As details unfold concerning recent Columbus shootings, a new picture is emerging of the city’s gang culture.
Even a former gang member says there’s a difference in the way young criminals operate these days, and he’s surprised at how cold-blooded some of the crimes have been.
“In my days of being in a gang, you were a gang, you represented your set, your beliefs and what you were about,” said Xavier McCaskey, a certified mental health therapist who ran with gangs as a youth living in the Baker Village public housing complex. “Now, it’s like people are in gangs as individuals; and you’ve got people in the same gang who’ve got beef with other people in the same gang. And ya’ll fighting and beefing. And you got your set homeboys, so it’s cliques within cliques.”
So far, there have been 12 homicides in Columbus this year. Two of the most recent cases involved shootings at Peachtree Mall and Double Churches Park.
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The slaying at Peachtree Mall occurred on March 26 when Xzavien Jones, 18, gunned down Anthony Meredith, 24, in retaliation of the death of an OG Crip gang member who was killed in November, according to police.
On June 15, 24-year-old Demonde Donya Dicks Jr. was found shot to death at Double Churches Park near the basketball court. Dicks was scheduled to appear in Superior Court that Friday on drug-related charges. Co-defendants in the case included his father, Demonde Donya Dicks Sr., who was in jail at the time of the shooting.
Jacquawn Clark, 19, and Akeveius Powell, 21, have been arrested and charged with murder. Officials are still searching for 25-year-old Derain Waller, a third suspect in the case.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, the city’s head of public safety, said it’s still unclear whether the two incidents were part of gang activity.
“We’re not calling them gang-related shootings, despite the fact that there may be individuals that were involved in this murderous activity that self-identify themselves as being associated with a gang,” the mayor said Wednesday. “But the actual act, we have not yet determined was part of a hit, if you will, or something to that effect.”
But by Thursday, Powell — one of the suspects in the Double Churches homicide — had to be removed from the Muscogee County Jail because of what appeared to be gang violence, according to Sheriff John Darr. Powell’s attorney, Susan Henderson, said he had been attacked twice since surrendering to police on Monday.
Powell was attacked by 15 inmates just hours after being booked into the facility. He was beaten again Thursday morning and was transferred to the Harris County Jail later in the day.
“We moved him to an area that we thought he would not have any issues, but the reach of the people he’s involved with is pretty wide,” Darr said. “... The associations, the gangs — whatever you want to call it — is our biggest problem. Many times, we don’t know who is associated with who.”
What’s a gang?
The state of Georgia defines a gang as any group of three or more individuals operating under the same name for the common purpose of ongoing criminal activity, said Sgt. Roderick Graham, who heads the Columbus Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit.
I think when people hear gangs, they think of Bloods and Crips and things from the ’80s and the ’90s. That’s not so much what we deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson
Tomlinson said gangs now operating in the city are very different to those in generations past, and the city has had to adapt to current trends while trying to address the problem.
“I think when people hear gangs, they think of Bloods and Crips and things from the ’80s and the ’90s. That’s not so much what we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “What we typically have are criminal enterprises, sort of affiliations of opportunity. Individuals who knew each other, either from middle school, high school, perhaps they’re related. Groups of cousins, for instance. People who live in the same neighborhood, and they, through their relationships and affiliations, decide their highest and best use is criminal activity. And they collude and conspire to do a great deal of smash and grabs, break-ins, largely property crimes, drug trafficking, things of that nature.”
Tomlinson said it’s not uncommon for individuals to be affiliated with a gang one month, and another one six months later. Some of them associate with gangs in jail for protection then hook up with them when they return to society.
The police department monitors gang activity and associations made by various people, both on the street and on social media, using cutting-edge technology to connect the dots through the Criminal Intelligence Unit, she said. The reports created tend to look like a family tree.
Tomlinson said police also patrol neighborhoods regularly to monitor the situation, and the information is used as part of the intelligence.
“We don’t have a gang task force anymore because it was very targeted on the types of gangs that this country use to have, and gangs are no longer so rigid,” she said. “They don’t have territories, typically, and they don’t have generals and lieutenants. They don’t extort money for protection, and a lot of things that they did a lot in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, it’s very fluid.”
Graham, who heads the intelligence crime unit, said there are three major gangs in Columbus: Gangster Disciples, Bloods and Crips. But any three or more people can come up with a name and call themselves a gang, he said. And many publicize their deeds via social media and YouTube videos.
“A lot of these gangs, like every other group, they’re evolving and changing,” he said. “Sometimes you might find them walking around dressed a certain way, but if that gets them too much attention, they may walk away from that so they won’t be so recognizable.
“Periodically, we still have gang tagging, which is the graffiti on the buildings,” he further explained. “As far as gang signs, I believe that’s still a form of their communication. But the clothing, it changes. No longer do you see 15 kids walking through the neighborhood with the same colors on like you did in the ’80s.”
Graham said intelligence-led policing fuses two police disciplines that have always existed. One is criminal intelligence and the other is crime analysis. It’s policing based on information collected from various sources, he said, including tips from people in the community. Police then use the information to help connect the dots, which can either prove or disprove assumptions about criminal activity.
In Columbus, gangs haven’t had the longevity that they’ve had in other cities, Graham said, and many former gang members who grew up in Baker Village are now responsible citizens in their 40s and 50s.
“In criminology, there’s an aging out and people grow up, mature and move out and on with a life of their own,” he said.
Breaking the cycle
Minister Antonio Carter, 40, of the National Joshua Generation, an all-black male self-improvement fraternity, said he dabbled in the gangster lifestyle as a youth, but never really became a gang member. He said he’s an ex-con who understands what many young black men are experiencing. He and other activists recently met with a group of local gang leaders who expressed an interest in helping young people under their influence make a change.
Carter said gun violence is the result of deep-rooted societal ills and there’s no quick fix to the epidemic.
“The problem is so large and, at this particular time, we have so many things that basically edify and glorify gun violence,” he said. “The video games — Grand Theft Auto and all of these different games — they have violence in it. You turn on the music on the radio, there is nothing but violence. You turn on the television, every other television show that you see, it’s all violence.
“So I think children are becoming desensitized to murder because, in a sense, it’s glorified amongst them every single day,” he said. “So I don’t think they really understand the ramifications; what’s actually going to happen after you commit this murder. And, sadly to say, murder is almost seen like a badge of honor in our community these days.”
McCaskey, 41, knows the lifestyle all too well. As a teen, he watched the older guys in his neighborhood sporting the fancy cars, spending the big bucks and attracting all the pretty women. He already had a reputation for knocking people out on the street, he said. So when invited to join a gang, he did.
“But it all comes with a price,” he said. “I’ve been stabbed, shot, my house’s been shot up and I’ve lost many friends to gang violence.”
On April 13, 1990, a friend, Ronald Douglas Holloman, was shot and killed at a Baker High School dance, McCaskey said. And that got his attention.
“The thing you have to remember when you do all this stuff is that karma comes around,” he said. “When you try to get out and take a different path, people don’t forget that you jumped them and did all that stuff. So it becomes a vicious cycle.”
In 1993, McCaskey’s daughter was born a few months before he graduated from high school. He had someone else to live for, he said, and decided to change his life.
McCaskey said he served 10 years in the Navy and five in the Army National Guard. While in the military, he received a bachelor’s degree in public administration, a master’s in counseling studies and a Ph.D. in pastoral counseling with an emphasis in child psychology.
Now he has a practice called Healing Minds Institute, where he counsels youths who are still stuck in a world of violence. He said he has noticed a shift in attitudes over the years. Many of the youths who come to his practice don’t have boundaries and they have little, if any, respect for their elders.
“When I was in it, you didn’t mess with nobody’s mother,” he said of the gangster lifestyle. “You didn’t mess with nobody’s significant others or anything. Now, these cats don’t care. They shooting up your mama’s house. They want to fight her. ...We had rules to the gang. You were our main target. We weren’t messing with anybody else. We were coming to get you.”
McCaskey said he’s on a mission to rescue others from the life that he escaped.
“I’m going to stay on the street. I’m going to stay on these guys and try to get them out of that lifestyle,” he said. “And I’m going to do it till the day I die.”