“We Ain’t Choosing No Sides; We Just Choosing Our Side”
The gangs of Baltimore believe they can do a better job policing their community than the police.
By Amy K. Nelson
It’s a few minutes before midnight on Wednesday and I’m sharing a cigarette with a Blood and Crip at a diner 20 minutes outside of Baltimore. It’s two hours past the government-imposed curfew on this broken city and outside its margins the unlikeliest of encounters is happening.
Just two days earlier, Baltimore police put out a very different version of gang unity, issuing a memo — just hours after 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s funeral — warning that the rival gangs were planning a possible attack on cops.
It put the city on edge, and as violence unfolded in the afternoon as teenagers were trapped in the streets and prevented from going home, the rival gangs watched on TV what was unfolding. The cops couldn’t have predicted this — who could have? — but instead the Bloods, the Crips, the BGF flipped it. Historically. And now, here, on a ramp leading into this diner, the preposterous is happening as Scooby, 27 and a Crip, and Flex, 25 and a Blood, bond over their newfound bond.
“In what world, in what dimension, in what time,” Scooby says to Flex, “was I supposed to meet you and we’d be cool like that?”
I didn’t know when I went Frederick Douglas High School earlier Wednesday morning that later in the night I’d be smoking with Bloods and Crips just before they tape a segment for a national late-night TV show. I just went to try and find someone to profile, waiting to talk to kids about what had happened on Monday, when their initial clashes with cops set in motion a violent night filled with burned-out buildings, looting, and riot porn on loop.
The rapper Wale has just spoken to the students. Afterward, I noticed an older man introducing him to two Bloods.
Derek Bowden brought Flex and his brother Tragedy, 21, to the school. Bowden, a Baltimore lifer and mentor to the men, is like a consigliore and is the point man for entry into that world. He’s trying to promote the truce between the two gangs. They know people are skeptical that violent, vicious gangs could genuinely be trying to keep peace.
“We ain’t choosing no sides; we just choosing our side,” Tragedy says. “We just protecting the community.”
Atop a hill across from the high school sits the Mondawmin mall; it’s the school’s transportation hub but on Wednesday the National Guard and police are stationed in the parking lot that abuts the station. The potential for confrontation is enormous.
It was just down the hill where kids and cops first clashed on Monday and what sparked the gangs into the streets. Gang members told me that there was never an official sit-down; it all happened organically because the confusion on the streets was so severe — and the desire to protect their people from the cops and keep the others from damaging the buildings so intense and desperate — that in the swirl of chaos the colors just didn’t matter.
Since then, they’ve been Facebooking each other and exchanging cell numbers. That’s how they got out the word to all meet at this Metro station at 2 p.m., their goal to police the kids and prevent more violence.
Tragedy, Flex, and Bowden arrive and slowly more gang members begin to trickle in; school is getting out soon and cops begin to line up in full riot gear, protecting the entrance to the mall parking lot. The police are wary at first of the gangs coming together, and it’s a bizarre sight as the gangsters line the perimeter and position throughout the station, all the colors cohabitating.
But as gang members admonish kids to not be stupid, to go home, to stay off the streets, cops watch as they self-police and choreograph positioning tactically, expertly, to achieve maximum impact. Within the hour, the cops concede the space to the gangs and retreat back to the parking lot, a remarkable achievement.
Rojos is one of the first gang members who posts up at the station. He’s 27 and stands right next to a Crip. But early on there’s still a lot of apprehension from the cops; at times they seemed confused, unsure of what to do. There’s a lot of mound meetings. As I’m talking to Rojos, a white cop tells me that I can only stand there if I’m waiting for the bus, so I just circle around for the next hour, never standing anywhere too long.
“We’re here to show [cops] that instead of them trying to shoot our youth, we can get the youth under control being leaders in the neighborhood,” Rojos says. “Not [because we’re] in gangs, but just being leaders in the neighborhood on a positive level. We doing something legal right now. We’re standing up for the cause, and not because.”
I see Tyshmia listening to music, off to the side by herself where few people were. She’s 24 and lives right at Penn and North intersection, where the CVS burned, where it all went down. Every time she steps outside, she’s greeted by a police state. She has two kids and sent them to live with other family.
“The Bloods and the Crips are coming together,” she says. “We’re sitting out here now just wanting to be citizens and just want to be helping.
“I feel like until this over there’s always going to be a finger pointed at somebody. They want to point it at us, they want to blame it on us, then so be it. Somebody gotta get the finger pointed at and maybe that will be part of the solution.”
She understands how the optics lead politicians and others to label them.
“I don’t feel bad [when people call us thugs] because I’m going to look at them and say, I’m not a thug. I got my high school diploma, I got my GED, I went to two years of college. I’m going to Baltimore school of massage to study esthetics. I want to be a dermatologist. Even though I did decide to be a Crip, I’m still a citizen. I pay my taxes, I do right — I don’t break into places, I don’t steal. A lot of us don’t do things like that. A lot of people put us in a [box] and that’s fine, I’m really used to being [seen as] a statistic but to me, I’m not nowhere close to being a statistic.”
As I’m walking back over toward the front of the station, I see Brian, 25, yelling at little kids, begging them to go home, to get out of the station and to stay home. He starts to tear up when he talks about how the rec centers still stayed open when schools were canceled because it’s the only way many kids could eat.
“[The cops] have no idea what we go through on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “We out here to tell [the kids], don’t give the cops a reason to say nothing to you. Go home, we don’t need them; we can police our own community.”
We’re interrupted by one of the leaders of the Bloods, who makes Brian move across the street. He probably saw Brian starting to get emotional and wanted to cut that off. Later, I watch him tell another Blood to not have his bandana cover his entire face.
Sin is 15 years old and says she made some mistakes, which led to her joining the Crips two years ago.
“These police, they ain’t playing right now,” she says. “And that’s not what [the kids are] understanding; what they need to understand is that there’s gonna be more Freddie Grays. There’s gonna be plenty of more Freddies. Us Crips and us Bloods, we not supposed to be associating, but we came together to keep the peace because this violence isn’t going to prove anything. Ain’t nothing going to be served.
We not bad people and that’s what we’re trying to get across to the nation.”
This is where I first meet Scooby, the Crip who I shared a smoke with. He’s gregarious, but relentless in his desire to educate the outside world about his world, his poverty, Baltimore’s struggle. He’s been making the rounds this week with the media and appeared at a press conference with city council president Jack Young earlier this week alongside another Blood. I ask him how he feels about being framed as a thug by his mayor, governor, and president.
“What the fuck is a thug? Everybody wants to call somebody a thug but has anybody gotten on TV and told you what the fuck a thug is yet? Because they don’t know. … Is there a difference between us right now and [the cops] right now? What’s the difference? I don’t see a difference so if I’m a thug, they a thug. Only difference is they got a gun, all I got is hands and feet. They have direct orders if things get out of hang to shoot and kill. I have direct orders just to make it home safe and make sure everybody else get home safe. So I don’t know who’s the thug?
“I just feel like if you don’t understand something you shouldn’t speak on it. You come down here, we gonna show you nothing but love and a whole lotta respect. You talk to us; and if you not ready to talk to us, than don’t judge us.”
All of the gang members are black, except one petite white girl, Chirac. She’s 23 and from Florida and has been in Baltimore for a few years. She won’t tell me how long she’s been in a gang.
“I’m white and I’m out here and [politicians and police] they classifying a thug is not fair,” she says. “We’re trying to present a positive image that gangbangers — just because you wear a flag, doesn’t mean you’re down to do dirty that you’re a thug. We’re all out here for one thing: for justice for the Freddie Grays and all the people who have been harassed and killed by police. I’ve [seen the other side] of that, being a white female who hangs out with these so-called thugs, it’s not fair.”
There had been about a half dozen other media members at the station, encircling the same way I had been. But by 5 p.m. a lot of the gang members and most of the media had left. Then Treach from Naughty By Nature randomly shows up. He had driven down from New York City; he wanted to help ease any pain, try and calm people’s minds, he says. He tells me the media had already asked him why he was supporting the gangsters.
“Because the gangsters control the streets — if the gangsters want peace, if the gangsters want a truce — if [people can’t] see the positive out of that? The gangbangers out here putting the truth down.”
And that may be the biggest divide: Getting people to understand that the true nexus of power on the streets of Baltimore — it’s at this Metro station.
Derek takes me to grab some Jamaican food and we sit on a bench at Druid Hill Park, a beautiful outdoor space which also houses the zoo and is just blocks from the CVS. He gets a call from a producer from The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore; someone who works on the show knows Derek and pitched having the gang members. But at the moment it’s still all very unclear and Derek isn’t even sure if that’s the show. He says maybe there’s a taping later tonight? He invites me to a church service.
It’s 7:00 p.m. and pastor Dr. Frank Reid is hosting a community meeting at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and he’s invited the gangs. There’s been a lot of criticism about the clergy’s outreach to the gangs; but inside the church, there is universal frustration with how officials and police have framed the gangs as instigators, exasperation with the word thug. Councilwoman Helen Huton is here, and tells me, “I don’t use the word thug; that’s my colleagues. I have stated specifically, Do not use the word thug.”
Melech Thomas, 27, and a youth minister, says: “How it made me feel as a black man? Carl Stokes said it best: It’s almost as if they just called me a nigger. Really. That’s really what it is, they wanted to say nigger, they wanted to say animal, so thug is a nice political translation of nigger.”
Reid and the roughly 50 people in this church know how important a role the gang members play on the street. They are the last line of defense; all sides say they are desperate to work together. Nathanial, 25, a gang member, stands up. “I’m here to do anything I can do that’s possible. Anything,” he says. He comes across as genuine, the people respond to him.
“A lot of people judge me, see my face tattoos and judge me automatically before I even open my mouth,” he says. “But when I open my mouth, I speak values.”
Pledges are made to work together, numbers are exchanged. Will it matter? Despite skepticism about the intentions of the fans, the clergy has publicly promoted the partnership, amid criticism, and even the mayor’s office has been open to the idea. Flex, Tragedy and a few other gang members sit in the front pew and speak with the various pastors. Reid closes the meeting asking everyone in the room to hold hands.
“Let’s link up arms as we gather tonight as one Baltimore, every color is your color, every sign is your sign, and we come now living in a city that the devil wants to divide and destroy. But we declare that there’s power in unity.”
It’s 10 p.m. and I’m in a cab with Derek and Flex, en route to the diner. I still have no idea where we’re going and whether there will be any taping; it’s all so mysterious. I’ve been given information sparingly. But Derek says Flex and Tragedy are comfortable enough with me by now that I can come along as their official photographer. We walk in and Scooby greets us at the door and he and Flex move off to the side to conference about someone getting stabbed in the protest earlier that night. There is a table full of producers from the Larry Wilmore show who had come in from New York. So this is all very real. Scooby, Goldie — another Crip — and Shawn, a friend with ties to both who runs an art non-profit in the city, are here.
In the back of the Double-T diner in Catonsville, all six of us sit in a crescent-shaped booth. The diner isn’t full but even the people there don’t seem to notice a table full of Bloods and Crips eating salads and drinking raspberry iced teas. Everything is totally normal and fine.
“I’ve seen it all this week,” Scooby says as he leans against the back of the booth. “The only thing I haven’t seen is UFOs and Jesus.”
Everyone laughs. The table conversation darts everywhere, an Adderall-inspired series of non- sequiturs, jokes, and introspection.
What kind of salad dressing is this … What the name of the dressing? The tan dressing with black flecks in it? … Call that shit yellow dressing, neighborhood dressing … What kind of drink you want? I want red. … If you want some juice? Yeah I want some punch … I’m hungry as shit … I’ve got 35 tanks of stomach right here … I want an omlete wrap. It’s the first thing I seen. … Wraps are some white people shit …
I got hit with a concussion grenade. Am I playing Call of Duty in real life or what? … What do we do if there’s no justice? … What is this, an olive? I was like, is this a grape?? … I’m eating a salad with a pinkie up so it don’t even matter. …They left their own country with the caste system … Y’all know we met David Blaine today? … My shoes keep getting stepped on and stepped on and stepped on. A week ago I woulda been like, Nigga! … Everybody is pissed and I’m like, I love you more than I love these shoes. It makes you think, If you did this to me, three days ago? …The best salad I’ve ever had in my life, McDonald’s ain’t got shit on y’all. … This is beautiful, y’all. … We brothers. We did it.
An hour into the dinner, Flex and Scooby go outside for that smoke.
“You know how long I’ve been waiting for something like this?” Flex asks Scooby. “We had a peace treaty a long time ago, like in the ’90s. The police infiltrated it…But it’s stronger now, our bond is stronger now. I’ve been waiting for years for something like that. I was born into the gang; I’ve been bangin’ 25 years. So, aw, man, to see something like this, like brothers gathering?
“I’m not even gonna lie. I cried.”
“I cried last night,” Scooby says. “We made history.”
They say that because of their unity, gangs in Oakland, D.C., Chicago and other cities are forming truces. But why would anyone believe any of this has longevity? Can a bunch of gangbangers from Baltimore change the modern makeup of gangs in this country? They ones at Double-T diner are convinced they can, they say they’re determine to make this stick, that they’re family now.
“As kids, little innocent kids, you don’t know nothing, you blind to the world,” Scooby later tells Wilmore. “How do you think it would have benefitted us if we had older people — like us — around doing what we’re doing right now? It would have been big. And that’s what we’re doing for them. I’ve got kids. I’ve got two kids I’m doing this for my kids, their kids, your kids, everybody’s kids, we doing this for them. So that way, 15, 20 years down the line, they can be like, well, we safe because our daddies did this.”
Flex and Scooby head back into the diner, and just before 1 a.m., the five men sit at a round table for their national TV debut. They order breakfast burritos and pie.
Goldie was the first one I saw at the intersection of Penn and North on Friday afternoon, less than an hour after charges against the six officers were announced. He was smiling, saying “I love this shit!” and says he had been sitting right near us on the stoop when word came down. Just two nights before, all the gangsters had sat in that booth in that diner, wondering whether their city would burn, expecting the worst.
“We got to keep pushing,” Goldie tells me, with Crips, Bloods, and BGF members standing behind him. “We got to, because if we don’t, all this shit gonna be for nothing.”
A few minutes later, four of the OGs — Goldie included — from each gang gathered in the middle of the intersection, blocking traffic. They tied their black, blue, and red bandanas together and lifted them as a swarm of cameras engulfed.
“From now on, Bloods, Crips, BGF we gonna control our own neighborhood we don’t need the police,” said an OG named Bigg Wolfe, “it’s our job from the beginning. We gonna sleep or own patrols it’s our own movement and if you ain’t with it that’s your issue. Bloods, Crips, BGF, man.”
Tragedy was a bit more guarded. Partially because he’s always more like that when on the street, but also just conservative, too, about whether they are going to keep the truce going.
“We gonna try,” he says. “We got put an effort to it though to do it. You can’t just say you gonna do it and then do something else. That’s what gets a lot of people mad then if you don’t do it it’s like you crushed their dreams or something.”
Flex was in the shower listening to the radio when word came through. He jumped out and headed to Penn North. One of the most positive throughout, born into a gang, he is unequivocal.
“I’m confident — no, I know it’s gonna stay like this,” he says.
Then he thanks me because “you were here to see us as human beings and we love and respect you for that. It might not be big to a lot of people that’s on TV or people who normally talk to reporters. It’s big to us; we actually changed history. We changed history.”
Amid the blaring horns, jubilant celebration, and happy chaos, a TV reporter in the scrum tells the OGs she sees that they’re linked arm in arm, and asks how did they got to this point. They don’t hesitate.
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