The Monitor caught up this week with Al Tillman, District 9 commissioner on the Macon-Bibb Commission who represents the Bloomfield, Unionville and Ingleside neighborhoods. Tillman formerly served as branch president of the Macon NAACP, and is the founder of UNITY-N-Community, a local community service organization. He works as a booking agent for entertainers who appear in venues from Georgia to California.
With gang affiliation being part of cultural life in significant portions of his district, Tillman shared some reactions to the controversy about the prosecution, conviction and sentencing this week of Andre Bonner to life without parole for murder in a bar fight, and 15 extra years tacked on for related gang charges.
Monitor: What was your take on the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Andre Bonner?
Commissioner Tillman: It wasn’t surprising to me. David Cooke, the district attorney, has been up front all along that he was going to model himself on a gang prosecutor in north Georgia who went after gangs hard. David’s been doing that, and Judge Howard Simms has been clear that he is going to be tough in sentencing gang members too. So I say to gang members and affiliates in my district that it’s no secret what will happen to them if they commit crimes. They’ve been clearly warned.
Monitor: Gangs are a part of community identity in a substantial portion of your district.
Commissioner Tillman: Yes. Most of these people didn’t choose to grow up in the neighborhoods that they grew up in. Somebody else made that choice for them. But when you live there, and everybody’s wearing blue, you’re naturally going to wear blue too. And if everybody’s wearing red, you’re going to wear red too.
Monitor: Who are really members of gangs?
Commissioner Tillman: Few people in my district will admit right out that they’re gang members, because they’re afraid of what that might mean for them if they get caught doing something wrong. But a lot of people I call gang “affiliates.” You’re sort of automatically affiliated in many neighborhoods. I also tell them there’s nothing illegal about being in a gang, which is what I heard at an FBI program I attended. The problem is when gang members commit crimes.
Monitor: Andre Bonner committed murder, so his life sentence without parole wasn’t that surprising, gang member or not.
Commissioner Tillman: No surprise there, but there are cases that bother me. For instance, Stephen McDaniel cut that girl’s head and limbs off, admitted he did it all, and got the possibility of parole. But Cedrick Newton, the young man who swore again and again that he didn’t do the murder that he was charged with, got no parole chance, probably because he was affiliated with a gang.
Monitor: How do people in these neighborhoods, including the gang members, perceive the gangs?
Commissioner Tillman: The people most closely affiliated with gangs say that they’re not “terrorists” at all. If something does happen in the way of shooting, it’s mostly about girls. Otherwise, the guys are just trying to make money. Fact is they’re pretty entrepreneurial, and dedicated to whatever they’re doing on the street corner. If their talents could only be channeled in more positive ways, they could really do something.
Monitor: What can be done to make that happen?
Commissioner Tillman: Warren Selby and I back in the summer of 2010 did a “Stop the Violence” campaign with music, food and entertainment. It was successful, and crime went down. But the crime has come back. We need something more than general awareness of the problem of violent crime.
I’d like to see our authorities get more involved in prevention, though I know that’s not necessarily their job. Now, after somebody does a crime, the authorities will say, oh, we knew what you were up to, that you hang with the gangs. If the authorities explained what they knew in advance to these people and their families, maybe they would wise up before committing crimes.
The Monitor: Sometimes family structures are not in place to help.
Commissioner Tillman: I understand that. My own father was killed by police when I was one year old. But there are good people out there trying to help. One of my uncles was a mentor for me, and I also looked up to Willie C. Hill and his military experience. He was the inspiration for me to go into the military myself. At some point, an individual can’t keep using the lack of a dad as an excuse.
The Monitor: People in these neighborhoods and gangs need some practical alternatives, and can’t easily get into the military. What can be done about that?
Commissioner Tillman: A lot of them need some schooling, and that can be frustrating for them to go back and get a G.E.D. Some authorities have told me to forget about the older people, that you just can’t get them on a positive path. But I’m an example of the fact that you can go the wrong way and still turn the corner. I was in alternative school here in Macon during high school, but I eventually turned it around, got a G.E.D., an entrepreneurship certificate and an associate’s degree, and worked away. Some of these guys, I know they have the entrepreneurial spirit in them. Businesses could use them if they could get employed.
The Monitor: Lack of employment opportunities is a real problem.
Commissioner Tillman: Yes, that’s true. As you know, I sponsored the Ban the Box initiative here in Macon-Bibb to make sure that guys with a criminal record can get a fair look in the employment process. Another thing I’m suggesting is that we identify private employers who can accept people with a record — there are some — and connect them with some guys who can make it. And I’m also suggesting that we take just a small fraction of funds confiscated by the authorities and put them back into the community for community intervention, to make a way for some of these guys to change course. I also think that some of our job training and educational programs need to be looked at. Some of them are really just trying to hustle people. Everybody’s trying to hustle the poor and the disadvantaged.
Monitor: Is that also happening in the criminal justice system?
Commissioner Tillman: I have no problem with prosecutors and police going after the worst of the worst, the guys who are committing serious crimes. What I have a problem with is when the officials throw around the gang charges to go after people more loosely affiliated with gangs. The officials sometimes use those charges to force people to take pleas and testify against others, to snitch, when they really haven’t done much of anything.
Let me tell you something, there are more child molesters on the street that haven’t been caught than there are real gangster bad guys on the street who haven’t been caught. And who do you think is more likely to be rehabbed? It’s probably the so-called gang member.
I’m for second chances. Our two-strikes law in Georgia is probably unconstitutional, but no lawyer has challenged it yet. It’s also bankrupted the community and filled the jails. And we spend too much energy putting juveniles away for long periods. There are over 2,000 people in the U.S. serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were from 13 through 17. Everywhere else in the world, there are only 20 people in that category.
Cooke has done good to back off that category of offender, but I wish he’d spend more time working with people in our neighborhoods, and not treating them as if they’re all gangsters because they have some affiliations with gangs. We lost the war on drugs, and we’re losing the war on gangs because the people who are affected are not at the table. It’s important to establish a better dialogue with them than we have now. Until that happens, I don’t see much changing.