TALLADEGA -- A large group of people came out to Talladega’s Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday night to discuss the problems -- and possible solutions -- to the city’s linked drug and crime problems.
Former police officer and current Municipal Court Clerk David Sparks hosted the event, which featured a presentation from Lt. Mike Reese, a retired officer from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board who now gives drug and alcohol awareness classes all over the state. His career in law enforcement, which also involves work with the Anniston police, stretches back to the early 1980s.
The primary focus of the meeting was the spate of violence in Talladega over the last several months, but as Reese said, “Drugs are violence. You always hear about how nobody dies from drug crimes, from marijuana, but why is it that people selling marijuana always seem to have guns,” he asked.
In addition to marijuana and the more common street drugs, Reese also discussed the hazards of legal and gray area marijuana products, especially those meant to appeal to children, and the dangers of synthetic drugs, particularly because the buyer does not really have any way of knowing what he/she is getting.
He also praised the local efforts of Talladega County District Attorney Steve Giddens and Drug and Violent Crime Task Force Cmdr. Jason Murray.
Most of the meeting, however, was given over to comments from the audience. “I don’t have any answers,” Sparks said. “That’s why you’re here.”
The Rev. Hugh Morris, president of the Talladega County NAACP, said, “When there is injustice, I am one of the first to take it up. If the police kill a black person, or if a black person kills a black person, I go to the police, and they tell me the same thing: No one says anything, no one wants to be a snitch.
“I don’t care who killed who, what I care about is that there are unsolved murders in this city because no one will help the police. We will put all our zeal into it if it’s white people, but we tie our own hands when we know something and don’t say anything.
“Most of the people in this room probably know a murderer. How did we get here? If my son is killed, I would want everyone to help me find who killed him. What is being a snitch compared to knowing who killed your neighbor’s child and not doing anything about it?”
One participant later defined “snitch” as “someone who tells the truth. You can tell the truth to stop some of this.”
Yusuf Binyamin, a Talladega native who, by his own admission, has spent most of his adult life in prison, raised one of the recurring themes of the evening when he spoke of a need to “put boots on the ground.”
“I got the opportunity to be with people dealing with addiction to all kinds of drugs, dealing with all kinds of molestation, that they had to wrestle with to get out,” Binyamin said. “Drugs are making people sick, and sick people don’t heal themselves.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be divided by lines drawn by other people. For me, from the inside looking out, the problem isn’t recreational, it’s a side effect of poverty, of women raising children on their own, in government induced circumstances. God gave us the will to make choices, but we need resources.”
Later in the meeting, Binyamin also asked the other speakers to refrain from using terms like “crackhead,” asking instead that addicts be thought of as people who were sick and worthy of respect.
Katie Campbell, a recent candidate for mayor of Talladega, pointed out that drug addiction plagued every part of the community, not just those in poverty.
“We need hope and resources,” she said. “Ninety percent of people with an addiction will never get help.”
Reese pointed out that poor people have fewer options because they often cannot afford drug rehab programs.
“They need help from the government,” he said. “If they have a drug problem, they need to get medical help. God cures, yes, but he also gives doctors the sense to help people who are sick … We’re all in this together.”
Sparks pointed out that “we have a good agency here in town, Altapoint, that used to be Cheaha Mental Health, but that’s a private entity, and it costs money. The state of Alabama has a total of 167 beds for treating criminals with mental illness. The only other option we have is to put them in jail.”
Greater Ebenezer Pastor Anthony McKinney indicated the place to start addressing any problems was “in the mirror. We can’t fight a spiritual war with secular weapons.
“We’ve driven God out of our homes, our schools, our government, and now children don’t know their grandmama’s God. We need to reintroduce him into the home. That’s why we’re suffering, and when the community suffers, the church suffers, too.
“We need to give our lives to Christ, then spread that love in our families and let our families spread it through the community…”
The Rev. Phoebe Presson, late of Jacobs Chapel CME, agreed, saying renewed faith would bring the children hope and love.
Several speakers also touched on a lack of legitimate recreational opportunities for young people.
The meeting closed with Sparks pointing to a small, white container sitting on a table at the front of the room throughout the evening. It is a child size coffin, he explained.
“Right now, this empty,” he said. “But if we don’t do something, if we don’t find some answers, it won’t be for long.”