Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An End to DC's Simple City Gang War

Check out this great article on D.C.'s "Simple City [Gang] War" and what ended it.  

Cease-Fire in Simple City: The day gangs declared a truce in an urban war zone

By Debra Dickerson
The housing project known as Simple City in Southeast Washington, D.C., was so desperately violent that some homeowners nailed their windows shut and bought heavy china cabinets to block their back doors, preferring the more distant threat of death by fire to the ever present one of stray bullets and home invaders. Until about two years ago, there had been only one gang in the neighborhood, the Simple City Crew. But gradually, tensions built over disagreements no one can now recall, and these former friends squared off like the Hatfields and the McCoys, enemies by tradition.

The two gangs, the "Circle" and the "Avenue," would stand atop the hills at either end of the neighborhood football field and throw curses and threats across the gridiron for long minutes at a time. This chest-beating served a practical function for locals: They knew they had five or 10 minutes to scramble for shelter before the shooting began. Ellen Mundaray, who lives next to the field, recalls that she and her family were indoors most days before 3 p.m. (though "the shooting could start as early as 11") and they hadn't used her living room in two years. Her patio door, which abuts the playground, still bears a bullet hole; the projectile missed her daughter by inches. Mundaray used to watch her loud-talking young neighbors pass by her bedroom window brandishing guns. All she could do was draw the drapes. By January 1997, the Circle and the Avenue were exchanging gunshots nearly every day.

David Gilmore, the court-appointed "receiver" supervising the city public- housing authority, tried to inspect Simple City, but his driver refused to drive into the heart of the area. What he could see from the moving car was sufficient, though. Wary young men neither at work nor in school, despite the hour, stood bundled to the jowls in tufty Starter jackets, despite the heat. They presided with vigilance over an open-air drug mart in the project's cul-de-sac--the Circle--strewn with 40-ounce malt-liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. Gilmore doesn't mind admitting they frightened him. As he sped away, there was no missing the warning most prominent among the ugly graffiti marring Simple City's walls: "You Are Now In the War Zone."

As Gilmore reviewed the crime statistics, the unpaid rents, the maintenance reports describing never ending vandalism, he concluded that Benning Terrace--the official name of Simple City--was a lost cause and some of the buildings had to be razed. On Jan. 15, 1997, everything changed. A 12-year-old boy named Darryl Hall was abducted from the project in broad daylight and found days later, beaten, killed execution style, and frozen so solid that it took days to thaw him for autopsy. The Circle was assumed to be responsible. So no one was more surprised than Gilmore when shortly thereafter the press began to tell a different story, one that made him suspend his demolition plan: The gangs had made peace.

In the span of just over a year, there were eight murders in Simple City, including Hall's. Since armistice day on Jan. 29, 1997, there has been only one--and police believe it was unrelated to the Circle-vs.-Avenue feud. Overnight, it seemed, the gangsters traded in their guns for paintbrushes, their drug dealing for manual labor, their nihilism for community spirit. They traded one identity, one destiny, for its exact opposite. The middle-aged survivors In 1991, five 50-something friends were hanging out in Tyrone Parker's beauty shop in the suburb of Capitol Heights, Md., less than 2 miles from Simple City. Most were former criminals, substance abusers, or both. They had rehabilitated themselves, and one another, through a convoluted string of interventions, recriminations, and religious reawakenings they are hard pressed to re-create now. Having survived both prison and the streets, in middle age they had become increasingly saddened by the carnage in their hometown. Parker, a reformed bank robber now a parole officer, especially despaired after losing a son to the mayhem. As they sat among the hair dryers at the shop Parker owned, the group's after-hours sports talk kept returning to talk of community renewal.

Eventually, calling themselves the Alliance of Concerned Men, they decided to do something--without "a plan, an office, a budget, a computer, or an agenda," says Eric Johnson, a recovering substance abuser who now works as a printer for the Treasury Department. The group's goal was ambitious: to reduce D.C. homicides by 50 percent in two years and make this "a city where a woman could forget her pocketbook at the bus stop in the morning and find it still there when she came back for it after work," the alliance's Pete Jackson explains earnestly. The alliance has grown to include more men, with and without criminal pasts, but its mission has remained the same.

Working from their cars--on their own time, at their own expense, and in great personal jeopardy--they cruised the trouble spots looking for knots of youngsters and chatting them up. "We never tell them what they do is wrong," says Jackson, who progressed from inmate to deputy warden at a nearby prison. They didn't denigrate the youths' fathers, even the most absent. Instead, they started a program to transport 15 to 30 children a week to visit their fathers in prison. The alliance members never threatened the young men with sanctions, either earthly or heavenly; they knew from their own youthful experiences with ministers and police that such entreaties could be counterproductive. More fundamentally, they believed that these young men knew that what they were doing was wrong. What they didn't know was how to stop.

Then the news broke of Darryl Hall's abduction. Knowing that it would lead to a blood bath of retribution killings, the alliance determined to ask the gangs in Simple City what it would take for them to stop.

Working with local activists, they quickly identified the leaders of the rival crews and hunted them down in the dark, rubble-strewn hallways of Simple City. "We trust in God," alliance member James Alsobrooks, a recovering alcoholic turned car salesman, says of the danger they faced. "Angels go in with us." Within a week, by running the dangerous gantlet between territories, alliance members got both sides to agree to meet on neutral territory. Each agreed, expecting the other not to cooperate.

One unlikely peacemaker turned out to be Derrick Ross, considered by law enforcement officials to be among the more dangerous men in the District of Columbia. Ross has been suspected, but never convicted, of adult offenses including kidnapping, assault, and cocaine dealing. Those involved in the peace talks remember Ross, now 24, as among the most fearsome. He refused to attend the first two meetings. Upon showing up for the third one, he scowled perpetually and refused to stand next to a rival from the Avenue crew in the prayer circle that began the session.

Less than two weeks later, however, he would make the first unarmed, unprotected forays into neighborhood kill zones--areas off limits to both sides--to demonstrate his faith in the truce and his commitment to his own personal renaissance. And that scowling, dangerous man is hard to detect now; Ross's lithe frame is relaxed and his handsome face is rarely without a wide, toothy grin. Gone are the designer togs and expensive sneakers of his days on the street corners. His uniform now is proletarian--work boots, D.C. Housing Authority blues, and a paint-spattered DCHA parka. He grins even when exhausted from a long day's labor landscaping, renovating apartments, and maintaining facilities at Simple City. "I can live now," he says. "There wasn't nothing to smile about before."

A dangerous man

In 1981, at age 7, Ross had moved with his aunt and some siblings to Simple City, a nickname whose origin no one seems to know. His father had recently died, and his mother was in the midst of a serious emotional crisis. At first, things went reasonably well. "I was a nerd until then," he says, admitting to selling newspapers in D.C.'s subway stations after school from the fifth through seventh grades. At that point, the housing project was well maintained, and violence was relatively rare.

But soon after Ross's family moved into the complex, the violence started to increase and the buildings began to decay. One casualty was Ross's family's stove, which by Thanksgiving 1989 had been broken for months. Ross, then 15, says he was determined to save the family celebration. He studied the stove's internal workings, then broke into an empty apartment, where he took apart the functioning stove and stole parts he needed. That holiday, which he says marked his first time as a lawbreaker, there was hot food--and the knowledge that it was every man for himself in Simple City.

Soon his crimes became less benevolent. He was vandalizing public and private property, handling weapons, and siring children with a variety of women. Driving a stolen car he had "rented" from a crack head (a common practice in his neighborhood) got him sent to jail for the first time. He served 11 months at a youth facility and eight months in a group home. (Lesson learned: "Don't get caught," he says.) After that, he was in and out of detention until he was 18.

Six years later, Ross found himself the unmarried father of four children by four different women, a high school dropout living in a war zone. Long before the alliance and Darryl Hall, Ross had wanted a way out. Not because of the devastation that drugs wreak: "Drug users decide on their own to take drugs, that's their recreation. It's their own choice." Not because of the guilt: "I never thought about scaring people or people getting hurt or nothing. I was just doing what you do to survive in Benning Terrace."

He wanted out because the risks had become too great even for him. "Judge just bang his gavel and you gone for 25, 30 years and it's all legal." He knew it was just a matter of time before he wound up in either prison or the cemetery. What he didn't know was how to break the cycle. "We all wanted to stop. Of course we did. But wasn't no way you could go first. Someone you might have beat up in junior high might come back one day and . . . poof! You dead."

Then the alliance members appeared in Simple City. "They kept trying to hug everybody," Ross says now, laughing. "But I knew they were cops trying to scam us." Ross warned his friends to have nothing to do with the alliance members, and yet he couldn't stay away from them, couldn't pass up the meals and basketball games they arranged. Ross joined the third truce meeting, about a week and a half after the first rap sessions.

At the truce talks, the alliance members asked many questions, but none more difficult than the most obvious: Why are you shooting each other? They listened while the rival crews floundered trying to answer. Though the gang members could chronicle the escalation, none could remember the initial slight. As the significance of that missing bit of information settled in, the alliance steered the discussion toward life in the neighborhood, what they'd like to change about it, and how they could cause such change. The older men allowed the young gang-bangers to promulgate their own rules of conduct for the truce talks: no using the "N" word, no profanity, no weapons, no interrupting each other, no violence for the duration of the talks. At first they had stood mute and passive while the alliance members led them in prayer; within a few meetings, the young men took the lead. It was their own idea to increase the frequency of the meetings to twice a week; to move the meetings to dangerous Simple City from the office of Robert Woodson, head of a D.C.-based advocacy group; and to mingle in the two formerly segregated vans the alliance borrowed to transport them.

Crossing the line David Gilmore was following the story closely in the local media. Two weeks into peace talks, he offered to help. "I knew they couldn't do it without the housing authority," he says. "We were the landlords of most of the people involved. If people are dying in the streets, the housing industry has to be involved. Besides," he added, "what I was most afraid of is that they just might do it without me. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this all my career." Soon, the man who had planned to knock down their homes was calling the young men he had so feared his "children" and they were calling him "boss."

Gilmore may not have the street credibility of the alliance members (some of whom are on parole well into the new millennium), but 30 years running public housing, along with his training as a social worker, has taught him about the psyches of the long-term poor. In the wake of Hall's death, the anticrime group Guardian Angels had announced plans to paint over the graffiti in Simple City as a symbol. Furious, both gangs let it be known that they would not allow outsiders to do any such thing. In fact, new graffiti went up to let the world know who controlled the area. Gilmore politely turned the Guardian Angels away.

But then the young men confronted Gilmore, wanting to know why he didn't have the graffiti removed. To his credit, Gilmore didn't remind them of who put it there in the first place or that he knew the request was a trap. (Many of the "tags" were memorials to slain friends. Removing them would be considered an act of war.) With no idea where it would lead, Gilmore tossed the young men into the briar patch. "I'm not going to remove it," he told them, "but you might want to."

Before he knew it, he had agreed to pay for a six-month graffiti-removal project at $6.50 per hour. None of the youths objected to the offer of manual labor. They all claim that, contrary to public perception of males like them, they have always wanted to work but couldn't get jobs given their criminal records and lack of life skills. Within two weeks, the alliance had helped them get organized and produce a plan. All at once, these young men had what they wanted most--adult guidance, jobs, and a way out of street life.

It was right about then that Ross and his friends crossed the football field that no one ran plays on. "I knew it would never be real until somebody crossed over," he says. On the other side, he and his friends played basketball at the Davis Elementary School court, which lies in open territory. Pre-truce, word of their presence outside the Circle would have brought the Avenue crew avengers down on them. And on this occasion, word did, indeed, precede them. Six men from the Avenue crew rode by in a car. For a long moment, the gangs regarded each other. When nothing happened, nods were exchanged, and each group went on its way.

And they went to work, approximately 36 of them. As the alliance members asserted, these young men needed no one to tell them what they should do. Unprompted, they started the graffiti removal by taking down the declaration of the war zone. They taxed themselves from their first paychecks to build and equip a basketball court for the younger boys and hold four cookouts. They showed up before their shifts to inspect the grounds and pick up litter. They ran the remaining drug dealers out of their projects. They finished the job four months ahead of schedule and clamored for permanent positions. The conservatives had been right all along: Deterrence works. The threat of serious jail time had made gang life unattractive. The liberals had been right, too: All these kids had needed was a chance; they really did want to work. Normalcy was just below the surface.

By virtue of the same natural leadership that made him among the most dangerous men in the District, Ross now commands the respect of many in the neighborhood. When the younger males began dropping out of school to compete for the jobs opening up around them (!), Ross stopped them by developing a program that allowed them to work evenings part time and on the weekend if they stayed in school. Soon, Ross will complete his GED and begin a program at Catholic University training him to be a housing manager. Gilmore boasts that Ross scored among the highest of 450 applicants on an exam and interview.

The "little" things Why was the alliance able to do what years of peace marches, intense policing, and pleas from community groups, neighbors, relatives, ministers, and government programs couldn't? The alliance helped provide two missing things: jobs and direct involvement with (rather than against) the gangs. Says the alliance's Alsobrooks, "What usually goes on with these kids is all stick and no carrot. They'll go to jail if they break the law and they know that. [But] they don't see another way besides the streets; it's all they know."

With the help of Gilmore and Robert Woodson, former gang members are working hard to maintain a good relationship with police, whom they take care never to disparage. Assistant Chief Robert C. White of the Metropolitan Police Department, in turn, credits the alliance and the jobs program with turning Simple City around. "It's not trouble free, no. But not only is crime way down, the alliance has greatly improved the quality of life; there's much less hanging on the corners, drinking, and profanity. People feel safe again. The police couldn't have brought those kids together."

About 65 youngsters are working through the Benning Terrace jobs program. Gilmore contends the program has actually saved the government money because it has kept officials from having to raze the project and relocate all the residents. And now some private-sector jobs have followed. At a recent jobs fair, upscale hotels from across town came offering employment. The alliance helped its charges form a corporation, which now aggressively seeks construction contracts to renovate apartments and outside structures. The Bloods may fetishize red and the Crips blue, but in Simple City the colors that matter are yellow, for the full-body slickers of grueling graffiti removal; blue, for the coveted blue uniform of the full-time DCHA worker; and white, for that most important of white shirts, which identifies the wearer as a DCHA supervisor. After a four-block anniversary peace march from the Circle to the Avenue in January, former gang member Lejon Watson literally ran to the pulpit of First Rock Baptist Church to claim his white shirt and swaddle himself in it like Superman in his cape. In his acceptance speech, he spoke of the value of the little things that were nonetheless monumental to him, such as his first driver's license. "I can pull it out now if the police stop me, and I don't have to be afraid because I'm legal!" he crowed.

The alliance never loses sight of these little things. Members help the young men register their cars for the first time and negotiate the insurance and child-support bureaucracies that so flummoxed them in the past. They bought them their first suits and gave mass tie-tying lessons before the awards banquet. The men of the alliance hug, praise, and chastise when needed. "We're training these men to go back out into the community as antibodies against the negativity in their environments," says Jackson. By helping them purge profanity and drinking from their gatherings, the older men helped make it all right not to be "hard." One reformed gangster, upon gaining full-time employment with DCHA, wept as he signed the insurance forms that would provide health care for his children.

While Simple City is so far a success story, it's only the first chapter. A teenager who has learned certain ways of thinking about the world and himself will not be fully transformed just because of a new job and role model. Some have serious emotional problems, outstanding criminal charges, or both. While the neighborhood has largely embraced its prodigal sons, backlash may not be far away. It's asking a lot for the neighbors--and the families of the murder victims--to forgive the gang members for what they've already done. And what happens if the government-financed jobs go away? Even if they don't, some of the young men may come to view the work world as insufficiently remunerative or enjoyable. Some will simply succumb to the habits of a lifetime.

Nonetheless, it's hard not to be impressed by the changes so far. Little more than a year ago in Simple City, an innocent jaunt to the neighborhood market for a loaf of bread meant taking your life into your hands. Every tire squeal, every stop sign could leave you face to face with an insistent drug dealer or a vigilante with a score to settle. But, on a recent trip through the neighborhood, a young man chased Alliance member Arthur Rush's car. He wasn't there to car-jack, to peddle drugs, or to rob. He was there to lobby. "Man," he said to Rush, "I'm ready to work. Where my job?"

This story appears in the March 16, 1998 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.

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