Mass shooting transforms Short North into police surveillance zone

Looking for solutions to gun violence, city leaders opted to turn the arts and entertainment hub over to the police. The dystopian approach won’t fix anything long-term.
Camera overlooking the Short North neighborhood.
Camera overlooking the Short North neighborhood.Andy Downing

On a recent Friday night, sisters Alice and Grace showed their cousin, Robert, around Columbus, visiting Club 20, Axis and Half Baked. Toward the end of their endeavors, around 2:30 a.m., the group was standing on High Street when an unhoused man abruptly tackled Grace to the ground. Gunshots followed, and what first seemed like an attack took on a retrospectively heroic quality. 

Alice and Robert instinctively joined the other two on the ground, ducking to avoid the bullets spraying throughout High Street. People inside a nearby bar cracked open the door and waved for those in the streets to come inside, and the four escaped to safety.

They found out the next day that 10 people were shot nearby. 

James Thurber once wrote that “Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen, and in which almost everything has.” Today, with the wave of right-wing politics emanating from the Statehouse, increased gun violence, and underwhelming plans for the future, this fact has become more of a warning than a consolation.

In response to the shooting, Columbus leadership issued a recommended weekend midnight curfew for businesses; a mandatory midnight closure of food trucks; a mandatory midnight curfew for youth between the ages of 13-17; an increased police presence that includes an imposing police tower; no on-street parking after 10 p.m.; and an additional $500,000 for safety measures. 

In a city where so much public space has been privatized – the bastion of greenspace downtown known as the “Columbus Commons,” for example, is privately owned – it’s not surprising that there would also be a militarization of private space. And on the taxpayer’s dollar. “Capitalist urbanization perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political and liveable commons,” the geographer David Harvey argued in his book Rebel Cities. This destruction of the city employs both forces of crime and militarized policing.

Columbus’ proposed police budget for 2023 is more than $371 million of the city’s $1 billion general fund – a number that has only increased over the years. Despite the bloated budget, the homicide rate is not going down and having a police force armed with military equipment hardly makes the city feel any safer. Increased policing has also done little to address Columbus’ social and livability problems. Issues of crime, violence and policing cannot be detached from broader problems that plague the city: geography, urban planning and economics.

There’s not just an economic investment in the police taking place in Columbus, but also an increased physical presence, visible in the police towers, security cameras and squadrons of police who surveille the public sidewalks during the hours when social life is at its peak in the city’s urban retail and food hub. By militarizing Columbus’ central shopping and bar hopping strip, leadership is issuing the dystopian and almost comical demand to consume and enjoy safely

The police occupation of the Short North is a counterweight to the protests that often march through the neighborhood. But where protesters seek to disrupt the flow of capital to bring attention to injustice, the police offer a reverse image: protecting the flow of capital to perpetuate injustice. “A mass demonstration can be interpreted as the symbolic capturing of a city or capital,” the late art critic John Berger argued. “They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, ... [t]hey become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it.” 

The fix to the issue of gun violence in the Short North is not to be found in the police occupation of the neighborhood. But the city is limited in approaches by a Republican state legislature that has curbed its power to respond to gun violence – a fact not lost on the City Attorney, who filed charges against the state of Ohio, calling a state law restricting local authorities from taking action on guns “unconstitutional.”

Nonetheless, there are plenty of basic steps those in power could take to build a more livable city that can provide necessary services to its residents. The lack of these services is not just made clear through these bursts of violence, but also the bursts of escape. Witness the recent viral account of a Ukrainian refugee who claimed she chose to return to Kiev, a city still occasionally being bombed by Russia, rather than attempt to survive in the car-centric, privatized city of Columbus. Basic needs like public transit, healthcare, childcare and a livable wage drove her back to Ukraine. If the city can’t restrict guns, it can at least aim to provide the same basic social services that a city in a warzone can supply to its residents.

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