NEWS- Déjà-vu: Group tries again to stop assaults
In the spring of 2003, when popular, mostly African-American, Charlottesville High students were charged– and later convicted– of beating up UVA students, a galvanized community met to take action. Concerned citizens gathered at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, committees were formed, and fundraisers held for the defense of the young perps.
Four years later, groups of white t-shirted teens are accused of randomly attacking passersby in what some believe is gang activity. Pastor William Coles has called upon the African-American community to respond, and some are wondering whether those efforts will be effective.
Coles, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Area African American Male Forum, insists the August 14 gathering to be held at the Loving Church of God in Christ at 1717-A Allied Street after the Hook's press time, is not a one-shot deal.
"The Forum was already in existence four months ago," says Coles. "We formed as a means of addressing issues important to African American males."
In meetings thus far, the group has come up with several objectives; at the top of the list was to prevent the incarceration of African American males. "Instead of saying something is wrong with the system, we want to keep them from getting into the system," says Coles.
With the current rash of random attacks upon strangers by gangs of younger teens, "What we hope to accomplish is one, the immediate cessation of this activity, and two, to prevent this in the future," says Coles.
The Forum currently has about 20 members, and Coles is recruiting at events such as a recent community day in Westhaven. Despite the gender- and race-specific name, Coles says the session is open to everyone, male and female, and he particularly wants leaders of nonprofits, churches, and those involved in the African American community to join.
NAACP president Rick Turner plans to be there. "I am so excited," he says. "I'm glad he's doing this. Anything to help stem this tide of violence of our young people."
Turner is aware that previous community calls to action have fizzled. "I think the Reverend Coles is a different kind of leader," Turner says. "I don't think he's the type looking for publicity like others. I hope people will be there for a sustained effort, not just a publicity stunt."
And what can the Thomas Jefferson Area African American Male Forum do to stop gangs of young teens from assaulting strangers?
"Before any problem is solved, I think you have to have a discussion," says Turner. "That's why I'm so excited about this effort and what kind of information might be forthcoming when you meet with a diverse group."
Police initially stressed that they had no evidence tying the recent crime wave to gang activity in the area, but they have not ruled that possibility out.
Turner has his doubts. "Anytime you see groups of African American youths, there's a tendency to assume it's a gang. We need to investigate that."
A recently released federal prison inmate has no doubt that gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, Crips, Bloods, MS-13, and DC Boys can all be found here.
"The police are really hiding the fact there's a lot of gang activity in Charlottesville," alleges TWS, the ex-con who asked to be identified by his initials only. "I walked about the Mall for two hours [August 11] and saw everything."
TWS cites his prison credentials as the source of his expertise on gangs. "I've dealt with these people a long time," he says. "I did some time with these people, and they're exceptionally hard core."
He says he spotted the "sur" neck tattoo of the Sureños, a southern California gang of Mexican Americans whose name means "Southerners," and Gangster Disciples (a.k.a. GD) with yellow flags "hanging off their asses," an activity Crips and Bloods are less likely to do these days, according to TWS.
Not that this area is immune from the best-known gangs. "Bloods are much better established on the East Coast than the Crips," he observes. "I would say there's more of them by a substantial margin."
Gangs have always been prevalent in the DC area, says the former inmate, and have moved into the Charlottesville and Harrisonburg areas with their potentially lucrative market of college students interested in drugs and hookers– at least according to TWS.
He's dubious about the success of the Thomas Jefferson Area African American Male Forum. "People involved in gang activity are doing it from peer pressure, not community pressure," posits TWS. "For many, the lure of gang activity is the respect of peers and making money." And he says the random striking out at strangers is a "very typical" gang activity.
"There are a lot of gangs, and ignoring them isn't going to make them go away," says TWS, predicting upcoming turf wars with "violence the likes of which [the city] has never seen before."
"To say we're downplaying it, that's the furthest thing from the truth," says Charlottesville police chief Tim Longo. "From 2002 on, we've said they were on the radar.... I think we've been forthright about it, and to say we've minimized it is inaccurate." Tagging, aka graffiti, indicates the presence of MS-13 and Gangster Disciples, says Longo.
City and county police are sponsoring a major initiative on gang awareness, and a community forum is scheduled for August 28. Longo calls efforts such as the Thomas Jefferson Area African American Male Forum "proactive" in addressing the greater issue, such as why 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old kids are out at two or three o'clock in the morning.
"It isn't just a police matter," says Longo. "If you think we arrest them and they're going to be detained and that takes care of the problem, that's naive."
The success of the Forum "depends on how many people are involved and whether they're in it for the long haul," says Longo.
Pastor Coles is undeterred by the difficulty of the long-range and short-term goals of his group. "We're trying to change the complexion of our community," he says.