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Piecing the peace together

By Corey Muhammad | Last updated: Jun 10, 2004 - 9:39:00 AM

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(L-R) Bu of the Bloods, Face of the Crips and Midi of the Bloods. Photo: David Muhammad
Newark gangs sign treaty to end hostility, agree to Bring the Peace
NEWARK ( - The fatal shooting of an innocent bystander last April prompted the community here to band together and send a message that the violence that has besieged the city had to end. During a vigil in honor of Cheryl Green, a group of residents and community organizations said they hoped the message would affect someone enough that it would produce some serious changes. Apparently, it did.

On the heels of their historic May 22 ceasefire, gangs here stood before about 150 residents of the Baxter Terrace Houses, Newark Councilman Charles Bell and tried to live up to the principle of their agreement by asking for forgiveness and pledging to clean up the community.

“I apologize about any situation that happened because of something we started,” said Face. The 33-year-old Crips member said he was concerned about innocent bystanders who are being killed because of gang-related warfare.

Promoting Saving Our Selves Inc., an organization he started in April with fellow Crips member, Blaze, Ali of the Bloods and Byron “Boogie” Kelley, he said it was a gang prevention and intervention organization for at-risk youngsters. “A lot of people feel we’re content with what’s going on,” he said, but Face says he’s determined to change that perception.

Face realizes that it will take a lot more than words to change people’s perception about gangs and, for the moment at least, it appears that some are giving them the opportunity to do just that.

One person willing to lend his time and talents to the efforts of S.O.S, Inc. is Councilman Bell. After meeting with both sides in April, the councilman said he thought the gangs were headed in the right direction and vowed to do what he could to help them keep the peace. He urged the residents of the housing development to give the gangs their support because “no one else is willing to step up and pledge to do what they’re doing.”

With the conviction that the young men are sincere in their call for peace, but need alternatives to what they’re doing, Mr. Bell has worked to help some gang members secure jobs for the first time in their lives.

“We need to give these young men a chance,” he said. There is a $5 billion construction program in Newark that needs to be utilized that can help the gang members learn trades and work their way up if they want.” With the support of the mayor’s office, the city council and various community leaders, the councilman believes the gangs will be very successful in whatever they do.

It is the access to resources like these that is a key component to having any truce stick, says long-time gang activist Rodney Daley.

“The science of what is really going on gets covered over,” he said. Mr. Daley, who has worked for over 20 years with gangs and runs a rehabilitation and prevention program for Boston youngsters, contends that there is a very sinister and dangerous dynamic that is involved with truces of this magnitude. As he explains it, the Newark gangs must now be careful of outside influences that may threaten the peace process. Gangs, according to Mr. Daley, are “a way of life for some people.”

Whenever the culture is threatened, there will be forces that will try to maintain the status quo. To diminish the effects of any possible retribution from other gangs, Mr. Daley says communication is of the utmost importance.

Those involved in formulating the Newark truce says the lines of communication have always been wide open since the first attempts at a truce were made in 2002.

“The truce will be maintained by strengthening relationships with different leaders throughout the city and utilizing the agreement and different mediators,” said David Muhammad. Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka and Mr. Muhammad went as far as to go to Los Angeles to study a prevention program run by former Crips member Aqeela Sherrills. They returned to Newark and later brought Mr. Sherrills and Doc, another Crips, in an attempt to formulate a plan for a treaty here. A member of the Bloods was supposed to also make the trip but missed his flight. Although their plans didn’t work at the time, Mr. Baraka and Mr. Muhammad continued to work on a plan to get the gangs together by employing various organizations and holding different events, including a basketball game last summer.

Finally, in March, the two gangs decided to meet to iron out differences. While meetings were taking place, Ms. Green was killed when someone fired at the Crips, missed and struck her. The gangs said that was the point when they had enough.

News of the truce has reached as far as Los Angeles and plans are being developed now for some of the gang members instrumental in the truce to visit the founder of the Crips, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who now is awaiting execution on death row.

Since signing the truce, S.O.S, Inc. has received much unexpected attention. Some churches have requested the young men to speak to their congregations. After witnessing the ceasefire agreement, the superintendent of Newark Public Schools, Marion Bolden, completely revamped a “Keeping the Summer Safe” program slated for June at the Newark Symphony Hall and invited only members of S.O.S., Inc. to speak to ministers, politicians and businesspersons who have access to badly needed resources.

To Blaze, the recognition is the kind he is now welcoming. “Not a lot of people can relate to what we’re going through,” he said. “We have something to offer, so I’m glad we’re getting recognized, because we’re trying to incorporate what we know.”

But there is another kind of recognition that Blaze and other gang members are receiving that they don’t welcome. According to Blaze, a day prior to the tenants’ meeting he was arrested for two outstanding parking tickets, but was subsequently questioned by the police department’s gang unit about why tensions did not exist between himself and a gang member from another group.

Asked if he thought his arrest and interrogation had any connection to the ceasefire, he said, “Of course it does. They want me to step to this other brother, but I’m not going there.”

Another gang member who identified himself only as Kister, said he received a police summons the morning of the tenants’ meeting, claiming that his car was used during a robbery at the time the gangs met to sign the ceasefire. “Why do I need to rob somebody?” he asked. The Blood member is happy to be alive after returning home from serving time in prison. Though he says he has tried to stay free from trouble, it has found him. He wore the scars of a recent skull surgery after being shot twice at point-blank range. One bullet struck him in the head and the other is still lodged in his arm. Kister believes the conflict was started by someone trying to get the two gangs to start a war, but he was able to talk to the Crips and discovered that they were not involved in the conflict.

At Final Call presstime, the police had not returned any calls for comment.

Also in development are plans to allow S.O.S. to visit the new $410 million Newark correctional facility, where both gangs are housed in the same unit. After two days of meetings with the Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenco, an agreement was reached to have Mr. Baraka tour the facility and develop a strategy to separate the two groups. Though designed for integration, the recent housing arrangements have proven to be problematic at best, resulting in a Mother’s Day brawl that injured five officers and left one gang member with a punctured lung.

Mr. Kelley says the separation of the gangs behind prison walls is imperative to give peace a chance. He would like his new organization to be allowed to go into the jail once or twice a month to help iron out differences among the inmates.

Still, some are skeptical about the truce and the willingness of the gangs to have any long-term agreement.

“The test of this will be when the first crisis happens,” said Carl R.A. Wright of Clarence Williams Funeral Home in Irvington, New Jersey. Mr. Wright, a member of the Garden State Funeral Directors Association and District Governor of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, says he is willing to do his part to help the young men become productive but, at a certain point he says, they have to take responsibility for their own actions.

“If they don’t want to do that, I don’t have any use for you,” he said. “Half of my clientele is under 40. I’m not happy about that.”

Leonard Smith has seen the effects of gang violence firsthand. Having worked for 37 years in the funeral business as a mortuary assistant, he is tired of senseless killings he says has evolved from drug wars to territorial killings to gangs.

According to Mr. Smith, if there are 100 gang-related deaths this year, he will see 75 of them. He says he hopes the truce will hold, but time will determine that. “It’s devastating to be here and to see people in here on a constant basis because of gang and retaliatory things.”

For now, those living in Baxter Terrace say they will do what they can to support the gangs and S.O.S. to maintain peace. The group’s members say Baxter Terrace is just the beginning. Eventually, they want to go to other housing developments and clean them up. They say after years of destroying their environment, the onus is on them to rebuild their community. “Personally, I don’t condone calling the police,” Blaze told the audience. “We need to govern our own.”

Mr. Kelly agreed, adding that the gangs, along with the community ,must “work together to change the stereotypes about low-income housing and the elements in them.” He also called for a “No shooting summer in Baxter Terrace.” Judging from the cheers the remark received, the audience welcomed the idea.

Following the meeting, a young mother spoke for many as she expressed concern for her 3-year-old son because of the attraction some gangs have on young boys. “I’m with them. I’m around them, so I know,” said Sha-mar Smith. She went on to say that she accepted their apology and applauded their desire to do something positive. “I think that’s good. It’s something that’s going to change here,” she said.

Other residents, like Carole Spence, see a broader picture. Ms. Spence, who is now 48, says she can count on one hand the number of her two children’s friends who made it out of the housing development in the 29 years that she has lived here. Although her son is now a corrections officer and her daughter recently graduated from medical school, her children were two of “the lucky ones,” she says. A lot more has to be done by both the parents of these children and the community. “If they can come together and make peace within Newark, that will help out a lot,” she said. “At least, they’re trying to accomplish something within the community and then who knows—that might go on to another state and another state and another state. This might be the beginning of something here.”

Although a lot of their plans are still in development, gang members say their focus is not solely on young boys who are at-risk for joining gangs. When someone asked about help for young girls and women who might be attracted to gang members, Face explained that the group was in the rudimentary stages of asking women of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 25 to teach young girls and women how to be women and how to regain their femininity.

The Newark gangs say the truce is holding, and since signing the ceasefire they have even found time to fraternize with each other. They’ve even begun to refer to each other as brothers. Blaze is simply happy to turn over the proverbial new leaf and sees it as a “pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.”

Face and Mr. Kelly credit the truce in part to the Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the respect the gang members have for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. Face goes a step further and said he would like to have the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam visit Newark and talk to both sides. “The brothers know he can handle a lot of the brothers and make them feel like they’re something special,” he said.