The seeds of this month’s truce among members of five street gangs in Raleigh were sown last summer when gang member James Elvin Alston III, a 23-year-old father of three, was shot to death just before speaking at a gang truce meeting he helped organize at Southeast Raleigh’s Chavis Park.
Leaders of the Crips, Bloods, Folks, 52hoovers and 74hoovers say Alston’s death got them talking about how they could end the fights, shootings and other acts of violence their members have committed toward each other in their neighborhoods.
But the spark that illuminated the hearts, minds and spirits of the gang members was learning how they are viewed by some of the children who live in their Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods.
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They learned what the kids thought from Diana Powell, executive director of N.C. Justice Served, a statewide organization that mentors young people in county jails, including Alston and some of the city’s top gang leaders. Powell also conducts gang intervention and prevention workshops at Torchlight Academy, a charter school in North Raleigh where students are attending summer camp.
“I asked the kids when they think about the police and their community, what do they think about? They said, ‘White officers kill black people,’ ” Powell said. “That was a defining moment for me.”
“But then I asked the kids, ‘How do they see the gangs?’” Powell said. “They said, ‘Gangs kill black people, too.’”
William “Doc Loc” Hinton, a 41-year-old former Crips leader who grew up on Quarry Street, was in Quarry Street Park the day Powell told gang members how the children in the neighborhood viewed them.
“When I heard it, it hurt,” Hinton said. “They weren’t just saying gang members kill each other, but black people, black-on-black crime. And the thing is, they ain’t lying.”
That was on Monday, July 11, during “Bring Back the Village,” a community-based gang intervention and prevention program that Powell leads. The group has met each Monday for nearly a year since Alston’s death at a church or other locations in Southeast Raleigh, including McDonald’s and the Quarry Street Park.
City leaders, including police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown and Wake County District Court Judge Vince Rozier, have attended the weekly meetings. Powell arranged for Deck-Brown to meet with the gang members after a white police officer shot and killed a 24-year-old black man, Akiel Denkins, during a struggle in February. Powell said the meeting “went really well” and that both sides left with a better understanding of each other.
“She told them she has a job to do,” Powell said. “And she asked them also, ‘Let’s stop the shooting.’”
Deck-Brown declined to comment on the meetings or the truce.
Minutes after hearing how they were viewed by the campers at Torchlight Academy, the gang members organized a march from nearby Hightower Street back to Quarry Street Park to declare the truce. They took to social media to announce the gathering at the park. Rozier saw the announcement on Facebook and showed up just as Deck-Brown was leaving after a brief show of support for the truce.
“I thought it was important to be supportive, and I wanted to witness it,” Rozier said later. “I think that those who have been in the (prison) system think that those who are part of the judiciary or law enforcement wish the worst for them when they get out. They should take pride in the fact that they did this.”
The gang members were appreciative and heartened when Rozier arrived to witness the truce declaration.
“He came out here alone, with nobody, no police, and he a young black man,” Hinton said.
“He came and he had something to say,” said Larry “Face” Walton, a 36-year-old former member of the Bloods. “It’s all about change, man. Change and progress.”
Gangs in Raleigh
The Raleigh gangs got their start as local affiliates of the Bloods and Crips gangs in California.
“We call ‘Cali’ the ‘Land,’” said Hinton, who was 15 when he joined the Crips. “Cali is the land of all gangs. New York is a hub, too, the second-biggest place for gangs.”
Both the Crips and Bloods have territories throughout the city. Each territory is controlled by a “set,” and each set has its own “big homey” or leader.
There’s a paramilitary sensibility, with structure, rank and the expectation that members will perform tasks and duties without question. Hinton said gang members do good work in their neighborhoods by picking up trash, cutting grass and going to the store for older residents. But law enforcement officials say the gangs also have at the center of their existence a criminal enterprise – usually the drug trade – that helps to finance the organizations.
Gang violence and homicides in Raleigh have dropped since 2008, when the city recorded a record number of robberies and homicides, but it remains a tragic problem, especially for younger gang members. Young people who grew up in the same neighborhood, played video games together and were friends in grade school often join different gangs by middle school and go from shooting jump shots on the basketball court to shooting guns at one another.
Missy Wright works at Torchlight and as a North Raleigh anti-gang activist. She mentors Bloods in North Raleigh and said three of them were shot last year, including a 14-year-old shot in the head and a 20-year-old fatally shot on Raleigh Boulevard. Wright said “hundreds” of young people are affected by the truce.
“And it’s so many, they don’t want to come out and speak publicly,” she said. “A lot of the boys tell me, ‘Mrs. Wright, I’m ready to put the flag down.’”
Wright, the mother of six children, visited this year the big homey of two 14-year-old boys whom she mentors.
“I told him, ‘Let them come home,’ that means let them out the gang,” she said. “He looked at them and said, ‘Is that what y’all want to do?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘OK.’
“Hundreds want to get out the gang,” she said.
Two days after declaring the truce, five former gang members – three Bloods and two Crips – stood in front of about 25 young campers at Torchlight Academy and told the children, ages 5 to 13, they would never have to be afraid of violence in their community and that the neighborhoods where they live and play will be safe from now on.
“On this 13th day of July, year 2016 we declare that we will no longer act in violence against each other, that we will commit to keeping our community safe and safe for our youth to play in and around their community,” the members read from a single sheet of paper with “A Declaration” typed across the top in bold.
“Finally, we will commit to keeping our community clean and healthy and protected. If you should need anything always feel safe to come and talk to us. This is our promise to you and your family.”
Don McQueen, executive director of Torchlight Academy, said it was important that the school, which is overwhelmingly African-American, support the gangs’ call to stop warring among themselves and in their neighborhoods.
“Ninety percent of our kids come from Southeast Raleigh,” he said. “Seventy-five percent are black and 25 percent are Latino. These are the students and parents most impacted by gang violence. It was a very natural response to support these young men who took a very courageous step into the light and bared their souls as gang members. One of the young men said, ‘I have been part of the problem. Now I’m committed to being part of the solution.’”
McQueen said while the truce was born out of the events that have taken place around the country in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, Raleigh’s gang members “came to the conclusion that ‘We’re killing ourselves at a rate that the police can’t match at all.’”
McQueen was so impressed that, in an arrangement brokered by Wright, he hired the former gang members to serve as mentors with the school’s gang intervention and prevention program. The new mentors began Monday.
Walton and Hinton were joined by nearly a half-dozen of their cohorts at the school Tuesday.
At the heart of their presentation to the campers was a message of love. The children who sat before them looked like their children and, in some instances because of prison, children they never got to know. In some ways, it was like they were being given a second chance to make a difference in a child’s life. They told the campers to make wise decisions, obey their parents, avoid negative peer pressure, set positive goals and to become their own leaders.
“We don’t want y’all to go through the things we went through,” Walton told the group in a voice laden with emotion and sincerity. “Be a star. Look to the stars. Shoot for the stars. You feel me?”
Hinton encouraged the youngsters to enjoy their childhood and not be in such a hurry to grow up.
“Be kids,” he told them. “Do what kids do.”
Toward the end of the hourlong session, Andre Stevens, 51, asked the students to stand and gather around a blackboard where he had written, “Streets is a name taker” and his first name. Underneath he had written “O389721,” used to identify him while he spent more than 18 years in prison. Stevens said the lure of the streets and the choices he made took away his name. He felt belittled working behind bars for nearly two decades for 40 cents a day.
“The streets took away my name for a long time,” said Stevens, who is not a gang member. “If you are standing on the street, you might get your name taken away from you. You can lose your identity.”
Later that afternoon, Walton, Hinton and Stevens sat on the porch of a home near Rock Quarry Park.
“We just fed up,” Walton said. “We just tired, tired of our youth being targeted. We just tired of all of us being targeted just for our skin color, and we don’t want nobody to think that by all of us coming together and uniting is to have a radicalized obsession with the police. This that we are doing is to better us.”
Stevens said he was touched by the experience with the summer campers.
“Today, I seen that all these kids need is someone to talk to,” he said. “That’s all they need. I seen myself in them when I was that age.”
The gang members’ message resonated with the campers. Genny Barbour, a 13-year-old rising seventh-grader, said her brother, now 22, joined a gang when he was 16 and ended up serving nearly three years in prison.
“It was kind of scary because he could’ve got shot,” she said about her brother. “The fourth time after he went to jail, he got out of the gang and got his GED. Now he looking for a job.”
Some of what the gang members told the campers Barbour already knew because of her brother’s experiences.
“They told us to not join a gang because it hurts our family,” she said.
Too early to tell
It’s too early to declare the city’s gang truce a success. The peace is less than two weeks old, and the factors that drive young people to join gangs – broken homes, lack of adult support, poor job prospects – have not gone away. Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said it will be months before the department has statistics that would show a change in crime.
Rozier said based on the comments he has read on social media, some people view the truce with suspicion. “Some people they think they’re coming together to commit more crimes against law enforcement or white people,” he said.
McQueen, the school administrator, said news of the truce has been met with skepticism in some quarters. He called it a legitimate concern. But he thinks the truce offers a chance for the entire community to be part of the gangs’ commitment toward change, both among themselves and in their communities.
“It’s not whether or not they have the resolve, it’s what are you doing – churches, mosques, business leaders, politicians?” he asked. “What are you doing to make sure the truce stands?”
Meanwhile, the former gang members-turned-mentors who visited Torchlight Academy are adamant about their cause and the authenticity of the truce.
“We want our youth to have a chance,” Walton said. “That’s why we’re doing what we doing.”