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