The Gangster, The Preacher and The Speaker Of The House

Originally publised on Forbes.

A former gang-leader trying to wash away his sins. A smooth-talking preacher trying to stop kids from dying in his backyard. And an exhausted policy-wonk trying to transform the Republican Party.

All three men have a lot more work to do yet.

From left: Antong Lucky, Rev. Omar Jahwar, Center for Neighborhood Enterprise founder Bob Woodson, House Speaker Paul Ryan, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, and Rev. Buster Soaries / Photo: Antong Lucky

The drunk lady wouldn’t give up her cell phone.

That’s one thing Antong Lucky remembers about that night: a little white lady, boozy drunk in the seat beside him, who looked up at the Secret Service agents and politely told them to go to hell.

“And you should’ve seen these guys, these agents,” Lucky would later say. “Some serious looking killers: black shades, the earpieces. I’m saying, when I was still gang-banging, you saw some tough looking guys on the streets, but nobody even close to these Secret Service dudes.”

But the drunk lady didn’t care. Not when the agents told her she had no choice. Not even when they explained that loose cell phones pose a serious security risk. Nothing worked. She was, after all, the wife of a top-ranking military man, a woman who’d been surrounded by killers and architects of death her entire adult life, so a couple of fresh-faced Secret Service agents may as well have been crying in their diapers.

“And you know what?” Lucky said. “It worked.”

He couldn’t believe it, but the agents let her be. And this drunk lady, sipping on cocktail after cocktail, spent the rest of the night playing Candy Crush on her iPhone, while President Obama took to the podium and tried to assure a fractured nation that it was somehow whole.

“Alright,” President Obama said. “Let’s bring this thing to order.”

The 2016 State of the Union address fell on a cruel evening. Outside, a cold front was pressing down low over Washington, DC. Soon, the streets would go quiet with snow and ice, and the city would be shut down for a week.

But as he sat in attendance that night, Antong Lucky was thinking about warmer weather. Thinking about Texas, East Dallas to be exact, and the Frazier Court Projects where he brought home straight-A report cards to his hazy mother slumped over with her pipes and powders. The streets where he incorporated lessons from economics and military strategy to start his own drug-dealing business. The red hoodies he and his friends wore when they founded the Dallas Bloods. The judge who called him a menace to society. The prison cell where he soaked in his past sins. The bodies of young men, the bullet-holes in playground equipment, the mothers draped in black because of his legacy.

And this drunk lady with her phone. He was thinking about her, too. Because if only he’d followed her lead — if only he’d told the Secret Service agents to shove it — then he could pull out his own phone right now and take a picture.

Look, when you grow up a gang-banger, a felon, a menace to society, what else but a picture can prove to everyone back home that you’ve made it? — that you really did witness a small part of history, here on a frozen winter night in the nation’s capital, while a tiny drunk lady taps at her phone screen beside you, small candy icons exploding at her fingertips.

“The basic promise of America is success that everyone gets a chance to share,” said President Obama, his voice filling the halls of the Capital Building. “Now the defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.”

Our country is full of stories. Here are three men living in it.

The Gangster

Politicians love an underdog. Listen to their speeches and you can’t miss the examples.

“Like a senior on a fixed income,” Obama said in his 2016 State of the Union address, “or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet…”

Now think back to whether you’ve ever heard a politician say, “Americans are struggling, yes they are, oh yes. In fact, just this week I happened to meet a struggling gang-member who was only trying to sell enough coke and heroin to buy a new car because his old car is totally lame and the girls on the block were making fun of him…”

You don’t hear about that kind of American. Well, that’s who Antong Lucky is — or was. He’s not like that anymore. No, sir. Today, he’s a businessman, owns a bail bond company and a local record label in Dallas. He’s a community leader, too. An urban specialist. A violence interrupter. The guy who city council calls upon when the young gang-bangers get bloody and peace seems so far off, when old ladies get to sobbing at their windowsills.

But Lucky is, in an unseen way, still the same man he once was — that same cool young dude with nearly a million dollars stacked in his apartment — if only because the sins of the past are not so easily shed. They never are. Not even when you are regarded today as a man who has likely stopped more violence and saved more lives than anyone in the city of Dallas. Not even when a dark-haired Congressman named Paul Ryan visits you in the hood and invites you to attend the State of the Union as his personal guest.

No, that old part of yourself — the grimy part, the hungry part — it’s always just under the skin.

“I never saw myself as a bad guy,” Lucky said. “But I realized early on that in my neighborhood, as tough as it was, you had to survive, and you learn quick that being weak will get you hurt — or killed.”

So you tough it out, bury the weak part of yourself. And on Lucky’s block, the streets ran blue with Crips: blue shirts, blue bandanas, pistols tucked under blue waistbands. A hot, blue Texas sky above. To wear the red of the Bloods, the well-known rival gang of the Crips, was to be beaten or killed. Even to be unaffiliated — that is, to be just another kid on the block — was itself enough to get jumped. So you fall in line.

Unless you’re Antong Lucky.

“At a certain point, after getting beat up by these neighborhood Crip guys so many times, I told my friends we were gonna be Bloods,” Lucky said. “At that point there were no Bloods in Dallas, but I told them we’re gonna be the most furious and feared gang in the city, that we’re not going to allow them to keep doing what they’re doing to us. That we’ll use tactics, and skill, to put fear in their hearts.”

Today, there are hundreds of Bloods in metro Dallas. By some rough estimates in the community, they outnumber the Crips four-to-one. Lucky started all that.

He was just 13 years old at the time.

***

President Obama said, “We can teach our kids creativity and passion… and they will succeed.”

But for Antong Lucky: “It wasn’t about success,” says Lucky, “it was all about survival.”

Today, psychologists would likely dole upon Lucky some diagnosis related to trauma, or abandonment. He was a kid growing up “with all these issues — abuse, no role models, no people to look up to.” So he got busy. He did what he had to do. He survived.

Years later — after he’d amassed too much money to hide, after he was a lifetime away from his mother’s food stamps and extension chord beatings, away from the memory of his father in prison, away from all the cracked cement and weeded front yards and hangdog faces that were a constant reminder of just how easy it was to lose track of the good part of yourself — Lucky ended up in prison.

“I’ll never forget, the judge called me a menace to society when he sentenced me,” Lucky said. “And I remember looking around, going ‘huh?’ Then I realized he was talking to me.”

Prison is what changed things. What did it was all these young guys coming up to him, kids really, who had gotten twenty years, fifty years, life sentences — all because of some gang lifestyle Lucky had exemplified. In prison, Lucky was revered. He was the OG, the Original Gangster, founder of the Dallas Bloods. A legend. They loved him.

He hated himself.

One day, sitting in the prison’s TV room, Lucky was watching the nightly news broadcast when suddenly his own neighborhood flashed across the screen. It was a video report showing some big guy in shiny shoes who looked like a cross between a dapper 1920s Chicago gangster, a car salesman and an old-school civil rights leader. Which is to say, the man had style.

“But I also noticed this man on the TV screen, this guy walking around my neighborhood, he looked like he was about ready to fall asleep, his eyes all shut when he talked, like you think he’s sleep-walking,” Lucky said.

In the prison TV room, Lucky turned up the volume and listened. The big man onscreen, with his drooping eyes and stylish digs, was speaking, it seemed, directly to him. And in a smooth voice, too — confident, wise. Speaking on matters of hope, and ending gang violence, and creating peace.

And rebirth.

Not a bad sales pitch, Lucky thought.

Lucky was just a few weeks shy of parole. That night, he dialed his cousin and asked him to make a connection.

The Preacher

Pastor Omar Jahwar of Dallas, Texas, is not tired. The big man’s eyes might be halfway closed, squinting at you, but he’s wide awake. Matter of fact, he’s looking right into your eyes, his gaze washing over your pupils. And he keeps looking. What does he see? Not a lost cause, no. And certainly not a victim either.

“I see warriors, mhmm. I look at these men, that’s what I see. And you don’t tell a warrior that there’s no war — they ain’t going to believe you,” Jahwar said. “Now listen, these young men on the streets of Dallas, they’ll accept your pity as an idea, but they don’t really get it, because they knowthere’s a war going on, when everybody around them is dying.”

So this is what Jahwar does. Look where he stands. Beyond his shoulder is a field dotted with deadly landmines ready to explode. Now he holds out a hand.

“This is my role. I tell these young men, ‘There are landmines in this field, this gang life, but if you allow me to lead you, brother if you take my hand, I can show the path around the mines, and you can cross unscathed.’”

Jahwar became Lucky’s mentor — the man who guided him past the landmines. And it was a good fit, too. They shared the same sense of humor. They’d seen the same demons. That’s why it made sense that Jahwar would be invited alongside Lucky to the State of the Union address, the two Dallas men now seated together amongst the dignitaries and pomp leaders (and that drunk lady still absorbed by the flashing lights on her phone screen).

Jahwar, in his shiny shoes and slick suit, listened as the president spoke, the pre-scripted words unraveling down the aisles and up to the vaulted ceilings.

“We know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future,” Obama said, “and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.”

In that case, Jahwar is a model of American idealism. Responsibility for your fellow man? He’s got that in spades. And while he may not be sculpting the future of the entire nation — because who can but the Lord? he’d say — his own hands had been molding the shape of his Dallas community for decades.

It’s one of the reasons he immediately saw Lucky, fresh out of prison back in 2000, as an opportunity — an opportunity to be saved, and to save others.

“See, there’s nothing like being hopeful that you can make it,” Jahwar said. “To know that somebody’s with me. To say, ‘I’m not in this by myself.’ That gives you the ability to go places you never thought you could go.”

Jahwar had been there before. He’d seen guys like Lucky, felons just out of prison, half-hanging onto a belief that they can do better. And he’d seen how it can all fall apart, too. As the first ever gang specialist hired by the state of Texas, Jahwar dove into gang culture at the height of the violence a few decades ago, back when bodies were even more casual than they are today.

“See, what we do in communities is we attempt to bring social change through individuals who are closest to the problem, those who can actually deliver help from a hand-to-hand point of view,” Jahwar said. “I recruit guys who’ve lived that lifestyle in some of the roughest zip codes in the nation, and I’m asking them to become front-line soldiers fighting for one idea: that urban life does not have to be stunted by violence and a sub-culture of abuse.”

The goal was to get these guys, all of them former gang-members, most of them former-inmates, to inundate themselves in the neighborhoods and the schools and to be ambassadors of peace.

“I call them ‘urban specialists,’ not just because they know how to do violence interruption, but because they know how to look at this urban landscape and find what we can’t see in it,” Jahwar said. “They are, by far, the most effective people to invade and change this culture.”

You change, too. Don’t forget that. Doing this work for peace, you can’t help but change. Just look at Antong Lucky and how far he’s come.

Here’s a story: One night, a year or so back, some gang members shot up Lucky’s storefront. Maybe they got it confused with another place, maybe they were just being stupid — who knows? Anyway, Lucky called up Jahwar, said he was burning to get payback. But instead, Lucky took to heart the mission of non-violence and called some city council members and some local gang leaders. He proceeded to mediate with these local leaders — the politicians and the gang-bangers, brought together — and arranged a situation that would not only assure his business was untouched in the future, but that all businesses would remain off-limits to gang activity. What could have resulted in a gun-brawl instead ended in bonded guarantees from all parties that the most vital economic drivers of the community — that is, small businesses — would be safe from gang violence henceforth.

A huge step for the city of Dallas, all because of the change that took place within Lucky.

Jahwar makes sure his men understand that lesson. When you go down those streets, and face the man you used to be, you change in ways that will surprise you. That’s what Jahwar’s eyes are saying when he looks at you, all droopy and knowing. He’s saying: By the Grace of God, look at how great you’ve become.

Somewhere in the middle of the State of the Union address, as President Obama was urging Americans to see the good in our nation, Jahwar turned and looked at Lucky with his sleepy eyes.

And in that hazy look, things did seem dreamy, because what else would explain how these two unlikely partners from the streets of Dallas made it all the way here?

The Speaker of the House

You know this man. He’s the guy with the dark widow’s peak, the poker face hovering over the president’s shoulder during the State of the Union address. He’s the guy who would later tell USA Today that Obama’s speech, wrought as it was with jabbing references to Republican primary politics, “degraded the presidency” and was “just not really what presidents ought to do.”

“The American people know what the right choice is,” Obama said.

Well, that remains to be seen. For the time being, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is also the guy trying his best to unite the Republican Party around ideals of inclusivity, and of listening to the full range of American voices, stories and colors.

It has practically become his career mission.

But in the age of Donald Trump — “What do African-Americans and Hispanics have to lose by going with me,” reads one unconvincing tweet from Trump,“Look at the poverty, crime… I will fix it!” — Paul Ryan has a lot of work ahead of him.

Ryan is used to work. He’s also known failure. The man onstage behind President Obama during the 2016 State of the Union address is a very different man than he was back in 2012, when his and Governor Mitt Romney’s executive branch hopes evaporated.

Ryan, who had been front and center during that campaign, seemed to disappear from the public eye for a moment.

As it turns out, he had found refuge in the rust belt of Ohio.

“When I first met Paul in Cleveland back in 2012, I was amazed that a politician, after having lost an election, would express interest in knowing about issues in these communities,” said Robert Woodson, McCarther Genius Grant recipient and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, speaking in the Opportunity Lives documentary series Comeback. “Why,” Woodson asked, “would Paul Ryan care?”

Why indeed?

Maybe because the campaign of which Ryan had been a part — milky white Mitt with his Leave It To Beaver sidekick Paul — seemed to be so vastly out of touch with a big part of the American story. Maybe because comments like Romney’s 47 percent blunder, in which Romney seemingly wrote off the opinion of a massive swath of the American electorate, served to affirm that notion. And maybe you could be cynical and say that Ryan wanted to be sure he didn’t miss out on this demographic in future elections. Sure. That could be true.

Or maybe Ryan had found himself lost. Just for a moment, this man who, ever since he was a 16-year-old kid standing over his father’s grave, had steered his own life so smoothly and skillfully, had now found himself on rocky terrain. His vision of the country was growing murky. The notion that America was a nation of “makers and takers” no longer seemed viable. It seemed, as he would later admit, plain wrong.

So he wandered around the country, talking with people, listening, hearing stories, making friends.

One of those friends was a gangster. Another was a preacher.

“To me, the American idea is a real simple story,” Paul Ryan said, “and everybody has their own version of that story.”

And that story — “that in this country,” as Ryan concluded, “the condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life” — grows far more complex as it weaves and bends, as it meanders down the cracked streets of Dallas, to the frozen winter boulevards of Washington, DC. It’s a story that some do not survive, while others feel as though they’re dreaming to have made it this far at all. And it’s a story that sweeps up farmers and single mothers, lost veterans and phone-addicted army wives, kids and old folks, whispers and sobs, a gangster, a preacher and the Speaker of the House.

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