A Tuesday Morning in Gangland

A private tour through the old hood

Albany Projects In Crown Heights. Photo by Nadeem Shad.

Dequann Stanley’s father died of aids when he was 14, his brother went to prison for murder aged 18, and his sister who used to be part of the Bloods died three years ago from what he described only as “thyroid issues.” In other words this was a typical conversation with Dequann.

Dequann used to be a drug dealer and at the top of his game he estimates that he was making something like $6000 a day. He’s also been shot twice, been to jail and state prison and as far as he recalls been a member of six different gangs.

At the Crown Heights Mediation Center where he works we sat down and got to work. As a journalist at Columbia Journalism School I was keen to acquire filming permission for my masters project, an in depth look at his life in both print and video. He gave me access to everything and everyone, he even whipped out his phone and gave me the phone number of “Rashad”, someone who spent time with him in prison. “Rashad” used to reside at Rikers Island Correctional facility.

We spoke for two hours and then wrapped up as normal. However when we got up to leave, Dequann asked me something he’d never said before.

“You want to see the neighborhood?” he said.

The answer you can imagine was an immediate yes. I’ve been reporting on Crown Heights for three months now and I’ve walked up and down Eastern Parkway and the side streets hundreds of times. However the chance to get a tour of Dequann’s world couldn’t be missed.

“We’re leaving Blood drop,” mumbled Dequann as he waved his hand to gesture goodbye to one of his colleagues. “He’s a former gang member too.”

The man’s name was “Drop”, but went by “Blood drop” because of his former affiliation with the Bloods, a famous gang originally based out of Los Angeles. It was unclear if “Drop” was his “government name”, his legal name that is.

We started walking the streets. Dequann knew just about everyone. We were being stopped pretty much every twenty meters by people who knew him. The conversation generally starting “x person knew me when I was a bad person.”

“Are you happy with life now?” I ask him.

“No, I’m happier but not all the way content,” he said.

One group of men approached us and shook Dequann, my guide’s hand. I was introduced to “Black”, a 23 year old ‘high risk individual’. That’s a term Dequann’s organisation uses to describe 16 to 25-year-olds who have participated in gang activity, have a prior criminal record, been involved in street violence, been a victim of shootings or have been recently released from prison or a juvenile correctional facility.

“Black’s” name is actually Darien Jones. The reason he’s called that is because he always wears black he says. He’s quiet sizing me up, after an introduction by Dequann he gives me his phone number. I’ll be interviewing him soon enough.

We’re on Albany Avenue now and it’s not too long before we get to Albany Houses. They emerge as looming towers in the background. They’re ugly looking buildings made out of brick and dull stone. There’s a construction crew hard at work renovating the roof. The wooden barricades they’ve erected at the entrance to the complex to protect their equipment makes the place seem even more fortress-like.

Dequann lived at this project from the age of 8 till the age of 17 when he first went to jail. Back in January, Ernest Sene, 27-years-old was murdered at the project from a gunshot wound to the chest.

“It was worse growing up here, when it it was wild and crazy” said Dequann.

“if you came then asking your questions people wouldn’t trust you at all, it’s only because you’re with me that people will give you their names.”

Across the street a modern trendy bakery is a few weeks away from opening. Dequann sees me staring at it.

“BOOM, they just pop up,” he laughs.

We start walking back. The route just happens to take us past a children’s playground. I’m curious, what did Dequann want to be as a kid, a gang member? Wrong, Dequann wanted to be a “big time chef coming up.”

He loves to cook, seafood especially. He still cooks and a smile breaks out when he tells me that his friends love his cooking.

Seconds later three men approach.

“That’s fucked up man,” shouts the man in front, he’s wearing a white tracksuit on a cold winter day. Another second and tracksuit and Dequann are hugging. Tracksuit’s clearly agitated.

“That’s some fucked up shit,” he says before departing.

Dequann’s cousin a “Big Homey” in the Bloods died in car crash a year ago. Tracksuit had heard news that “Big Homey’s” girl had moved onto another guy. Dequann tells me that she was the one driving and that there’s speculation that people think she crashed the car deliberately.

We push on.

The tours not quite over yet. We’re a block away from the mediation center.

“Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit before I crack your fucking skull,” shouts “Money” Mars a young man in his twenties in the middle of the street. Mars is shouting at an older woman crossing the road on the other side of the street.

“I don’t sell that shit.”

The unidentified woman looks at Mars bends over and shows her posterior to him.

“You’r lucky my Aunt’s not here to fuck you up,” he shouts again. Dequann walks over, puts his arm around Mars and slowly brings him back over to my direction. Mars is still shouting and gently pushes Dequann back before walking again in the direction of the woman. Dequann lets him go before doing exactly the same a few seconds later. It works this time, Mars is back near me but he’s still shouting.

Dequann smiles.

“I don’t work as a violence interrupter any more but sometimes I have to step in,” he said.

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