Chattahoochee Valley struggles with black-on-black crime

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 8, 2014 

Toya Winder will never forget the night she was almost beaten to death.

The outside bruises have healed, but she's still scarred inside.

The incident occurred Dec. 18, 2010, when she was on the way to her apartment near Lakebottom Park.

It was almost midnight when she saw two young men lurking around the complex. They were black, each wearing a hoodie and jeans. But they were clean-cut, so Winder didn't think she was in danger.

As she walked toward her apartment, though, something told her to slow down. When she did, everything got quiet. Then she stopped. That's when she turned around and saw two guns just inches from her face, one right between her eyes.

"This is a robbery. We're going to shoot," one of the young men said, as they both covered their faces with bandanas.

Winder tried to step toward a neighbor's apartment to ring the bell, but the boy jumped over her and said: "You b----."

He knocked her down and began pistol-whipping her. As neighbors came out to help her, the boys grabbed her purse and ran.

When it was all over, Winder's nose was fractured in two places, and her left eye socket broken. The whole left side of her face was smashed in, and she needed stitches in her forehead and elbow.

Winder, 49, says it breaks her heart that the attackers were two young black men who appeared to be between 18 and 20 years old.

"Before this incident, I was one of those black women saying, 'These young black men shouldn't go to prison. These 16-, 15- and 14-year-olds who do these crimes, they should get out, go to juvenile detention and be rehabilitated,'" she said, while telling her story at a Muscogee County Victims Witness Assistance meeting at the Government Center. "But when you've got two guns in your face, and these boys standing over you saying, 'You b----,' and they don't give a damn about you … I immediately changed."

Now she focuses on spreading awareness about crime.

A national epidemic

Most black males are no danger to society, and millions live productive lives every day.

Yet experiences like Winder's are all too common, especially in the black community. Black-on-black crime has plagued urban neighborhoods for decades and is now a national epidemic. Winder is just one of the victims fortunate enough to survive.

According to the most recent statistics provided by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, the homicide rate among black victims was nearly seven times the rate of whites in 2011 -- 17.51 per 100,000 blacks and 2.64 per 100,000 whites.

Of black homicide victims, 86 percent were male and 14 percent female. The average age was 30 years old. Blacks represented 13 percent of the nation's population but accounted for 50 percent of all homicide victims.

"The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis that should be a top priority for policymakers to address," the report said. "An important part of ending our gun violence epidemic will involve reducing homicides in the African-American community."

In Columbus, where the crime rate increased between 2012 and 2013, there's growing concern among residents, law enforcement and elected officials. The category of Part I crimes, which includes murder and other major offenses, increased to 13,454 in 2013 from 12,233 in 2012. But compared to the past 10 years, the 2013 number was more of an average.

Most of the crimes occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Of the 23 people killed in Columbus in 2013, 20 were black, 16 of them black males between the ages 20 to 57. Eighteen of the suspects charged with murder were black men, most in their 20s.

The issue has caused some in the black community to launch anti-violence campaigns in recent months. During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, hundreds participated in a Stop the Violence rally at Michael Fluellen Recreation Center. The organizer of the event was Shavon Tolbert. Her brother, 34-year-old David Scott, was killed in his vehicle Sept. 19 when a group of men allegedly pulled up in a truck and riddled his body with gunshots, one hitting him in the head. He died hours later in the hospital.

"You see it on the news all the time: robbing, killing, breaking in people's houses, stealing people's cars. They're doing everything," Tolbert said before the rally. "I'm trying to send a message for everybody, really -- but mostly the young kids between 17 and 25 -- that it's not about violence. We're dealing with this too long. It's time for a change."

A community epidemic

The next week, Tolbert was among 27 concerned citizens who met at the Cannon Brew Pub downtown on Broadway for a crime-prevention dialogue. Those participating in the event, organized by Tollie Strode, included Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and her opponent in the upcoming election, Colin Martin. Police Chief Ricky Boren, Marshal Greg Countryman and Office of Crime Prevention Director Seth Brown were also present.

Strode encouraged the group to look deeper at the crime problem and examine the underlying causes.

"I think we all know that crime, it's trending upward and a lot of people are uncomfortable about that, some more than others," he said. "The people that are having to deal with it every day are probably a heck of a lot more concerned about it than the folks who aren't facing it. But we're all one community, so we need to have a discussion about it as a community."

Tomlinson and Martin both acknowledged the problem and said they would do everything in their power to address it.

"Since I started on this campaign, crime has been the No. 1 topic, it turns out, that everybody wants to talk about," Martin said. "And what's been interesting is there's two different views of crime, depending on where you live.

"Folks on the north side of town are very concerned about property crime. They feel their home isn't safe when they're not there and sometimes even when they are there."

People on the south side of Columbus, are also upset about crime, he said, but their concerns are very different.

"What they see is their families are under attack, people are being killed on the streets, and so it's interesting to hear those two different perspectives," Martin said. "But in the end they have the same concern, which is crime is up, and they want to know that somebody's going to do something about that."

Tomlinson said when she participated in debates while running for mayor in 2010, crime was the No. 1 topic.

"At that time we had Heath Jackson shot and killed in the carport of his home," she said. "We had years of rashes of smash-and-grabs. We had been named one of the nation's top motor vehicle theft meccas, and so we struggled with property crimes and some of the very things we're talking about now."

She said the city's Part I crime rate is down about 15 percent from its height in 2009.

"The lowest three years in crime we've had in the past 10 years were 2011, 2012, 2013," she said. "Now, is that any solace if crime happened to you? No. And so what that tells us is that we've made improvement. We've come a good distance and it's no way near good enough."

She handed the group copies of a multi-year action plan she said the city has been following in partnership with other organizations since January 2011.

The list of actions taken so far includes facilitating the development of neighborhood associations and watch groups throughout Columbus; shutting down criminal havens like "The Hole," the Majestic Lounge and Woodpine Apartments; opening the Boxwood Recreation Center in Carver Heights and converting the old Baker Village public housing complex into Arbor Pointe, which Tomlinson calls "one of the nicest, mixed-income apartment complexes in Columbus."

Acting on anger

Omar Neal, the former mayor of Tuskegee, Ala., which is about 46 miles west of Columbus, said he's also had to deal with black-on-black crime in his community. The problem, he said, will exist as long as leaders ignore the real cause, which is the "displaced anger" of black males who have been relegated to the margins of society.

Neal, who is black, said the devaluation of the black male began with slavery, continued during the Jim Crow segregation era and still exists today in the form of unemployment, systematic incarceration and lack of opportunity.

Neal said he's writing a book, titled "Mad as Hell and Don't Know Why: The Rage of the Black Male."

"The premise is that there's deep-seated anger that exists among young black males," he said. "But the 'I don't know why' is also part of it because the condition that we find ourselves in, the inability to be productive in a discriminatory environment, has created a cynicism about the environment itself and about the future."

He said it's like a child who gets spanked by his parents and then takes his anger out on his younger siblings.

"Displaced anger, it's transferred into a larger context," he said, "but it's the same issue."

Neal, who is a friend of Winder's, said many young black men devalue people who look like them, because they themselves have been devalued by society. "Hurt people hurt people," he said.

Other experts said many black youths are suffering from a breakdown in community.

J. Aleem Hud, executive director of Project Rebound Inc., an organization that aims to empower black youth, said disrespecting elders and being destructive are not a part of traditional black culture. He said Africans, who were brought to America to work as slaves, came from societies where the village concept was practiced.

That way of life survived the brutality of slavery up until integration, which dismantled the black social structure, Hud said. Many black children went to white schools where they were placed in special education classes, away from the nurturing of black teachers.

Along the way, black boys also lost their rites of passage, which once occurred working alongside their fathers in agriculture or trade.

"Desegregation disrupted the values and folkways of our community, disrupted our lifestyle, made us vulnerable to drugs," Hud said. "And once drugs came in, it changed the entire order of the African-American community."

Hud said the community will have to return to its roots to regain a sense of identity. That's why he promotes the principles of Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday that's observed in December.

The principles include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, 'cooperate economics,' purpose, creativity and faith.

Changing lives

The Rev. Willie Phillips heads an organization called Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs. He said his group goes out on Saturdays to interact with the neighborhood youth. He encourages churches to do the same, but many people are afraid of today's teenagers and don't want to get involved, he said.

"We've been in the church for too long, and our young people have been running wild," he said. "The only people they see when they leave school are the winos by the liquor store. They don't see any men with real jobs and real skills, and somebody they could just go and talk to."

'Streets are going to raise them'

Jermaine Morgan is a former drug dealer who abandoned the street life to attend Columbus State University. While there, he played on the basketball team. He graduated in December and is just starting a job as a correctional officer in LaGrange, Ga.

Morgan decided to turn his life around after losing his brother, Jeff, to gun violence in 2012. Jeff Morgan was known as "Byrdman" on the street and was shot and killed in a drug dispute at Sands Apartments on Martin Luther Jr. Boulevard.

Morgan said he and his brother didn't have a father in the home, and it left a void in their lives. He said problems that many black youths are facing are generational.

"If all of the black fathers are in jail, nine times out of 10, the next generation is going to be destroyed because if their fathers are not there to raise them, the streets are going to raise them," he said. "They're going to teach them to be territorial. They're going to teach them to be defensive. They're going teach them the way of the streets. It's a deadly cycle that's going to continue to occur until someone tries to make a change."

Morgan said he didn't think he could turn his life around until he met someone who actually did it. That was the Rev. Donald Hill, who is now the pastor of Life Changers Christian International Ministries. He took Morgan under his wing and showed him a better way.

Morgan, who grew up in public housing, is trying to break the cycle with his own family. He married young, and he and his wife divorced, but now they are back together raising their 6-year-old son.

Last year, Morgan self-published an autobiography titled "Destiny Child," as a warning to other youths.

Still, he gets discouraged.

Morgan said when he looks at the news all he sees are stories about black males killing one another and going to jail. He knows some of the victims and suspects personally, and he's tired of all the funerals.

"It's a tremendous problem all the crime that's taking place," he said. "I look at the crime rate from (2012 to 2013), and everything has risen. But the vast majority of the murders that have taken place were black on black."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service