Community forum addresses race, faith-based solutions for gang violence in Columbia

Faith and action were front and center at a community forum Thursday night discussing gang violence and crime in North Columbia.

“If you’re gonna talk about it, what are you prepared to do about it?” said Eric Davis, pastor of Word of God Church and Ministries.

Councilman Sam Davis (l) stood with his challenger Bruce Trezevant to discuss the gang problem in Columbia, S.C. Photo by Kelly Petty

Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis (left) stood with Bruce Trezevant, who is running against Davis in the upcoming municipal election, to discuss the gang problem in Columbia. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Speakers from faith and outreach organizations spoke to a crowd of about 40 residents regarding crime allegedly committed by young black men in neighborhoods along Two Notch Road, Beltline Boulevard and Farrow Road.

“One thing we don’t have in the black community is solidarity. We shout, but we do nothing,” said Bruce Trezevant, organizer of the forum and founder of Project Unity USA, an organization dedicated to bringing together business and community leaders to fight crime and people through assistance and targeted programs.

Project Unity USA partners with community leaders in several states, including South Carolina, Florida, Texas and California.

Trezevant is running for the Columbia City Council District 1 seat currently held by Sam Davis.

“Black men, it’s time for us to stand up and be men and be what God has called us to be,” Trezevant said. “It’s not up to city council, or the police, its up to us.”

The forum, which was held at Francis Burns United Methodist Church, came about after the recent shooting in Five Points of University of South Carolina freshman Martha Childress.

The outpouring of support and concern from the business community in Five Points to the student body on the university campus sparked a debate among those in North Columbia communities about the limited attention predominantly low-income neighborhoods receive when a crime occurs.

“Our hearts go out to the USC student, and we are pleased to see the Five Points district taking a stand. Project Unity USA’s goal is to expand that conversation to the rest of Columbia, as other areas are also going through a crime crisis,” Trezevant said in a news release.

Some clergy members said the church failed to challenge the black community to address the problems of high incarceration, low graduation rates and large numbers of gang recruitment among young black boys.

“Church is not being the church. I believe you cannot legislate morality,” said Henry Cleare of Life Giving Outreach Ministries. “Think about it. We got churches on every corner, but where is God in all of this.”

Cleare said the church, which had been the center of the black community in the 1960s and was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement, had as of late not done its job to challenge the spiritual consciousness of black people. It should be up to the church, said Cleare, and black men to reclaim the leadership role it once had in the community.

“Too many meetings and no progress,” Cleare said. “Cease to talking and put it into action.”

A.V. Strong of Project Gang Out said he predicted the complacency he sees among the black community in Columbia concerning crime years ago after having a conversation with then-Mayor Bob Coble.

“I told him, ‘My fear is that this behavior is going to become commonplace in the black community and we’re going to ignore it,’ ” Strong said.

During his remarks, Strong held up a local newspaper from 2006 with a headline about six kids who had been killed. He questioned how the community could allow those type of crimes to go unchecked. He criticized what he considered to be hypocrisy of some in the community who wait until something bad happens to get upset.

“I’m tired of people trying to drive actions through emotions,” Strong said.

When he was asked to be a part of a rally this past summer for teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed in Florida, Strong said, “God bless Trayvon Martin and his family, but we got issues here. You’re not even connected to the issue. How about you start in your own community? You got issues in your own community.”

The bulk of the evening’s discussion was spent trying to find solutions to drive young black kids, who might otherwise fall into gang life and eventually the prison system, into more positive activities.

Capt. M.J. Kelly of the Columbia Police Department said the presence of gangs in the Columbia area has not necessarily increased but that it has remained consistent.

Kelly said the solution is two-fold. First, the City of Columbia and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department must collaborate to curb crime. Kelly said both agencies get more done when they have the ability to trade intelligence information, for example.

He also said the city has worked with the state Department of Corrections and Department of Probation, Parole and Pardons Services to nab criminals.

Kelly said it was imperative to change gang members’ way of thinking. Mentorship programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, as well as active participation by adults in the lives of the young men, do more good than prison sentences.

“We can’t always jail our way out of the issues,” he said.

One resident suggested that parents occupy schools to show young people there still is an active adult presence in their lives.

“Sit and audit their class. Have lunch with them,” said James Starnes, president of the North 21 Terrace neighborhood association, a community off North Main Street. “It’s a simple solution that prevent some people from going into gangs.”

Cynthia Foster, whose son David was shot in 2003 in an incident attributed to gang violence, said parents must be vigilant in monitoring changes in their child’s behavior and who their child’s friends are.

She also called on the judicial system to stop using double standards to keep young black boys in what she called an unbeatable cycle of prison and crime.

“Politicians, policemen and pastors are committing crimes everyday. These are grown men and they get a slap on the wrist,” Foster said. “Our children, they slay them. They give them the maximum penalty.”

Two former gang members who attended the forum said it would take faith and compassion to reverse the harsh effects of gang life that young black boys face.

Quincy Turner, a former member of the Bloods gang in the Columbia area, said it wasn’t until he found Jesus that he began to let go of the gang lifestyle.

Emmanuel Roberts, a former gang recruiter, said he could bring in new members easily because he would speak to the needs of the boys. He said giving at-risk youth attention and showing concern would make it difficult for gangs to provide “false love.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin, as well as Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and Councilman Sam Davis, who are all up for reelection on Nov. 5, attended the meeting and offered remarks. Other candidates for mayor and City Council did not attend.

Devine reflected on a time when she met the mother of a young boy who killed a 10-year-old girl and how the mother felt helpless despite her efforts to keep her son out of trouble.

“My heart is heavy,” Devine said. “We need to stop blaming each other and waiting for someone else to do it. We have to do it.”

Benjamin acknowledged that most of the homicides that have occurred in Columbia have been perpetrated by black males. He told the audience that the community has the power to improve its situation regardless of politicians and government.

“We can rebuild the family around our children,” Benjamin said. “And in a short period of time we can turn that corner.”

Davis agreed and promoted building better relationships to foster young talent.

“A lot of success with our kids come from one on one interaction,” he said.

Trezevant took the first step to move the dialogue into action by challenging Davis to use his council position to fund programs and initiatives to stop gang violence. Trezevant said he would do the same if elected.

Davis took Trezevant up on his offer. “It’s a deal,” he said.

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