A Hunger to Live: The Struggle to Interrupt the Cycle of Violence | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Hunger to Live: The Struggle to Interrupt the Cycle of Violence

Several members of the “Undivided” crew told their story recently in Sheppards Park in the Washington Addition. From left: Monterius Griffin, Jordan Alexander, Steffon Butler, John Knight, Stephen Butler and Jay McChristian.

Several members of the “Undivided” crew told their story recently in Sheppards Park in the Washington Addition. From left: Monterius Griffin, Jordan Alexander, Steffon Butler, John Knight, Stephen Butler and Jay McChristian. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

This is Part 1 of the Preventing Violence series.

Before he walked to Jim Hill High School each day, senior Stephen Butler would gather up a sack of weed and pills—bars, tabs, Percocet—to sell to other students. Once he got there with his product, though, his customers had to follow his strict business rules.

If Stephen was sitting in class, they couldn't tap on the glass in the door to get his attention or do anything to distract him from being able to graduate in 2015. His identical twin, Steffon, had made it out with his diploma the year before, and Stephen was determined to follow suit in a community where most young men were lucky if they got a GED or stayed out of prison and where about every boy they knew had been through the youth detention center.

"See me in the courtyard," Stephen told fellow students anxious to get high.

During breaks, he waited outside the school named for a self-taught former slave. Jim Hill, a good friend of anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells, won the office of Mississippi secretary of state back during Reconstruction when the Addition was still called Gowdy—the first and last time the state has had black statewide elected officials in its mostly separate-and-unequal history.

Sitting on a bench outside the perpetually underfunded school with more than 98 percent black students, most eligible for free lunches, Stephen managed to run his business, selling weed and pills to other kids stuck in a similar generational cycle of destruction.

It was easy to get the product. Outside suppliers have long flooded the small neighborhood with illicit and lucrative drugs as they have black neighborhoods for decades; dealing has long been the Addition's most consistent industry. Since the twins were little boys, dealers had offered to buy poor youngsters sneakers or give them money for a hamburger to get them hooked on the potential fruits of the drug trade.

"If older dudes you look up to ain't trying to show you the right way, you gone catch bad habits, there ain't no way about that," Stephen said. "... Growing up in the community, you see a lot of drug dealers ... and want to be just like them. "You feel like it cool," Steffon interjected.

"He cool, why can I can't do it. He in the hood selling drugs, why can't I sell drugs?" Stephen said.

"Drug dealers were the role models," Steffon added. "That's all I grew up on, seeing drug dealers come around you. They show you they money just to get you under them and get you to live that lifestyle they living, you know what I'm saying."

By his senior year in high school—farther than many young men in the Addition ever got—Stephen was selling the contents of the paper bag to survive, while his brother was in jail and his childhood mentor who had pushed him to stay in school was in prison the third time for selling drugs.

It was the only way through, Stephen thought then.

A Honeybun for Dinner

The Butler twins had started selling drugs when they were 17 because they needed to eat and have a place to live, and it was the only obvious way for teenagers to make money in their neighborhood. Their mother had always tried to provide for them as they grew up on Florence Street in the Addition just south of Jackson State University, where she walked to work as a janitor. But she drank a lot, they say, and had a hard time keeping it together. As children, their best shot at getting a decent meal was the food stamps their mother collected, but she sometimes had to sell them to keep the lights on in the small house.

Their father was in and out of their lives, often sharing whatever money and food they had, but couldn't keep a job. Home life was stressful; the boys first ended up in the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Detention Center when they were 12 or 13 for "disturbing the family peace." The first time, they had to stay for a day or two, the next time for 21 days, they remember. They still talk about the good, filling meals there, though.

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JPD Chief Lee Vance said Mississippi law makes it near impossible to reduce gun violence.

By the time the twins were in high school, they often had to "find a hustle" to help find the $40 to pay each day so the two of them, their older brother, their mother and often their father could stay another 24 hours in the Regency Inn nearby on U.S. Highway 80. There, off and on for three years, they all crowded into a room with two double beds and a sofa each night for a time. The boys often stayed out and walked all night until it was time for school, sometimes hungry, always "scruffing," they call it.

Their grandmama, who lived nearby, would fill them up with cornbread dressing about four days a week—meaning the meal soon lost its holiday charm for them—or they would go to the corner store and get a pack of liver cheese and put it on a piece of light bread, and "be good with that," Steffon says now.

"Half the time we'd eat a honeybun for dinner, man," Stephen interjects while sitting atop a picnic table in Sheppard Brothers Park near Jim Hill, his face scrunched up at the memory. Or they would survive by splitting a can of sardines and a handful of saltines. Sometimes, they would beg for food at Boston's Fish Supreme on Lynch Street or to the manager of Stamp's Superburger on Dalton. "A lot of nights he gave us hamburgers and fries, and fed us. He understands what we going through," Stephen said.

The twins had to wash their clothes in the sink just to "look presentable," as Steffon put it. Their family didn't have transportation to get to a job outside the area, they say; besides, they didn't know how to get and keep jobs, especially with a juvy record and no Internet access.

The twins understand that their family didn't provide well for them, but they also understand that they faced similar challenges as kids. "My mama was not there like she's supposed to be ... but we ain't let that come between us. ... She did what she could do. ... We had to learn that life is tough early," Steffon said.

Selling drugs was not their only criminal activity. When he was 17, Stephen decided to go to Northpark Mall and steal some clothes so they wouldn't "be looking like a nobody" at school, especially around the girls. Steffon didn't want to go, so his twin stole clothes for both of them. Stephen soon went back and tried it again—and was arrested. "He got greedy," Steffon says.

Steffon had graduated from Jim Hill in 2014, but within months he was in jail on an armed-robbery charge, accused of stealing a purse and a phone from a Jackson State student outside the nearby Walter Payton Center where they liked to play basketball. JSU cops got a report that it was the "twins" who did it, picking up both of them. Steffon says he finally copped to the crime because he wanted Stephen to graduate, and it was clear it would be put on one of them. He was booked into the Raymond jail.

Unable to afford bond, Steffon says he stayed there for seven months without a trial before a public defender helped get the charges dropped due to lack of evidence. It was rough there, he says, and the food was terrible: The water was brown, and he even found a bug in his spaghetti one day. "I don't want no black brother to go through that," he said. "... If you ain't got no strong mind, it'll get to you."

Steffon's picture and personal information is still visible on multiple mugshot websites, listing the armed-robbery felony charge, but not that it was dropped. "It messed up my mind and my record, and I go on the Internet every day I think about it. ... I feel like my life ain't worth nothing no more because I feel like a criminal. ... They still got my picture on there for something I didn't do; I think about that every day. It hurt me, man."

It wasn't supposed to be like this for the twins. Although not super-tall—they are about 5-foot-8—the two boys had been rising stars in basketball, Stephen a point-guard and Steffon a shooting guard. 
 While still at Blackburn Middle School, they played in tournaments in Arkansas, Texas and New Orleans. They believed they were going to escape the stifling poverty and hopelessness of the Addition with NBA stardom, then come back and help their mother and friends, even if they had to sometimes steal the sneakers they played ball in.

Instead of basketball stardom, they ended up members of the Vice Lords, a now-more-watered-down version of a tough street gang founded in Chicago, and took on the "hood mentality" of most of the role models around them, as they call it. That meant embracing what seemed like the fast and easy money of drug dealing in a world with few options and people who expected young black men to end up in jail or dead.

Their mother's family, who had escaped the Addition, didn't want to have anything to do with them, they say.

"The situation that we were in, they thought that we were gone be in jail. They thought we wasn't going to graduate, we weren't going to prosper," Stephen says.

Their choices, and a worsening relationship with their basketball coach at Jim Hill, got them kicked off the team when Steffon was a junior and Stephen a sophomore.

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Shanduke McPhatter is a former New York Blood who is now a “violence interruptor.” He and members of his organization Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, all former gang members, help young people avoid a life of crime using the “Cure Violence” model. Photo courtesy Andrew Lichtenstein

The scene was set for Stephen and Steffon Butler to become just another statistic, another set of mugshots of "thugs" leading the evening news, two more young black men who end up in Parchman with people disparaging them on social media and in vicious comments under news stories and on neighborhood websites.

But, now 21 with no felony convictions, they are trying to break the chains of their upbringing. It's not easy, and much of the world may not think it's probable if they even bother to care, but at least these two young men are not going it alone.

'I Want to Be a Good Person'

"How you doing, sir?"

Stephen Butler had just jumped off the picnic table at Sheppard Brothers Park and grabbed the hand of Jackson Free Press photographer Imani Khayyam to show us the man he hopes to become: a restaurateur and land owner who wears a "clean tuxedo" to greet important clients. He was solemn as he shook Imani's hand, looking his new acquaintance in the eye and choosing his diction carefully as his twin and friends laughed at this version of a young man who likes to wear his Jordans, big glittery rings, large gold posts in his ears and round glasses under his bucket hat that matches his brother's.

He dropped Imani's hand and then made motions more stereotypical of a young black man growing up in the Addition. "I don't want to come to you (like), 'What's up with you, man, what's going on?' I don't want to be that type of man, you know," Stephen said quietly as he sat back on the table next to me. "I want to be"—he paused—"a good person. I just want to help, you know."

The twins were hanging out in the park late on a recent Friday afternoon with their mentor John Knight, 39, and their "brothers" from the Addition, two of them 17 and two 19, to talk about their new movement.

All used to identify with the local Vice Lords' "9s" subset —a brotherhood the twins say is now focused on being "righteous" men who eschew criminal activity—and all of them have been in the juvenile-detention center and some arrested more than once. As they talked, small children ran past through the vivid spring-green grass to hop on the new-looking playground equipment. Jim Hill was visible to the southeast.

Knight and his mentees all wore black T-shirts with a gold "Undivided" logo on the front. The only exception was the 17-year-old rapper who showed up in the middle of the conversation wearing a colorful California shirt under a gray hoodie and looking at us suspiciously until he decided maybe we really did want to tell their whole story and not just brand them hopeless thugs like they're used to.

"You gone get our story out there and let everybody know our pain or something?" the minor, who asked to be identified as Zeakyy, suddenly asked, silencing the group's laughter.

Ceasefire in the City?

How Police Can (and Cannot) Deter Gunfire

"Yes, if that's alright with you," I responded quietly.

Zeakyy, who raps about instances no juvenile or adult should go through, gave the go-ahead in his rapid cadence: "Yeah, so they know what's going on, the persuasion of doing the things we do, so they won't be judging about what they hear, what the news tells them."

A tribute to "Sammy"—their friend killed in a February shooting on Fontaine Avenue in the Virden Addition—is in red print on the backs of the shirts around praying hands: "RIP LIL SAMMY AKA YUNG NIGGA." Red, black and gold are traditional Vice Lords colors.

When we had arrived, a casually dressed Mayor Tony Yarber stood talking to them as his bodyguard watched. It was only marginally surprising: Knight, a former prominent drug dealer who grew up in the Addition, had been making the rounds, lobbying the mayor, city councilmen and even the police chief to help him build a local movement to save young men in the city.

Yarber told me later that Knight is famous in the city for his crimes. "If you lived in Jackson growing up, you know, you knew John Knight's name." He and his crew "ran the streets," the mayor said. After Yarber became mayor, Knight approached him for help with his mission to redirect younger people. "He told me, 'Mayor, you run the city. The chief runs the police, we run the streets.' He's right. The bottom line is that at the end of the day, if the killings are going to stop, it's going to happen because people like John are able to put hands on it and stop this stuff. To me, he's a resource I'm trying to use."

He's not sure just how to use him, yet, however.

After Knight left his third stint in prison a couple years back, he started a nonprofit, Jackson Cares Inc., and wants help to put the young men to work cleaning up their own neighborhoods, cutting the grass in the empty lots, picking up trash, washing cars.

"I have a building I want over there," Knight said, pointing the direction of Valley and Booker streets, where he wants to open a barbershop so the young men can have a place to hang out, work and wash cars. "We can fix it up, cut the water on, but it takes money to do that."

Knight, a tall, confident man with muscular, tattoo-covered arms, towers above all the young mentees around the picnic table.

"Without a penny in my pocket, this is what I've been doing for years," he said, explaining that he urged the next generations to avoid a life of crime even as he had modeled one since he was 14, which led to a pill overdose, being shot six times and a total of eight and a half years in Parchman and working on the Hinds County farm.

"Even when I was out in the streets dealing drugs, I always had them young cats that I didn't want to sell drugs." He looked left and right at the young men sitting in a line along the picnic table with him in the middle. "I don't want y'all to do this."

The mentor is a natural motivational speaker—everything Knight says is quotable—and he clearly has long had that way with words; at least some of it stuck to the young men sitting around him who grew up alongside some of his own 13 children, even if they didn't manage to keep their noses spotless after they heard the advice. As cool as these young men come across, they are not rolling their eyes at their elder the way some young, cynical gangsters do the "old cats" who come home after doing time.

Just the opposite.

Even when Knight is not listening, the Undivided members tell you how the ex-con fills a void no one else ever would or could or even wanted to fill for them.

'29 Years of Pain'

"Before he started coming around, I was like straight-up bull, B.S.," Monterius "Mon" Griffin, 19, told me later the same day, standing outside Knight's mother's house on Hill Street, across the street from the Lincoln cemetery.

Griffin grew up in the Addition, but moved to south Jackson where he dropped out of Wingfield High School. He has his GED now, but still no job.

It probably doesn't help that an online search of his name pops up his mugshot on multiple sites, listing three misdemeanors for a recent arrest for marijuana possession, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a citation—the kinds of crimes that any self-respecting white frat guy has likely committed without an ominous Google trail.

Knight is helping Griffin believe he can go straight, though. "He showed me nothing but righteousness. Led me in the right way," he said of his mentor.

Griffin also has a serious health condition. "Like, right now, I got one kidney and kidney disease," he said. "I was supposed to have lost weight so I could be better." He wasn't taking care of his health until Knight showed back up, he said. "Man, if it wasn't for him, I'd be still around here eating, chilling, doing all types of stuff. I've been working out, losing weight, man, I'm been doing better."

"That's the whole purpose," Knight interjected.

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After going to prison three times, John Knight attended Jackson State and Virginia College. He now is determined to interrupt the violence in the Washington Addition.

The mentor pointed to a mostly quiet Jay McChristian, 19, who grew up on Washington Avenue and dropped out of Jim Hill, but is now getting his GED at Knight's urging. Jordan Alexander, 17, is still enrolled at Jim Hill and plans to graduate next year—or face the wrath of Knight. Alexander has no living parents in his life—his mother died when he was 12—but Knight said he checks constantly to see if he's in school.

"Every day. I hunt his ass down. He better be there," Knight said.

It's hard for Alexander, though, who still clearly mourns the loss of his mother and then his grandfather, leaving his grandma in the Addition as his only safety net.

And his grandmother can't provide much: He and his best friend and rap partner Zeakyy have been hungry together. "We were out walking out here and couldn't even find a penny on the ground to go half on something to eat," Alexander said.

The boy's anger kept growing until Knight walked up to him one day, grabbed him by his shoulder and said, "Brother, that ain't the way you want to go. The way you living, you gone end up dead or in the penitentiary." Knight convinced him to apologize to his grandmother and other people he's hurt by cussing and arguing with them.

"That's why me and my brother rap; everything we say, it come from the heart," Alexander said of his best friend Zeakyy.

"We ain't dead. We rapping about life, what we done seen, what we done been through."

Young people in the Addition and similar neighborhoods fall into crime because few people are showing them or expecting anything different, said Knight, who dropped out of Jim Hill himself in 1995 and was behind Parchman bars by January 1996. Several generations have come in there "not taught how to care, not taught what real love felt like." Those young people then don't miraculously turn into good, loving, stable parents.

"I didn't have nothing but drug dealers to look up to, gang leaders," Knight said. "I didn't have no positive role models to look up to. None of my mama's boyfriends."

Knight considers the twins' loss of basketball stardom as a personal failure that his own vices caused even though he had long pushed them to stay focused and avoid the streets. "I went to prison and lost them," he said, looking at them. "Because nobody else was out here. They was too caught in that drug life and the hype."

"Big Brother," as the young men often call Knight, understands that hunger for food, as well as love and belonging, is a basic reality of many kids growing up in the Addition. It has been for generations with some parents working two or three jobs with others absent, in prison, dead, or strung out on the drugs that make outside suppliers very wealthy even as it destroys poor neighborhoods and creates unhealthy relationships with law enforcement.

Coming Home to the Washington Addition

A mother struggles, but helps steer her son to help other young men.

Like many "inner-city" areas, the Addition's families were first officially and then unofficially segregated by racism into an area with poor services and minimal job opportunities, with residents traditionally blocked from wealth-building by discriminatory lending practices, making it difficult to buy homes. Many of them then, and now, still rent from slumlords; the rows of small houses are punctuated by dilapidated, boarded-up houses that look more like garbage piles than homes, neglected by owners from outside the Addition.

"A lot of people was poor," Knight said simply as the young men listened intently, often nodding. "I got tired of being poor, and I got out on these streets."

Then he could buy everyone else hamburgers, hotdogs and fries, or ice cream at school. He and others would hang out at the decades-old Dairy Bar on Valley Street, a place black people could go when they weren't allowed at white ice-cream stores. It became the site of violence over the years by armed men hanging out and settling drug disputes and personal beefs, letting their anger turn violent because they hadn't been passed down another way to live.

"That was worse than being poor, man," Knight said of his criminal lifestyle. "It was 26 years of pain I brought on myself and my neighborhood," he added.

Stopping the Virus

Shanduke McPhatter is the John Knight of Brooklyn, N.Y., or one of them.

Once holding the rank of OG (original gangster) of the early New York Bloods, McPhatter is now 38 and the founder and CEO of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, or G-MACC.

He walks the streets of East Flatbush with a bit of a determined swagger, bumping shoulders with young people not even half his age on streets long known as some of New York City's most dangerous. Following the man once revered as Trife Gangsta—who did two bids in state prison and was locked up for over a year for a murder another man finally confessed to—means passing makeshift altars to men lost to gun violence.

Late one chilly night in December 2015, an altar at the corner of Church Avenue and East 54th Street burned hot with myriad lit candles, surrounded by 19 empty Hennessey bottles in honor of victim Darnell Faustin's spirit of choice. The 30-year-old was shot in the chest at 4 a.m.; a decade earlier, he was accused of the armed robbery of a 16-year-old in a subway station.

McPhatter said Faustin was best friends with the brother of Kimani "Kiki" Gray, a 16-year-old NYPD officers had killed back in 2013, with some of the bullets entering through his back. Police say he had a weapon; many locals including McPhatter believe the cops planted the gun. A memorial to Gray is nearby, with candles burning daily.

I first had seen the shrine to Kiki on a stressful Saturday night six months earlier. Then, McPhatter walked down Church surrounded by young men distraught over the murder of Jamel Brown, 26, who was gunned down the night before on nearby East 52nd Street.

As he walked, McPhatter explained how "violence interrupters" like him are vital right after a murder goes down: Every death is a tragic loss with the potential to devastate loved ones, even to the point of retaliation. They must use the trust they've worked to instill with those who knew the victim, maybe some of those around the Kiki shrine in May, to stop them from hunting down the shooters for revenge. Walking and talking are better than retaliation.

Dr. Gary Slutkin is the guru behind the "Cure Violence" approach that McPhatter and others in New York City carry out, as well as dozens more paid violence interrupters in a couple dozen U.S. cities—the same one Knight seems to be drawn to organically here in Jackson. Slutkin told me that one study showed that interrupters, if well-trained, will prevent a retaliation 100 percent of the time. And every murder prevented means the resulting chain of retaliation stops. "I don't know if it's 10 or 70 events that wouldn't happen" as a result of one intervention, Slutkin said.

Slutkin is a medical doctor and epidemiology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Public School of Health. He specializes in stopping viruses from spreading—and his strategy for changing violent behavior is an extremely effective public-health approach supported by public powerhouses like the Centers for Disease Control when executed well. And, by design, it's completely outside the criminal-justice system. The idea that criminal behavior is changed by fear of punishment, he said, is scientifically unsound. "Those are old ideas; these ideas are not correct. Punishment is not the way to change behavior," he said.

McPhatter emphatically agrees with him. "I don't care how many ways you try to flip it: Locking up is not bringing down gun violence; you're just locking up people until the next people pick up the guns. We're showing a method of change: preventing and changing the mindset, giving people a different way of life," he said.

Men like McPhatter and Knight, who have shared the destructive hunger of young people like the Butler twins, are uniquely positioned to gain trust and interrupt that behavior, thus stopping it from spreading, Slutkin said. But, he warned, training and resources are vital. Slutkin's message to Knight? "God bless you," he said. "I have a picture of (Knight) in my mind because we've run across wonderful, heroic, smart, accomplished, strategic, dedicated, caring people like him everywhere we go. It's wonderful."

But, Slutkin added more to his message to Knight. "There's more to do than you can do. There needs to be probably a few dozen of you. Two, it might be you should get a check for this. ... You can't depend on volunteers." Plus, serious training—in teamwork, reframing, and dealing with various types of conflict, whether over girls, money, turf or insults—is necessary even for a dynamic man like Knight who seems to get it and believe that his heart and brain will make it happen, the doctor said.

"Here you have a worker who is self-appointed trying to be helpful ... and out of the goodness of his heart or even experience, he may be effective," Slutkin said of Knight. "It isn't going to be enough. It sounds like the city is missing the structure around him, and enough of him."

Shoot-out on Valley Street

During his last year at Jim Hill High School, Stephen Butler was standing outside the barbershop on Hill Street in the Addition, waiting to get his hair cut. Suddenly, he heard a commotion between two guys.

One was in a car, the other on foot standing near Stephen.

Suddenly the standing one pulled a gun out. "I'll shoot up your car!" he yelled.

The man in the car then moved forward, and the driver pulled out his chopper—an AK-47—and started spraying into the crowd. People ran different directions, and Stephen jumped into the barbershop along with the guy who had stood near him with a gun.

"You started all this," Stephen told him. 
 "You gone get innocent people killed."

Back at the picnic tables in Sheppards Park, this time without Knight and the other young men there, the twins said the Addition is flooded with guns.

"Lots of guns," Stephen emphasized.

Growing up, both of them saw many people get shot, often over females, money or drugs, they said. And many people carry guns for protection in the Addition. "People take what you got," Stephen said.

In fact, the big difference between Jackson and the city McPhatter patrols is that New York City has strong gun-control laws, and Mississippi and other southern states are so liberal about who can own and carry guns that many violent crimes in New York and Chicago are committed by firearms bought in gun stores and pawn shops down south and brought illegally into northern cities.

Put another way, the young adult men G-MACC tries to influence in East Flatbush cannot legally own guns; the twins can legally carry firearms as long as they don't get a felony conviction.

Lee Vance, the Jackson police chief, said the flood of legal and illegal weapons makes it hard for police to control gun violence, although they try. Vance said the Legislature won't even give police the right to charge someone with a felony for firing a gun inside the city limits. "Because right now it's a misdemeanor. Right? If I caught somebody out there just firing a gun into the air ... right now it's a misdemeanor," he told me last summer in his downtown office. All the gunshots, he said, cause "fear and discomfort" even when they don't result in injury.

About the shooters, he added, "We've got to find a way to turn these people around or impact them to go in another direction."

Last year, for about six months, the City of Jackson and Hinds County tried a popular law-enforcement strategy originally designed to lower gun violence, thus its official name Operation Ceasefire. The local version, which former Sheriff Tyrone Lewis instigated, according to Vance and Yarber, ended up being called the ominous-sounding MACE, for "Metro Area Crime Elimination," and it kicked off last year after breathless local media coverage of it "kicking crime to the curb."

The Operation Ceasefire approach, popularized in the 1990s after a successful stint in Boston, aims to bring a smarter, more modern style of policing to gang and gun violence than the old-school way of massive enforcement by flooding communities like the Addition with police officers stopping anybody who looks like they might commit a crime.

The program, originally designed by a team including writer-turned-renowned-criminology-professor, David Kennedy, is considered more progressive because it adds what is often called a "carrot" to the tough stick of arrest.

The idea is the local police, sheriff and district attorney join with the feds, including the FBI, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. attorney's office, to identify members of gangs they believe may commit violence.

They then "call in" a variety of gang members to a meeting with those agencies, as well as representatives of social-service groups who may be able to help the young men (they're the "carrot").

They then sit the young men, some minors, in the middle of the room, and the adults surround them. In a recent call-in in New York City—the city now funds both Operation Ceasefire and Cure Violence approaches, although they employ antithetical prevention approaches—all the agencies talked to the young men, threatening them with arrest, federal conspiracy charges and imprisonment in another state away from their families if anyone in their group committed gun violence.

The call-ins end with the "Voice of Pain"—usually the mother of a young man lost to violence—and the young men get cards with a number to call if they need services, such as help getting their GED.

At one point in New York's recent January call-in, a young gang member raised his hand to say something, but the young men weren't allowed to speak. When I asked the members of Knight's "Undivided" group what they thought of being threatened into avoiding violence and not allowed to say anything, they all looked disgusted.

"They do me like that, I wouldn't like that," McChristian said.

"Me being a child, it don't help me," Griffin added. "I feel like if they come to you in a positive way, they come to you and talk to you like a man instead of demanding you, you will understand."

"It's weird. How you gone get his understanding?" McChristian said. "You gotta know how he feels about his story."

But here in Jackson, that call-in never happened, Vance said. Neither did the social services. The resources weren't there.

"While we did the enforcement piece pretty well, the other pieces did not get developed," Vance said last year.

Mayor Yarber was straightforward that the program wasn't executed as it was designed to be, even after his administration and others made a "grand announcement" about the program's potential. "Well, I think a couple of real important pieces were missing," he said. That included "social development after we went in and cleaned up the neighborhoods." That is, the carrot. In addition, he said, "we didn't do as good a job as we should have on data collection."

MACE ended up being another version of multi-agency massive enforcement. Even though it didn't directly target the Addition, the "Undivided" guys remember a big police push there last year.

"They came eight weeks straight every day, for like four hours," McChristian said.

"They locked up a lot of those little guys I had up under me," Knight added. "They just went crazy. They was locking them up."

Driving me through the 2nd Precinct in his black SUV early the evening of April 15, Vance pulled up at the Big Boys Food Mart on Ellis Avenue near Jane Street to watch an enforcement action.

A DART—Direct Action Response Team—officer had pulled over an SUV. As we sat there, no fewer than seven cars filled the parking lot behind the SUV, lights flashing, but the officer just talked to the driver.

"They all roll together," Vance said of the DART cops who travel between precincts watching for trouble spots, rather than responding to calls for service.

"There are a lot of people that have mixed feelings about when they see seven cars show up at a traffic spot, right? Actually, it's a good thing. We got this many cops out here, there's a far less probability that something's bad going to happen. Somebody may be inside that vehicle that may be thinking about fighting, running or shooting at the police. You see these many people out there; they're not going to be thinking about that as much. The odds are stacked against them."

Vance told me it's important to have a "proactive" show of force, whether flashing blue lights in parking lots or what he called the "MACE-like strategy" that the "Undivided" guys noticed in the Addition to deal with gunfire and open-air drug dealing. That is, be there with lights blazing to send the message that crime isn't acceptable.

The chief also points to a sharp drop in crime in the 2nd Precinct in the last two years that he believes came from that increased enforcement in the area.

But Knight believes more grass-roots efforts such as his are leading to the lower crime rates and making the Addition feel like a safer place.

Certainly, I haven't felt threatened driving through, sitting in the park or standing in front of houses talking to residents in recent months.

"That's because of what we're doing," Knight said. If they hear about a problem, they try to defuse it. "We load up and gone go see what the problem is. ... We're policing our own neighborhood without violence. The police come to make a name for themselves. Some of them do. I ain't gone say all of them do," he said.

Knight's concern about the police wanting or taking credit for all crime drops, no matter what efforts are happening on the ground in those communities, is a massive sticking point for McPhatter in New York and other violence interrupters who believe that status-quo enforcement methods actually make conditions worse and are anything but proactive.

Plus, they say, it's vital for beleaguered community people to start believing that they have the power themselves to stop the crime virus, and not rely on the police who are too often disrespectful to residents.

"There are so many naysayers, those who never support us, always looking at negatives. Our work counts the positives. We document everything we do," McPhatter told me in December inside G-MACC. Unlike the police, he added, "we're not getting promotions for saving lives. We want those in our community to see that there's another method, another way to deal with gun violence, to prove them through our numbers.

"Listen, this is proof that this is possible. If you're trying to take away that from us, what do we have to show those that are coming up, those we want to change, that this is an effective method?" the Blood-turned-CEO added.

'I Want Them to Be Better'

The Butler twins, with the help of one of their girlfriends' tax check, recently could afford to get their used white Honda out of the shop after several months. Now they can use it to get to their jobs at Waste Management, where they have worked for three months, making $500 a week each.

But they hadn't had the car on the street for a week when they got pulled over on Raymond Road for an expired tag. They told the officer they thought they had 30 days to replace it, but he wasn't having it, they said. The cop made them get out. "Get your ass on the ground," he told them.

‘Police vs. Black’: Bridging the ‘Racialized Gulf’

The divide between police and black communities is about more than white cops.

As they sat with their hands on their head, the officer talked about the "Undivided" shirts he had found in their trunk after searching it. "Y'all sell drugs in these shirts," he said, per the twins. "This is a gang shirt."

"I don't sell no drugs, man," Stephen said he responded.

None of the "Undivided" young men I spoke to—Knight says there are about 25 total—trust the police, and all say most officers have long treated them disrespectfully, even when they were little kids screwing up. This disrespect of troubled young people is so ingrained into policing in America that the NYPD's new post-Eric Garner "Smart Policing" training includes basic kindness skills, asking them not to cuss the people they serve or arrest or call them "scumbags" or "assholes."

When I sat in on one of those trainings, I listened to instructors tactfully explain that such disrespect erodes trust, especially in communities of color where troubled young people are routinely treated as criminals. Then, even when they try to go straight, they prefer to avoid the police.

For instance, an officer caught Monterius Griffin, the 19-year-old with one kidney, breaking into his school "back when I was real, real young," he said.

"That man literally slapped me about four times in my face," he continued. "If I seen him today, I'd know who that officer is. I never pressed charges on him, but I don't appreciate officers who put their hands on kids, period."

Griffin said a different officer in the Addition has slapped him and threatened him with a gun before as well.

"I don't like polices, period," Griffin told me on Hill Street.

That fact, shared by probably every young person in the Addition, doesn't help the problem of residents opting to take self-defense into their own hands instead of asking the police for help, a reticence that can spill over to older adults who fear abuse of young law breakers, and increase the body count. "I don't even like to call them, period," Griffin added.

Knight looked at me as Griffin talked. "That's bad, ain't it?" he said.

"I feel more safer calling him," Zeakyy said, motioning toward his mentor, "and letting him come help me before the police. Police might change sides on me. I'd be the victim; I'd end up going to jail."

Griffin's attention then turned to his Big Brother. "We need more people like him in every 'hood," he said.

For now, Knight wants his barbershop, more lawn mowers, fuel and community support so he can help these young men. He points to the twins. "They 21; it ain't over for them. They still got years to go back to college," Knight said. "What I'm trying to do now is work them back in shape, keep their minds focused on being something better than what their father was, what their uncle was, better than their role model—me."

"I want them to be better than me. I don't want them to be equal to me," Knight added, looking at the young men.

This is the first part of a "Preventing Violence" reporting project, supported by a John Jay College of Criminal Justice fellowship and a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. The project will appear at jfp.ms/preventingviolence as it unfolds. Additional reporting in New York by Donna Airoldi.


Zeakyy, 17 Aspiring rapper

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"The news, you know, they always say things in the way they want to put it. To make us look bad, to make them look good, whatever it's for, but that what the news do, see. Like me personally, I don't respect the news, I see the news all on Facebook, Instagram, people commenting (about) all them dumb kids out there ... they don't know life, know our struggle; they don't know ... what drove him to go do this, do that. They just thinking we just supposed to be born perfect, we supposed to just have role models in our life when there ain't no fathers. Some kids I know, my best friends, ain't got mothers. This stuff harder than what it just seems. Like rappers rap about it make it seem all good and all of that. It ain't like that, ain't sweet like that, you don't go out here and make a hundred thousand dollars by selling drugs; it ain't go like that. You struggle. ... I just want to let it be known that, so, cause I get tired of being misjudged, being looked at like that. They don't know. ... We in school, your teacher, your principal make you feel like you ain't gone graduate when you know you're trying; they make you feel like what's the purpose? Go out of high school, leave, they don't want you there. That's how they make us feel. ... Yeah, we had it bad our whole life, we done seen money, but we seen even more struggle, even more pain, all that man, people don't know that, main, they just go by what they hear. ... Some people might grow up and all their stuff get took. Their whole life, everything they had got took. They feel like they want to take it back. They gotta go take their whole life back then, boom, they in jail doing time, 30, 40 years because nobody ever told them that ain't what you gotta do. You should stay in school and get you a job, little brother, and I'll help you out. ... Know what they tell them? You gone be dead, you done be in jail one day. Look at you now, pants all off your butt, pull 'em up. ... Inspire you to do bad. This stuff crazy, man. This is a whole different life out here."

Stephen Butler, 21 Graduated Jim Hill, 2015

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Stephen Butler (left) and Steffon Butler (right)

"I want to start a business. I want restaurants in every state. ... I like to eat. I love money, too, though. I want to have restaurants in every state, every city ... I want to rent houses, I want to buy land. I just want to live the right way. I want to be a good businessman. When I come and greet you and meet you, I want to have on a clean tuxedo. I don't want to be dressing like I been dressing all my life. When I approach you (he got up and shook Imani Khayyam's hand), "How you doing, sir?" (all laughing) I don't want to come to you, "what's up with you, man, what's going on?" I don't want to be that type of man, you know. I want to be (pauses) a good person. I just want to help, you know. ... I want to come back to the community, uplift the community, start a foundation, give back to the kids, that I wish when I was a kid I would've got. I want to build them houses, I want it right. ... I want to help the little kids, get 'em book bags, get ' em bikes, help the people who be at stores begging for money. ... I want to be able to go in my pocket and says here's a hundred dollars, man. That's what type of person I want to be. I want my heart bigger than everybody else's heart. When I was coming up, I ain't have people giving me money. My own family were against me and my brother. The situation that we were in they thought that we were gone be in jail. They thought we wasn't gone graduate, we weren't gone prosper."

Steffon Butler, 21 Graduated Jim Hill, 2014

"When I was young, guys like John Knight, even though he know we see him do those things, he still motivated us to go to school and do something right, or go play basketball. We had a talent, me and my twin brother, in basketball, we could've made it, but the decision we made had caused us not to make it. But everybody got to learn from their mistakes so like they say nobody ain't perfect. We just got to strive to uplift one another, we got to strive just to be the best, you know what I'm saying. We ain't never too late, we all just got to keep maintaining. We learn every day. When I was young, I used to want to be a doughboy and all that; I used to see all the guys they G'd up, they looking good. I used to want that because I'm a child, and I'm seeing this around me, and I want the same thing, but I had to. The guys who were older than us ... used to explain us that we gone have our chance, just don't rush it. ... I've seen crackheads, I've seen dope fiends, I seen my uncle smoke dope in front of me, I seen all this. I'd seen drug dealers and meth drug dealers. I've seen guys try to influence me to do what they doing. I also seen the good. 'Man, you don't gotta be around me to do what I do, man, just be yourself'; I seen that in my lifetime, so it really helped me just become a man, and I respect that now at my age. ... At the age of 21, I've got more to live so I need to stay focused and humble."

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