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Uptown Shootout

It's not a matter of if, but when

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Charlotte City Council member Warren Turner may be the only elected official in town who fully grasps the gang situation in Charlotte, and he's growing more frustrated by the day.

While his colleagues keep track of gang activity through feel-good police presentations, Turner spends his days micro-managing gang members, wannabe gang members and everything in between in his job as a probation officer.

Turner is convinced that city officials and the police don't fully grasp the extent to which the gang problem has taken root here. He thinks gang members, fringe gangsters and the gang-enamored are testing the police, and that police are failing the test. When Turner talks about a big uptown shootout, it's not in terms of if, but when. Maybe it'll be next spring, when the weather warms up again, he says, his voice trailing off.

For Turner, the gun-display ban that police proposed last week was the final straw. Sure, he thought the gun part was dumb -- but it was the gang part that had him seeing red.

In July, after the riot and shooting uptown, Turner and the police watched the same video of what happened.

"Those are gang members," Turner tried to tell them. But police insisted the clothing was just faddish style. No gang activity uptown, they said. Then last Monday, when the police department asked the city council for a gun-display ban, police noted that one of the four people they'd seen carrying a gun uptown was wearing gang colors. (The police reports, which Creative Loafing later requested, showed that at least two people were in gang-style clothing.)

"In July, they said the clothing that those kids had on was just a fad because (police) got caught with their pants down and weren't prepared for what happened," Turner said. "Now all of a sudden the same clothing, fashion, is a gang, when I had been saying it was a gang all along. I'm out here in the streets every day and I know these kids and I know the difference, but the lie they presented to the public and the lie they have continued to present to council has been very misleading."

The "difference" Turner's referring to is subtle, but it's the crux of the problem.

In at least two cases, the kids whom police questioned uptown for publicly carrying guns -- which is the way the law requires they be carried if a person doesn't have a concealed carry permit, by the way -- were both traveling in identically dressed groups wearing the same color T-shirts and jeans, or gang colors.

But when the police pulled those kids' records, they found a few misdemeanors but no felonies, nothing serious. So why did police panic and rush to city council asking for a new gun ordinance? Because, as Turner says, they don't "know the difference."

Let me explain:

As gangs spread in Charlotte, so did gang style, with certain colors representing both gangs and the neighborhoods they claim. Gang-style dress is popular in general, which further complicates matters. So you've got kids from the suburbs who've never met anyone in a gang dressing like the kids in their schools from gang neighborhoods who dress like the gang members they know and look up to, but who aren't necessarily gang members themselves. Then you've got the gang wannabes, who commit small-time crimes and often travel in identically dressed groups. Finally, there are the fringe gang members and the actual gang members.

For officers who patrol specific neighborhoods, and for people like me who live in a part of town where gang colors are common, the situation is relatively easy to sort out, if you know what you're looking for. I've watched these kids -- and the adults they look up to -- long enough to know who is capable of slitting your throat (very few) and who is just pretending (the vast majority).

That's what has kept the gang situation relatively manageable so far. But in the past year, the pretenders, the gangsters and those who fall into the gray areas have begun to disappear from the neighborhood corners where they used to hang out in the summer. That's because they're now hanging out uptown, which during peak bar season is nothing but wall-to-wall bodies.

For the first time, kids from different neighborhoods who have things sorted out at home and who normally wouldn't mingle are mixing on common turf. That means that those whose gang loyalties are at least half serious are bound to clash. And since almost all of these kids are dressed similarly, and the officers on "cruising detail" don't interact with these people on a day-to-day basis, there's no way for them to sort out the throat-slitters from the gang-fashion aficionados. That problem was made very clear by the near panic among police caused by four publicly displayed guns uptown.

That's why I think the proposed gun ban wasn't really about guns, and why initially it wasn't about guns anywhere else in Charlotte. It was the department's CYA for when the shootout they fear -- the one they don't know how to stop -- goes down. Turner knows it, I know it and I think that the police do, too.

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