Just What the (Street) Doctor Ordered: a look into the day of a Violence Interrupter

By Sarah Skirmont

The sun was setting and nostalgia was in the air. The season was changing. Leaves were regaining their glossiness and extending their reach. Spring was beckoning forth the months of summer. The air seems to be hotter, muggier where crime rates run rampant. Some don’t call it summer. Some call it “murder season.”

If this were ten years ago Erin Sledge, “Sledgie”, would have been “cutting and beating and riffing and shooting” up his home neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“Hey Ms. Lady, how you doing today?”

He saunters up to a group of youths huddled over something unknown.

“You staying productive?”

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 4.08.48 AM

He sported a dark green camo print puffer jacket and baggy pants accessorized with a flatbill and silver grillz.

In the distance a car was blaring a Kendrick Lamar song.

 “I done been through a whole lot,

Trial, Tribulation, but I know God,

The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie.

Pray that the Holy Water don’t go dry.”

 “Out here, it’s like a set up, the way that they make you have to live,” Sledgie said. “People are like gorillas out here, but they don’t wanna be. It’s what they have to do.”

Sledgie is a “Violence Interrupter,” and his job is to cure the disease of violence.

Sledgie is specifically apart of GMACC, or Ganstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, which is an organization under the umbrella initiative “Save Our Streets.”

Save Our Streets (SOS) is New York specific, with “catchment,”or high risk areas, in Bed Stuy and Sledgie’s home neighborhood, Crown Heights.

Save Our Streets and GMACC are part of the larger, nation wide initiative known as Cure Violence. Cure originally began in Chicago, and has spread to New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council included it in its 2014 $12.7 million project to reduce gun violence.

In Crown Heights, there were more than 49 non-fatal shootings in 2009, and 50 arrests for illegal gun possessions.

As of the 2010 census, the neighborhood of Crown Heights has a total of 75 percent African American citizens. Northern Crown Heights, has even higher rates of incarceration where there is a concentration of the black and Caribbean population.

Specifically in Black communities like Crown Heights and East Flatbush, some like Ronal Serpas say police are neither equipped with the right mindset to deal with violence, gang related or not.

Serpas, the former police chief in New Orleans, now commits his time to the idea behind Cure Violence.

“I began to recognize clear history and violence is a much more complex phenomenon,” Serpas said. “I began to see how exposure [to violence] makes it operate like a disease.”

Much of the exposure to violence that Sledgie and other young men like him experienced was through gang life.

Across the US, more than half of homicides in cities like LA and Chicago are gang related.

But Sledgie isn’t telling you, “don’t join a gang.”

He’s not even telling you “don’t sell drugs.”

That’s because despite his work to quell violence he still considers the gang his family.

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“The gangsta Bloods were my father,” said Sledgie. “Youngins are forced to be adults before their time. They are going to be mischievous, are we just going to put them away? Or do we wanna save them. Sometimes a lot of these kids just wanna save themselves.”

When Sledgie’s mom kicked him out of the house at 13, he ended up staying with his best friend, who also happened to be apart of the Kingston Ave. Bloods. The gang territories of Crown Heights “is like a foreign area” according to Sledgie. Territories run from the 40th street to 50th street to 70th street.

“[The Bloods] took me in and they loved me, even though I never wanted to be a Blood,” Sledgie said.

Soon Sledgie was forced to grow up fast like a lot of the kids he helps, Sledgie was sprung into a life of adulthood.

With a kid at 18, he did what he could to make ends meet.

“If my mom is a single mother and I got 5 brothers, and she gone to work, and I got to eat, what am I supposed to do, just starve? I’m going to get my ass up, [and] work with whatever they give us to play with,” Sledgie said. “People are starving, people are poor, how are we supposed to survive.”

When Sledgie was kicked out of the house at 13, a different type of family took him in before he started his own.

In a study by Joao Vargas, Andrew Diamond, John Hagedorn, and Karen Umemoto, they study the sociology of gang life in urban areas and the effects of policing on the urban populations.

“Delinquent black and Latino gangs in poor neighborhoods are the sole object of concern here, they also challenge it by implicating incarceration and intensive policing in the creation and management of economically and socially precarious urban populations. Such strategies- described variously ‘governing through crime,’ have honed the edges of inequalities,” they said in their study.

It would take Sledgie two years before he would stop his life of “gang banging” to begin his work on the street as a violence interrupter.

He was at first hesitant to join CURE violence, but he soon realized his life as a Blood had a deadline.

“When you grow up with something, you have to understand that these people wont change their minds easily,” Sledgie said.

Now, Sledgie is repeatedly seen in basketball courts, parks, facing a metaphorical “dirty double mirror.”

He identifies with the individuals that he works with, that also seem to be caught in the same cycle of actions that he was caught up in.

Sledgie’s own nephew is considered high risk.

“What you doing?” Sledgie asked his nephew upon running into him in the neighborhood.

Sledgie grabbed his ear, playfully scolding him.

“He’s out here, he’s doing what he do, but I love him,” Sledgie said.

“Make sure you come by my crib later,” Sledgie yelled back as he walked away.

________________________________________________________________________________

Serpas does not focus on gang life when examining violence. He blames the method in how we eradicate violence.

“One of the things that struck me about the model is we as a people when a disease is present, don’t blame the victim,” Serpas said. “Perhaps violence is about nature response as it is a nurture response.”

Instead of viewing violence as something to get rid of, Serpas advocates for “curing” it like a disease.

In a report by the organization, a court evaluation showed an average 6 percent monthly decrease in gun violence in the community of Crown Heights. However, there was an increase in gun violence in neighborhoods like Flatbush, where Cure is also present.

In Serpas’ experience as police chief of New Orleans, and Nashville turned out not to be so black and white.

“I have investigated thousands of crimes where the person didn’t do it because [they wanted to], they did it because they were mad and they lost control. There has to be other reasons we have to look at.”

Violence interrupters also seem to be a possible alternative to some of the controversial “warrior mentalities” that policemen carry.

This has made race relations between police and communities like Crown Heights increasingly hostile. Recent incidents like the cases of Eric Garner, and most recently the man from South Carolina, Walter Scott, and now the Baltimore Riots have all started a national dialogue on how police handle crime.

“I don’t know what the police are doing,” Sledgie said. “It’s all about changing the mindset and treating the violence like a disease, maybe we can save a few lives, and then there could be less [police] brutality.

As a younger, more naïve officer, Serpas also felt the divide between men in uniform and the community.

Phrases like “fighting crime” and the title of “crime fighters” for policemen feed a warrior mentality. Instead of battling crime, Serpas realized it was a disease that needed to be cured.

“Originally being a young man without a lot of education, I thought ‘these are the bad guys, we didn’t think much beyond that,” Serpas said. “As I became more educated, and had more practical experiences, I began to recognize clear history and violence is a much more complex phenomenon.”

People in the community of Crown Heights look up to those who identify with their struggle and have grown up on the same streets.

One of these individuals is a man in the community known as “The Godfather,” aka, Larry Curtis.

He may not have looked like Marlon Brando, but his role in the community was similar.

“This is real live shit that I’m spitting right here. I’m the godfather, I watch my hood, I make sure I let them know when they’re right I let them know when they’re wrong. These streets need leaders out here.”

In a red sweat suit and flatbill, he mirrored the younger kids in the neighborhood. There was only one thing that distinguished him from Sledgie and everyone else- his eyes.

Where Sledgie’s smile met his eyes, the Godfather lacked that meeting point. Life was drawn on his face, through the lines around the sockets of his eyes, and lack of expression around his mouth. Nothing surprised him anymore.

After going to jail for 15 years when he was 21 years old for involvement in a shooting, he came back with “street cred.”

Street credibility is a valuable currency in neighborhoods like Crown Heights. What each person chooses to do with it, can affect the community positively or negatively.

According to Sledgie, it can be your “greatest asset, or your greatest weakness.”

“My life stopped for a second. I put 30 years of work into these streets and 20 of it I spent in prison. But you see me clean from head to toe now,” the Godfather said. “Some of these kids are old enough to be my son, but I talk like them, dress like them, I can relate.”

There is no badge, or blue uniform.

Instead Sledgie and the Godfather wear what they have always worn since they first grew up on those streets. Their uniform is their identity, their experience.

This experience allows figures in the community like Sledgie and The Godfather to prevent crime and death in their neighborhood, not police.

“We out here with no vest, no gun, we just out here going off of what we know. We talking about high risk individuals, youngins comin up, getting shot, mothers crying.”

“This is real a disease out here,” Sledgie said. “That’s why I’m the street doctor.”

There is a cultural and personal divide between law enforcement and people like Sledgie. Even during his work as a violence interrupter, he is cautious to approach the side of the Kingston Avenue on which the police vans are usually stationed.

Serpas says this is a result of a lack of communication between law enforcement and community workers like violence interrupters.

“Both sides have to learn about one another’s duties. When I was Chief of Police in New Orleans, we had Cure violence. There was a period of learning what each other was doing,” Serpas said. “Certain policemen believe that in order to keep themselves safer, they need to combat violence aggressively and proactively or with negative reinforcement.”

NYPD could not be reached for comment, but community leaders and elected officials like Councilman Jumaane Williams, also recognize the critical work that violence interrupters do.

Councilman of the district of East Flatbush, the area has had incidents involving the police. In March 2013, unarmed black teenager, Kimani Gray, was shot and killed in East Flatbush.

Events like these are what keep Sledgie on the other side of the street when police are present.

“I am proud to stand with our anti-violence advocates to welcome GMACC to our neighborhood,” Williams said in a press release. “GMACC has been working as credible messengers to reduce violence and shootings among youth in our community.”

Although Chicago and New York are far in distance, the man who brought Cure violence from Chicago to New York, Marcus Mcall unites the initiative.

“We all under one umbrella, making changes in our neighborhood. We’re one big family,” Mcall said.

This family is not separated by who is in gangs, and who is not. Their community is one community, simply trying to prevent senseless shootings and killings.

“Nobody gets out of gang life. They will always be my family, but I’m trying to move forward now,” Sledgie said. “I feel good walking in my neighborhood, going from being the problem to being part of the solution makes it all the more better.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Sledgie adjusts his black and green flatbill to do a 360 survey of the infamous “Brower Park.”

The park, which used to be home to “one of the most vicious gangs” in Crown Heights, was also a breeding ground to some major athletes. Ten years ago, Sledgie wouldn’t dare to enter Brower territory.

Now, there were children playing on the playground, passing basketballs.

“This hood is now gentrified like a mother fucker,” Sledgie said.

Sledgie walks with ease along the path, which borders a playground.

As moms push their kids on the swing, they greet Sledgie playfully. Teenagers clasp his hand and embrace him.

They remember his past, but the community has allowed him to move forward.

In the distance, Kendrick Lamar rapped the same song of redemption.

So many motherfuckers wanna down me

But an enemigo never drown me

In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me

And I love myself.

Passing a church, Sledgie looks above at the cross above the door.

baby flower

“Only God can judge me for what [I’ve] done,” he declared.

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