By Alton Mitchell
A rash of recent homicides across Lee County including many in the city of Opelika spawned a group of more than two dozen residents to take to the streets of Opelika on Saturday morning and speak out against the recent violence in their community. The event was the second of its type in 2017 and residents say their fight will not stop until the violence in their streets stops.
Saturday’s march was organized by Valenstine Penn, president of the Opelika Resident Authority Advisory Board. Penn is a resident at a public housing complex in the city of Opelika. She organized a stop the violence rally and march at the Toomers Court Housing Authority office on Toomer Street in Opelika Saturday morning.
“This was the second march and rally we have held in 2017. We held our last one on June 10th, and while we were down here celebrating and speaking out a young woman was being murdered on the hill,” explains Penn. She is citing the June 10th homicide of Darlene Little, who was fatally shot at an apartment in the Toomers Court apartment complex. A LaFayette man, Timothy O’Neal James has been arrested and charged with the fatal shooting.
The violence in Opelika represents a small picture of a spike in violent crime and homicide that has occurred in the county of 156,000 residents in 2017. According to the Lee County Coroner’s Officer there have been a total of 17 homicides in Lee County this year, six of those occurred in Opelika. On average Lee County sees about 12 homicides annually. Residents fear with nearly a third of the year left in 2017 more homicides are on tap for the year.
The fear that residents feel ahead of the potential of additional homicides runs parallel to the feelings that residents living near the public housing communities of the city feel. A pair of nine-year-old friends who attended the rally stated that they live in fear in their parents’ home. At night time, they often have to go to closets or to an upstairs room to escape the gunfire occurring on a regular basis outside their doorways.
Resident Michael Robert attended the rally as well. Robert was a resident of the Hardaway homes years ago, but still lives near the communities. “We let things go, my generation. Most of these kids need structure, both parents are working it’s just not there”, explains Robert. He recalled a time when residents of Opelika’s housing communities could leave their doors open all night and not worry about danger outside. That danger was evident as well as Valenstine Penn stated, “We want to have a community where seniors can sit on their porches without having to worry about people carrying guns outside”.
Penn was pleased with the turnout at the rally on Saturday morning, mainly in the area that it attracted a lot of young people out. “We can get the young people out, but have trouble getting the adults to come out”, Penn stated. The attendees at Saturday’s event were mostly school aged children ranging from toddler aged to high schoolers. The rally was one that started with a march through the Toomer’s Court Apartments in Opelika. Marchers walked and chanted stop the violence along several streets of the complex. The marchers then returned to the offices of the housing authority and held a barbecue and rally for residents of the community which included a live DJ.
Two of the homicides in Opelika this year have a connection to LaFayette. On March 25th a LaFayette man by the name of Derris Terrel Harris, 31-years-old was fatally shot in a double homicide in the Toomers Court Apartments. On June 10th in the same complex a LaFayette man Timothy O’Neal James is suspected of fatally shooting a previous love acquaintance, Darlene Little. He has been arrested and charged with her death. The march was held in the shadow of the complex where both homicides occurred.
Penn also wants residents to know they will not give up on the fight to end violence in Opelika. She has more events planned in the upcoming future to include a September 10th domestic violence rally to be held at the housing authority’s office. Penn also serves as president of the Camp Hill residents advisory board and has a march and rally like Saturday’s event planned in that city in late October.
Penn hopes that the events will spur residents to begin to care and to put down the guns and end the cycle of violence which is gripping the Opelika and Lee County community. She says she and those in the community will pray for it and hope that outsiders will stop bringing the problems to Opelika’s public housing communities. Penn states she has been a resident in the community of Saturday’s rally for 16 years.