Community members plan ways to fight gang violence

The Sept. 30 shooting of two 17-year-old girls and a 12-year-old boy in Montford has raised serious questions about gang violence in Asheville. At a meeting on Oct. 5, members and leaders of the African-American community said that solutions to the problem will have to start at home.

“I’m not here to blame—it’s time to talk about what we’re going to do,” Bob Smith, director of the Community Relations Council said. “All the children out there have the potential to be harmed. It’s not about who did what but what are we going to do about it. We’re going to have to reach in our own pockets and see what we can do about it. Let’s take the lead here.”

The same day, the Asheville Police Department announced that they had arrested a 14-year-old in connection with the shooting.

The public meeting followed what had been mistakenly reported as a rally at Tried Stone Missionary Baptist Church, but was in fact a closed meeting of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and some Asheville Police Department officials. About 35 community members then met in the fellowship hall.

The announcement of the closed meeting came with some criticism, as W. LaVon Griffin responded that the meeting should be open to all. “We need to have the community involved in this,” he said. Alfred Blount, pastor of Tried Stone, replied that a meeting open to the community will be scheduled shortly. An open meeting at the W.C. Reid Center is planned for Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 8:30 a.m.

Benny Loman, a former social worker who’s run children’s programs, said that more effort had to be made to match the amount of effort and training gangs put forward.

“They organize—they have lieutenants and sergeants and they train—do we train our good kids how to recruit other kids to keep them out of gangs?” he asked.

Gangs are not a new problem, according to Walter Robinson, a former APD officer who retired in 2002, who said it’s one that the community desperately needs education on. “Ten years ago, the whole city was in denial when I brought this up [and] today we’re still in denial,” he said. “Here in Asheville, the ‘boys in blue don’t have a clue.’ They don’t know how to identify the signs. But right now, we have to approach it from not blaming anybody. If you want someone to blame, look in the mirror. We’ve got build trust by working together.”

Several members of the group responded that mistrust with the police had built up over the years when, for example, they observed police not talking to residents in the Hillcrest Apartments.

APD Capt. Tim Splain, who heads the patrol division, said the police are coordinating with the community to tackle the problem. “We’ve sent a number of our officers to anti-gang training,” Splain said, adding that the APD has also joined a network to track gang members on the move and wants to introduce anti-gang programs into the public schools. “We’re just trying to educate ourselves and work with the community. The community members know more about the individual members of each gang because they deal with this every day.”

Toshia Sykes, who works in Pisgah View Apartments, said she had taken children into her apartment after the shooting and showed them movies about the consequences of gang violence. “We showed them testimony from former gang members telling them it wasn’t worth it and showing them the gunshot wounds,” she said.

Renee White said that community leaders have made themselves too “untouchable” and need to get “out there door to door. Be touchable. Be tangible. They think we’re bourgeoisie. It’s time to stop the meetings and get out there.”

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