Monthly Archives: January 2001

Guns On Parade

Guns On Parade

January 18, 2001

On a peaceful Saturday morning, the stories swapped among the men lounging in the front room of Saint Joseph’s Baptist Church had a common theme: the feeling of helplessness that comes from staring down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. Reverend Abraham Woods, pastor of Saint Joseph’s, recalled a face-to-face confrontation with a shaking, gun-wielding teen robbing a convenience store that Woods had entered to purchase a soda. As the sweating assailant held a gun on Woods, the Reverend started to tell the robber who he was in hopes that the kid would surrender-not a good idea. “He was too nervous for an introduction,” Woods recalled with a chuckle. Frank Matthews, community activist and radio talk show host, nodded his head and laughed as he recalled the night he and his dinner companions were locked in a freezer at Shoneys while the restaurant was being robbed. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,” confessed Matthews.

The scene was Saint Joseph’s annual gun buy-back, held each January on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. Sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with area churches and businesses, the weapons swap pays people up to $50 cash in exchange for a weapon. At Birmingham’s first gun buy-back in 1994, 411 guns were collected in 90 minutes-a national record according to Matthews. This year, a steady flow of gun-toting citizens waited patiently outside the church door, which was kept locked at all times. Inside, a Birmingham police officer from the Tactical Operational Unit checked to make sure the guns were not loaded. The officer had already emptied bullets from two pistols by mid-morning.

Frank Matthews, a former gang member who was arrested 33 times before he was 19, but who now goes by the moniker “God’s Gangster,” was designated “gun appraiser and negotiator.” Matthews studied each piece quickly, offering $10 to $20 for most of the surrendered weapons. While many people were happy to get what they could for their guns, one elderly gentleman, dissatisfied with Matthew’s $15 offer, said he would hang onto his .12 gauge double-barreled shotgun. Matthews warned him not to leave the gun laying around his home because his grandchildren might get hurt. “I ain’t got no grandkids!” the disgruntled fellow shouted as he left. “We got a couple of Uzis, and that’s a blessing,” sighed a middle-aged woman as she jotted down the serial numbers of surrendered weapons. Behind her was a long table covered with rifles, pistols, and the pair of coveted Uzis. “This is the gun of choice,” said Matthews, holding up an Uzi [also known as a "street sweeper"] as he repeatedly pulled out, then reinserted, the gun’s clip with considerable dexterity. “When a gang gets hold of an Uzi, it does something to the identity of the gang. Gives them more status,” explained Matthews. One of the Uzis fetched $30, while a .357 Magnum brought $35, the highest pay out of the morning.

A woman in a Betty Boop sweatshirt turned in her .38 Special because “the permit had expired, and I don’t want it no more.” A visibly uncomfortable man handed Matthews a .300 Winchester Magnum. “That’s a terrible gun, isn’t it?” noted Reverend Woods. “You could almost hold off an army with that thing.”

Another woman arrived with a gun-wielding tot. “I’m bringin’ in my little boy. He’s already killed 10 people this morning,” she laughed, as the four year-old aimed his plastic pistol and imitated gunfire at everyone in sight. The kid surrendered his weapon to Reverend Woods, who gave him a glimmering locomotive engine in exchange. “Toy guns and play weapons of destruction; we must do something about the terrible romance people develop with guns at an early age,” noted Woods who shook his head at the pile of approximately 60 weapons collected at the church. “It’s a meaningful way to pay tribute to Dr. King. He was the ‘apostle of nonviolence.’ We are our brother’s keeper, but he’d be appalled to find that many of us have become our brother’s killer.”

City Hall — December 19, 2000

City Hall

January 04, 2001

December 19, 2000

Facing the dozen or so Birmingham Water Works employees attending this morning’s Council meeting to voice support for the return of the region’s water system assets to the Birmingham Water Works Board, Councilor Jimmy Blake expresses disbelief when Water Works employees are requesting that the city “not hold our assets hostage.” Blake promptly reminds the employees that the Water Works assets belong to all the people of Birmingham and are one of the most valuable assets the citizens have. Blake characterizes the employees’ gushing praise of the Water Works Board management as “naive,” and reminds everyone in the council chambers that not too long ago the Water Board wanted to turn the Water Works assets over to the city. He urges Water Works employees to avoid being used as “tools [of the Water Works Board]” and not to allow themselves to be “fooled.” Blake warns the public that the Water Board is a “highly politicized organization that used strong-armed tactics to get a resolution through this Council to essentially take the assets of the citizens out of the control of the city.” He further condemns the Water Board because it “has not been honest with the people of this city on a hundred different occasions,” according to Blake. Councilor Sandra Little shouts “Point of order!” as she tells Council President Pro Tem Aldrich Gunn, presiding over the meeting in Council President William Bell’s absence, that Blake is out of line because no one from the Water Works Board is present to defend themselves. As Gunn tries to hush Blake, the outspoken councilor shouts to the Water Works employees present, “Don’t be fools or tools!”

The Central Park Chargers 115-pound youth football team is present this morning to be honored for winning the national youth football championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. Central Park is a “split district,” divided by Councilors Little and Lee Loder, who have a few words of praise. “Thank you to this great football team!” Councilor Little tells the kids as she glows with pride. She urges everyone to support the Central Park league, emphasizing the improved conditions of the Central Park playing field due to recent upgrading from the Parks and Recreation Board. [Little is chairperson of the Parks and Recreation, and Arts Committee.] As a testament to the improved safety of the neighborhood, Little notes that she recently contributed money from her district discretionary fund to “secure the concession stand [at the football field] with burglar bars.”

Councilor Little complains to Mayor Kincaid about big trucks roaring down South Park Road next to the South Park Apartments, which are located in her district. “There are some 18-wheelers that’s going through there pretty fast, and we’ve been having this problem for about a couple of years,” says Little. The councilor notes that the addition of speed-breakers is not allowed, as such drastic measures to automatically slow automobiles and trucks would hinder emergency vehicles. Little says that she studied other city traffic dilemmas at seminars conducted at the League of Cities conference she and several other Birmingham city councilors recently attended in Boston [at last, evidence of something productive emerging from the notorious League of Cities conferences that councilors jet to at taxpayers' expense], and suggests erecting stop signs in place of speed-breakers to slow traffic flow.

John Garrett, head of the Traffic Engineering Department, tells Councilor Little, “Stop signs are not really intended as a speed control device. Their main purpose is to assign the right-of-way at intersections.” Garrett promises to look at the intersections along South Park to search out speed control methods that “might have an impact on those trucks.” Little cites the South Bessemer Housing Community as an example of stop signs in the middle of streets to slow traffic flow. Explaining that the use of stop signs at any location on a street other than an intersection is an “inappropriate use of a stop sign,” Garrett says the suggestion “would not comply with the national standards and things that we’re supposed to comply with.” Little argues that there are areas that do incorporate such stop sign practice, citing the aforementioned south Bessemer public housing [Little initially refers to the Bessemer community neighborhood as "the projects," but quickly switches the reference to "public housing."]. Acknowledging certain exceptions to stop sign placement, Garrett recognizes certain “public housing and private roads.” He quickly adds, “And with all due respects to Bessemer, they do not have a professional staff [laughs] of the type that Birmingham does.”

A resolution authorizing Mayor Kincaid to enter into a $150,000 contract with the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority [BCIA] to provide comprehensive assistance and certification of minority and disadvantaged businesses and enterprises is on today’s agenda. The encouragement of career opportunities for minority and disadvantaged students will be also be included through scholarships. Councilor Blake wants “somebody to define the terms minority’ and disadvantaged,’” a request that prompts Councilor Sandra Little to laugh uncontrollably. Council President Pro Tem Gunn smiles at Blake and says, “In this case, that’s you.” Sandra Little laughs even harder as Gunn continues his explanation to Blake: “You’re a minority on this Council. But you’re not disadvantaged. Disadvantaged is me when I get out into the public. I’m a minority when I get out into the circle of the world if, you want to talk about definitions and everything.”

At one time Birmingham had a program in place that set aside 20 percent of all city construction work for ethnic groups, most of which went to blacks, according to Mayor Kincaid. The Associated General Contractors filed and won a lawsuit against the city over the program. As a result, the city implemented the Birmingham Plan, a volunteer effort by general contractors to assist minority businesses and enterprises in securing subcontracting work. The BCIA coordinates the volunteer program.

Acknowledging that he understands the program, Blake responds: “My objection is this. We all are talking about pledges to end racism. And when we pass a law that is for the specific benefit of a particular race or gender group, we are perpetuating racism. We are flying in the face of that pledge [Birmingham Pledge] as it relates to racism.” Blake also questions restricting scholarships to students based on race. Mayor Kincaid replies, “You might not like what it stands for. You might not like the fact that it has a genesis in race. But it is the law.” Councilor Blake questions the propriety of citizens financing the program, to which an angry Kincaid answers, “Yes [they should], because understand this [speaking to Blake]. This city is 73 percent African-American by race, and blacks don’t get a fair share of the building!”

The vote is taken, with Blake voting “No” while the other two white councilors, MacDermott and Johnson, abstain. Council President Pro Tem Gunn resoundingly votes approval, practically shouting “Yes, to the second power!” Councilor Blake asks Gunn, “What kind of a vote is that, Mr. Pro Tem? A Florida vote?” &