July 3, 2009 12:00

Greensboro councilman embroiled in conflict with gang

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Old wounds transfer into new grievances, while new controversies supplant old ones along familiar battle lines in Greensboro.

The 1979 Klan-Nazi killings and the black police officers’ discrimination claims against the city have steamrolled into a new conflict between District 4 Councilman Mike Barber and the street organization known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, or the Latin Kings.

Barber had ended up on the losing side of a vote to issue a statement of regret about the Klan-Nazi killings at a recent Greensboro City Council meeting on June 16, and one of those speaking in favor of the motion was the Rev. Cardes Brown. The pastor had recently hosted a press conference for Officer AJ Blake, one of the plaintiffs in the discrimination lawsuit and a former member of the gang unit assigned to investigate the Latin Kings. Blake is currently suspended while he appeals two convictions for assault on a female. The Rev. Brown has alleged that Barber offered to help Blake get his criminal charges dropped in exchange for withdrawing from the discrimination suit. It was not quite midnight near the end of the council meeting when Barber made public remarks about a house on Keeler Street behind Sedgefield Elementary where neighbors have reportedly complained about gunfire. The house lies in District 5, which is represented by Barber’s colleague, Councilwoman Trudy Wade. “There is an 18-year-old and a 21-yearold that lives in this home, and they are members of the gang the Latin Kings,” Barber said, reading from notes. “They have discharged a firearm in the neighborhood.

They have been investigated by the sheriff’s department — the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department — for internet prostitution, pornography and have committed other bad behavior in the community.”

For good measure, Barber added, “This is the same organization, I’ll just mention, that Cardes Brown is defending currently.”

He continued, “We’ve got our three 18carat gold ministers that are calling press conferences to defend these wonderful citizens of our community that are discharging weapons around children.”

Jorge Cornell, leader of the Latin Kings in North Carolina, responded that he kicked out four Latin Kings who are currently residents at 2809 Keeler St. in late April for doing things “that were not fitting for a king or queen.” As to whether his organization was

involved in prostitution and pornography, Cornell said, “None whatsoever; that’s not even our style.”

Col. Randy Powers, the Guilford County’s Sheriff’s Office’s second in command, contradicted Barber’s statement. “Apparently he must be talking about some other sheriff’s office. It wasn’t ours. I don’t think we’ve got anything going, and we’ve checked pretty deep.” Barber did not return phone calls requesting clarification about the source of his allegations.

Cornell said the neighbors’ complaints about firearms being discharged at the address might be related to shots fired at the house rather than from it. The Latin King leader, who now lives on Kirkman Street, said he had been shot at twice at the Keeler Street house before he moved in February 2008. Greensboro police have made one service call to 2809 Kirkman St. in the past six months. At 2:39 a.m. on June 8, Guilford Metro 911 received a call from a woman saying four or five shots had been fired and her daughter, 21-year-old Ashley Lazo, had received a gunshot wound. The dispatcher summarized the mother’s comments as “This happened now…. The assailant is gone: drive-by shooting. There is serious bleeding.” A police press release later reported that Lazo “sustained nonlife-threatening injuries from the shots fired into the residence.”

The Rev. Johnson, Jorge Cornell and other members of the Latin Kings held a press conference at Faith Community Church on June 18, two days after the councilman’s comments, to decry what they describe as a pattern of harassment by the gang unit and to call on the city council and the police department to dismantle that unit. “I feel the chief is weak,” said Cornell.

“I feel he has no power over any member of his police department. I challenge any city council member to prove that the Latin Kings have any involvement in internet prostitution or internet pornography. We’re not about that. And I challenge any member of the city council to prove to me that I got any member of the ALKQN living on Keeler Street.”

Johnson said he was saddened by the contentious nature of the current council, and asked Barber to consider meeting with them. “If there’s a view that there is violence going on and that we as a group of ministers

are aiding and abetting that violence, instead of helping to get it out, then that should be stated clearly and some kind of way of stating what that is,” Johnson said. “And I’d love to meet with Mr. Barber, and anybody else on the council to discuss that out. What’s sad is when that becomes a political platform to play to the historically accumulated prejudices and fears of people. And it has nothing to do with the reality. Nobody ever talked to you about it. Nobody wants to meet with you about it.” Johnson added that he understood Barber’s statement about “our three 18-carat gold ministers” to be a reference to himself, Rev. Brown and Rev. Gregory Headen, and dismissed the councilman’s slight as an attempt to shift attention away from his own troubles.

“At a press conference held two weeks ago, the brother of AJ Blake accused Councilman Barber of saying that he could get [AJ Blake] off if he would drop out of the suit of 39 African-American and people-of-color officers against the city,” Johnson said. “And Mr. Barber vehemently denies that. We actually believe it and know it’s true. And proper time will probably demonstrate that it’s true. I think Mr. Barber’s statement was more about deflecting that improper conduct that could result in his losing his [law] license than it was any truth related to what he said.” Johnson said the pastors’ condemnation of the gang squad should not be interpreted as an effort to detract from the police department’s legitimate mandate to protect public safety.

“We need good law enforcement,” the pastor said. “We need a good strong police department, but those parts of the police department whose behavior can be documented — and just arresting people and having it be thrown out of court — they have forfeited their right to exist as a contributing part of the community. And in no way should that be related to a relaxation or any lack of appreciation for safety in the community.”

The pastors presented a written proposal to then-City Manager Mitchell Johnson, Mayor Yvonne Johnson and the city’s human relations commission earlier this year that “asked the police for a space for this group to work with other groups and to hold meetings that are not surrounded by the police and people are afraid to come to the meeting,” the pastor said, adding that the city manager “took an interest in it,” but was fired (for unrelated reasons) before he could take action on it. The pastors have also met on several occasions with Chief Bellamy. The Rev. Johnson said the chief told them gang violence was falling in Greensboro.

The call to disband the gang unit and to open new dialogue has been met mostly with rejection. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat said the Latin Kings were pursuing the proper course by filing complaints with the city’s human relations commission, and that she was not interested in meeting with the pastors or the street organization “at this time.” She conceded that “the talk and probably the presence of gangs was more active and more prominent before,” but argued that perceived trend made a case for the gang unit’s effectiveness.

“At some point we may have to make a decision,” Groat said, “but not right now.” At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins said, “We aren’t negotiating with the head of the

Latin Kings,” adding that they were welcome like any other residents to speak from the floor during council meetings.

“We formed a gang unit for a reason, and I’m not sure the reason we formed it has disappeared,” he said. “Certainly we welcome dialogue with anybody to make Greensboro a safer place.”

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny said there was “not a chance in hell” that he would support disbanding the gang unit. “Our police gang unit is doing a great job,” he said. “This is just another typical Cardes Brown and Nelson Johnson deal. They won something on Tuesday night, and they’re trying to throw stones and rile feathers. No, I have absolutely no desire to take down a police gang unit that is being successful.”

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