NEWS- Punch line: West Main attacks nothing new
The coverage of the recent spate of unprovoked attacks by gangs of white-t-shirted youths has led to complaints that they've been overblown. But for the past year, many assaults on West Main Street have gone largely unreported.
Donna Burke and Clarence Leake were crossing Drewary Brown Bridge early July 21 heading toward downtown when they were approached by a group of six or seven black males.
"One asked what time was it– one little boy," says Leake, 31, "and [Burke] said 2:58. The little boy jumped in the air and struck me in the back of the head."
"I asked, 'What's going on?'" says Burke, 20. "He hit me in the face. The inside of my mouth was bleeding, and I had a black eye for a week."
The other teens– all wearing dark clothes, not white t-shirts, as previously reported– hit Leake in the back of the head seven or eight times, he estimates. "I turned around with my fist balled up, and they took off running," he says.
Unknown to the couple, theirs was not an isolated attack. Another man and woman had been assaulted on West Main a few minutes earlier, a man was hit early July 22, and sources say the police have been aware of similar incidents for the past year.
In the earlier July 21 attack of another couple, the assailants were described as four to five black males wearing blue jeans and white t-shirts.
Are the two July 21 assaults related? "I don't think we know," says Charlottesville Police Captain Bryant Bibb. "One of the theories is these are committed by rival groups trying to outdo each other."
He says the time and proximity of the two attacks are "awfully coincidental," but the different clothing leads police to suspect different groups.
Police arrested two 15-year-olds July 26 following the assault of a 34-year-old man at the intersection of Grove and the 10th Street SW connector. But at press time, police have not connected them to any of the other assaults.
For some, reports of young thugs on West Main come as no surprise. "We've had incidents since last summer," says a long-time employee of the recently closed Starr Hill, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. She estimates the music hall called police 10 to 12 times.
She describes a Starr Hill guest who was punched in the face and suffered a broken nose. At a dinner last fall for UVA Jefferson Scholars, a woman coming to the event around 5:30pm had a brick thrown at her leg. And at a wedding rehearsal dinner, a young male came in, stole a purse and ran out. Three men from the wedding party gave chase into the alley between Starr Hill and Mel's Café. "There were about 12 to 14 kids there," says the former employee. "They were outnumbered."
She says none of the kids are older than 16, and that other Starr Hill employees have chased them over the railroad tracks to Hardy Drive.
"It's interesting [the attacks] are getting all this attention now that they've moved downtown," she says.
Author Henry Wiencek also witnessed an assault November 16, and narrowly missed being hit himself with a thrown bottle while attending a poetry and song-writing competition co-sponsored by Starr Hill Presents, the Music Resource Center, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
Around 8:45pm, Wiencek stepped outside the Starr Hill venue and noticed a small group of kids down the street. When he turned his back, a soda bottle whizzed by a few inches from his head. He turned around and saw the teens disappear into the alley between Mel's and Starr Hill. Moments later, a couple emerged from the alley.
"A young man in his twenties was holding a tissue to his face," says Wiencek. "He sat on the ground and said, 'Two of them just hit me. They hit me for nothing.'"
The man refused Wiencek's offer to call the police. The next morning Wiencek decided to report the incident and called a non-emergency number. The woman answering asked, "What can we do? Is it happening now?" recalls Wiencek. "She said they'd get back to me– and they didn't."
Wiencek thought it unlikely police would catch anyone, but he did want them to be aware of the incident. "At the time I was very disappointed," he says.
He calls the attacks "extremely brazen" and "opportunistic," and admits, "It shook me that a bottle went by my head. I'd still be in the hospital if it hit me."
Now he thinks twice about going to West Main. "I'm nervous for the first time in my own town," he says. "I'm nervous about my son and his friends on the Corner."
When asked to comment about allegations that attacks on West Main have been going on for a year, Police Chief Tim Longo says he isn't exactly sure which assaults the former Starr Hill employee and Wiencek are talking about. "I can tell you that we are actively investigating those incidents that have come to our attention," writes Longo in an email. "Additionally, we continue to deploy a large contingent of resources throughout the city in an effort to prevent additional incidents from arising."
Arthur Walker, daytime cook at Mel's Café, says he's not aware of the West Main assaults, and worries that because white t-shirts are ubiquitous, the attacks will smear all who choose that attire.
"You've got a thousand black kids wearing white t-shirts, and 975 of them are good kids," says Walker. "What these other  kids are doing needs to be stopped. That's crazy."
At the popular eatery, Walker sees kids wearing white t-shirts and baggy jeans all the time. "A lot of them I know," he points out. "I know their grandmothers."
He believes that attacks are more likely closer to downtown. "Up in this area, they could be recognized," he says. "Hey, that could be Mrs. Jones' grandson."
And some of the attackers have been recognized. Clarence Leake says he's seen pictures of suspects. "The one who struck us, [police] had his picture," he says.
Leake suspects gang activity and says gang symbols like "Pspect" are all around town. He wonders if the random attacks are an initiation. "I don't see why the youngest one would be the one to be striking," he says. And he cites the similar attire of the attackers– in his case, dark clothing.
Two days after Leake and Burke were attacked, he got a cell phone, and the couple don't come downtown as often. "I don't feel like hanging here is a good thing," he says.
Burke grew up in Fluvanna and has lived in Charlottesville for 13 years. But for him and Burke, Charlottesville has changed from a "best place to live." Leake says they're now "thinking about getting out of here."