By Daniel Silliman
The man and his sons moved a mattress up the ramp and into the back of the big U-Haul.
The day was getting dark, but the inside of the 26-foot moving truck was lit by a little dome light, and they slid the mattress up against the wall.
"This is not a proud moment for me," said Chris Kirkland, Sr. "I'm not moving because I want to. I didn't have a choice. We were run out."
The Kirklands were moving on April 30, back to Mississippi. By the time morning came, they were driving west, out of Clayton County, leaving for good, and they were, according to their story, driven from their home by a gang.
Standing on the back patio of 9342 Thomas Road, surrounded by displaced furniture, Chris Kirkland, Sr., tried to start his story at the beginning. He said, "I was a Katrina victim, a hurricane victim. We were in the storm, we lost everything, and we decided, we wanted to move off and start fresh. So we came to Georgia."
According to Kirkland's father, Andrew, the extended family lived in Pascagoula, Miss., an industrial city on the Gulf Coast, until they were scattered by the 2005 hurricane.
"We all were mislocated," said the elder Kirkland. "We were in what they call a shelter, everybody in a different shelter and everybody ending up in different states. My son, he thought this was going to be away from disaster, but it was another disaster. He ran from one disaster into another."
Chris Kirkland, Sr., his wife, Natasha, and their eight sons had some savings. They decided to move to the Atlanta area and "grow with Georgia."
The Kirkland's bought a house in the Pine Trace subdivision off of Pointe South Parkway in Jonesboro, not realizing that, according to the Clayton County Police Department's statistics, the area is ridden with burglaries and drug- and gang-related crimes.
According to the police, the Thomas Road and Pointe South Parkway area is one of the worst in the county. For awhile for the Kirklands, it seemed like things would be good. For a couple or years, it seemed like that, even as the county saw a sharp increase in crime.
Then, sometime around Christmas last year, the Kirklands' oldest son, 16-year-old Chris Kirkland, Jr., became a target for an area gang.
"I came home from work, one day -- it was around 5, 5:15 -- and there was this green, Ford Taurus kept circling through the area ... Then, in broad daylight, like they didn't even worry about it, they went to my neighbor's front door and kicked it in," said Chris Kirkland, Sr.
He and his son ran over to the house and heard the teens inside "snatching and rumbling through stuff," and the older Chris Kirkland yelled that the police were on their way. When the county police arrived, the younger Chris Kirkland said he recognized one of the teens from school. The two went to Mundy's Mill High School together and the 16-year-old gave police the name of the person he recognized during the home invasion.
Later, he would wonder if he should have done that.
At school the next day, people called Chris Kirkland, Jr., a snitch. "They said they had put a hit out on his life," said Chris Kirkland, Sr., "because he snitched on their leader."
The identified and arrested teen, the younger Chris Kirkland said, was a leader in local gang called the "Merk Mob."
That's when the phone calls started, said the older Chris Kirkland. His son's cell phone would ring, and a voice would say, "You gon' die," or, "Snitches don't live in Georgia." Late at night, even at 4 a.m., the family would see a car parked down the street, in the dark, idling with its running lights on. The gang members were, the Kirkland's believe, sitting there, watching and waiting.
Chris Kirkland, Sr., said he told the authorities at the school and at the police department, and the authorities said they were looking into it, but as far as he could tell, nothing happened. A couple of his son's teachers told him he should take his children out of school.
The older Kirkland insisted that his son's actions were "righteous," and they hadn't done anything wrong, and they shouldn't have to be afraid.
But they were.
In February, while Chris Kirkland, Sr., and Natasha were away, a group of young men came to the house, kicked in the door, and fought the 16-year-old Kirkland, according to the family. There were, they say, 20 to 30 young people standing around screaming, "Get him!" "Get him!"
By the time the police arrived, no one was doing anything but standing around, Chris Kirkland, Sr., said. No one was arrested. There doesn't seem to be any police report.
The next day, someone told Chris Kirkland, Jr., "Get ready for the bullets now."
That was it for the Kirkland family's days in Georgia. Chris Kirkland, Sr., said he could only think of two ways the conflict between his family and the gang could end. They could move back to Mississippi, or they could wait for the young men to have guns.
So on a Wednesday night, in the dark, using the family's savings and the little bit of money they'd put into college funds, the Kirklands loaded up a moving truck and left Georgia.
"I got to move," said Chris Kirkland, Sr., apologetically. "We don't have a choice."
Since the Kirklands decided to move, some of their neighbors have been disturbed by their story, and they're trying to change things. About 20 of them, working with the Clayton County Police Department and the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, have started the Pine Trace Neighborhood Watch Association.
"It brought everybody together, over here," said Dave Nixon, one of the Kirkland's neighbors. "It hit me so hard. Like a ton of bricks. I really admired that family. Chris was like a father's father. This was a real family, and I was just devastated by what happened."
The neighborhood association is going to try to "clean out the elements" that drove out the Kirklands, Nixon said, "because we still have people who have an interest in staying here."
According to the Clayton County Police, the Pine Trace Neighborhood Watch Association is one of about 80 neighborhood watch groups in the county. In the last few months, with encouragement from the police department's community-oriented policing program, neighborhood watch associations have been starting or re-forming at a rate of two a week, according to Tim Owens, police spokesman.
"There is strength in numbers," Owens said. "Everybody wants their voice to be heard and nobody wants to be the only voice, and as I said, there's strength in numbers."