More than a hundred people sat shoulder-to-shoulder on benches Tuesday evening, July 16, in the gymnasium of the Historic Roosevelt Center, listening to community leaders discuss problems in the city’s south side. Some of attendees sat beside city officials such as Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore and city council members, but the evening’s focus was on the seven panelists sitting along the fold-up tables in front of them.
The panel discussed how to build trust between the community and the Elkhart Police Department following an incident where a law enforcer was hospitalized after a fight with a Chicago man July 3 along Garfield Avenue. They also discussed how education and economic development affects the prevalence of crime.
Members of the audience were also given a chance to voice their own thoughts about these issues. For some, it was a chance to get things off their chest.
“When I was 15 years old, I went up town and I got in a fight,” Antonio Ballard said. “The police picked me up, and you know where they took me? They took me home.”
“There was a new police officer on the force, and he said we should take him to jail. He said, no, we’re going to take him home because what his mother is going to give him is worse than anything we can do.”
“If your son is selling drugs, go get him. If your daughter is prostituting, go get her. Do not wait for somebody downtown to come here and say they love us ‘cause they don’t. If we don’t love us, how the hell do you expect them to do it?”
The Elkhart Community Roundtable has planned the discussion for months. But recent incidents have given the conversation a sense of immediacy, such as the raids on several Elkhart convenience stores for allegedly selling synthetic marijuana.
“These businesses are coming in under the guise of being gas stations and convenience stores. People swinging in after work to get gas or get a snack, and they are in there selling drugs,” said panelist Adrian Riley, an Elkhart County corrections officer and organizer of the discussion.
“I’ve never ever heard of anybody selling drugs right out of a store. That was even unique for me to hear when they got busted,” Riley said. “I think as a community, we have to stick together when we know stuff like this is going on. We have to be brave enough to speak up, even if we don’t give our names. Make anonymous calls, make anonymous tips. There’s a lot of ways to head this off at the path before it gets too deep.”
But the problems don’t stop there. Some of these dealers sell drugs just to get by. You can throw them in jail, but Riley said they’re still going to be broke when they get out.
“And you still have to have some type of opportunity. If you don’t have the opportunity, you’re going to create opportunity whether it is legal or illegal because you have to eat.”
Opportunities that aren’t always on the south side, said panelist and community organizer Jason Moreno.
“I have kids coming over to my house every other day asking, ‘Hey, Jason. Jason, what can I do to get some money from you today? Can I help you with your yard? Can I help you take out some trash? Can I help you wash your dog?” Moreno said.
He tries to create those sort of opportunities for kids, but he’s just one person. Moreno said it’s time for businesses to start investing in the community.
“I think we have to create some sort of interface and hub for employers in this city to come down into the areas where we have the highest unemployment and show them, ‘Here are the jobs which are available.’”
Moreno added some kids need the extra push. Some said that the push begins with education. Others said it begins with family.
But everyone gathered in the room that evening knew there needs to be dialogue, and that starts with community.