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Gang violence in Chester no longer somebody else’s problem

When gang members shoot each other in fights over turf, women and status, shouts of outrage are heard, but hollow. Screams for change do not last past the funerals.

Look at Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles. Gangs of black men, Hispanics, whites. The color is different, but results are the same – drugs, guns, prison, death.

Since Nov. 4, the focus on gang violence in South Carolina – and maybe America for a brief moment – has been centered on Chester, where City Councilman Odell Williams, 69, a tough and outspoken retired street cop who was not afraid of any man, was shot dead in the street by what police say were gang members.

Then the gangs allegedly threatened to kill the cops investigating the murder.

Williams had hired scores of young men over the years to do hard work at his business, Williams Concrete Works. He sponsored and coached youth athletic teams. He was a Boy Scouts leader. He led church groups and spearheaded the resuscitation of Chester’s recreation department to get kids off the streets.

State Rep. John King of Rock Hill, who grew up in Chester, said Williams mentored as many young kids in Chester as anybody.

Now five young black men are accused in killing Williams, who was black, with a fusillade of at least 17 shots from an assault rifle. The gangs police say they ran with are accused of placing bounties on the heads of cops, including Chester County’s two top cops, who also are black.

This is not some TV show or movie. This is real life, right now.

In Chester.

“This crime, this killing of Councilman Odell Williams, a man I have known all my life, is brazen and outlandish,” said Mary Guy, the lone black member of the Chester County Council. “If they were not brazen, they would not have killed Councilman Williams out in the street.”

In 2010, gangs arguing over music and women started a shootout at a nightclub that escalated into the execution-style slaying of one man outside Chester Regional Medical Center’s emergency room. Another man died and several more were injured that night at a function at a nightclub where police officers were working security.

These gangs have such gall that they shoot each other with cops watching.

Since then, the shootings have piled up. This summer, a teen was gunned down and left dead in a Chester street by an alleged gang member.

“I don’t know what young people are seeking in gangs – if it’s a mentor or someone to look up to – but the answer is not resorting to gang activity,” Guy said.

One of the five men charged with killing Williams has been shot at least twice himself. Quinton McClinton also allegedly attempted to kill at least one other man and once faced murder charges in still another killing, but he was out on bond Nov. 4.

Now, Sheriff Alex Underwood said, the gangs have made threats of retaliation, even death threats, against the cops who protect people. Underwood said he is not scared, but the gangs should be. He declared war on them.

Underwood is a trained cop who carries a gun. Most of the 33,000 people in Chester County are just living, working, taking care of families – and the threat of gang violence could make them shake in their shoes. If the gangs threaten cops, they surely will threaten a granny who calls police to report drug dealing, or gunfire, or threats of violence for talking to police.

Williams was known as a tough man. He died, allegedly, at the hands of cowards toting guns not for safety, but for killing.

The former cop was known to carry a gun. Police have declined to say if he was armed when he died or what specifically led to his shooting. There was a dispute between Williams and others nearby before the killing, police have said.

Williams was arrested earlier this year after an alleged argument and threats between him and Chester Police Chief Andre Williams (no relation) over how the department was run.

But that was nothing but words. Williams was shot with an assault rifle designed to kill.

Regardless of the circumstances, the killing of a public official means that gang violence no longer is just between gangs.

“For too long in Chester, there has been a feeling that if violence doesn’t affect us, we can turn our heads away from it,” said Marcus Tolliver, a Chester community activist and member of Brown’s Chapel AME Zion Church. “But with the councilman killed, this shows it can happen to anybody, and the violence isn’t just gangs themselves.”

The threats against police show that these gangs don’t fear cops, guns, jails or prisons.

“I know pastors out here, people who used to go talk to these gang people, and they are scared,” Tolliver said. “And him being a councilman and former policeman, it shows the gangs aren’t afraid of anybody.”

Tolliver has organized a community event – “100 Citizens Rally for Change” – from 4 to 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Brown’s Chapel church. He has asked the sheriff, the police chief, pastors and others to gather. Many community leaders have agreed to be there.

“We have to start with prayer, and we have to talk about this gang problem and act on it,” Tolliver said. “Chester is loving people, not gangs. We are so much more than that.”

Before last week, few people attended Chester City Council meetings. On Monday, it was standing room only, and crews from four Charlotte TV stations were there.

Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow said after the meeting that Chester residents cannot “live in fear,” that council members will not be cowed and will not “govern in fear.”

But the fear is so real that Underwood will ask the Chester County Council on Monday night for money to hire more police officers and a gang investigator after explaining the reality of gangs in the county.

That gang reality has gone from disputes and violence among young people to the shooting death of a city councilman and well-known retired cop – a man who dedicated his life to his community and its people – in the middle of a Chester street.

Only the public and the police – working together – can do something about gangs.

That’s reality.

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