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