Augusta State University's athletic director says the community needs to wake up and realize it has a gang problem.
What's more, Augusta needs to start talking about it and form a comprehensive task force to do something about it, Clint Bryant told members of the Augusta Kiwanis Club on Monday.
"We as a society are dangerously silent," he said. "We have looked the other way."
Mr. Bryant said news accounts of three homicides in two days three months ago, robberies and other crimes prompted him to research the gang issue. He met with Mayor Deke Copenhaver, Sheriff Ronnie Strength, District Attorney Danny Craig, Sen. Ed Tarver, Marshal Steve Smith, the Rev. Sam Davis (the pastor of Beulah Grove Baptist Church) and others to discuss the issue.
At that time, Sheriff Strength said Augusta has 44 gangs, six to eight of which are considered to be serious ones - highly organized and well-armed, bent on robbery, stealing and other crimes.
Mr. Bryant said that he decided there was no way he could sit around and watch the community be taken over by gangs.
"I wasn't interested in having any press conferences, any rallies, or marching through any neighborhoods or singing any hymns," he said. "If that was what was going to come out of this, count me out."
Although all 44 gangs are black, with few white youths involved, the problem is not about race, contended Mr. Bryant, who is black.
"And I'm not going to let anybody make it about race," he said.
Gangs have replaced the family unit, the churches, athletic teams, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the YMCA and the Boys Club, he said.
"The reason they've been able to do this is gangs offer something that those units don't offer any more," he said.
Gangs offer guidance, discipline, a sense of belonging, an identity, financial security, structure in unstructured lives and individuals who seem to care and love the members.
"I'm telling you people," he said. "This is serious business. It is a mentality that we are not accustomed to because, as Danny Craig will tell you, after 10 o'clock at night there's a whole different culture that evolves in this community.
"You don't know nothing about it. I don't know nothing about it. We're at home in our beds with our families."
Mr. Bryant said the people of Augusta need to have an open discussion.
"Not only does this frank and honest discussion need to occur in every community, since most or all the gangs in Richmond County are black gangs, I think there should be some open and honest discussion in the black community about what is causing this," he said. "But I will not let any other community off the hook because this is a social problem that is everybody's problem because we all live in this community."
Causes include a breakdown in the family structure and morals; the welfare system, which encourages men not to be in the home; and elimination of the military draft, which once put discipline and structure in young men's lives while showing them the world, Mr. Bryant said.
He said failure to address the drug culture, decay in the public school system, hip-hop music and large numbers of black males in prison learning to be real gang leaders add to the gang culture.
"Cable TV, the 24-hour madness I call it," he said. "Anytime kids can go and look at TV for 24 hours a day and all they see is MTV, BET, which is glorifying this culture, glorifying this bling-bling, and all of a sudden they think that's the way it's supposed to be."
More than all that is that, as Dr. King said, people are dangerously silent, meaning that something is wrong but people have said nothing about it, Mr. Bryant said.
"We cannot remain dangerously silent," he said. "We as a community need to step up to the plate and say, 'This is enough. We've had enough. We live in a civilized society and we're going to expect people to be civilized.'"
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.