Paul Mazzola was walking home from The Rocket Club last August when a car pulled up and a man leaned out the window, showed a chrome-plated gun and demanded his wallet.
Mazzola gave him $52 (all the money he had) and called 911 when he got home.
The Asheville Police Department classified the robbery as “gang-related” and subsequently arrested two suspects, one 17 years old and the other 18. From July through December 2008 (during the first year the APD tracked gang-related crime), the department recorded 91 gang incidents in its Central District, which includes downtown and its immediate surroundings. Twenty-two of those crimes were later reclassified, leaving 69 gang incidents during that period.
Asheville’s gangs first made the news in 2007, when the city saw a 25 percent increase in gun violence, including a high-profile shooting at a Montford birthday party. The APD attributed the jump to a rise in gang activity.
At a community meeting called in the wake of that crime, retired APD Patrol Supervisor Walt Robinson asserted that “the boys in blue don’t have a clue,” saying warnings about the problem had gone unheeded for years.
Before the meeting, the police had begun working on several initiatives to address the situation, including establishing a two-detective gang unit, training other officers in how to combat gangs, and beginning to specifically track gang violence. And earlier this year, the APD signed an agreement with the Buncombe and Henderson County sheriff’s offices to create the Western Carolina Gang Task Force. Incidents such as a recent gang-related grocery-store robbery in Mars Hill indicate that the problem isn’t limited to a single area.
Law-enforcement agencies believe there are 25 well-organized gangs active in the Greater Asheville area and about 50 less structured gangs, ranging from affiliates of such well-known national gang networks as the Crips and Bloods to white supremacists and biker gangs moving through the area.
In 2008, the APD’s figures showed a 12 percent decrease in gun-related crime, though Detective Mike Lamb of the gang task force cautions, “It’s hard to attribute that to our efforts.”
Meanwhile, the underlying problems persist. “Despite [the gang unit’s] work, the social factors that create gangs haven’t changed,” stresses APD spokesperson Melissa Williams. “I think that’s the greatest contributor to the gang activity: Where they’re coming from doesn’t change at all.”
Finding villains or creating heroes?
To address those social issues, Lamb and his partner, Detective Louis Tomasetti, also spend time educating local youth and talking to families.
But the police aren’t the only ones working that angle. Brothers DeWayne and Clarence Barton are also on the front lines through Asheville GO, a program for at-risk youth, and they have a very different view of the problem.“The biggest factor in the gang lifestyle—[whether] someone’s drawn to it—is the parents,” says Lamb. “We have the Great Families program, which is geared towards middle-school children between the ages of 10 and 14. Studies are finding that the younger the child, the better our chances of doing some kind of intervention if they’re in that environment.”
“This is nothing new,” DeWayne maintains. “People spend a lot more money trying to find villains than create heroes. Compare the amount they put into chasing people down and locking them up to the amount they put into building up communities. The way this country treats low-wealth minorities is f**ked up, and that’s never really addressed: They keep doing Band-Aids.”
Reading the signs
The 69 gang-incident reports document everything from vandalism and burglaries to brawls and robberies (see sidebar, “Gang Incidents by the Numbers”). The largest single category, drug violations, includes 11 incidents, mostly involving crack, cocaine or marijuana. Other common gang-related crimes include assaults (10), robberies (8) and vandalism (also 8). There’s also a spate of robberies similar to Mazzola’s, with an attacker leaning out a car window to rob a victim at gunpoint.
Much of that activity is what Lamb says gang members call “putting in work”—one reason that gang wannabes are more dangerous than established gang members.
“When we started this, we had mixed opinions on gang activity, with some officers saying we didn’t really have a gang problem, we just had wannabes,” notes Lamb. “What we’ve learned throughout our training is that wannabes are actually more violent: They’re trying to build their reputation. When they ‘put in work,’ a more established gang member will have them do things like shootings, assaults, sell drugs and commit other crimes. I like to refer to it as a pyramid scam: The older gang members get the wannabes to do the work for them. The kids don’t realize they’re just getting duped.”
Education, says Lamb, is a key weapon: training law-enforcement officers and civic groups throughout the area to recognize the signs of gang activity. To date, the city’s gang unit and members of the task force have made more than 100 presentations to community groups. Since the task force is “only a five-person unit,” he emphasizes, “that information is vital” in enabling community members to help combat the problem.
Indeed, the gang-incident reports show that 28 of the cases were closed due to the police having exhausted their leads or victims refusing to cooperate or press charges.
Several signs help identify gang activity, says Lamb. “If we have where everyone’s wearing the same color, or if it’s gang-on-gang-member crime, that’s a sign—they usually don’t rob an innocent third party, because someone who’s got ill-gotten gains isn’t going to call the police.”
Clarence Barton, however, believes police often misinterpret supposed signs of gang activity and end up going after easy targets rather than actual gang members.
“When the police come through, they harass people because they think they’re part of a gang,” he asserts. “If you’ve got some kids that are all dressing one way, it could just be a fad, but they round them all up, charge them in a group because there’s one bag of weed. They label it a gang.”
An APD document defines a gang as “a group or association of three or more persons who may have a common identifying sign, symbol or name and who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, criminal activity which creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”
The changing face of gangs
Although Clarence Barton is an Asheville native, he lived in California for many years and saw gang problems there as well.
“Down there, they’ve had generations; in Asheville, it’s not that deep yet,” he notes. The local gangs, says Barton, “are knowing and learning from the bigger cities. That’s why prevention is so important.”
Indeed, the knowledge factor is part of what makes gangs more of a problem than individual criminals or ad-hoc groups, says Lamb. “Some of these guys go to prison [and] get training from other gang members on how to carry out these robberies. They’re more apt, being involved in a gang, [and they] get criminal tips from older gang members, much more than someone who’s just in desperate times.”
That adaptation process continues, he emphasizes: As police have focused on stopping violent and drug-related gang crime, gangs are moving into white-collar crime, such as fraud.
“Locally, we’ve seen check-cashing schemes within one gang,” notes Lamb. “Nationally, that’s becoming the trend. Within the biker gangs, they’re going into real-estate fraud. They’re starting to employ more technology, more money-laundering schemes.”
But DeWayne Barton says he’s seen little change. “Again, this isn’t new. The same old approach is that the cops sweep in, lock a bunch of people up. We need to be patient. This is a systemic problem; it’s been going on for 20, 30 years.”
He also maintains that the police are more likely to crack down on gangs when developers become interested in a neighborhood. “Let’s be real about this: The focus comes along anytime people want to do development in the area. Let’s get everybody at the table, make sure everybody benefits.”
Searching for solutions
DeWayne Barton cites the Burton Street neighborhood as an example of a successful local response to the gang problem. The federal Weed and Seed program provided funding for both an enhanced law-enforcement presence and for building up community institutions.
“They created a lot of opportunity; people started working together,” he reports. “Let’s support the programs that are out there; let’s highlight the strengths of kids that are trying to do right as much as we do those in the gangs. The kids that are doing right should be the spotlight.”
A key piece of that is community activities. “Find the things the kids want to do: dance, music, a cook-off, different things you can do to put it in the heart of the community,” Clarence Barton explains. “Just something to get them connected, give them something constructive to do. They used to do that all the time when I was growing up, but a lot of it’s disappeared.”
Detective Tomasetti makes a similar point. “The biggest factor [in the growth of gangs] is parents not [being] around and a lack of support from the community,” he asserts. “A lot of these kids are getting lost in the shuffle.”
“It’s an identity issue,” maintains Detective Chris Campbell of the gang task force. “They’re just looking for somewhere to fit in, and we know these gang members target those kids. That’s why we’re trying to focus so much on education.”
Local government, DeWayne Barton concedes, has begun showing “some interest, and that’s good.” But he says government at all levels still focuses on enforcement rather than prevention.
“Let’s compare how much money they spend to keep someone out there at Swannanoa [Juvenile Detention Center] versus how much money they spend in the community where that young kid came from. It doesn’t balance: We’ll spend hundreds of thousands to keep someone locked up, and pennies in his community.”