AS MY WIFE and I discussed the latest — and most detestable — violence in Five Points, she made a jarring assessment with which I agree: The friendly, eclectic urban village in the heart of Columbia is in a fight for its very soul.
Tanya, a licensed professional counselor with a private practice downtown, often looks at things through a sociological and psychological lens. And she doesn’t like what she sees unfolding in Five Points in terms of group dynamics. She said police and community leaders must act quickly, aggressively and consistently to rein in crime and violence or watch as mob rule takes root in the entertainment district.
“Five Points is already kind of known for being the hangout. Everybody can hangout, drink all you want,” Tanya said.
Urban districts densely populated by bars and clubs tend to invite a certain amount of lawlessness. When crime and violence escalate, people respond in the way that best protects or suits them, Tanya said. That’s true anywhere crime occurs in a city, which is why authorities, while right to address Five Points’ immediate concerns, must keep watch citywide.
While it’s wise and safe to travel in a group when going out on the town, the last thing you want is people choosing those they go out with based on their ability and willingness to brawl. Some will suggest that “If you’re going to hang out (in Five Points) and be comfortable, take some friends down with you and say, it’s OK if we all fight,” Tanya said.
The group violence that has already taken place has planted a seed and created somewhat of a perception — no matter how undeserved — that Five Points is a place some people go to settle scores and engage in violence and mayhem. Tanya said some people’s mindset will be “If you go to Five Points, be ready to fight or be assaulted, robbed or hit by a car. … If you’re going to fight, bring some friends.”
While Five Points leaders are worried about crime in general, they’re most concerned about the more violent variety such as the brutal beating of an 18-year-old in June of 2011 and, most recently, random gunfire and two mob fights. There are also serious traffic concerns in the area; this year alone, two people have been struck and killed and two others injured at the intersection of Harden and Greene streets.
Perception is reality. And people will make a determination about whether to continue to patronize Five Points or to change the way they experience the district based on their perception of it. Some could stop going altogether, but others might start coming in groups not simply to enjoy one another’s company but prepared to fight, whether out of self defense or as the aggressors. Some bad actors who have never sought to visit Five Points might be drawn to the area simply looking for trouble.
In that kind of environment — one buoyed by emotions and alcohol — it would be difficult to prevent group fights, she said. Even people who have no desire to fight or commit crime could be drawn into violence. All it takes is the foolish act of one wayward group member to start a brawl. “The group is basically expected to participate,” she said. “So you can have folks who would normally never fight who would join in the activities just because of the pressure to participate.”
“(In) this whole culture of people, this (mob) mentality in a sense, that’s what it is ... no one has to have the guts to fight their own battles if they’re going to fight.”
“The biggest problem with these outbreaks of crime, no matter who it is, is that the more it occurs the more it will occur,” Tanya said.
Invariably, how groups act will depend on two things she said: the rules as laid out by authorities and the groups’ own internal rules and moral guidance.
“Each group needs to have some rules,” she said. “You shouldn’t go with the intention to fight.”
Nor should you go with the intention of getting as drunk — and defenseless — as possible.
Tanya said it’s one thing for authorities to address problems caused by loosely knit groups of friends or acquaintances; if organized gangs become involved, it’s another. “A gang already has an identity and a code. ‘This is what we do in case (an issue arises)’. They travel with a purpose.”
But, she noted, “Every big group is not a gang.”
She said the way to protect Five Points from slipping into mob rule is for authorities to act swiftly and decisively. “There have to be consequences,” she said, adding city officials must establish unambiguous rules and enforce those rules without prejudice.
Indeed, city leaders and Police Chief Randy Scott have said they will take aggressive action; they will increase patrols and will crack down of drugs and DUIs, gang activity and under-age drinking, among other things.
“They better have more police officers,” Tanya said. She said that increased symbol of authority must be obvious and active; sending police officers into bars and restaurants on a random basis, letting people know authorities are ever-present and might appear at any time, would make a difference.
While some people suggest that police shouldn’t worry as much about some crimes such as under-age drinking — it adds substantially to the problems in Five Points — Tanya says it would be a mistake not to hold everyone to the same standard. Failing to do so implies that the law isn’t for everyone, which means that laws indeed are made to be broken.
And that standard must be upheld across the city, not just in Five Points. It would be hard to convince anyone you’re serious about crime if only certain areas are protected while others are left exposed.
The last thing you want is mob rule to spread citywide.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.