William “Miami” Owens knew someone was trying to kill him, which is why he seemed to hate daylight and fresh air so much. Folks call drug dealing dens a trap for a reason. Miami refused to leave the warren that was his apartment, ever, for fear of being murdered on the stoop as he stepped outside.
Owens had been in this situation before — he shot and killed a man with a shotgun steps from the place a few years earlier after a drug deal went bad. A jury acquitted him because the other guy had pulled a knife.
This was different. Miami really had the wrong people pissed at him.
Eventually, one July night, Owens’ enemies tired of waiting around. They soaked the outside walls of the building in gasoline and burned him out. In the smoke and the darkness of the early morning, they shot blindly as people fled the fire, hoping to catch Owens. They shot an Ethiopian refugee first. Once the attackers recognized the man, they let him live. A pregnant woman jumped from a third-story balcony to escape the fire.
Then Owens came out, and they shot him dead on the spot, with a few rounds up close just to be sure. It was medieval assassination, the breaking of a siege. And completely unremarkable for Brannon Hill.
That was three years ago, Tuesday.
DeKalb County officials held a press conference with demolition trucks at Brannon Hill last week. In the two years since I began writing about the place, the condominium complex just outside of Clarkston that has become synonymous with blight. Official neglect had led to third-world conditions. I heard more than once from cops and neighbors and even its own residents that those conditions suited the third-world inhabitants, many of whom are former refugees from east Africa and the middle east. “They’re used to living like this,” I’d hear. The buildings have holes in them that looked like artillery shelling, but they’re used to it, so … eh.
DeKalb is beginning to tear the fire traps down now, after ensuring that the worst of the lot — the ones with ankle-deep standing water in hallways and Alice-in-Wonderland level mold on the walls, feral cats outnumbering people — had finally been cleared of squatters and people running from the law or their own senses. And they are fire traps — they’ve been averaging a major fire every 12 to 18 months for a decade. About half the units are already gone. The semi-official policy for a while had been to wait until the rest went up in flames, praying everyone got clear first.
“This phase of demolition will address 28 of the approximately 108 vacated units in various states of disrepair,” said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond in a press release. “Already, approximately 122 units at the complex have been demolished, and 186 are still inhabited.”
So. Yes. It’s a Good Thing™ to do.
My question now — how much has Brannon Hill been the carcinogen for the cancers of Memorial Drive, and how much has it merely been a symptom? I ask because in the two years since I began reporting on the maladies of the place, things there and nearby have been sliding down the cliff. Brannon Hill drew news reporters and politicians to tsk-tsk in the rubble. Few reporters or elected officials have taken similar public notice of the broader decay.
Crime has been falling broadly across DeKalb over the last six months, tracking along a regional trend. But most of the worst violence that remains has been in a crescent market at the tip by Brannon Hill, then flowering out along the Memorial Drive corridor, with the condominium complexes along Central Drive just north of Stone Mountain bearing the worst of it. That area represents, perhaps, four percent of the county’s territory, and close to a quarter of its murders.
Brannon Hill averaged a murder every other year until 2015. They’ve had at least six in the last 18 months, the most recent in April.
Anti-immigrant nitwits seized on the earlier reporting about Brannon Hill to accuse former refugees of creating blight and crime. I pushed back hard. The local drug gang was a set of Rolling 100’s crips with leadership based in Tennessee. Home grown. One of the leaders of the local crew goes by the street name Memphis, and was recently arrested on a gun charge. Others have been under scrutiny for more than one murder, including that of “Miami” Owens.
And yet, I was taken aback to see that two Ethiopian-American teenagers, Kibrom Gebre and Binyam Melese, had been arrested on murder charges in December, accused of killing a man of Sudanese descent at Brannon Hill. I haven’t seen the case file yet, but Gebre has been reported in the media to be a gang member. It’s heartbreaking.
East African families in Atlanta tend to be difficult to connect to the wider community even under the best circumstances. There’s a strong cultural instinct there to avoid exposing family problems outside of the community’s elders and to hold police — historically corrupt in the countries they’ve fled — at arm’s length. Real gains had started to emerge after the public attention. But now the immigration crackdown by ICE has exacerbated this problem over the last six months.
People aren’t going out as much. They’re not talking to strangers, I am told by local leaders. News of immigration arrests washes quickly through social media, dates and times and places. Under these conditions, the community policing model that can head off gang activity breaks down. People there are afraid of police in ways they had not been before … which is exactly the environment under which gang activity thrives.
Meanwhile, the Hate Committee of the Gangster Disciples set operating around Stone Mountain got popped in a mass arrest about two years ago, netting 32 arrests … including a DeKalb County cop. Police say the crew dealt a lot of cocaine, along with meth and other drugs. Most of the violence they’re accused of is along the Memorial Drive corridor.
One would think that a massive bust of a cocaine trafficking ring would have reduced crime in the area. But the number of murders in the Memorial Drive corridor has increased substantially since then. And I suspect it’s because the arrests left a power vacuum and a market that remained hungry for product, with no strong community-level social services support following the arrests. So now it’s a free for all.
So, yes. Knocking down derelict condominiums at Brannon Hill is a Good Thing™, though it’s hardly the only community that’s deeply troubled at this point. The media is starting to notice other places, like Creekside Forest Apartments south of Decatur, and the abandoned hotel on Presidential Parkway, the one visible from Spaghetti Junction.
People live in these squalid places because our government views solving difficult social problems as someone else’s job. DeKalb County does not provide enough emergency shelter for families, transitional housing for people leaving prison or permanently supportive housing for people suffering from mental illness or developmental disabilities. Brannon Hill is what happens when the temporary voucher at the horror-show motel runs out before someone can find a job and enough money to cover a security deposit.
Knocking down the condos solves one problem. I’m eager to hear how the other problems will be addressed.