Following concerns of escalating gang violence in Asheville’s housing projects, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Asheville & Buncombe County announced a new initiative on July 3 from the clergy, the Asheville Police Department, City Council and community members called Stop the Violence.
The initative was announced at a press conference at Pisgah View Apartments Community Center after an emergency meeting on Monday that included 18 community pastors, police chief William Anderson, Councilman Jan Davis, Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston and concerned citizens.
When asked about the urgency of this week’s meeting and the Stop the Violence initiative, the Rev. Keith Ogden, president of the IMA, cited the shooting death of Charles Keith Morgan last month at the Livingston Apartments. Ogden said there is concern of retaliation over the July 4 weekend.
“We’ve got young boys and young girls, men and women, being shot for no reason,” Ogden said at the press conference. “We’re coming together as pastors, and community leaders, elected officials, the sheriff’s department, Asheville PD, to make a collaborative effort to put some solutions in place, to offer some programs for our young people. We want you to stop the gang activity.”
“We don’t need people showing up with guns at cookouts in Shiloh,” Ogden continued. “It doesn’t make any sense, and we are imploring our community to come together. Let’s stop the violence.”
Ogden said he believed a large part of the current problem is a cultural alienation between police and the community — including a distrust of police and a fear of “snitching” to “the man.” As of yet, despite dozens of people being present at the fatal shooting of Morgan last month, the crime is unsolved.
“We gotta stop blaming the police,” Ogden said. “The community’s not perfect, the police are not perfect. We are all humans. We all make mistakes. But if you’re doing the crime, you’re going to do some time. Don’t blame the man when you get caught selling drugs. Don’t blame the man when you get caught putting your fist upside our beautiful women’s heads. Don’t blame them, get some help.”
Part of the new initiative will include a “God Squad”where clergy members will do ride-alongs with APD to bring a ministerial presence out into the community, bridging the gap between the community and the police department. The first ride alongs will happen tonight, July 4, at 9:30 p.m., and will continue to be an integral part of the Stop the Violence initiative.
Speaking to Xpress, The Rev. James Lee, of St. Paul Baptist Church in West Asheville, emphasized the importance of clergy in solving these issues of gang violence. A police presence can only do so much, Lee said, but the pastors and faith groups can make a cultural impact, where lasting change is effected.
“Especially within the African American culture, black clergy has been the cornerstone of the leadership within our community,” Lee said. “And now within this new collaborative effort, we are taking that cornerstone and helping the police department address the violence.”
In addition to the God Squad ride-alongs, Lee said the initiative would encourage police to attend community meetings, facilitating relationships with community youth.
“We want to make sure the youth understand that [the police] are not the bad guys; actually they’re helpful,” Lee said.
Chief Anderson described the conference as a “historic moment,” with so many sectors of the community coming together for a common cause.
“And it doesn’t stop here,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t stop with this press conference. We have to take the message back to our families to make sure we’re all on the same page with making our communities safe.”
The IMA will be holding the next Stop the Violence community meeting at Hill Street Baptist Church on Wednesday, July 9, at 11 a.m. The meeting is open to the public.