Credit: Darrell Roaden, Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
Black community leaders call for accountability and action after Heritage Bowl violence
Black community leaders in Columbus not only are criticizing the security that law enforcement agencies provided at the 61st annual Heritage Bowl, the rivalry football game between Carver and Spencer High Schools at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium. They also are urging others to help ensure the event doesn’t end in violent chaos again.
And they announced several steps toward that goal.
CALLING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
Officials ended the Aug. 25 Heritage Bowl near the end of the third quarter after a fight broke out among four female students.
As the Ledger-Enquirer previously reported, MCSD Police Chief Greg Arp said “a mass stampede” was sparked when “someone yelled, ‘Gun!’” while six police officers broke up the fight.
The rumor of a gun seen inside the stadium hasn’t been substantiated. But additional fights among juveniles ensued in the parking lot, and three juveniles were arrested on gun possession charges outside the stadium. In total, 10 juveniles were arrested for alleged crimes committed at the event.
During a news conference Saturday organized by the Columbus branch of the NAACP, the Rev. J.H. Flakes III, president of the Columbus Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and senior pastor of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church, described the way this year’s Heritage Bowl ended as “troubling” after seeing “a pandemonium of exiting children, teenagers, students, elderly alike, trying to flee.”
Flakes noted the juveniles arrested weren’t students at Carver or Spencer, but he called on certain community members to help solve the problem.
“We are calling for accountability, accountability of parents, that they know where their children are, accountability of parents, teaching their children how to act when they go out into public, accountability for parents to know that they too have a responsibility for their children, accountability to also the children, the teenagers, the students, that they will be accountable for actions that not only would disrespect their parents but publicly disrespect such a legacy, the Heritage Bowl,” Flakes said.
Then the pastor focused on law enforcement agencies.
“We’re asking for accountability of our public safety director, our mayor, accountability for CPD, the Columbus Police Department, also accountability for our sheriff’s department. It should never be an option to provide public safety,” Flakes said. “It should never be an option for any person who has taken the oath to serve and protect, regardless of where it is, its geographical location. It never should be presented as an option.”
HOW COLUMBUS PUBLIC SAFETY OFFICIALS RESPONDED TO CRITICISM
The Ledger-Enquirer emailed Flakes’ comments to Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson, who also serves as the city’s public safety director, Columbus Police Department Interim Chief Stoney Mathis and Muscogee County Sheriff Greg Countryman for a response.
Henderson objected to Flakes’ criticism.
“Some of the comments made at the event were disappointing,” Henderson wrote in an email Tuesday to the Ledger-Enquirer. “To think or state that our law enforcement doesn’t provide the same level of effort to protect our citizens based on their location, ethnicity, or economic status is just wrong.
The CPD, the Sherrif’s office, the MCP, and the Fire and EMS go to work every day with one goal – to work as hard as possible to protect the entire community,” Henderson continued. “The officers on the street are dedicated to their job and travel the entire city answering 911 calls, one after another.”
Henderson went on to explain the process of security at these events.
“The School District occasionally rents City Stadiums for athletic events,” he wrote. “Just like other entities that hold events in public spaces, they are responsible for security. They frequently hire off duty officers to assist with that effort.
“The day before the game, I was asked if any more off duty officers were interested in working the game. I was out of town but called the chief and asked him to send out another e-mail notifying officers of the part time job opportunity at the game. I also asked him to contact the Warden at MCP to see if his officers were interested. 10 more correctional officers agreed to participate.
“CPD has a very good partnership with the School District’s Police Department and will continue to work with MCSD to help them carry out their security plans at future School events. The collaboration must include other law enforcement agencies as well as members of the community.”
Through CPD spokeswoman Brittany Santiago, Mathis declined to comment. Countryman also declined to comment.
At the NAACP news conference, Omega Psi Phi member Marvin Broadwater Sr. announced the fraternity will conduct a “student-led” forum for parents Sept. 30, starting at 9 a.m., in the Spencer High School auditorium.
Parents will receive information about community resources to help them with their children’s development and social-emotional learning, Broadwater said.
“It is a different time than when most of us were reared,” he said. “The children of today face a different type of challenge than those of yesteryear. Therefore, we must attack the challenge differently.”
Flakes also announced several action steps:
- Conducting a yet-to-be-scheduled “community social event” to establish and improve relationships. “We need to make sure these youths know who we are, whether it’s handing them a hamburger or hotdog and saying, ‘What’s your name? Let’s talk about what’s going on,’ engaging parents and having resources available that they will know about,” Flakes said.
- Requesting to be on the Columbus Council agenda. “We want to ask the public safety director to help us understand going forward what will happen in order to make our community safe, the Heritage Bowl safe,” Flakes said. “… It doesn’t matter where you move them because, if you’ve got 6,000 people, it’s still going to need public safety.”
- Encouraging more community members, especially Black males, to volunteer in schools. “These young boys who are coming out of single-parent homes, where mothers are doing the best they can do to make ends meet, they need to hear and they need to see that there are responsible, accountable Black males out here, that they don’t have to be in jail,” Flakes said.
HOW MANY OFFICERS WERE AT HERITAGE BOWL BEFORE THE VIOLENCE?
Since the Aug. 25 event, the Ledger-Enquirer has tried to determine the number of law enforcement officers at the Heritage Bowl and how many are supposed to be at a Muscogee County School District football game.
Complicating matters is that McClung is owned and operated by the Columbus Consolidated Government, as opposed to the MCSD-owned Kinnett and Odis Spencer stadiums. That’s why, as the Ledger-Enquirer previously reported, Arp said he can’t make CPD officers and Muscogee sheriff’s deputies be part of the security staff at games.
Based on responses from officials, the Ledger-Enquirer has learned three CPD officers worked at the Heritage Bowl while off duty, MCSD provided six officers, and one sheriff’s deputy was on site before more officers responded to the call for help after the violence broke out.
The Ledger-Enquirer didn’t reach Muscogee County Prison warden Herbert Walker before publication to find out the number of correctional officers who were part of the security force at the game.
Arp and MCSD communications director Kimberly Wright haven’t replied to the L-E’s questions about the factors determining how many law enforcement officers are assigned to MCSD football games and how that number is different and why, if at all, at Kinnett, Odis Spencer and McClung stadiums.
A 17-year-old was arrested on two counts of carrying a weapon on school property during the Aug. 18 game between Spencer and Greenville high schools at Odis Spencer Stadium. An MCSD police officer noticed the outline of a handgun in the teen’s book bag and found two loaded handguns inside.
On Aug. 29, four days after the Heritage Bowl, MCSD announced revised rules for spectators attending varsity football games at Kinnett and Odis Spencer stadiums. Those new rules include screening for weapons and banning entry for children in middle school or younger unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian at least 21 years old who may be responsible for no more than five students at the game.
MCSD’s news release didn’t mention games at McClung. Asked about that omission, Wright wrote in an Aug. 29 email to the Ledger-Enquirer, “Due to staffing issues related to security, the District has suspended the use of the stadium until the security situation can be adequately addressed.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Ledger-Inquirer.