In a Small Arkansas City, Crime, Dread and an Emergency Curfew

EUDORA, Ark. — In the small city planted in a seemingly endless spread of flat Arkansas farmland, the sense of danger had been building. There had been shootings, home invasions, teenagers without driver’s licenses going on joy rides that ended in crashes. The police had been run ragged.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a bullet pierced Martene Frazell’s window as she closed her curtains. The holiday feast she had been preparing was still on the stove as Ms. Frazell, a 47-year-old known for being a constant presence at her church, lay bloodied and dying on the floor.

Her killing crystallized the fear and frustration over violence in Eudora, pushing city officials to reach for a drastic measure last week: an emergency curfew restricting the roughly 1,700 residents from being outside their homes after 8 p.m. Exceptions would be made only for work or medical reasons, the officials said.

“Please help us bring these senseless acts of crime to a stop,” Mayor Tomeka Butler pleaded in a brief video posted online on Dec. 27 to announce the emergency declaration. “Should you be caught during curfew hours, you will be subject to being stopped and searched.”

The curfew has prompted complaints from residents concerned about losing their ability to move freely. The proprietors of a liquor store and a chicken wing spot — among the few businesses typically open past 8 p.m. — worried about losing money.

Mayor Tomeka Butler said the curfew did not infringe on people’s constitutional rights.Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

But many in Eudora — including those who believe the curfew is urgently necessary — see it as a desperate, stopgap measure that will not undo any of the decline and disinvestment at the root of the community’s struggles.

“I’m tired of the senseless violence — I actually care,” said Sgt. Joe Harden of the Eudora Police Department, which has a full-time staff consisting of him, the chief and another officer who recently graduated from the academy — all of whom have recently been working shifts of 14 hours or longer. “I just want things to change for the better.”

The police say they have traced the turbulence mostly to young people, many of them high-school age, who have been out on the streets at night, and skirmishes between cliques that escalate into violence.

But the blame also rests with something deeper, some residents say. The population of Eudora has dwindled over the years. The streets are dotted with shuttered storefronts, abandoned churches and overgrown properties. The high school closed. Sergeant Harden remembered when Eudora had its own Little League. What remains, residents said, is a void that has allowed discord and crime to fester.

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“There’s so much conflict in a little town — unnecessary conflict,” said the Rev. David Green Sr., 62, the pastor of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church, who was raised in Eudora and also raised his children there.

The troubles in Eudora afflict many rural towns across the South, where an absence of opportunity and resources has contributed to violence. Almost 60 miles north, in the small city of Dumas, a community festival in March erupted into gunfire, becoming one of the country’s largest mass shootings in 2022 with one person killed and 26 others wounded.

Rev. David Green Sr., the pastor of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church, said, “We shouldn’t have to be under curfew.”Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

In Eudora, officials said there have been nearly a dozen shootings in recent weeks and threats of more violence. One night in December, four bullets were fired into Alilesha Henderson’s living room as her 6-year-old son played video games. The holes left in the wall were just a few inches above where he sat.

“He barely missed getting shot in the head,” Ms. Henderson said. No arrests have been made, but she suspects that the shooting involved someone who had a conflict with her nephew.

“I haven’t been home since — put it like that,” she said. “I tried to go home yesterday. Made it to my living room, turned and left.”

Fears have magnified since Ms. Frazell’s death, the second homicide in Eudora this year. A 40-year-old man was also wounded in the Christmas Eve shooting, which is under investigation by the Arkansas State Police. No arrests have been made, the authorities said.

That evening, Pastor Green rushed to Ms. Frazell’s home and sat with her, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. He tried to comfort her, imploring her to hang on, even as she told him that she knew she would not survive.

“I held her hand ‘til the last moment,” Pastor Green recalled.

Ms. Frazell was a familiar figure around Eudora, known for her jokes and friendly nature. She volunteered at Pastor Green’s church, where she worshiped, and did some work in a flower shop.

“She prayed over everyone,” Sergeant Harden said.

Sgt. Joe Harden, with the Eudora Police Department, calls in license plate information after pulling over a vehicle out past curfew.Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

James White, a manager of Southern Sips, a liquor store just off Eudora’s main street, said the turmoil in the city did not affect him until the Christmas Eve shooting. “It’s when that innocent woman was killed,” he said.

“Most of these kids grew up with each other,” Mr. White, a native of Eudora, said of the young people now in warring cliques. “Some of them ate at the same table at each other’s houses.”

Mayor Butler announced the “mandated civil emergency curfew” two days after Christmas, and on Thursday, the city’s aldermen voted to extend the measure into the first week of January.

“The elderly, my people of wisdom, are afraid,” Ms. Butler said in an emergency town meeting on Thursday night. “If you can’t feel safe at home, then what are we doing? It’s time to wake up.”

Some argued that city leaders had acted rashly.

“It happened so fast,” Nancy Hollins, 69, said of the curfew. “You’ve got to consult the citizens.”

As she saw it, teenagers were roaming the streets because their parents had abdicated their responsibilities. “We had curfews by our parents,” Ms. Hollins said as she waited for the meeting to start.

Janice Palmer piped up, recalling what her parents had told her when she was a child: “When the streetlights come on, be at home.”

Ms. Palmer said she shared in the fear. “It makes you scared to sleep in your own home,” she said. But she was also worried about the curfew chipping into her earnings as the owner of Flavors, the wing joint that stayed open as late as midnight.

At the emergency community meeting, where dozens of residents crowded into the pews of a church, officials acknowledged the concerns. Ms. Butler said that the curfew did not infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights. The police chief, Michael Pitts, said that the circumstances were dire enough to merit such a severe response.

“I know it’s an inconvenience for some, but it’s a comfort for others,” Chief Pitts said, adding, “It’s not always going to remain this way.”

Southern Sips, the liquor store off the main street in Eudora, is one of the few businesses usually open after 8 p.m.Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

The meeting grew tense and loud as residents stood up one after the next, asking why the police had not done more to share information about crimes and demanding that city officials push harder for outside help. “Our city is under siege,” one woman said.

An older man asked if the police would stop or cite him if he was running late on his way home from running errands. The chief replied that they most likely would not.

The curfew, he said, was meant to help the overwhelmed Police Department.

“We’re a skeleton crew,” Chief Pitts said.

The department is also strapped for resources: Its vehicles are breaking down. Chief Pitts’s ballistic vest is a hand-me-down. He and the officers have to rely on their own binoculars.

“The criminals have better guns than what we’ve got,” Chief Pitts said.

He has beseeched other law enforcement agencies for assistance, whether with officers or equipment. “We’re asking — we’re pleading — for help,” he said, the long hours straining his voice. “I don’t have an ego about this.”

But Ms. Henderson stood up and told him that Eudora cannot count on others coming to their aid. “We’ve got to face the facts,” she said. “We as Eudora people should be used to being the underdog.”

She gestured to a family across the aisle from her. They had a relative who had been talking negatively about her family members, she said. “We squashed all that.”

“Lives are at stake,” Ms. Henderson said. “People are trying to turn people against people. God is not pleased.”

“Eudora,” she went on, “needs to get back to being Eudora.”

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