The brick walls and wooden fences at the now-abandoned McCormick Heights housing project tell a sort of a story: Simple spray-painted messages in muted or faded colors reveal a running dialogue between local gangs, each entry scrawled on top of the preceding one.
In this particular case, notes Detective Louis Tomasetti of the Asheville Police Department, the messages were left by members of the Mountainside Posse—now called the M-Zone Rydas—and a rival group known as Four Tray, or “43,” which is affiliated with the Crips, a national network of big-city gangs.
Messages like these are intended to top one another and help establish dominance and turf claims between rivals, and history says that such beefs sometimes escalate into fights or even shootings. But Tomasetti points out that this graffiti is maybe eight months to a year old, and if it were new, he and his partner, Detective Mike Lamb, would be investigating further in hopes of snuffing out the feud before it turned violent. In the event, however, thisargument may have fizzled out in its own.
Along with Capt. Tim Splain, Tomasetti and Lamb make up the APD’s Gang Suppression Unit, and they’ve come to be familiar with such graffiti around town. During the past year, the public, the police and the media have all begun paying more attention to local gangs in response to a series of high-profile shootings, including a Montford death last fall. The Gang Suppression Unit was formed last year in an attempt to address the growing problem. On Feb. 21, the team held an information session for reporters and took them on a tour of local gang grafitti.
2007 was one of Asheville’s more violent years in recent memory, with homicides and shootings both up—due in part to gang activity, police say. Still, notes Tomasetti, such activity is mostly confined to specific areas, and there’s no need for city residents to panic. Overall, the totals remain low, and the city doesn’t have separate numbers for gang-related incidents.
“We don’t want to create an attitude of fear where Joe Blow has to put a bazooka in his car to go to the mall,” he says. “We’re not there yet.”
By the numbers
An APD document distributed to the press during the Feb. 21 Q-and-A session 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.”
According to Tomasetti, Asheville is home to some 15 to 20 such groups. But by that definition, he notes, there’s little difference between a gang and a group pretending to be one.
Media attention to gangs constitutes both a help and a hindrance, police say. It often supports investigations by getting the word out about particular suspects—but it can also give fledgling gangs exposure that brings status and bragging rights.
“The Montford coverage did do a lot to form the gangs more,” Tomasetti maintains. “They did [get] a certain amount of notoriety.”
And the fact that gang dress codes and behaviors often bleed into the more mainstream culture further blurs the boundaries. But merely looking like a gang member does not a gang member make.
“The hitch is, you gotta be involved in criminal activity,” Tomasetti says, adding, “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to watch those people.”
And figuring out what to do with groups and individuals in the gray area between posing and acting out is a major challenge for the gang suppression unit.
“A lot of people want to say what we have are wannabes.” Tomasetti says. But “a wannabe is a ‘gonnabe,’ and wannabes are more dangerous than the real gang member, because they’ve got something to prove.”
Most gang-related crime, he adds, cycles within the same community. One day’s witness can be another day’s suspect—and yet another day’s victim.
Gangs in Buncombe and Henderson counties, police say, come in many different forms. There are African-American gangs, Salvadoran gangs, biker gangs, white supremacists and more. Some are affiliated with national groups, while others merely claim to be. Still others—what Lamb calls “hybrid” gangs—are strictly local, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood and sometimes merging. And in those cases, both dress codes and behavior may differ from national norms.
“People do things and say things [here] that might get them killed in California or Chicago or New York,” says Tomasetti. And the close-knit ties among Asheville gang members create different lines of loyalty than are typically seen in larger cities.
Western North Carolina’s gangs are always in flux, changing as they are displaced by, say, the closing of a housing project (as in the case of the Mountainside Posse) or booted out of a community (as happened when the Pisgah View Apartments community teamed up with police in recent years to free their neighborhood from the gangs that plagued them).
“Asheville is a small enough community to where a lot of people know each other or are related. That’s why we’re not seeing a lot of the rivalry,” Lamb explains. “These guys went to Asheville High together.”
And though community involvement, aggressive enforcement and a federal Weed and Seed grant have essentially cleared Pisgah View of gang activity, notes Lamb, those gang members have simply set up shop someplace else.
And in any case, he questions whether the same thing can be achieved citywide. Successfully cleared areas need continued enforcement to keep gangs from reclaiming their turf, and there simply aren’t enough officers to tend to all the hot spots around town. “Unfortunately, it all comes down to funding,” Lamb asserts. “And there’s no way we can make a reduction without the community behind us.”