide positive opportunities for middle and high school students, especially during the summer months, who do not have resources to take summer vacations or attend costly summer camps. We need to engage in intracity tourism to ensure that all citizens of Little Rock are invested in neighborhoods other than the neighborhoods where they live. We need to demand capital investment in the South End, on Asher Avenue and Geyer Springs Road; I'm sure investors can make a positive return on investment for projects in those neighborhoods. Problems such as the lack of civic, educational and social opportunities for people who live south of Interstate 630, in addition to the belief that Little Rock is becoming increasingly divided, have been at crisis stage long before July 1.
Antwan Phillips is a lawyer with the Wright Lindsey Jennings firm.