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