Baltimore’s uprising: rival gangs push for peace after Freddie Gray’s death

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Bloods and Crips say a truce formed a year ago continues to inspire them to reduce violence in the city as they look to the past to help fix the future

On 27 April 2015, as police car burned and pharmacies were looted, Bloods and Crips helped usher civilians and journalists to security. They had formed a truce, “theyre saying”, to help save their communities.

Over the next week, as riot police lined the streets, some were more afraid of cops than they were of Bloods or Crips. The gangsters were appearing on national television, meeting with legislators, and working with community organizations.

As the city eased back into a new normal that included a record of 344 homicides in a city of only 625,000, some of these gangsters say they were inspired by the truce during this uprising to try and stop the killings.

Its based around police. People stop focusing on killing each other and focusing on the real problem its the police, and its not just in Baltimore, its everywhere else. You get police actually literally gunning us down, said a Blood, Robert Wolfe, who goes by Big Wolfe.

Baltimore police have said the gang truce was actually formed to kill officers, and that the looting stimulated homicides worse by injecting a new source of drugs into the community.

But gangsters will tell you otherwise. A year after Grays death, they say they are still utilizing the truce formed that day to decrease violence.

I gotta stay in tune with the street. Im a Blood Ill has become a Blood until the working day I succumb, told Wolfe. I dont gang-bang no more. I promote something different, I promote peace. And right now its not a lot of peace in Baltimore.

Wolfe and activist Davon Neverdon, who goes by the name PFK Boom, formed a group called 300 Gangstas to reach the most hazardous people in the city. The name is a reference to the movie 300 The gangstas are the Spartans and the police are Persians, Wolfe said and a riff on the local 300 Man March, a city motion to combat the violence in Baltimores streets, which Wolfe dismisses as ineffective police shit.

Wolfes vision, though inspired by last Aprils uprising, is rooted in an older opinion of the world before the epoch of fissure and mass incarceration, when gangs policed themselves.

300 Gangstas is basically, when I was coming up in neighborhoods, the older cats were the crooks who operated the neighborhood. They was the ones who maintained the neighborhood in line, kept the youngsters in check, they the ones who operated the neighborhood, he said. Right now, you dont have that no more. Everyone only doing what they wishes to do. Thats why it is the way it is right now everythings in an uproar … There was a protocol you had to follow, you had regulations you had to follow and the ones who ran the hood was the gangsters.

Wolfe says that eventually the older guys who operated the neighborhoods all get lock the door and couldnt guide the youth anymore.

Members
Members of the Bloods and the Crips unified at a Sandtown park amid protests in Baltimore. Photo: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Both Wolfe, who sports a scar on his neck and walks with a stiff hobble, and Neverdon, who was arrested and ultimately acquitted of slaying charges, have done time. Neverdon expended more than three years in solitary confinement and now regularly speaks and witness about the effects of such punishment.

Right now, I got a bill on the table that a person can only do 15 days in solitary, and it might get pushed, he told , noting that Maryland had doubled “the member states national” average of inmates in solitary. Were saying that once a man or a dame is restricted like that, youre dealing with a mental imbalance and youre turning human to brute or female to animal, inhumane.

Neverdon also played a role in the passageway of a new law in Maryland this year that will allow ex-felons who are still on parole to election. He says he is preparing to run for office in the next cycle.

I be in the seats, he be in the streets, Neverdon said of his partnership with Wolfe. As you know, Wolfe is a street ambassador thats what he do. Myself, Im that as well, but for this vehicle to move, someone got to get in the seat I beat them in tribunal with the acquittal I got on the charges they gave me, but assure, I want more.

Thats why Im coming for their seats. I play for keeps. Im coming for all their shit. I used to run blocks … now Im about to run this whole motherfucking Maryland. They gonna have to kill me. Im dead already.

Whether Maryland voters are ready for that kind of rhetoric from a candidate remains to be determined, but the street are 300 Gangstas main audience right now.

Listen, homie, you know if you do that and get caught, get found guilty, youll never come home, he said, as if addressing a beefing gang-banger. Is it worth it? It aint worth it, homie. So you got a beef with him, got a beef with one another, gimme them firearms, let me hold these for you. Iron it out. A simple dialogue can defuse the situation.

The approach is not far from that of Baltimores Safe Streets program, which was modelled on Chicagos Ceasefire, and uses former wrongdoers and gang members to intervene in areas where murders, in agreement with the theory, spread like an epidemic.

Edward Ted Sutton, a former gang member who now runs as a certified gang awareness instructor and intervention expert, says that Safe Street is reactive, whereas something like 300 Gangstas has the possibility to be proactive and stop violence before it starts.

Youre going to have people who are in the community, in the streets, coming home from prison, and they would never connect with the creation and the powers that be, but they understand that there are people who constructed mistakes and are trying to do something different now, Sutton said.

But many in the creation and even merely ordinary citizens frightened by the crime that besets the city are profoundly skeptical of any group like 300 Gangstas, and outraged that legislators or even journalists would talk to criminals.

Youre a de facto gang-controlled city if you give them any power, George Knox, of the Chicago-based National Gang Crime Research Institute, told the Baltimore Sun. They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem.

Anthony Batts, the police commissioner who was fired in July, had blamed gangs for Baltimores homicide rate since he came to town in 2012 from California, where Bloods and Crips were a major force, and said that most of the citys murders that year were a result of turf battles between Bloods and the Black Guerrilla Family, or BGF, which began in prison and is now Baltimores most powerful gang.

Those gangs were shooting one another in the head, Batts said. They were assassinating each other.

But many guessed Batts overplayed the role of gangs. Baltimore, like many cities, is now characterized not by massive monolithic gangs, like the mythologized Bloods and Crips of LA in the last century, but by small, loosely organized households. Even among Bloods, there are numerous small sets, or groups, that dont necessarily interact often.

The gangs in Baltimore are comparatively unsophisticated, told Kevin Davis, who replaced Batts as commissioner in July. They exist, but they exist for the purposes of medication distribution … whether we call them gangs or narcotic organizations, and I guess those words are synonymous.

Still , no one would dispute that BGF is a criminal force to be reckoned with, as articulated in numerous wide-ranging indictments for a wide variety of crimes especially the widely publicized investigation that showed the gang controlled Baltimores jail, ultimately resulting in its closure.

It was the brutal rape and assassination of a 16 -year-old girl, Arnesha Bowers, in what authorities called an initiation into the Piru set of the Bloods gang that seemed to make a mockery of the positive image some gang members were trying to present.

Wolfe acknowledges that one of the person or persons arrested for the crime was affiliated with the Bloods, but he denies that the crime was tied to the gang and says there arent any violent initiation rituals.

Since Davis became commissioner, the assassination rate has begun to come down in part, Davis says, because of a strategy that targets a list of the citys most violent delinquents they call trigger pullers.

Of the 614 people on the listing weve been able to charge well over, I think 150, with other crimes. 47 of the 614 we put on the list have been killed, have been murdered, Davis said. Its a vulnerable group and theyre just as likely to kill as to be killed. So we know we have the right group were looking at.

This is the same vulnerable group that the 300 Gangstas think they can reach.

According to Wolfe, the fact that so many crimes in Baltimore are committed by people with some gang affiliation but without gang direction devotes his group its strength.

Everybodys part of a gang in Baltimore, I dont care what you say. Eighty-five per cent of the person or persons in Baltimore running the streets right now are in a gang, Blood, Crip, BGF, whatever the example is a possibility, he said.

They have to answer to somebody, he told. And once leaders say, Enough is enough, halting the senseless killings. Stop it. If you dont, you come in here[ to jail ], were gonna deal with you once that happens, you start insuring the assassination rate go like that, he said, moving his hand sharply down.

Activist
Activist PFK Boom at the western district. Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Other Bloods who arent officially affiliated with the 300 Gangstas movement are working in similar directions. Eric Bowman, who also goes by the names Bones and Flex, was among the gang members who appeared on the Nightly Show during last years unrest. He began working with the Center for Urban Families and volunteering in schools, while working a straight job with Under Armour at night.

Though he was inspired by the uprising, which he says changed his life, Bowman has been moving in this direction since before Grays death. Several years ago, when Bowman wanted to take a college class, he had to tell his crew that he was in jail so they wouldnt think he was going soft.

I looked at it like I dont want individuals to look at me wrong to mess up my street cred. Not truly guessing, Bowman said. But street cred? You cant buy a house with street cred. You cant build household wealth with street cred. You cant raise your children with street cred.

He lately self-published a volume, Knowledge from a King, full of short maxims that he hopes will pass on some of the lessons hes learned from a hard life.

Instead of concealing his intellectual interests, Bowman is trying to bring his family of Bloods back in line with what he sees as their origins in the Black Panther Party.

On the night that the the trial of the first officer charged in Grays death ended with a hung jury, Bowman was walking through the streets wearing a Black Panther uniform instead of his customary red.

Now we are actually in the different positive stages and we actually touched back to the roots, he said. It was supposed to restore self-respect and self-love that was the beginning. Thats old school.

Even the BGF grew out of radical roots the Black Book that contains the groups doctrine and bylaws is full of talk of empowerment but it has been an unbelievably destructive force in the city.

Me personally, Im one of the individuals that actually is a reason for a lot of the young mob being lost, Bowman told. I accept my faults because I didnt teach the younger generation how to actually grow up and be adults. I should have been doing that, but how am I able to teach individuals to do certain things if I dont know? Now I actually know how to be a young adult, I know how to be a man now, after I done went through so many types of different things. I know now.

Like 300 Gangstas, which he supports, Bowman says he would like to help mend the community I helped to destroy.

PFK Boom and 300 Gangstas have been working in the community and visiting local schools. At a block party they hosted with hamburgers, hot dogs, and spoken word music, Sutton was speaking about his transformation.

I carried a sawed-off shotgun, 357, 9mm, two-shot derringer on a light day, he told. I dont brag about that lifestyle, I just need you people to know how far God brought this cat right here.

Lt Col Melvin Russell, a high-ranking police official who has long championed the community policing model that is now increasingly favored, proved up at the party and was standing beside Wolfe.

When Sutton finished speaking, Wolfe said he had something to say. Fuck the police, he told as he stepped up to the mic.

Russell waited a few moments and then strolled back to his truck and drove away.

Wolfe may want to help mend his community, but hes still not willing to work with the policemen, which he considers Baltimores biggest gang.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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