Former CRS Mediator, New York and Washington, D.C. Offices; Associate Professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: I started out by working with street gangs. My early work started with working with gangs - trying to stop them from gang fighting, which was one of the principle activities they were involved in. I think that the work started out working in small neighborhoods then I went to the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, where I began working in regions and then across the country. My scope expanded both in terms of the unit of analysis, in terms of working with small members of gangs, interpersonal, in a small group, to larger community conflict in the Community Relations Service. Then I came to ICAR and began working internationally, working with groups who represented nations in a conflict, or large community groups that were in conflicts on an intranational basis. It's interesting I think that my work has expanded both in terms of the scope of the work, in the human dimensions I've worked with, but also in terms of the geographical scope.The political impact of the work has increased along with the scope.
Q: Where did you start, which gangs?
A: I began on the west side of New York working with the Young Sinners. That was the first gang I worked with. Later, I worked with another one, the Royal Bishops.
Q: What did you do with them? How did you start talking with them?
A: In those days, if it wasn't a prior youth worker, or street worker, working with them, you had to make what was called a cold contact. Going out to the territory that was controlled by the Young Sinners, which was between 106th St. and 110th St. on Columbus Ave. and Amsterdam Ave., in that part of lower Harlem as it were, the Upper West Side. Standing out in front of a pizza shop, which is where they used to hang out, for four or five days no one spoke to me. They just walked around me. I just kept eating pizza, so finally one of the guys walked up and said, "Who the hell are you?" After I told him, he said, "Why didn't you say something before then? We didn't know if you were a narc, an undercover police officer, we didn't know what you were. You could have declared yourself earlier." So that was how I broke in.
Q: A little lesson on entry there.
A: I suppose so.
Q: So what happened with those guys? Were they willing to listen to you? What did you say?
A: Well, it was a combination of things. They were fighting gangs, but it was at the point at which fighting gangs were about to phase out. This was in the early 60s, phasing out of being fighting gangs, and into drug gangs. So I entered right in that transition period. So my work was twofold. The easier part was to stop the gang fighting. Some of the negotiations between the groups were between the street club workers, not between the gang members themselves. I was mainly working with the gangs on an intra-gang approach, in terms of dealing with their attitudes and values. I tried getting them to see that there was life outside of the gangs, and life outside of their neighborhoods. Many of these kids at that time, really weren't that much younger than I was when I came out of college. I tried to show them that there was life outside of this five square block area that they occupied. Many of these kids had never left New York, and not only had the not left New York, they'd rarely left their neighborhood, because they couldn't afford it, and it wasn't safe. They had a kind of concept of threat that anything outside of their neighborhood was unknown, was "the other." It was us and "the other." They had interesting ways of defining it.
I'll never forget having a conversation with them one day, standing out on the corner and talking, which is what you spend a lot of your time doing, buying sodas, refreshments, and pizza, just talking. Somehow they got into a conversation about the world, and how they conceptualized themselves in the larger context of the world. They said there are three kinds of people, Puertoricanos, there are Morenos, and there are Americans. I said, "Americans?" They said, "Yeah, white people." I was dumbstruck that whites are the only people who are Americans, and blacks and Puerto Ricans were other kinds of people. It was incredible how they visualized the world, and how going out from the sense of themselves as being Puertoricanos was kind of an unknown territory. We went on a bus trip to a resort area in upstate New York, and the bus had to go through Central Harlem. They'd never been to Central Harlem. Central Harlem is conceptually, realistically just 10 blocks, or a half-mile north. They had never been across 110th St, which is the DMZ, and they're saying, "Morenos, morenos, morenos." Anyways, so that was the experience.
My time really was working, not stopping the fighting, they didn't gang fight all of the time, a lot of it was just show, flashing weapons. I can actually think of the six years I worked with street gangs, there were only three or four occasions when I actually experienced, or was seen, anywhere around a gang fight. A gang fight, not like West Side Story, actually lasts 15 seconds. Someone starts shooting, everyone starts ducking and running, and then it's over. That's it. So there's not much you can do once the stuff goes down, because it happens so quickly. Most of my time was spent counseling, really trying to work with the leadership of the gangs. Subsequently, we realized that our approach was a mistake, because these were very hierarchical gangs with a president, vice-president, war councilor, and so forth. If you could turn the leadership around, which meant getting jobs, changing the mindset of the leadership, you could affect the whole gang. Typically what tended to happen, if you were able to do this, if you turned the leadership around, they would be siphoned off, and the gang would be headless. Since the gang was a form of community and family, in affect what you did was destroy the family. So you saved a few kids, but you didn't do anything for the rest of the membership. I think that was a mistake, our approach was perhaps not the best way to deal with this issue. So that was that.