by Moe White –
The Southside Asheville Community Advisory Board held a public meeting at the Arthur Edington Center on Livingston Street Tuesday, July 11, 2017, to address community concerns growing out of increasing violence in certain parts of Asheville. The most recent meeting was sparked by the shooting death on Saturday, July 8, 2017, of 20-year-old Kelby Ismael Swinton-Moore.
Among those in the audience were a number of Asheville police officers as well as APD Chief Tammy Hooper; Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, and City Councilman Keith Young; and former mayor Terry Bellamy, now with the Asheville Housing Authority, and Gene Bell, Executive Director of the Housing Authority, which operates the Livingston Street Apartments where the shooting took place.
Priscilla R. Ndiaye (Chair of the Advisory Board) invited all those attending to present productive solutions to the problems, which especially plague the city’s public housing communities but have also spilled out into the wider community.
“We must be honest,” Robinson said in her introductory remarks, “that our children are making bad choices. So I hope we can think about the commonalities, our shared interests, think about solutions, even temporary ones. We have too many young men dying.
“We are not here to point fingers or bash anyone,” she said. “We ask you to come in and offer solutions, not criticism. To speak with respect, make your suggestions with respect.”
Despite her calls for respectful dialogue, there were voices raised in frustration and some finger-pointing; for the most part, however, the evening resembled previous community gatherings to discuss such problems, and many in the audience recognized that fact.
Same old, same old?
After a number of comments had been heard, Bellamy said, “Look at the end game. What do we want to do at the end? Not to have another meeting, but to get things done. At the Housing Authority we hear that people are tired of surveys that never get anything done. People get grants to go around and knock on doors, ask “What do you want, what do you need?” And then they get their paycheck, and they don’t come back. And nothing happens.
“I think we need to make some accountability. We have a lot of nonprofits scraping by trying to help, but we don’t have any people who look like us who come to volunteer. Children have hopes and dreams, but they don’t know the pathway to get there. We need people to show them pathways out. Many of the programs providing solutions don’t have the marketing dollars to get them out to the community. Then people who sign up for a job or education have to pass a pee test, and they don’t get called back, they don’t get accepted into the program. We can’t continue to ask and then not deliver.
“So what’s the end game? I don’t want to do this again if there’s no outcome, if people just shrug. They will give up if we give up, if we don’t follow through.”
Follow-through and action
That demand for follow-through and actual action was a common theme of the evening.
Anna Marie Smith, a financial counselor at On Track Financial Services in Asheville (www.ontrackwnc.org), grew up in public housing. “I’m employed, I’m educated. It was hard work to get where I am, and it’s hard to see all this going on in the communities I was born and raised in. These are the people I know, here in this room. I know my elders, and I know the police force, I know many of you.”
She expressed frustration that others in the community, especially in public housing, don’t ask for help. “I’m a financial counselor, an educator,” she said. “I give resources to people—but you have to come to me. I can’t go out and force you to come in.”
She acknowledged that the boys on the streets, the ones who do hang out, sell drugs, carry guns, won’t come in for help, “but everyone else can come to me for financial help and counseling.”
As for those on the street, Smith and others recognize and named the problem. DeLores Venable, representing Black Lives Matter, said, “People sell drugs because they can’t get jobs. To get rid of guns and drugs, we need jobs for them, well-paying jobs. We need to be giving people opportunity, we need self-sustainable neighborhoods that don’t depend on outside resources. We need our own capital, to build our own wealth.”
For Renee White, President of the East End Community Association, “My biggest concern is that the people we need to reach are not in here. Five guys with backpacks walked in through that door, and then walked out through that door. And nobody stopped them and asked them what they have to say. What their concerns are, what we can do to help them? From the perspective of a church person, we have to come out of our pews, to go out and relate to them. They have to feel like we really care.”
Another Southside resident agreed. “If people aren’t coming out to the community, we need to get out with them and be in the community.”
She recognized, however, that as a woman with a child, she doesn’t feel comfortable engaging with them alone. “I’m not going out there by myself when they’re standing under a tree. I know what’s going to happen: somebody’s going to get shot. My daughter is scared to play outside—and when she does go out, the other little kids point out to her which of those young men have a gun. And it’s most of them.”
She, too, expressed frustration with the limited options. “They want money, but they have nothing to do. And their children are right there with them. We need to rally around and be with them, come together, actually go, say “What are you doing? Do you not see the children here?” Until we engage them, nothing’s going to change.”
Can things change?
Community activist Olufemi Lewis asked Chief Hooper if the APD might follow Charlotte’s example and develop a buyback program when people turn in guns.
“We’ve had conversations,” Hooper said. We have discussed it with [Housing Authority Director] Gene Bell, and are continuing to talk with Councilman Young about it, too.” But no decisions have been reached.
Others proposed organizing groups of clergy or laymen to reach out to young men on the street. One former street youth, who had himself engaged in drug dealing, suggested arranging meetings between street youth and the police. Others called for system-wide changes, pointing out that families receiving food stamps or housing assistance lose that support as soon they get a job that pays enough to make a difference.
Daniel Suber, a Hillcrest resident and UNC-A student, pointed out that, while he personally appreciates the work of the police and fire department and other public servants, “some people don’t. It’s hard for them to [if they’ve been arrested] because of where they’ve been, and sometimes they feel you don’t appreciate them. And sometimes those are the people who need you most.”
Toward the end of the meeting, a member of the community called out for police to come quickly to the door. According to reports, a woman challenged a young man for having a gun right outside the community center, ironically during a meeting called to address gun violence.
The police rushed out of the gym to handle the situation.
Not surprisingly, the meeting ended without solutions.