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