Street Groomers fight to ‘clean up’ Atlanta

Grass-roots group serves underserved neighborhoods

Photo credit:
About 20 people gathered in southwest Atlanta on Jan. 29 at a building on Campbellton Road. The building doubles as Mr. Everything Café by day and Deja Vu 2 sports bar and lounge by night. The group, enthusiastic and determined, was both racially and generationally diverse, equipped with posters reading “Black lives DO matter!” and “The time is now for us to stand up together and fight back,” among other messages.At the same time, thousands in Atlanta were preparing to rally against Donald Trump’s ban of Muslim immigrants; this particular group, however, was gathered to protest the killing of Deaundre Phillips, a 24-year-old father shot by a plainclothes Atlanta police officer on Jan. 26. They came together at the urging of the Street Groomers, a community group that aims to “clean up the streets” and patrol Westside neighborhoods like Bankhead, English Avenue and Vine City.At 6 feet 10 inches and the only one with a megaphone, Haroun Shahid Wakil — president of the Street Groomers — is the obvious leader of Sunday’s protest. He marches, yelling “No politician is going to save us. We’ve got to save ourselves!” and “Mayor Reed, where are you?” This isn’t the first time the Street Groomers have taken to the streets for action. It was at a protest against the promotion of a Smyrna cop who shot and killed Nick Thomas, 23, where Richard Pellegrino was introduced to the community patrol group. The 62-year-old, a self-proclaimed “old hippie,” later joined the Street Groomers and has since formed the organization’s Cobb chapter.“We saw how real they were,” says Pellegrino, also a member of the Nick Thomas Justice Coalition. “We have the same problems in Cobb, they’re just hidden better. Really most of the thugs are in uniform there; they’re not the ones on the street.”The group stays busy outside of major demonstrations, though. On a recent Monday morning, Wakil stood at the southeast corner of West End Park just after sunrise. He spends mornings walking around West End, making sure kids get on the bus safely and aren’t harassed while they wait. He and another member went out that same night on an evening patrol, driving through Dixie Hills to Ashview Heights, English Avenue and Bankhead.This public safety focus makes up a large part of the group’s work and was a major motivation in its creation.A couple of years ago, “a bunch of guys from the street just got together,” Wakil says. “We got tired of the crime and decided that it was time to start patrolling the streets. There’s a lot of unjust things going on, so we started teaching the young brothers something else to do besides selling drugs and hurting each other.”“The big thing is,” he adds, “there ain’t nothing for these kids to do out here.”In his past two years he’s spent working across from West End Park, Shawn Walton, 31, says he’s seen youth get recruited into gangs firsthand. “We kind of wanted to use that park to … intervene with their behaviors and make sure that we’re kind of pulling them into a different direction: keeping them out of trouble, keeping them from being recruited by gangs, trying to keep them active and engaged,” says Walton, a Street Groomer himself and the founder of WeCycle Atlanta and the WAY (Westside Activity and Youth) Center.Taiza Troutman, an organizer with grass-roots activism group ATLisReady, says the Street Groomers are a “big force” in keeping the Westside communities safe. “Street Groomers are of the community. They are Westside … They’re not your everyday activists. They represent that vulnerable population that ATL doesn’t usually speak for — that often silenced and forgotten about community of people in Atlanta.”There’s a consistency to the Street Groomers’ work. The goals are straightforward and could easily be taken for granted in other areas of the city: to keep kids safe, from people inside and outside the community, and on a path that avoids the criminal justice system (in this case, cops or a jail cell). But whether they’re protesting a police killing of a young black man, or making sure a middle schooler gets to class, the Street Groomers see themselves as protectors “from those who terrorize our people and communities.”

“It is us coming together to sustain ourselves, protect ourselves and also to volunteer our time to make sure that we get the attention that we need that we’re not getting from public officials,” Walton says. “I mean the city does some things, but there’s definitely not as much attention as a more affluent community would get. So we have to do it ourselves.”