The February meeting of Pittsburgh's safety committee begins with a prayer. The group's 10-or-so, mostly retirement-age members bow their heads as former state legislator Douglas Dean mutters the requisite thanks and hallelujahs in spite of — or, perhaps, in light of — a challenging month in their neighborhood.
After the invocation, Zone 3 community prosecutor Claire Farley encourages everyone to attend the upcoming hearing of a well-known local burglar who's trying to withdraw a guilty plea he submitted before he was arrested yet again last November, that time during a five-hour SWAT standoff. Atlanta Police Sgt. J. Hoos reads to the group a monthly breakdown of arrests in their zone and beat. Everything remained "pretty level" in January he assures them. The meeting's leader, Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association Operations Manager Pierre Gaither, then reminds everyone about an upcoming cleanup of old tires that litter the neighborhood. It's the tire cleanup that allows Gaither a segue to the public safety-related incident that's drawn such attention to their small pocket of Southwest Atlanta: the February 4 beating of 20-year-old Brandon White.
"Speaking of tires," Gaither begins, "If you remember the case ... well, I know you remember the case because Pittsburgh's been in the news a lot ... ." One of the committee's elderly members interrupts him, "It's bad to be on the news and in the newspapers. I'm gon' move."
Gaither recovers. "No, Miss Gill. We don't want you to move. But in the beating of the young man, they used one of those tires to attack him. That's one reason we need to clean them up. Now, we've got people using illegally dumped tires as weapons."
Gaither isn't being glib by using White's attack to illustrate why abandoned tires need to be cleaned up. Much of the Pittsburgh community has rallied in support of White in the aftermath of his brutal beating outside the convenience store at 1029 McDaniel St., during which he was punched, stomped, and repeatedly called a "faggot." Gaither is simply looking at the attack from the perspective of an advocate in a neighborhood where violence at the scene of that attack is far from rare — but where overwhelming attention to such violence is.
Between January 2011 and February 2012, the Atlanta Police Department responded to 1029 McDaniel St. 384 times, a combination of 911 calls and what they call "directed patrols," or self-initiated check-ins on a particular problem location. There were 20 fights, seven reports of shots fired, two shootings, one of which resulted in a person's death. It's safe to assume other incidents took place, but — like the crime against White — simply weren't called in to police. The location is a well-known gang hangout, and local leaders say the business's owners have been reluctant to take action.
Because of the nature of the crime against White — it's being viewed as a hate crime by many — conversations about the attack have largely taken place in a vacuum. Yes, there have been other crimes at the location, but this one was a brutal and seemingly unprovoked attack against a gay man — one caught on tape. Very recently, the media became preoccupied with accusations that the attack wasn't unprovoked, that White knew and had been "taunting" his attackers (as though taunting would somehow justify the beating). White denies this.
In any case, what has been overshadowed is that White's crime represents a persistent problem in an already beleaguered neighborhood. For Pittsburgh, the rhetoric must move beyond the "was it, was it not" discussion regarding the hate crime, but instead it must be, "What can we do to make the fear and violence subside?"
"Our position," Gaither says, speaking on behalf of the Pittsburgh safety committee, "is beyond the whole piece that the media has made out around homosexuality. For us, it's more about the crime and the statistics we have to prove the issues around that particular location. We've had issues with drugs, robbery, murder, and now this young man being beat. What we want to do is position it as a community issue: It's our problem, so how do we solve it?"
In the short term, they intend to get rid of 1029 McDaniel St.
Colloquially known as the Pink Store, 1029 McDaniel St. is a purveyor of cigarettes, soda, and junk food that also happens to be known territory for a gang that identifies itself as Jack City 1029 or Pittsburgh Jack City. Among locals and law enforcement, the block the store occupies has been a notorious hub of criminal activity for years. Now, the store is best known by a broader audience as the backdrop of a viral video that simultaneously demonstrates the repugnance and value of the Internet. As Brandon White exited the Pink Store on February 4, three men ambushed him on the sidewalk outside, while a fourth filmed the attack. In the 30-second video, the men are seen pumping themselves up, addressing the camera, and saying things like, "No faggots in Pittsburgh." As White exits the store, one of the men shoves him toward a wall and to the ground. He huddles beside a trashcan as all three men punch and stomp him. As was mentioned in the Pittsburgh safety committee meeting, one of them hurls a tire at him. The video ends as White gets his footing and is able to escape.
Throughout the video, passers-by witness the attack. Surveillance video shows a MARTA bus pass. One man appears to almost intervene. Still, no one called police.
The video was posted — presumably by one of the attackers or the cameraman — to WorldStarHipHop.com, a sort of urban YouTube, and was brought to the attention of police not long after. Within weeks, all three suspects in the attack were in police custody. On February 17, roughly a week after 19-year-old Christopher Cain was arrested, Dorian Moragne, also 19, turned himself in. The third suspect, Dareal Williams, had fled the state to stay with family in Pennsylvania — he turned himself in to Erie police on February 23, a day after the FBI announced he was a person of interest.
In the attack's immediate aftermath, prior to any of the arrests, White spoke at a press conference at a public library near Turner Field. He was joined by several representatives from LGBT advocacy groups — among them Change Atlanta, a previously little-known organization that has received considerable press coverage by attaching itself to White's cause — as well as LaShawn Hoffman, CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association. Hoffman issued an apology on behalf of the entire neighborhood, saying, "This is not what we want. We're building a community for working families." It was also his organization's first opportunity to announce their dedication to making sure the store at 1029 McDaniel St. is shut down.
The Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association is tasked with revitalizing the entire neighborhood, though, so it's Hoffman's job to look at the challenges more holistically. And he's good at it.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, Hoffman sits in his office in PCIA's headquarters, his desk strewn with papers and proposals. He's eager to discuss strategies he hopes might help fix some of Pittsburgh's persistent problems, ones that will ultimately improve public safety. "Housing," Hoffman says, "is a catalyst to creating safe neighborhoods." Driving down Welch Street — stretches of which have more vacant, boarded-up homes than occupied ones — it's more than plausible that the opposite would be the case.
Pittsburgh was devastated by the foreclosure crisis (an issue the 2010 CL cover story "City of Blight" explores in detail). By 2008, 50 percent of the properties in the 1-square-mile neighborhood were foreclosed, and the neighborhood became a sea of vacant and dilapidated properties, and a breeding ground for crime. (The neighborhood is home to approximately 3,200 people, almost all African-American.) Utilizing grants, the PCIA partnered with the Casey Foundation and purchased nearly 100 foreclosed homes. They've renovated seven so far — all of which are currently occupied — and Hoffman plans to renovate 10 more with $760,000 in loan grant money from the city.
Since moving to Atlanta's Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2003, Hoffman's home has been broken into three times, once when his mother was visiting from Michigan to recover from surgery. He's relatively sure that youths who live in the neighborhood, some he suspects have gang ties, were involved. He describes the experience as "discouraging," especially since his work involves encouraging families and businesses to move into the neighborhood.
The attack against Brandon White and the negative attention that came along with it could prove to be a significant setback for Pittsburgh, at a crucial moment. The PCIA is completing its most recent master plan for revitalization. If there's been a silver lining — besides that White escaped the incident without physical injuries — it's the increased police presence. "I have to say, we've had a great relationship with the [APD] zone commanders. That's not a new relationship," Hoffman says. "I will say that I don't think they've had all the resources they needed to help them combat crime. And what we are seeing, because this incident went nationally, and now the neighborhood is on this national profile because of something else unfortunate, I think now they've been given more tools and resources to combat crime here."
Zone 3 Commander Barbara Cavender told CL that she and other officers "continue to meet and plan strategies to address such issues with the community and other agencies to see the best avenue to combat criminal activity." As far as strategies go, Sgt. Hoos isn't convinced that organizing a boycott and eventually shutting down 1029 McDaniel St. is the right one. Addressing the Pittsburgh safety committee, he says, "1029 has always been a problem for us. Always. That location definitely needs to be taken care of, but these gangs, they claim territory. And it's not just this store. You close that store, and they're going to move to another store." CL's attempts to reach the owner of 1029 McDaniel St. — Ygnacio Cruz, according to property records — were unsuccessful.
A February 28 meeting and press conference, organized by grassroots LGBT youth organization Change Atlanta, was miles away from the scene that has come to symbolize Pittsburgh's plight. Oddly, it also seemed to have little connection to Brandon White's ongoing concerns. Held at the Phillip Rush Center, an LGBT community center on DeKalb Avenue, the meeting was intended to foster healing within the gay community by allowing them to hear from the mother and attorney of Dorian Moragne, one of the men alleged to have participated in the attack against White.
White's attorney, Christine Koehler, who was asked by members of the gay community to serve as a sort of victim liaison as his case works its way through the system, says she and her client weren't invited to the table. "It was Phillip Rush's birthday," she says, referring to the deceased LGBT activist for whom the meeting's venue was named. "He would roll in his grave if he knew about the sensationalist thing that took place."
A couple of days prior to the meeting, CBS Atlanta ran a story in which they interviewed several people — who'd heard from someone or other — that White wasn't honest when he said his attack was random and his attackers strangers. These sources claim White had been taunting the attackers, even blackmailing them with information that one or more are gay "on the down low." Suddenly, White found himself on trial in the court of public opinion rather than the three men who videotaped themselves beating him. The news station even posted a poll on its website asking its readers and viewers, "Do You Think Atlanta Gay Beating Victim Brandon White Is Telling The Truth About His Relationship With The Suspects?" Moragne's defense attorney, Jay Abt, himself couldn't have better orchestrated the irrelevant attack on the victim's credibility.
Moragne's mother's comments were extremely limited: "I just want to say that I love my son and he's part of a loving and caring family. This is a nightmare that I wouldn't wish on any parent or child. That's all I have to say." Abt was somewhat more vocal. Insinuating that there's more to the incident than what the video depicts, Abt compared it to peeling back the layers of an onion. He repeated several times that he does not believe the crime should or would be prosecuted as a Federal hate crime. Abt said, "Dorian did not utter any epithets or slurs or say anything to indicate that this would be a Federal hate crime." Remembering himself, he added, "If, in fact, he's in the video."
Not noted during the Rush Center meeting is that all of the relatively young men who were arrested for beating White have arrest records. Dareal Demare Williams was arrested in April 2011 for participating in another street fight in Pittsburgh. A female neighbor accused him of closed-fist punching her in the face. Once she was down, she says she was hit in the back of the head with a stick, but wasn't sure by whom. In May 2011, Williams and fellow beating suspect Christopher Cain — both 17 at the time — were arrested along with another man in connection with the burglary of two televisions from a home on McDaniel Street, just a stone's throw from Williams' own home. Proximity is probably why police found one of the televisions stashed at Williams' residence. In July of last year, Williams was arrested for shoplifting from Macy's, and in October, for prowling behind a Chosewood Park apartment complex. A little more than a month later, he was arrested again, this time for running from the police (despite reports of an armed person, Williams was found to have only a cell phone and a screwdriver on his person — he explained he was scared). In addition to the May 2011 burglary in Pittsburgh, Christopher Cain was arrested in September 2010 for carrying a 9mm Smith & Wesson, which police say he'd attempted to ditch in some bushes, without a license.
Dorian Moragne was arrested in June and October of 2010, both times in connection with vehicle thefts. In December 2011, when the vehicle he was traveling in was pulled over, police say Moragne produced a stolen ID belonging to a white woman when asked for his own. First he attempted to say it was a friend's ID, then that it was an ID that he'd found at "the club," and held onto it intending to return it to its owner. In the van, police found a variety of stolen property — wallets, an iPad, computer accessories — all of which belonged to white females who'd been robbed in Midtown (all three at Starbucks) and in Virginia-Highland. Moragne was wanted at the time for a probation violation. His most recent arrest, which took place less than a month before Brandon White's attack, was in association with a home break-in in Adair Park.
Devin Barrington-Ward of Change Atlanta has said on several occasions that his organization is in favor of "restorative justice" for the three suspects in White's beating. "There's been a perpetual cycle of locking up young black men," Barrington-Ward said during the Rush Center meeting, "We cannot turn our backs on our young black brothers." He says they're seeking "justice and accountability" versus "revenge and vengeance."
But what about what the community these men would return to? What are they seeking?
"I'm not quite convinced today that I'm sold on restorative justice in this instance," Hoffman says. "For me, I think they should be prosecuted. I don't think there should be any leniency. Some people have said, 'Well, LaShawn, there may be more to the story that Brandon hasn't shared.' I said to them, 'Brandon could have lied completely — that doesn't negate the fact that they had no reason to jump and beat him.' You can't tell me how you justify that."
He continues: "My fight [is that] these individuals, as loosely organized as this Jack City gang may be, are declared members, and that entity itself has been a nuisance to our neighborhood. And that store [at 1029 McDaniel] has been a contributing factor to that nuisance. For us, it's about how we eradicate the nuisance. I may be wrong, but if sending them to jail sends a message that this type of behavior at no level is tolerated, then I'm OK with it. I have to focus on that there's a bigger cost here and there's a greater good. For the greater good, these individuals have to serve something."
After the safety committee meeting has wrapped up, the last few people left in the building — Hoffman, Pierre Gaither, and Douglas Dean — decide they're going to leave together for safety's sake. A group of boys have congregated outside and have been peeking in the windows. The convenience store next door to the PCIA's headquarters has become another popular hangout of late. As Sgt. Hoos said, even if 1029 McDaniel St. was no longer open, neighborhood troublemakers will find another place to gather. But the PCIA remains dedicated to seeing the Pink Store gone.
At the moment, their strategy consists mostly of a boycott — not patronizing the store, encouraging neighbors not to patronize the store, and, if necessary, arranging for church vans to transport residents, those who might not have a way to get around, to other stores to shop for necessities. They've also contacted MARTA to have the stop outside the store taken off the bus route. "There's a stop on every corner in this neighborhood — that's not going to hurt anyone." The next step, Gaither says, is figuring out what they'd like to see occupy the building instead. Residents have suggested a library, maybe a police mini-precinct.
Dean, a former state representative, remembers when 1029 McDaniel used to house Yates and Milton Drug Store, a prominent African-American business that started on Auburn Avenue and expanded to a chain with five locations in Atlanta. He says a doctor by the name of Yancy saw patients in an office upstairs. He remembers, he says, when Pittsburgh was a place where people loved to live. "Why should I just sit there," he asks, "and allow the [criminal element] to ruin an opportunity to revitalize this neighborhood? These kids don't know no better. They feel like there's some ownership [over 1029]. So, we have to cut it off at the root. We have to shut it down."
Even if Hoos is right, and closing 1029 McDaniel will just shift the crime to another unfortunate location, the PCIA hopes it will send a message — a message to business owners that they have some responsibility to the community, a message to proclaimed gang members that the "turf" they claim isn't theirs at all, and a message to the public that Pittsburgh doesn't condone criminal behavior and that it isn't the norm.
"This is not a bad community," Dean says. "We've just got some bad elements. We gon' get rid of it, too."
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