Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin

Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to combat Louisville’s record homicide rate via groups of people regularly praying on street corners in high-crime neighborhoods has elicited mixed reactions. While Bevin received applause from some of the hundreds in attendance during his Thursday announcement at Western Middle School, others heckled the governor, and a group of pastors walked out in protest, arguing his prayer patrol plan was an insult that ignored many of the root causes of violence that require government resources and policy changes.

Bevin signaled last week that he would release a simple plan to reduce violence that would not require any money — as this was a “spiritual” and “cultural” problem — following the tragic death of 7-year-old Dequante Hobbs Jr., who was killed by a stray bullet fired through the window while sitting at his kitchen table. During Thursday’s event, Bevin urged groups of three or more people to pick a block in one of five different ZIP codes with a high crime rate, walk around it for 30 minutes several times a week starting at 7 p.m., and stop to use “the power of prayer” at each corner. The governor urged those prayer patrols to “take ownership of that block” so that “a piece of your heart and soul is left around the edges of that block every time you walk it.”

“Take it and own it,” Bevin explained further at a press conference at Shawnee Park later that day. “There will be people that will start with two, and then 10, and then 100 blocks. And there will be people who take over whole communities, and I encourage them to do it. If every single church in Kentucky, just houses of faith in Kentucky did this, we’d have somewhere around 7,000 blocks covered… That’s pretty much every block on which somebody was killed last year, could be covered if people of faith put their faith to work.”

Bevin also accused those who vocally criticized him and his plan during the presentation of having “an agenda.”

The Rev. Clay Calloway of the West Louisville Ministers Coalition for Economic Justice was one of several prominent local pastors who walked out of Bevin’s event in protest, telling reporters he needed “a barf bag.” He told IL afterward that the governor’s plan “was an insult.”

“We gave the governor the benefit of the doubt by attending the meeting, expecting it to be a dialogue, but actually it was a monologue,” said Calloway. “He came in to preach to the preachers, and we were insulted by his intent and his content… For this governor to come in and propose what we are already doing and to claim that the governor and the government can’t do anything to support it is preposterous. His whole approach was bizarre and insulting.”

Calloway said this community needs a governor “who will provide us with new regulations and resources to remedy the situation that has been going on historically in this neighborhood. We don’t need the governor to pontificate about personal responsibility.” Noting that Bevin came equipped with large maps of Louisville with high-crime areas circled in red, Calloway added that “the murders are occurring in the same area where there was historic redlining that was enacted by the government for years. So you need the correct regulations and provide resources to remedy the age-old problems that created the violence in the first place.”

While Bevin often quoted the Bible in his presentation, Calloway said the scripture he quoted was “cherrypicked” to serve his purpose, and that his criticism of the governor reflected the “overwhelming consensus” of other black pastors in the community.

Rev. Kevin Cosby | Courtesy of St. Stephen Church

One such pastor is the Rev. Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Church, who called Bevin’s presentation and plan “total heresy” and “disingenuous.” Cosby compared Bevin’s prayer patrol plan to “an ancient heresy that is called gnosticism that was rejected by the early church because it’s hyper-spiritual, which does not deal with concrete physical human needs.”

“To get caught up in this superficial spirituality… it’s borderline new-age mind science,” said Cosby. “That somehow just positive praying is going to effectually change the community. No, positive resources is what effectuates change in the neighborhood, not thoughts. And the Bible clearly teaches that faith without works is dead.”

Cosby cited the 10 recommendations to combat violence that he and other pastor groups provided the governor on Thursday; those included not just reforming laws on gun regulation, restoring the rights of ex-felons and protecting witnesses who cooperate with the police, but educational campaigns on the “consequences of past and present racism,” a public apology for “injustices inflicted on the Black community,” and “tangible opportunities for preferential treatment to blacks as a corrective to centuries of special mistreatment.”

“The fact of the matter is there is violence in the community because there is poverty, and the poverty is rooted in systemic injustice and racism that has plagued this country since 1619,” said Cosby. “To talk about the present situation without talking about the historic and social antecedents that gave birth to it is disingenuous, is dishonest… it’s cowardly and it’s political.”

Cosby said Bevin’s actions Thursday were more politically calculated than merely a well-intentioned but naive mistake, claiming the governor “was talking down to black people and he was blowing a dogwhistle to his white constituents.” He added that he was not only angry with Bevin, but was also “greatly disappointed in [Bevin’s] church,” Southeast Christian Church.

“Micah says ‘do justice, love mercy,'” said Cosby. “They love to do mercy ministry, it makes them feel good that they can come down here and do something. But I don’t want your mercy, I want justice. And if I get justice, I don’t need your handout. I can do it for myself.”

Asked how he thought Bevin might react to his criticism, Cosby answered: “If there’s a need for prayer, my prayer is that his eyes will be open. And he will have the courage to do the right thing, which is not always the politically correct thing to do. Martin Luther King used to talk about churchmen who stand on the sidelines and mouth out what Dr. King called ‘pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.’ That’s what we heard today. Pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Such criticism was shared among the Democratic and African-American elected officials from the areas of Louisville circled on Bevin’s map and targeted for prayer patrols. On his Facebook page, state Rep. Darryl Owens referred to Bevin’s solution as “pray away the violence” and called it “insulting and appalling.”

“Instead of committing resources, inviting a dialogue with the hundreds present, or pledging to work toward a tangible long term strategy, the governor revealed his contempt by invoking his perceived spiritual and moral superiority upon us,” wrote Owens. “I am outraged by his disrespect and paternalistic regard for those desperately searching for answers and support in our community’s darkest hours.”

State Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville

State Rep. Attica Scott told IL that she thought Bevin’s presentation was “a political showcase with little to no substance,” applauding the pastors who walked out — including her own — for taking a stand, as “people have to stop affirming and supporting the governor when he’s not saying anything that is really going to make a difference for us.”

Saying that most in the room were white and not from the West End, Scott questioned whether Bevin’s call for people to sign up on such prayer walks was more about “building up his database” for a re-election campaign, or “whomever he plans to support who runs against (Mayor Greg) Fischer” in 2018.

“For me, looking at that room of mostly white people, I’m thinking to myself ‘are they going to be walking through the streets of Louisville without any kind of racial justice analysis?'” said Scott. “And if they’re walking through with the same kind of mentality that he has, which is this is about a cultural or spiritual problem, that’s not going to help alleviate any kind of community violence. That’s only going to exacerbate the division that we have between people.”

Scott noted that several people at the meeting brought up concerns about the criminal justice system, infrastructure needs and vacant and abandoned properties, but Bevin said those matters would be addressed on another day. Adding that Bevin’s Republican Party has total control of both legislative chambers, she said that if the governor “had the political will to address economic issues in West Louisville, employment issues, income issues, he could do that. He could say this is what I want you all to do, this is my agenda… But instead he chose to spend today preaching to us and reading through the Bible.”

Councilman David James, D-6, called Bevin’s event “a waste of time,” as “getting out and talking and meeting your neighbors and all of that stuff is what Metro Council has been preaching for years… that wasn’t anything new.” He wished that Bevin had spent time talking about plans to incentivize businesses to locate in impoverished areas so people could find jobs, or even increase the minimum wage so people don’t have to resort to crime or the illegal drug trade.

“I think that the governor loves this city and would like to see better for it,” said James. “However, I believe that his meeting yesterday was not well thought out and was insulting to many people that called me afterwards… I’ve not spoken to a single person who thought it was great.”

Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7

James has been one of Metro Council’s most vocal critics of Mayor Fischer and LMPD Chief Steve Conrad regarding the city’s policing strategy in the face of a record-high homicide rate, along with Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, the only member of the Republican caucus to attend the event. Leet — who is rumored to be considering a run for mayor, as well as James — praised Bevin for his “courage” in offering a plan and “to step out and wear his spirituality on his sleeve,” adding that she is motivated “to adopt a block and take that first step.”

Christopher 2x, a longtime anti-violence advocate in Louisville, also broke from the criticism of pastors by praising the governor’s effort, telling IL that this is a continuation of the interest Bevin and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton have shown over the past year in helping the victims of violence in Louisville. He said he was there on behalf of 7-year-old Dequante Hobbs’ mother Micheshia Norment — as well as Cierra Miller, whose 16-month-old daughter Ne’Riah was shot and killed three years ago — saying these survivors were more focused on a “spirit-building process” than politics and policy.

“Those survivors wanted to hear what the governor had to say, and basically look at it from a perspective of not the political angle, not how much teeth or muscle he can bring to the situation, but more or less about was he offering another tool in the whole spirit-building process to try to get people to at least understand that this is a real public health crisis,” said 2x. “And from everything I’ve heard from them, they know it wasn’t a save-all solution, but it couldn’t hurt in the sense of trying to get people to participate in what is clearly a public health crisis.”

2x said Bevin’s plan to reduce violence is one of several that is worthy of consideration, and that no one has a bulletproof solution or a magic wand to make homicides disappear, including Rev. Cosby.

“Nobody can just say that the governor’s plan is totally ridiculous, and not understand that somebody could look at your plan and say that plan is ridiculous, too,” said 2x. “So we don’t get caught up in these tit-for-tat issues. All of them should look at each effort as worthy of a cause, and there should be less debate and more understanding that everybody has a stake in trying to deal with this public health crisis.”

Norment told reporters after Bevin’s presentation that the governor’s heart is in the right place, but doubted that the prayer walks would deter violence or change anything. She said that what would curb violence is making it harder to obtain a gun.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]