The first time we heard the gunfire at a house down the block it was comforting to imagine it as a one-time deal, the kind of random shoot-’em-up that at the time often punctuated midsummer evenings in our south Minneapolis neighborhood. I dutifully called 911 and filed the incident away in the back of my mind.
After all, Calvin and Geneva had raised a family in that house, we’d been told. Their girls had played with the teenage girls who often babysat our kids. They came to our block parties and, though they clearly had their problems (Calvin had lost his job and was drinking too much; Geneva, too, hit the bottle), they’d been accepted as part of the neighborhood long before we arrived.
So, when shots rang out again a few days later, and then again a couple of days after that, the block went on high alert. My wife, Sharon, contacted the local police precinct and learned that the cops had been monitoring the developing feud between Geneva’s nephews and the family across the street. The FBI was rumored to be investigating.
Meanwhile out in the front yard, our two kids were showing their friends how to drop and roll if they heard shots.
It was the next Saturday afternoon when we heard a car speed by and unload a salvo of gunfire into Calvin and Geneva’s front window. I grabbed the phone and punched in the too-familiar three numbers while racing down the front steps, nervously assessing the scene from the sidewalk. Down the street, Calvin and Geneva’s front door swang open and two young men, one armed with a shotgun, rushed to a car parked out front and sped around the corner. I described the car to the dispatcher and waited for the squad to show.
The two young men soon returned to the house to check out the damages and were safely back inside by the time the cops arrived. ‘One of the guys had a shotgun,’ I told the officers as they walked up to the house. They returned to the police car empty-handed, of course, and drove away.
There is, I think, a certain conceit at work among progressive white folks living in embattled, predominantly minority neighborhoods. People like Sharon and I often end up leading block clubs and activist organizations–prompted by a mix of community spirit and a slightly voyeuristic desire for street cred–without completely acknowledging that black-on-black gang crime is unlikely to touch us. But the escalating level of violence down the block had now reached the point where Sharon and I were starting to worry about crossfire. We called a block meeting and were not surprised to find our tiny living room filled to the rafters.
In the corner, Officer Steve Revor listened patiently as we vented our anger and frustration over the apparent crime spree at Calvin and Geneva’s. One former neighbor tearfully revealed how constant drug dealing at the house had finally driven her family away from the neighborhood they loved. Someone else talked about condemning the house and forcing them out. Others spoke of Geneva’s notorious family and Calvin’s drinking and their combined indifference to neighborhood concerns.
We were, I recall, working up quite a froth of indignation when Officer Revor finally spoke up: ‘Why don’t we ask them what’s going on?’
‘I’ll just go down and get ’em, and we’ll have a talk,’ he said, smiling.
The air left the room, and people who a moment ago were so clear in their resolve, so certain of the bad guys, gasped at the thought of confronting the enemy. But it was too late for debate, because Steve was already out of his chair and halfway down the front steps.
He soon returned with a very sober Calvin and Geneva in tow, and, when it was clear that nobody in the group was going to say anything, asked them what was up.
We listened as Calvin, eyes downcast, told of how Geneva’s nephews and their friends had gradually taken over the house and turned it into one of the city’s busiest crack dealerships. He described how he’d been beaten up a couple of times in his attempts to evict these hoodlums from his home and how he wouldn’t dare call the cops on them, for fear of his life. He’d been out of work now for a long time, he said, and felt useless, powerless.
Geneva didn’t say much. She seemed a little chagrined at having her home life displayed so openly to neighbors she’d known for so many years, but her attitude, if not quite contrite, was respectful. It seemed she felt some loyalty to her disruptive relatives and viewed the chaos as an unfortunate but unavoidable part of life in the big city. Her obvious embarrassment, her fear of judgment, the way she appeared slightly ticked off about the whole scene, combined to create, for me at least, a portrait of a real person. It was easy to see that Calvin was a victim in all this; Geneva’s role was more complicated–yet no less human.
None of us could any longer view this troubled couple as the enemy. Their very humanness disarmed the group, deflated our self-righteousness. The gathering became a forum to search for solutions, and when Calvin and Geneva departed it was with vows of support from their neighbors. ‘Give me a call if it looks like things are getting out of hand,’ I told Calvin. ‘I’ll contact the police for you. We’ll get this thing cleaned up.’
He never called, but things did quiet down for a time. Then a few weeks later, local police and FBI agents staged a spectacular midafternoon raid on the house, and that did the trick. I didn’t see Calvin or Geneva much after that, and I later learned that he had moved back to Louisiana and she had relocated a few blocks up the street where her sister lived. A developer bought the house out of foreclosure and fixed it up before reselling it to a young family.
We’ve since left the neighborhood, having grown out of the little two-bedroom bungalow after 11 years, and now live in another part of Minneapolis a couple of miles east. We’re less concerned about gangs and guns now (crime has dropped all over the city in the past few years), but we’re not so naive as to believe that the threat of violence and evil has disappeared from our world. It’s still out there, but I’d like to think we’re a little better able to confront and perhaps defuse it because of what we learned that afternoon with Calvin and Geneva, who changed in our minds from feared enemies into human beings after a half hour of hearing their stories.