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