After mass shooting, Arkansas town struggles to move forward

DUMAS, Ark. – The small town of empty storefronts and vacant land that is Dumas, Ark., has seen its population steadily depleted over the decades. But each spring, the people of the Diaspora took two-lane country roads, crossing cotton fields and catfish farms and finally to Dumas for Hood-Nic, the community’s big “neighborhood picnic”, which serves as an informal homecoming.

It’s usually a low-key day full of preachers, rappers, raffles, food trucks, and a contest for custom car owners. The event raises funds for scholarships and promotes non-violence. But this year, organizer Sylvester Spinks Jr. said something “allowed the devil to creep in.”

An evening eruption of gunfire in a crowd of around 1,500 at the Hood-Nic festival on March 19 resulted in the largest mass shooting in the United States this year, killing a 23-year-old man and injuring 26 others, including five children. Last week, authorities arrested Brandon D. Knight, 22, a North Little Rock man who, according to a police affidavit, admitted shooting a handgun at a man he believed stole and shot an acquaintance that day.

Police found 17 used cartridge cases which they believe were compatible with a .40 caliber Glock handgun belonging to Mr Knight. But Arkansas State Police have not fully explained what happened and said their investigation is ongoing.

In the days that followed, bandaged victims returned home from hospitals, and the parking lot of the closed discount store where the event was held was cleaned of bloodstains. Dumas, a town of 4,000 people 90 miles southeast of Little Rock, seemed united in anger and grief: Almost everyone in town seemed to have a connection to the families of the injured.

And there were serious concerns that another victim of gun violence was Hood-Nic himself, a grassroots event that has united friends and families scattered for years and served as a bright spot in a place of extreme poverty and reduced opportunities.

“He got bigger and bigger every year,” Curtis Allen, 68, a retired trucker, said of Hood-Nic. But after the shooting, Mr Allen said: ‘I know a lot of people are going to say they’re not going into another one of those things.

The proposed solutions for Hood-Nic and for Dumas reflect the priorities and anxieties of a nation that is reeling from what recent data suggests is a 30% increase in murders since 2019. Some residents have wondered if metal detectors and surveillance cameras would be helpful. Reverend Arthur L. Hunt Jr., a local activist, said underlying social issues could be improved by his pet project – a multi-million dollar project college of arts and technology.

Flora J. Simon, the mayor of Dumas, said she wasn’t sure anything could be done to prevent another shooting. “If two people want to fight, I don’t care how many people, how many teachers you have on duty on the playing field,” said Ms Simon, a retired high school science teacher. “They can be sitting there having a nice conversation, all of a sudden they get up – and they fight.”

Arkansas has some of the most permissive gun laws in the United States and is grappling with an increase in gun violence. The National Gun Control Group Everytown for Gun Safety Remarks than gun rate deaths have increased 40% in the state over the past decade, compared to 33% nationally.

The recent political climate has favored an even greater relaxation of gun restrictions. Last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law that allows residents to carry concealed weapons without license. Mr Knight told police he kept his handgun in his belt. He was arrested on suspicion of battery and aggravated assault, but was not charged with violating gun possession laws.

The Hood-Nic Festival began in 2004, an attempt to build something positive in a community that was already shrinking dramatically as farms became more mechanized and businesses moved overseas. Mr. Spinks and a group of friends built over an existing barbecue in the front yard and added rap performances and other attractions.

“At that time there was a lot of crime,” said Jesse Webb, an organizer who lived in Ohio at the time. “And you have to realize it’s a very small place. Every time we called home, something bad happened. Someone has been killed. Someone was robbing a bank. It was just all kinds of crazy stuff.

The challenges facing Dumas, the largest city in Desha County, are common in Arkansas’ flat, fertile delta region. The county’s population has dropped from around 20,000 in 1980 to around 11,400 in 2020, according to census figures. Poverty stands at 22.8%, twice the national average. Dumas once owned two new car dealerships and a Walmart, but all are gone now. The Walmart was replaced by an outpost of a regional discount chain, Fred’s, which declared bankruptcy in 2019. Its vast expanse of empty asphalt served as a convenient setting for that year’s Hood-Nic.

The legacy of segregation in the majority black city remains palpable. In Dumas, the train tracks separate what is still considered the black and white sides of the city, although these distinctions have blurred over the years. Mayor Simon is the first African American elected to this position. Hood-Nic was notable as a grassroots community event started by black organizers.

This year, an added sense of anticipation preceded Hood-Nic; the event had been canceled the previous two years due to the pandemic. Cars blocked US Highway 65 on either side of the dollar store parking lot. Chris Jones, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, showed up around noon to campaign. He set up a booth, registering voters among custom cars and farmers on horseback.

Mr Jones left before the shooting started. But Mr. Webb was on stage. “It looked like fireworks,” he said. “I saw light flashing on the ground. I was in disbelief, like, who would put firecrackers in the crowd? From there it was just a scrum. It was just disgusting.

Reverend Roscoe Joyner, 73, was in a McDonald’s overlooking the crowd when the shooting began. Her 10-year-old grandson was there somewhere. Reverend Joyner ran outside, terrified. “There was a crowd of people, they rushed towards me. I had to impose myself. »

He met children who were bleeding. One of them, a girl who appeared to be under 10, had been shot in the leg and was skipping. A little boy was being carried in someone’s arms. He saw the man who was killed, Cameron Shaffer, 23, lying motionless on the sidewalk.

Moments later, he found his grandson, who was paralyzed with fear. A stranger had pushed the boy behind a car to protect him. Soon, Reverend Joyner said, another round of gunfire rang out.

According to the affidavit, Mr Knight, the accused gunman, told police he was shot in the chest and arm by the man who tried to rob his friend. He was hospitalized and arrested on his release. Another injured had identified him while he was on a stretcher.

Mr Knight also told police he did not know how many times he fired after removing his handgun from his belt. He told them that everything had happened so fast that his adrenaline was surging.

“I know there were a lot of kids there,” he told them, according to the affidavit. When he saw the young people in the hospital, he said: “it hurt”.

A few days later, Mayor Simon shared details of available trauma counselors in the local newspaper. Reverend Hunt wrote an essay encouraging residents to “pray without ceasing.”

Mr. Jones, the gubernatorial candidate, came to town on Friday and spoke at a sparsely attended press conference, noting that he was one of several responsible gun owners in Arkansas . “It’s time to have a balanced conversation about gun violence,” he said. Later, he told a reporter that the conversation should include reviewing “open carry” and other Arkansas gun laws.

Mr. Webb and Mr. Spinks, co-founders of Hood-Nic, said it was too early to tell what would happen to their festival. Their goal for now, they said, was to raise funds for the victims.

“It’s always been about kids,” Mr. Webb said, “and a lot of kids are still traumatized.”

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