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Amid upsurge of violence, Chase City residents, officials hash out response / April 25, 2018
Gang violence is a problem in Southside Virginia and everywhere in the U.S., and law enforcement and ordinary citizens must band together to stem the rise in crime that has hit the community hard in recent months.

That was the message Chase City Police Chief Jay Jordan and others delivered at a special community watch meeting in Chase City Tuesday, April 17, at the Robert E. Lee Building. Police also pleaded for help from the audience to protect the town from the ravages of violence.

“We’re taking a strong stand against what is happening in our community, but we need your help,” said Jordan.

In the past 18 months Chase City has witnessed four shooting deaths and a rash of home invasions and robberies.

“Starting back in October of 2016, with our first homicide we saw a gang that was actually identified. Our local task force officials were able to identify that gang and bring charges against the gang for criminal activity,” said Jordan.

“Then we had an additional murder in January of last year and, also, one this past March as well as a shooting that occurred outside the limits [of Chase City] which took the life of another individual who was a resident of this town. And then all the shootings that we’ve had and recent violence and home invasions and robberies.

“All of this is why we are here tonight. It is not just a police problem, it’s a community problem,” Jordan told the packed auditorium.

He asked for law enforcement, the schools, community members, social service groups, the justice system and churches to be part of a team working to put an end to the gang violence that is becoming all too common in Chase City.

“We did it once, we can do it again,” Jordan said, referring to steps taken in the mid-1990s to put an end to a crack cocaine upsurge that swept through Chase City.

There are some members of the community, Quinton Watson for one, who refuse to label young men and teens involved in the latest shootings and other criminal acts as members of a gang.

“Use of the term ‘hybrid gangs’ is farfetched,” said Watson.

“Hybrid gang” is the designation given to groups the Southside Drug Task Force has identified as gangs. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, a hybrid gang is usually a local, “homegrown” street gang with very vague rules, loose organizational structure and leadership because they are often in a state of flux.

They often have multiple allegiances, may use symbols and colors from larger traditional gangs, even rival gangs, and members may change their affiliations from one gang to another.

Watson acknowledged that young men and women identified by police as gang members hang out together. “Of course they do, they grew up together and this is a small community.”

Watson also said they sometimes engage in what he called “stupid acts.” Even when they tip over into violence, such acts are “calls for attention,” said Watson.

“If you put a label on these kids, they become what you claim them to be. The label kills any shot they have at a better life,” Watson added.

Youths like Evan Smith and Zykor White — both caught up in alleged gang activity — would not have been out running the streets if there were other opportunities for them, such as a community center, a place to make music or the like, said Watson. Evan Smith died after being shot in March of this year and Zykor White was arrested following the shooting death of a Chase City man last July.

He also blames his generation — the thirty somethings — for not pushing the younger kids away from drugs and violence. There was crime and drugs in Chase City when he was growing up in the ‘90s, said Watson. He called the trailer park where he lived “a war zone.” But older members who used crack cocaine and hung out on the streets would steer him and his young friends away from that lifestyle.

“They’d tell us to go home, or if they saw us take something from a store they’d make us give it back and apologize,” Watson recalled.

Today, he said, the men and women of his generation — if they’re not enticing younger kids into a life of drugs and violence — aren’t actively discouraging them, either, and Watson called that the problem.

Dale Sturdifen, a school board trustee and Virginia State Trooper who serves as coordinator of the Southside Drug Task Force, offered a different view. “We have to accept them for the path they choose,” he said of young people who turn to crime. If the road they choose involves a criminal enterprise, then law enforcement will deal with them accordingly, he added.

That often means gang members are subject to enhanced charges or stricter sentencing if caught and convicted of crimes, Sturdifen said.

There is one point on which Watson and Sturdifen agreed — the root causes of criminal activity in and around Chase City. Both men attributed the problem to drugs and poverty.

“See what they see when they step out their door,” said Sturdifen of youths living in high-crime Chase City neighborhoods. In one neighborhood, the site of a recent shooting, he said there are several broken-down and rusty trailers and the roads are littered with potholes.

Explained Watson: “These kids have nothing to look forward to. Either they’re great at catching or dribbling a ball or they sell drugs. That’s the mindset here.”

Another speaker, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols, explained the role Mecklenburg County’s new high school-middle school can have in reducing the spread of gangs and related criminal activity. When the youth are without strong family ties, have too much free time or limited access to good-paying jobs and careers as adults, they look for alternatives to fill that void, Nichols said. Gangs provide the sense of family and community and an opportunity for quick cash.

“What we are going to be able to do is build a new type of school system,” Nichols continued. Educators and business and community leaders are creating a course of study that will prepare students for jobs or college, and develop a local workforce to foster economic opportunity here, with a social development component.

“I have seen the videos and have taken the training from our drug task force. I have heard the testimony of these young people who said ‘I joined the gang because I needed a family. I needed people that I could relate to, people that surrounded me, people that were supplying shoes and many things,’” said Nichols.

“I can tell you, we’re doing a lot of supplying shoes and clothes and food and all those things through our schools. But it’s more than just food, it’s about being able to create that climate, that family environment where they belong to something,” Nichols said.

The brutal truth of gang life is that the only way most gang members leave is in a body bag. Sturdifen called it “blood in, blood out.” Members are sometimes beaten into a bloody pulp before being allowed into the gang. He and other speakers agreed the best way to combat gangs and violence is to give youths — some as young as elementary school — an alternative, a path to a better life, where they are not bored, before they become too enmeshed with a gang.

Steve Odemns was one of the lucky ones. A gang member in his youth, Odemns managed to move on to a better, peaceful life. He now ministers to youth, serves as a drug and peer counselor, hosts an annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament for at-risk youths in Clarksville, and is working on his Masters degree.

His message on Tuesday was that the community needs to develop alternatives, outside of school, that show kids a better way of life.

He chastised parents for letting “XBoxes and Playstations” raise their kids. He challenged leaders from every church to become a mentor to one child and “show them some love and interest.”

There are many possible reasons for someone to join a gang, but nearly every speaker Tuesday night harkened to at least one of four primary reasons that seem to describe the rationale of most gang members:

Poverty. Many gangs exist mainly as a moneymaking enterprise. By committing thefts and dealing drugs, gang members can make relatively large amounts of money. People who are faced with a lack of money may turn to crime if they can’t earn enough with a legitimate job.

Peer or parental pressure. “We are now seeing second and third generation gang members, some as young as elementary school,” said Sheriff Bobby Hawkins. Their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or siblings were in gangs and these kids are living the life they know.

Boredom. With nothing else to occupy their time, youths sometimes turn to mischief to entertain themselves. Watson said he and his friends used to throw rocks, break windows in vacant buildings, cut electric wires to houses. Now, if gangs are already present in the neighborhood, they provide relief from boredom, and their mischief can be far more violent.

Despair. People who have always lived in poverty with parents who lived in poverty often see no chance of ever getting a decent job, leaving their poor neighborhood or getting an education. They are surrounded by drugs and gangs, and their parents may be addicts or non-responsive. They turn to the only thing they see, crime and drugs.

Jordan acknowledges that policing alone cannot improve the living conditions, or eradicate poverty, boredom and despair. He also says there is no easy way to stop gangs, but he believes his multi-faceted approach will help.

He reminded those attending the talk, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and the residents of Chase City are a necessary part of that village.

Sturdifen and the Drug Task Force have promised to come “out of the shadows.” “You’re going to see us on your streets in Chase City,” he said. “We are not going to be in the shadows any more. We’re going to come to your houses, knock on your doors if your relatives are related to gang activity. We’re coming because we owe it to you because if we do nothing, it gets worse.”

Others like Christy Russell, executive director of the Selah Center in Clarksville, committed to continuing a program in the middle schools called “I Am Enough.” It helps young people address self-esteem issues and make positive choices in their lives. Still others said they would tutor high school dropouts looking to earn their GEDs and show graduates how to apply for grants and scholarships to attend college or trade schools.

Dwight Ashe, CEO of Save Our Future, a counseling center in Chase City, offered the services of his company for those at risk and answered Jordan’s call to help organize recreational activities for kids.

While the evening ended on a positive note, Valentino Jones had one final word of instruction: “Organize.” Speaking from personal experience, he said Chase City will only succeed in their quest if citizens organize and truly work together.

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