HOWARD SIMMONS VIA NY DAILY NEWS
*For the protection of my friend involved in this still active and open case, their name has been changed. The name Nat was chosen as a tribute to Nat Turner, a former African American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
As I write this, two shots have rung off just minutes ago, a helicopter has been circling overhead for ten minutes, and police cars are only now beginning to converge towards the shots. It's Friday, October the 13th, 2017.
In this part of Brooklyn, gunfire is a normal occurrence from about April until November, when the weather is the warmest and most people are outside. This area, with a population of 48,000, is covered by 3 housing projects, brownstone townhouses, and patrolled by 3 police precincts and 2 NYPD Police Service Areas (PSA)—strictly dedicated to patrolling these towering project complexes courtyards, stairwells, and rooftops with their controversial vertical patrol tactic.
This small community, however, leads New York City in burglaries, robberies, felonious assaults, shootings, and vehicle break-ins. From January to September, there were seven murders in this area of downtown Brooklyn, tied with that of the nearby East New York and Brownsville sections of New York City. Gang activity is common here as well, with a total of 104 gang-related incidences in 2017 alone.
A shooting that occurred a few weeks ago has gone unsolved, even though it left 2 men injured from gunshot wounds to the head and arms as they sat in their car at 11-pm. A teenager was shot in the head and killed on the doorstep to his public housing building a few months ago. Another teen was shot 5 times and wounded in a separate incident last May. A drive-by shooting two years ago in a housing complex in a nearby neighborhood by local gang members left 5 wounded, including a pregnant woman who suffered a miscarriage and was told she would have difficulty becoming pregnant again. At least 1 shooter in the drive-by shooting case was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
These are the stories taking place in poor communities all across America that are often overlooked by mainstream media sources. One of them was about to become very personal for me.
My best friend was named Nat, and we were close for at least four years of my adolescent life. We had grown up in the same neighborhood and on the same streets. We had dreamed of going far beyond Brooklyn, New York, to the "top" as we referred to it. Nat opened up to me about his dreams at the young age of 12. He had wished to go to Columbia University, study finance, and eventually develop a music production company with the goals of one day being worth millions. Those were his dreams, but they were soon corrupted through certain elements of poverty; Through broken promises of brotherhood; Through the lies perpetuated by the glorification of gang life.
Nat was initiated in the local Crips gang set at the age of 13. The day after he was initiated, I met up with him at a local park. He had been badly bruised, cut and scraped up from the multiple punches and kicks he had endured, and was limping, but he'd refused to go to the hospital. This was what he said he wanted. He had been 'jumped in,' and was now a Crip. Nat had been beaten for a minute and thirty seconds by 6 members of the local Crips set and struck at least twice by a baseball bat in the ankle and back. I remember looking at him astonished; this kid was was my best friend. In a lot of ways, there isn't a more satisfying feeling living in an urban environment than knowing that your friend was as tough as a rock and you could trust them with anything.
I was never amazed by the image of an outlaw lifestyle however and never benefitted from it; I never followed the numerous other teens in my community into gang membership. Perhaps it was my familial upbringing where education and service were praised, where my parents themselves were college educated and held well established careers with the City of New York. In my house, my brother paraded around his Ivy League degree proudly, which of course I met with friendly competition.
Besides his street life, Nat was also a frequent guest in my home. My home was a place he would come to escape the dysfunctionality of his household, the violence on the streets, and to live with at least some sense of normalcy for a few days. Over the years however, as Nat continued with a life of crime, consisting of drug dealing, numerous gang-related assaults, and robberies, I cut him off for two years and focused strictly on my academics. During this time, I no longer left my house, and, to avoid trouble, I stayed inside talking to friends on the phone and doing homework. I never went out after dusk, and when I did hang around with friends, I always chose to go to their neighborhoods. Depending on the time of day, I'd decide whether to stay over their houses or hurriedly make my way back onto the trains at night to avoid being another robbery or shooting victim.
Those journeys running through subway stations and the desolate nighttime streets of Brooklyn just trying to get home as quickly as possible would also make me a target, not just by gangs and low time offenders, but also by police tasked with keeping people like me, the general community, safe. So, I went along with the brief detentions, frisk and name searches in their databases as long as it meant I could continue making my way home.
As Nat's membership in the Crips solidified and his ranking increased, so did the extent of his crimes. At 14, Nat was arrested for engaging in a brutal fight against a rival gang member which left the rival in the hospital with multiple injuries to his face; he received his first gun possession charge at 16, and was arrested in September for an armed robbery at a convenience store. We did continue to communicate with each other, texting and talking on the phone every now and then. I like to think that he understood why I had refused to come outside over the years as conditions and opportunities in the neighborhood deteriorated for the youth of our age group.
Despite our strained communication, on a cold and rainy Wednesday night in October, a month since the start of my senior year in high school, Nat sent me a text message asking me how I had been, at around 11 pm. We hadn’t spoken in a while and the last time I had spoken to him in person was at a local convenience store where I’d happen to run into him long enough for a ten minute exchange. We spoke very briefly over text this time. He seemed just as normal as he ever was, not even remotely distant. Once again, I told Nat to get off the streets and back into school, which he had dropped out of at the end of his junior year, and I told him to go home for more than just a few hours and stay there. He responded with a simple “I will.” Little did I know or even expect that I would wake up the next morning to heartbreaking news.
Nat, who was 17 years old, had been the sole gunman in a fatal gang-related shooting in our neighborhood against a rival from the local Bloods gang set at 3 in the morning, just 4 hours after I'd last spoken to him. NYPD officers had picked him up at around 11-am standing outside of a local corner store with his accomplice in the shooting. His arrest occurred not far from where he had shot and killed his peer hours earlier. What added to the tragedy was that I had gone to school with both Nat and his accomplice in the shooting and because we lived in the same neighborhood, we still saw each other with quite a bit of frequency.
Their victim was another kid from the neighborhood, a troubled teen himself and also a gang member, but still someone I was familiar with. I played basketball with him on a few occasions and said “what’s up” to him whenever we saw each other in passing. It became apparent to me that three lives ended that early Thursday morning: my best friend who is possibly never going to see the outside world again, facing either 15 or 25 years to life in prison or a life sentence, his accomplice and former friend of mine, and a neighborhood kid who was gunned down at 19 years old.
Had someone approached me years earlier, during my attempts to turn my friend away from the path he was going down and told me Nat would one day be indicted in a gang-related homicide, I would have told them they were wrong and that “Nat would change with time.”
I watched as a kid went from a talented defensive lineman and fellow player on the football field that was being scouted to play in college by his freshman year, to a troubled big dreamer, to a frequently absent and undisciplined Boy Scout, to a hardcore gangbanger, to an accused killer in just six years. His path to gang membership was unusual, at least to me; you don't hear of too many Boy Scouts dropping out to pursue street activities. But he did.
They say some kids grow up fast, and I agree. However, I’d like to point out that kids in inner-city communities, living in households plagued by alcoholism and domestic abuse, and where the violence of gang life surrounds them every day, where drug dealers drive around in “fancy cars” flaunting the money they’ve made from dealing, grow up much faster and mature under horrible and inhospitable conditions. Their rites of manhood are marked by armed robberies, assaults, gang initiations, drug dealing, back and forth retaliation, and eventually murder. I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to see my friend again; his crime was committed in one of the states with the most stringent anti-gang and gun laws in the United States. But I do know that this story doesn’t need to repeat itself.
Nat's story is a common tale in inner-city communities and in communities of color all across the United States. Nat, his accomplice, and the young soul whose life was taken that fateful morning weren't just gang members. They were kids; they were members of families; they were someone's brother; they were someone's child; they were friends; and they were victims of the system and of the streets.
The American judicial system is currently responsible for the incarceration of approximately 60,000 youth offenders under the age of 18 on any given day according to the ACLU. Around 500,000 youth offenders are arrested and brought to youth detention centers every year, and another 250,000 are tried and incarcerated as adults—Nat is one of them.
Living in an urban environment, I see the effects of a broken system every day, and it appears that it is designed to fail young people of color in inner city communities. My friend had a probation officer and a poor attendance record in high school, which should have been supervised by the Department of Education. The NYPD has a Community Affairs Bureau whose task it is to intervene in preventing crime and establishing better community relations with the police in areas of high crime. But never once did I see them intervene or attempt to prevent him or any other gang member in my community from committing acts of violence.
When the youth in New York City commit acts of violence against each other, there are two people and one thing we can blame. First, we can blame the Chief of Community Affairs for the NYPD, Joanne Jaffe, who spends her time taking pictures with the families of these youth offenders after these acts of violence take kids away from their homes and put others in graves. Next, we can blame Mayor Bill De Blasio for having let the deteriorating conditions in the city's jail system go unchecked, for ignoring these issues by speaking on crime prevention and community reform but never commenting on such issues after they happen, and for failing to provide the necessary resources for community organizations to address crime. Finally, we can blame the severe lack of community enriching programs and functions funded by the city and state to keep these kids off of the streets in the first place.
Solving these issues is not that complex. In fact, often the solutions to these problems are very obvious. Instead of increasing the funding for police presence in these communities, build community centers or use schools after hours where youth can get extra help with school work, use the gym, get to know each other outside of their gang colors and beads, host dances, and other functions, and get speakers to come and address these kids on a more personal level—a lack of positive and accomplished role models in poor communities of color all across the United States correlates to the increase in crime, as does poverty.
To further correct problems in these communities, increase the number of after-school activities for adolescents and at-risk youth based on their cited interest. Establish and provide internship opportunities where they can learn valuable skills to join the working world. Instead of ignoring gang leaders or dealing with them one on one, include them in the conversation on addressing crime; make talking to law enforcement officials about community issues mandatory for them, and through community and gang policing initiatives allow them to talk over gang conflicts and end them with handshakes and conversations instead of through bullets and knives. Gangsta's Making Astronomical Community Changes, a local non-for profit in Brooklyn, otherwise known as GMACC, has been successful in ending gang conflicts in simple basement sit-downs with gang members.
Finally, shortening police response times will effectively reduce the number of shots fired calls. The NYPD had an average response time of 8 minutes and 31 seconds until 2013 when that drastically increased to 9 minutes and 38 seconds. The FDNY, on the other hand, has an average response time of 4 minutes and 11 seconds with far fewer resources. To the surprise of many, police precincts in New York City usually have just 5 vehicles out on patrol at a time with some 447 officers in a precinct. Assigning more officers to patrol at the same time and working on shortening police response times will efficiently prevent incidents from leading to shootings or assaults.
These exact solutions are being employed in Compton, California where the Bloods and Crips are currently in a truce and whose leaders are included in community conversations on crime. The City of Compton and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also implemented the successful Gift for Guns program, where participants who turned in firearms received a $50-100 check. This program took 7,000 guns off the streets and lead to a decrease in gun crimes, so much that the state and county decided to expand the program county-wide.
Until we hold our elected officials and police departments responsible, gang members, who are predominantly young males of black or Hispanic descent, will continue to kill each other, be incarcerated, and forgotten about by a faulty system designed to fail them. Until we hold our elected officials and police departments accountable, inner-city communities of color will continue a cycle of violence, crime, and poverty. From both ends of the political spectrum, we must join together and address these issues that are taking the lives of youth and leading to their increased rates of incarceration.
I say, being from Brooklyn is either a blessing or a curse, there’s no in-between. It’s a place where three of my friends were killed running the streets, where another friend and a former classmate were arrested on serious murder and gang-related charges, and another kid I knew from the neighborhood lost his life in an avoidable act of violence.
P.S. Nat, I love you man, keep your head up. I know Rikers Island is hell but what’s done is done and you’ve got a tough journey ahead of you between now and your sentencing. But remember you still have your whole life ahead of you regardless of what happens so keep everything positive my brother, I'll see you around. #StayStrong #OneLove