Two ex-gang members stop a long-running war in the Bronx using unconvential methods
They had been fighting for more than a decade, over the same few blocks of turf in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx, deep in the heart of New York City. The two block gangs didn’t even have good reasons for the bloodshed; members on both sides agreed it wasn’t about drug territory, or money, or any of a thousand things angry young men fight with other angry young men about. They just fought because … that’s what they did. The perpetual cycle of violence, which resulted in 2-3 shootings per month in their ‘hood, didn’t look like it would cease anytime soon.
The N.Y. Police Department couldn’t stop it. Older members of the gangs, who knew the futility of the constant warfare, couldn’t stop it either. It seemed destined to just keep going, until two new outreach workers at Stand Up to Violence (SUV), an NYC-based organization which replicated the Cure Violence model of ending gang violence in crime-ridden neighborhoods, stepped in. And suddenly, because of these two men with long criminal histories themselves, the violence stopped.
Gang-related crime in the neighborhood of the North Bronx where the two longtime rivals fought non-stop has completely ceased. From August through mid-December 2015, there were zero gang-related incidents of violence in this neighborhood. Zero. As in none. There is peace in this section of the city, and the two men who brought it about would’ve laughed at being called “peacemaker” or “mediator” just a few years ago.
Meet David, a 41-year-old Bronx native, and a gang member who served three different stints in prison. After getting released for the third time in early 2014, he was locked up again for 45 days in jail before finally having what he calls “a revelation.” “I said I’m 40 years old, what am I doing to myself?” David recalls. “I already gave prison all of my 20s and most of my 30s. I gotta stop. I’ve got to stop.” It was about this time that David started going to church more often, and one Sunday he heard a speech from a guest pastor named Jay
Gooding, who works with SUV, about the program’s outreach workers; former gang members now working to prevent violence before it happens, and how crucial they can be in a neighborhood. “I really wasn’t entertaining what he said at the time, but I guess I was a little interested,” David says. “I went (with Gooding) to a few community events, and at one of them something clicked in my head. Like, ‘This is my shot to give back. To do something good, you know?’”
And so in the summer of 2014, David got to work. He knew people from both gangs, Old School, and Bangers, but David was more closely affiliated with Old School. David started talking to members of Old School that were of his generation, and found out that both gangs now had about 50-100 members each, and that nobody really could explain why the violence had escalated in recent years. “It was all over a few blocks of territory or ‘they did this so we did this back, real stupid stuff,” David said. “I started to make a little progress toward getting the (Old School) guys willing to talk to the other side, but the progress I was making, you see, was with the older guys, not the ones doing most of the violence.”
David needed some help, a wingman from the Bangers side who could help bridge the gap. His unlikely partner was Eddie, a fellow Bronx native who had served 15 years in various prisons around New York state. Eddie is 35, six years younger than David, and when he came home in 2014 he noticed his old neighborhood had changed quite a bit. “The block I lived on used to be a nice, quiet place, but it wasn’t like that no more,” Eddie says. Through a mutual friend, David tried unsuccessfully to recruit Eddie to work for SUV, and help in this Bangers-Old School feud. Eddie knew people on the Bangers side pretty well, so David figured… “I knew he had a rep and was a guy who could get people to listen,” David says. “I needed him.”
Eddie resisted for a while, because “it didn’t have anything to do with me directly. I wanted to mind my own business and stay clean.”
But one day in the spring of 2015 he was outside with his young son when a shooting occurred, the bullets whizzing into a window on the first floor of an apartment building. Suddenly, this warfare involved Eddie directly. “I went to (David) and said ‘Bro, how can I help. How can I do this and get on with SUV and end this?”
And so the two former veterans of the Bronx gang wars went to work. With Eddie’s help, the main instigators of the violence on each side were identified, and David was able to convince some Old School members to at least try to have a temporary truce. David says the Old School crew were dubious that their rivals would honor a detente, but he and Eddie both brought the same message to the gangs. “I basically said, ‘this can’t keep happening, this has got to stop,’” Eddie says. “People are dying out here, people on our side are getting lost, people on their side are getting lost, what’s the point? What’s the end game? Y’all are out here being reckless for no reason.’ “And they were all like, ‘how you gonna get them to stop?’” Eddie continues. “And I told them, my bro David, he’s got that from their end.’”
Finally in June, 2015 the two sides agreed to send three people (two from Bangers, one from Old School) to a meeting at a local SUV-arranged meeting place. The three members chosen were all intimately involved with the constant violence, and for a half-hour, tension hung in the air as David and Eddie “moderated” the peace discussions. “We were the referees at first, but after a little while we stepped out and let them talk,” Eddie says. “They were wary but eventually we learned a lot of things that could help us,” David says. “Like who were the two main guys that were the problem, the two guys who basically were responsible for really keeping this going.” David and Eddie then reached out to the pair, Lefty and Big Boy. And in a highly unusual deal, the SUV workers got Lefty and Big Boy to agree to a fistfight that would serve as the final word in this feud.
Two men, on a Bronx street, surrounded by gang members on both sides, fighting until they both agreed they’d had enough. “This was going to be it, and these two were powerful enough and influential enough (in their gangs) that if they said the war was over, it would be over,” David recalls. So in July Lefty and Big Boy stepped into “the ring.” After two rounds of pounding each other with all they had, they were done. They hugged, shook hands, then drank some Hennessy together. A decades-long battle was over within 10 minutes.
In the weeks following the fight, there were a few flareups, David and Eddie say, but nothing serious between the two sides. David and Eddie have been doing “maintenance” on the relationship since then; incredibly, they even organized group outings where Bangers and Old School members went to Governor’s Island and Great Adventure amusement park together. Now … the two gangs aren’t exactly holding hands on Pelham Parkway and singing “Kumbaya” or anything, but there has been no further bloodshed. And in a Bronx neighborhood where there was once chaos, there’s now a lot more silence.
“Parents come over to me now and say “Oh, we see David out, we know it’s safe to let our kids go play,” David says, a hint of pride in his voice. “Or they’ll ask if I can help their son out with some trouble he’s having.” For Eddie and David, the significance of what they had done took a little while to sink in. They’re now both full-time SUV employees, and Eddie has already started mediating another local gang dispute. Both of them are still mentoring Bangers and Old School members, trying to show them there’s another way to go than the path they’ve chosen.
And for both men, the theme of redemption for past sins rings in their ears. “Probably unconsciously, in doing this I was trying to make amends for what I did when I was younger,” Eddie says. “Now I’m giving back in a positive way.” “When it hit me was after we met with (local leaders), and told them what we had done and what we were doing to keep the truce,” David says. “And when it hit me, I was like ‘oh my God, I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I was involved in doing something this great. It felt really good, you know?”
This is the difference Cure Violence can make.
“If this had been around a few years back,” David concludes, “it would’ve cut my jail time down a lot. A whole lot.”Michael J. Lewis was a professional journalist for 15 years, after graduating from the University of Delaware. He worked for three newspapers, SLAM magazine, and freelanced for Maxim, TennisWeek and other publications. He left the newspaper business in June, 2011, to move back to New York to pursue a new career as a teacher. He’s currently a substitute teacher in the NYC school system and a freelance writer. He writes a regular blog.