By Donnell Suggs
During a recent interview with Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard regarding the rising number of gangs and gang violence in metro Atlanta, Howard assured me there are a number of gangs that have taken root here in Atlanta. "I want to alert the public to the fact that these young people are being recruited into this gang life," says Howard.
I moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2006. Immediately after I walked through the automatic doors at Hartsfield-Jackson airport onto the street I realized it was as hot a day as I have ever felt in my life. Already having locked down a job that officially started in two days, I just needed a place to stay before I started looking for an apartment. To save money, I decided to stay at a hotel near my new place of employment. The hotel was on Boulevard Avenue and North Avenue. Coming from New York, I wasn't surprised by the guys hanging out on the corners or alarmed by the noisy evening street arguments that I regularly heard from my room on the second floor. I was used to that. What surprised me were the groups of young men hanging out on the corners or by the gas stations. That was not what I thought about when I pictured a southern city, especially Atlanta, the south's crown jewel of urban renewal and achievement. These couldn't be gangs could it? Atlanta has gangs?
During a recent interview with Futon County District Attorney Paul Howard regarding the rising number of gangs and gang violence in metro Atlanta, I got the answer to my three year old question. Yes there are a number of gangs that have taken root here in Atlanta; Howard assured me. "I want to alert the public to the fact that these young people are being recruited into this gang life," says Howard. “These are our children that are joining these gangs either for protection or a sense of belonging. Something has to be done,” he adds. Beginning in 2008, the Fulton County District Attorney's office took a step towards getting something done by creating their own gang unit. The unit consists of two prosecutors, an investigator, and an administrator who handle all of the gang related cases that come through the office. In little over a year, the team has been assigned over twenty cases, seventeen of which involve at least one death. There is no major American city without its fair share of crime. What is most discouraging are the ages of those being accused. "What alarms me the most is not the violence involved with the crimes, it's the age of the people involved," Howard said. He continued, "There is a young man currently accused of murder in a gang related case who is fourteen years old.” Other jurisdictions have also taken notice. DeKalb County District Attorney Gwen Keyes-Fleming has created a gang division within her office as well.
There is a huge misconception that Atlanta's gangs stem from and only operate in concentrated areas of the city. According to Atlanta Police Department Homicide Lieutenant Keith Meadows, Atlanta's southwest, southeast and northwest territories house the majority of gangs in the city, but that doesn't mean gang associated crimes only occur in those areas. There has been a recent increase in "smash and grabs," the stealing of whatever is within arms reach without the use of firearms and sometimes even violence. These occur mostly in areas like the Virginia-Highlands, far from the zones most associated with the city's violence. Items such as flat screen televisions, due to their light weight, and clothing, preferably jeans, costing as much as $600 per pair at certain trendy boutiques that don't normally have much security, are the most targeted items due to their high street resale value. There have been plenty of arrests but that doesn't seem to have slowed the crime rate much. Lt. Meadows points out that gangs are operating more intelligently than ever before. He says, “It's a must that we keep a step ahead". Despite the best efforts of the police department and District Attorney, gang member recruitment is in full swing throughout the penitentiary system. Young men are joining gangs inside of jail to better adapt and come home full fledged gang bangers looking to start their own 'sets'-gangs are broken down by the area they inhabit-within their old neighborhoods. There has also been an influx of out-of-state gangs from southern states such as Arkansas and Alabama, and as far away as Chicago and California moving into Georgia. The Atlanta Police have reason to believe the gangs are behind many of the recent smash and grabs. There is hope though, Atlanta Police are now redirecting their focus and are having success according to Lt. Meadows. "We're focusing more on arresting individual members, weakening the gangs from the inside-out, and we're making progress," he says. He points out that this is not just a law enforcement issue, it's a community issue. He says, "We need everyone to step up and give us a call if they know or see anything. You can stop these gangs from taking hold of your neighborhood before it becomes too late." District Attorney Howard agrees that the issue of gangs and gang violence belongs as much to the community as it does to the legal and law enforcement departments. Howard says, "This is a direct challenge to our parents, church leaders, political leaders, all of us."