LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY —
For one week last spring, as Louisville led the world in mourning Muhammad Ali's death and celebrating his life, not a single person died in a hail of gunfire in the boxing great's hometown.
The silence was welcome in a city wrestling with an explosion of violence. Leaders hoped the cease-fire might stick - that the send-off for The Champ would mark a turning point, a city-wide reckoning with its failure to live up to Ali's legacy of respect for all human life.
But before sunrise the day after Ali's memorial service, shots rang out and a 20-year-old woman was dead. Then another murder. And another, resuming an extraordinary outbreak of bloodshed that has devastated Ali's hometown.
In the year since Ali's memorial service, the city's murder epidemic claimed 119 lives - more than twice the number of killings just three years earlier. When a 7-year-old boy was killed by stray gunfire as he ate a bedtime snack in his family's kitchen last month, the outcry reached new heights, with everyone from the governor to his grieving grandmother saying something had to be done.
“I'm getting numb to it, because I'm just beginning to feel hopeless,” said Shekela Brasher, whose 24-year-old son, Steve Lamont Bledsoe Jr., was gunned down four years ago in the same neighborhood where Ali grew up. “I know some of the people that's doing some of the murders, they feel like I feel sometimes - angry, hurt. I know they feel lost.”
The city is struggling to quell the violence. The police chief reorganized his department. City officials point to programs aimed at mentoring at-risk youths, building stronger families and helping ex-convicts turn around their lives. Yet the killing continues.
‘Collective will’ needed
Mayor Greg Fischer touts efforts to bolster the police force and promote safe neighborhoods, but says a groundswell of outrage is needed, too.
“At some point, there has to be a collective will of the community to say, ‘Violence is not a solution here,’” he said.
As Ali's fans marked the anniversary of his death, activists said the city should use his humanitarian message as inspiration to stop the bloodshed. They point to the six principles espoused by Ali - confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
“They need to use him as a poster image, and a way to create some creative messaging with young people about a way to instill self-pride in young individuals,” said Christopher 2X, a local activist. “In other words, he needs to be a walking history book for the city to promote constantly.”
Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his humanitarian causes, died last June at age 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. An estimated 100,000 people chanting, “Ali! Ali!” lined the streets as a hearse carrying his casket made its way past his childhood home to a cemetery.
‘It needs to stop’
Angela Williams was among the throngs with her 18-year-old son, Cameron D. Pugh. Two months later, her son and his friend, 22-year-old Larry Brewer III, were gunned down.
“The next funeral I went to was my son's,” Williams said. “It needs to stop. I don't want any other mother to feel how I feel.”
Louisville's murder rate had been low compared to other cities, hovering at 60 killings each year. But homicides spiked to 80 in 2015, and kept rising. Louisville Metro Police investigated 118 homicides in 2016, and another 52 in the first five months of 2017. The city's homicide rate is still below places like Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore, but it's climbing up the list.
“You're beginning to join a club you don't want to be in - cities that are paralyzed by their murder rates,” said Peter Scharf, a Louisiana State University professor of public health who specializes in violent crime.
In Louisville, the majority of murders occur in lower-income neighborhoods on the city's west side. Community activists and city officials say poverty, family dysfunction, a gap in educational achievement, abandoned properties, gang warfare, drug activity and the prevalence of guns all contribute to the surge.
Louisville Metro Councilman David James, an ex-narcotics officer, said people ask him if it's OK to let children play outside or go to the store. He knows of people who sleep on the floor out of fear of stray bullets flying.
“This is not how life should be,” he said.
From City Hall to hard-pressed neighborhoods, people don't reflect on last year's lull in violence during the week of Ali's death as a coincidence. It was an act of reverence, they believe, and it extended beyond the cease-fire. People cleaned up their yards, picked up litter and took pride in their city, but the swell of civic-mindedness was fleeting, said Lavel White, a documentary filmmaker who grew up in some of Louisville's tough neighborhoods.
“Now it's back to normal,” White said. “It's looking like crap again.”