Sam Hart remembers walking the streets of Liberty Hill almost 10 years ago to confront the drug dealers and pimps that he says began to populate the neighborhood. Along with other men in the community, the North Charleston councilman marched block to block in order to address the growing criminal threat. Calling themselves the Community Patrol Against Drugs, the group met at Charity Baptist Church on East Montague Avenue to organize their efforts and figure out a way to clean up the area's oldest neighborhood, established by freedmen who built homes and farms there after the Civil War. While many saw a community plagued with crime, Hart and the others saw a place worth fighting for.
"The drug dealers, after they saw that we were making a dent into what they were doing, they threatened to kill [Charleston County Councilman Henry] Darby, myself, and a policeman, but we stayed the course, and we made a difference," says Hart. "It can be done if the black men come together and talk to those gang leaders."
Last week, Hart joined councilmen Darby and Teddie Pryor Sr., community activist Jerome Heyward, and other community leaders to take a new stand. Together they announced their phone numbers and asked gang members to call them. The four men wouldn't involve the police or the media. They just want to speak one on one with the young black men who have fallen in with the gangs that populate the areas of Liberty Hill, Ferndale, Remount Road, and Dorchester-Waylyn. It's a bold move, but one they feel is necessary to understand what motivates young men to join a gang and what steps can be taken to rid the community of the violence that stems from this brand of criminal activity.
"I talked to some drug dealers, and I asked them, 'What do y'all want? There's nothing out there in the street but death.' They said they would want a GED and a job," says Hart, who has helped place three men in a program to obtain their diplomas. "I don't think they like being out in that street, but then you've got to have money in your pocket. And in order to get money, you can get it several ways, but I think they would like to get it through a GED and a job."
A 2011 gang threat assessment from the FBI identified more than 100 major gangs or gang chapters believed to be active in South Carolina. According to the report, there are two to four gang members for every law enforcement officer in the state, but in the Lowcountry police face a different sort of threat. While some gangs in the Charleston area may be loosely affiliated with nationally recognized criminal organizations, local communities are far more likely to contend with what the FBI calls neighborhood-based gangs.
"A neighborhood gang may have some ties to the Bloods or something. If there is any national group, that's the one that has some presence in the Lowcountry. Here's the difference though: If you're a national gang, there's colors. There's different things. Neighborhood-based gangs, it's really just these are the people who live here, and they are working together in criminal activity," says Brian Womble, supervisory senior resident agent of the FBI's Charleston office. "The people in the neighborhood, they know who they are. They know what they're doing. They know not to cross that group. But there may not necessarily be the same tagging or overt tattoos or overt signals or recognized symbols of where they are or what they're claiming."
According to Womble, kids usually start to get involved with gang violence around the ages of 15-17, with many members aging out of gang activity after turning 30. A 2009 study by the S.C. Department of Public Safety found that in addition to gang members starting out young, their victims are often the same age or younger. Between 1998-2007, more than a third of the victims of gang violence were under the age of 16 and another 26 percent were between the ages of 17-21. So not only are kids more likely to be involved in gang activity, they are also more likely to fall victim to gang-related attacks.
"One of the ways to combat gangs is community outreach from law enforcement and working with the community and people in those gangs — talking and making a trust. Inevitably, a lot of the gang violence, they're kids. They're people who grew up at a disadvantage. They didn't have money. They didn't have a parent. They didn't have housing," says Womble. "If you look at a group of people, it's easier to look at that community outreach piece than it is to look at a lone offender, where you're reacting to a crime, where this gang is giving you the opportunity for proactive detection."
South Carolina's Criminal Gang Prevention Act loosely defines a criminal gang as a formal or informal group of five or more people who unite for the purpose of committing criminal activity. The act also established a statewide criminal gang database managed by SLED and set up guidelines that require prison officials to notify local law enforcement agencies when a gang member is released into their jurisdiction. Enacted in 2007, these laws recognized the importance of local, state, and national agencies working together to monitor gang activity.
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office is a member of the Department of Homeland Security Investigations Gang Task Force, which investigates gang activity within Charleston County and adjacent counties. Public Information Officer Eric Watson says the sheriff's office hasn't experienced any recent increase in criminal gang activity in their jurisdiction, but it does exist. And according to Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, city police face a similar situation.
"The things that we have seen recently that have involved violence have not been gang related. Most of the things that we have seen that have been violence related have centered around drugs and, while there are certainly some territorial issues, it has not risen to the level of an organized gang that we are dealing with," he says. "There is certainly some aspects of that in the city, and also some of what we call 'wannabe gangs,' which are loosely connected individuals that can create problems and violence just like an organized gang can, so we are constantly monitoring that and working to address these issues. But we haven't seen anything that I would say is driven by gang violence, but we are certainly always monitoring for that."
While local and federal law enforcement agencies deal with crime throughout the area, Womble, Watson, and Mullen all say that a community initiative like the one recently proposed by local officials and activists can play a key role in curbing gang activity.
"We support any good-faith effort from community leaders as it relates to helping law enforcement find solutions to gang violence and promoting a safer environment for the community," says Watson. "They will need to persuade the community, as a whole, to buy-in to their efforts, as well as develop sustainable solutions that can address the root causes of gang violence in the community."
Police Chief Mullen says the community initiative launched in North Charleston is a step forward for the area, adding, "Anytime we can pull people together and talk about how we can prevent crime from occurring or how we can minimize violence in the community, that's always a positive thing. They said they would start in North Charleston and that they'd be interested in maybe expanding that to other areas. We're certainly open to talking with them, and if there is something that we can do collaboratively, we'd be very supportive of that."
But for now, without any involvement from outside agencies or the risk of persecution, Hart, Darby, Pryor, and Heyward are just looking to speak directly with those involved in gang violence. They want to talk about solutions. They want to talk about a path away from violence. They want to talk before another young life is taken — whether as a result of falling into a gang or falling prey to one.
If you are a young African-American male involved in gang activity in the areas of Liberty Hill, Ferndale, Remount Road, and Dorchester-Waylyn, please call one of the following men:
• Henry Darby, Charleston County councilman, (843) 901-6793
• Sam Hart, North Charleston City councilman, (843) 926-3994
• Teddie Pryor Sr., Charleston County councilman, (843) 300-2493
• Jerome Heyward, community activist, (843) 697-1600