Bolton: Midlands communities must create more awareness about, positive alternatives to gang activity

Associate EditorFebruary 16, 2014 

Columbia, SC

‘LAST YEAR around Christmas, my house got shot up.”

The little girl who uttered those words couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 years old. During a recent forum on crime and violence, she stood to ask why more isn’t being done to stop guns from flowing so freely in our communities.

I was impressed by her bold spirit — and simultaneously depressed at the notion that one of our babies had to endure such a senseless act. And to think: She was among the fortunate ones. Not so fortunate were an 18-year-old USC student who was shot and paralyzed as she awaited a cab in Five Points and a 14-year-old who was paralyzed after being shot as she visited a Columbia apartment complex. Alleged gang members were charged in both instances.

The elementary-age girl inquiring why more can’t be done to reduce the proliferation of guns was among dozens of residents who attended the forum at the main branch of the Richland Library. After they listened intently to a panel consisting of a journalist, a state lawmaker, two law officers and a minister, when attendees got an opportunity to share their questions and comments, they were full of solutions. Crime watches. More things for youths to do — and not just sports. A greater police presence. More mentors. More jobs. Better education. Increased church involvement. More active parents.

While agreeing with many of the solutions, the law enforcement officers stressed that residents need to call them when their community is threatened; otherwise, they don’t know. The representative from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department pointed out a truth that is being repeated over and over these days: The best police officers doing their best work can’t rid neighborhoods of crime, violence and gangs alone. Residents must unite and be more active in saving their own communities.

Although the term take back your community has become a bit of a cliche, it is altogether true — and necessary. While many are fearful of gangs and other bad actors, the law-abiding, hard-working citizens who simply want to live and work and raise their children in a safe, wholesome environment far outnumber those who would wreak havoc in our neighborhoods. The many must not allow the few to essentially lock them in their own homes out of fear.

Community members must say enough is enough and work with one another and law enforcement to set their neighborhoods free. It’s heartbreaking to hear senior citizens talk about not feeling safe enough to sit out on their porch on nice spring days. And according to the little girl who spoke at the forum, in some neighborhoods, it’s also not wise to be out caroling during the most wonderful time of the year.

The “take back your community” theme made me reflect on a roundtable held at The State a week or so prior to the Richland Library forum. Key law enforcement officers from the Midlands gathered to talk about crime and violence following multiple high-profile shootings in which suspects were named as gang members. They said gang violence escalated last year as gangs retaliated against each other and as the public grew complacent about their existence.

As far as Sheriff Leon Lott is concerned, the leading reason for the resurgence is dwindling public engagement and awareness. Public concern about gangs in the late ’90s and early 2000s sparked myriad efforts to combat them; informational forums and meetings were constantly being held across the community. Officers headlined meetings at schools and with civic groups and elected officials, updating people on gang activity, sharing signs that indicate whether a child is a gang member and other key information. Gangs were at least being contained. But over time, the public engagement waned, giving gangs an opportunity to pick up new steam.

Last summer, with the public guard down, “we saw the gangs go crazy like we did in the early 2000s,” Sheriff Lott said.

The law enforcement officials said they have kept up the pressure in prosecuting illegal gang activity. But a lack of consistent pressure at the neighborhood level, in part due to limited resources among volunteers and community groups as well as competing interests, allows gang activity to continue.

The law officers stressed that gang activity anywhere in a community threatens peace everywhere. And the problem isn’t confined to one group or race. Gangs are being populated by blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, they said.

While law enforcement officers are on the job — and thank goodness they are — gangs wouldn’t be such a problem if they had all the answers. It’s most critical for communities to draw kids close and provide positive, nurturing alternatives even as they shun gang activity.

Gang members need to know that their neighbors, friends and even family members aren’t going to sit quietly by and let them have their way. They also need to know that those same people want a better life for them — and for any little girl who has had to experience a time when “my house got shot up.”

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

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