Bolton: Columbia needs a mediator to help address crime, violence, race in Five Points

Associate EditorMarch 10, 2013 

 

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

WE’RE SITTING on a powder keg. It’s by the grace of God that 18-year-old Carter Strange escaped with his life when he was brutally attacked by a group of boys nearly two years ago. And recently, a Columbia police officer found himself in harm’s way when a suspect fired shots at him while he was making an arrest.

If this community doesn’t pull together to address the complex issues at play in Five Points, it’s only a matter of time before a senseless, tragic death occurs — one that could rip the fabric of Columbia and cause division on any number of levels, including between black and white citizens.

The next beating, the next bullet could be that fatal one that sets off that powder keg.

Before we reach that point, we need to have a serious conversation about crime, violence and race in Five Points. The kind of discussion that leads to a shared and acceptable plan for addressing these issues. The right conversations could create common ground, improved rapport among participants and strategies to address problems such as gangs and underage drinking.

This meeting wouldn’t be controlled by the city or Five Points merchants. It would be a collaborative problem-solving effort convened by a third party and attended by a cross-section of people from throughout the community and Five Points. That convener would need to be a dispassionate, trusted, candid entity with the best interest of all of Columbia in mind.

The participants would include city government and police officials, Five Points merchants and residents in and around the area, and students and administrators from USC, Benedict College and Allen University. Students, parents and administrators from area high schools as well as churches and community organizations also would be candidates.

The convener would encourage honest, productive dialogue while discouraging poisonous rhetoric that leads to division, finger-pointing, name-calling — and no action.

For example, some in our community insist on framing the crime and violence problems in Five Points in terms of race. As far as they’re concerned, lock up or discourage all the black kids from coming to Five Points, and Utopia would be restored. That’s not only absurd, it’s racist.

A third-party convener would help frame the issue properly so that race would certainly be on the table. And, yes, talk about the disproportionate amount of crime young black men and boys in particular find themselves engaged in.

But let’s not act like people weren’t going missing and being robbed and run over by drunk drivers until black kids started coming to Five Points in larger numbers.

Like it or not, Five Points isn’t the quaint little village that caters to a narrow population any more; it now attracts a more diverse — and younger — crowd than it ever has. College kids of all races and backgrounds now frequent the area. So do young adults and even some high school students. And, yes, gangs and malcontents also are drawn to the area.

So, how do we have a conversation that leads to ways to keep our young people safe while removing the bad elements and, in some cases, giving the wayward souls help to turn their lives around so they can be productive citizens?

The key could well be right here in our community.

The Central Carolina Community Foundation, the Columbia Urban League, the Greater Community Relations Council and the United Way all have helped lead important and sometimes prickly conversations at one point or another. Perhaps one or more of them would be willing to take this on.

When local officials were struggling with how to address homelessness and where to locate shelters amid residents’ opposition, the United Way helped bring governments, service providers and residents together to develop a communitywide blueprint that ended up being a catalyst for the collaborative effort to establish the Transitions homeless center downtown.

In October, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council led a nonpartisan, communitywide discussion on the penny sales tax prior to the Nov. 6 vote. The council’s director said she hoped that would open the door for the organization to convene other civic conversations on high-profile issues.

In 2010, the Central Carolina Community Foundation experimented with a tool to convene citizens of varying backgrounds, races and political and ideological stances when it joined the nonprofit America-Speaks to host a town hall meeting on national issues.

I don’t know how such a process would turn out, but if people sincerely tried it, I’d bet we could come to some common ground. There likely would be some admissions: Yes, gangs are a problem; let’s fix it. Yes, underage drinking is a problem; let’s address that.

Who knows? We might find a plan we can all embrace. More importantly, we might even embrace one another.

It’s worth a try. No, it won’t necessarily be comfortable, and already-frayed nerves could mean some anxious moments. But we can either be proactive and address some of these touchy, pesky issues and be better for it, or we can sit around and wait until a stray bullet pierces a young life and tears this community apart.

Do we really have a choice?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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