News & Opinion

A Talk with the Violence Interrupters of Beatties Ford Road

A chat with leaders of Charlotte's Alternatives to Violence program

A Black woman and Black man stand arm-in-arm under a pop-up tent on a street corner
Alternatives to Violence, Charlotte’s violence interruption program, is headed by longtime community advocates Leondra Garrett (left) and Earl Owens. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

In November 2020, as the city of Charlotte surpassed 100 homicides for the second year in a row, local government began to take action. The city invested $1 million in local anti-violence nonprofits through a new SAFE Charlotte plan and invited the Chicago-based violence-interruption program Cure Violence in to assess how it might work with people on the ground to put a stop to the killing.

Charlotte launched its Alternatives to Violence program (ATV), based on the Cure Violence model, in August 2021 with an announcement that drug-kingpin-turned-community-advocate Belton Platt would head a violence interruption pilot program on the Beatties Ford Road corridor. 

Within four months, Platt was no longer with the organization. Though none of the involved parties would speak on the record about it to Queen City Nerve, multiple people close to the situation stated that Platt was let go due to a failure to consistently file mandatory paperwork regarding his team’s work.

In December 2021, a new team was brought on, headed by longtime community advocates Leondra Garrett, ATV violence interrupter; and Earl Owens, site coordinator. Together they oversee a team of five.

According to Federico Rios with the city’s SAFE Communities Committee, the Beatties Ford Road corridor has seen a drop in violent crime since implementing the violence interruption pilot program, though a full analysis will not be released until the current team has been on the ground for a full year.

According to Rios, as of Sept. 12, ATV violence interrupters had mediated 45 potentially violent situations and seen 19 participants pass through the program, referring to troubled youth whom interrupters had helped to find jobs, graduate school, or accomplish some other thing.

Even without the full yearly analysis, city leaders had seen enough progress in the team’s early work to expand it. 

At a meeting on Sept. 12, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved $1 million in federal funding to begin implementing the next phase of Alternatives to Violence, which will bring new ATV teams to the Nations Ford/Arrowood roads corridor, Southside Homes, and the West Boulevard/Remount Road corridor.

Earlier in September, we sat down with Owens and Garrett to discuss what their work looks like and how they operate on a corridor that has seen not only neighborhood violence but rapid gentrification.

Queen City Nerve: We’ve run into you many times while reporting on grassroots community organizing, Leondra. Before getting involved with ATV and violence interruption, what were your focuses?

Leondra Garrett: I was working with our houseless neighbors, with an organization called Block Love. We feed folks seven days a week, twice on Sundays. I also started a nonprofit called My Pieces for Black and brown families that have loved ones on the autism spectrum. And I’ve just been doing advocacy work for people in our community that need resources, need a voice, teaching people how to navigate systems by themselves and standing up for what they want and being an advocate for themselves and just kind of being out here in the streets doing the work.

And how about you, Earl? How did you get involved with ATV? 

Earl Owens: So I came to Charlotte over six years ago from the federal penitentiary, and I started volunteering, speaking at schools or wherever I could to talk about my experience with gang activity in prison, criminal behavior and things like that. I got involved in the behavioral health field, and then my name just kind of got out there.

So a lady from the county called me one day and asked if I would be interested in something like this. Quite naturally, of course I would! Because, number one, it gives me the opportunity to work with young people. I feel like if I can get to you at 13, I might not see you at 50. That’s big for me. And then once I got inside and I saw the people that I’m working with, well, this is the perfect situation for me to be involved in something that means something. We ain’t just building cabinets. We’re changing lives. You know what I’m saying? It’s something that I believe in.

I believe you all began your work in West Charlotte High School. What did that look like? 

Leondra Garrett: We partnered with Communities in Schools at West Charlotte High School. And so what they did was gave us a list of their high-risk youth, which are youth that usually are involved in some type of violent activity, illegal activities, or they are justice-involved or have been justice-involved. And so from there, we were able to build a rapport with the students, introduce them to our program, which teaches them alternatives to violence from carrying guns, selling drugs, armed robberies, stealing cars, that kind of thing, and just kind of transforming their mindsets and their lives and letting them know that there are alternatives to this rather than that. 

We’ve been doing court support. We sent 14 kids to the prom. We also had 10 football players that graduated that when we started with them they had activities going on that were illegal and irresponsible, and they graduated with 4.0 or better grades and they’re all off to college now — got four scholarships for college.

I always ask, “What else is it that you would like to be doing other than this? So if I can take this away, what else is it that I can give you that you’re really going to stick to and it’s going to be a thing?” And that’s been the biggest help for this work.

And literal violence interruption also plays a role in the work, right? 

Earl Owens: Exactly. That’s what we do. When violence occurs, that is our main objective to identify the persons involved and try to offer them a different way instead of going out and retaliating or perpetuating that violence. Then another part is, I know they talk about it on the news when a kid gets caught with a gun at school and they talk about expelling them. We’re subject to step in and take that same child and take him through an alternative school and make sure that he graduates and give him an opportunity. 

Because to everyone else he’s a statistic. They report that they found such and such amount of guns in CMS schools and then they don’t know what happens to him after that.

Earl Owens: Right, nobody asked what happened to him. What was the result of that? No one asked that. We do the work that nobody wants to do. We do the type of work that involves us going into homes, stepping into people’s lives that may otherwise not want anybody in their life, especially when it comes to addressing what they consider to be normal behaviors. Now, the violence in this community is much different than what the public thinks it is. When it occurs, it’s sporadic and oftentimes it’s domestic. Sometimes it’s internal where there’s no inroads and there’s no solution that we can find other than making those families aware that we’re available to them and that we have resources to help them get to another space in life.

People sit around tables during a community meeting
Alternatives to Violence, Charlotte’s violence interruption program, hosts a community town hall in Lincoln Heights in September. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Sometimes we get participants out of those situations, but to be honest with you, the real work that we do is out here on these streets engaging with the community and just giving them an idea of, “Man, there’s some guys and this girl walking around here saying they could help me get a job,” or, “My baby in jail and they might be able to help him get out of jail or maybe help him do something better or different when he does get out.” So that’s where Alternatives to Violence is effective, by being able to be there. Because once the police pull up the yellow tape, that’s over with. And they ain’t got no resources, they ain’t doing no follow up, they can give a damn how your family feels about their child who just got murdered. 

You’re working in what’s been officially deemed a “Corridor of Opportunity” in Charlotte, meaning the city is working to bring development here, like the Chase Bank that opened with a lot of fanfare last November. How is the rapid growth along this corridor changing the way you approach your work? 

Earl Owens: We’re promoting grassroots people from here, like [Michelle Ashley] who owns and operates Buzz City [Bar & Grill] right off of Catherine Simmons [Avenue]. Her whole family’s here. So ATV has adopted that business because we want the community to know that we support local business owners and we want to see more of it. And we would like to see the city and county do makeovers on the shops — not run them out of business, but help them enhance their business, give their buildings a facelift.

Leondra Garrett: For me, I see [new developments] as a temporary fix, right? And so we’re just going to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound so that we don’t have as much blood leaking out as we had before when there was nothing on there. And having a temporary fix for what we know now is going to be a temporary community that has been a long-standing community for years, this is the Band Aid of it. 

So this Alternatives to Violence program, yes, the violence has went down. So guess what? Yeah, white people want to move here because now there’s no violence. We don’t have as many shootings. We don’t have all of that anymore. So, hey, now this is the community that we can go in and we can gentrify. 

And gentrification is not good. Gentrification is harm. Gentrification is poisonous and it’s toxic. Because what we do know is now we have more houseless neighbors, we have more seniors that will be in nursing homes and will have to die in those places, and more families displaced because the rentals over here are starting to sell. And so, yes, this program has worked, but I think just us being able to be present in the community and having a voice and not just doing Alternatives to Violence, but also just providing a hope for these people and giving them a sense of hope and being a voice and giving them resources and teaching them how to advocate for themselves, that’s what matters. Because soon there’s going to be nothing that we can do.

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