Outrage over the latest shooting in Five Points is at a boiling point as merchants say they had warned police that an innocent bystander was going to become a victim if they did not get violence under control.
“They have an inability to acknowledge the problem and, No. 2, they have an inability to fix the problem,” said Joe Wilson, who owns three bars in Five Points. “They’re ruining us, and for what? Because they want to build up Bull Street? Because they want to build up Main Street? Everyone has told them what the problem is, and they’ve ignored it.”
An 18-year-old USC student was paralyzed after she was struck by a random bullet early Sunday morning. Martha Childress, a Greenville freshman, was waiting by the Five Points fountain for a taxi and never saw the shooter. Police arrested Michael Juan Smith on multiple charges, including assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, after an officer running toward the scene saw him fleeing.
The shooting is the latest episode in a string of shootings, stabbings and beatings that have scarred the popular nightlife area’s reputation. To add to the damaged reputation, USC President Harris Pastides on Tuesday issued a statement telling students that Five Points is not a safe place to be after midnight.
Debbie McDaniel, who owns two clothing stores in the village, said the Five Points community had been afraid that an innocent bystander would be hit if the shootings continued. Merchants had shared those concerns with police and city officials, she said.
“We all know there’s a gang problem,” McDaniel said. “Everyone in this city is aware of that.”
For years, Columbia police and city officials have refused to admit that gang members have begun coming to Five Points to party, Wilson said. Their refusal to acknowledge and address the problem has led to a decline in business and fanned the flames of racial tension, he said.
“I’m disgusted,” Wilson said.
The Five Points Association, which represents business owners, took a more measured stance Tuesday in an emailed statement from its executive director, Amy Beth Franks.
“Students are a huge part of this community and a large part of our success as a retail and hospitality district,” Franks wrote. “We are a neighbor to USC and we clearly have a problem down here of outside elements coming into Five Points – not as patrons and with obvious ill intentions – and they are causing problems and acting out violently.
“Let there be no misunderstanding that we are not unaware of the problems facing our community and the dangers being imposed on our patrons. We will not stand by idly.”
When asked about Pastides’ warning to students, Franks wrote, “While we hope that the city of Columbia recognizes and addresses the real issues facing us here in Five Points, we understand President Pastides’ responsibility to safety for his student body.”
Five Points has multiple personalities. It is not the same place at 2 a.m. as it is at 2 p.m.
By day, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores and other shops cater to people of all ages and backgrounds. One police officer walks the beat, talking to shop owners, customers and people sitting by the iconic fountain.
At night, the atmosphere transitions into a party zone. Young people from USC, Allen University, Benedict College and other schools mingle on the streets and inside bars where some drink heavily. Between 10 to 20 police officers patrol the streets.
But Carol Hilton, who works at 2G’s Clothing Store, said the violence is a problem for every business.
“It’s not just a nighttime problem,” she said. “It affects all of us, even during the day.”
Hilton said it was time for the Columbia Police Department to ask the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for help.
“Why turn down help? That’s ridiculous,” she said.
Sheriff Leon Lott has a larger, more experienced gang unit but he has said he would not send those deputies to Five Points unless the city asked.
Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago has said his officers are well-trained and he only was considering asking for help.
“It’s not a matter now of pride and politics,” Hilton said. “Get all the resources we can get.”
Franks said the Five Points Association is open to suggestions from the public. She encouraged as many people as possible to attend Wednesday’s public meeting about the violence.
“Our hope is the city gets to the real root of the problem, and we would like the public to weigh in with their ideas at the urgent community meeting,” she wrote.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.