The Streets - August 2009

a column by Paulette Lewis


“These Stars Are Gangsta”"G." a mentee

“You’re comin’ to my funeral, right?” he says.

Oh, my goodness. What a horrible thing to assume. The young man standing before me seems determined to die by the age of 21. Why not? When people in the ‘hood are taking cash bets on whether you will get killed or end up in prison, then you know things are serious.

When I first met this young man – I’ll call “G.” – he was 16 and terrorizing an entire community. In all honesty, I have not encountered anyone before or since that was so full of rage and capable of such physical violence. He didn’t need a gun. If he could get his hands on you, it was going to be devastating and painful. I met him through my bodyguard “J.” and we just clicked. He was immediately like family to me. (He jokes that he only liked me because I was nice enough to give him a ride that day and that I got his name right when most people didn’t).

I quickly realized that he was intelligent, proper in his speech, polite, and absolutely loved my mother and father. He seemed to have a very genuinely caring side. He and J. were very close, so I automatically started being around him a lot. I have to admit, the first few times I saw G. fight was scary. He is not big in stature, yet has arms as big and round as Hulk Hogan’s and he hits harder than Vin Diesel. I’ve seen him send guys bigger than him sailing through the air and across the parking lot or street, wherever they happened to be. He always came out seemingly unharmed, yet he would be covered in his opponents’ blood.

It was violence like I had never witnessed before.

I asked myself, “Why had people given up on him? Where did his anger come from? Why was he so destructive?” When he trusted me enough, he confided in me that he was in the foster care system, his father was serving a 15-year prison sentence, and his mother had smoked crack for over 20 years. He was angry about his family being broken up and his being taken away from his eight siblings. He was angry at his birth mother for her addiction and his father for leaving him as well. Things started to add up.

I decided I wanted him to beat the odds. I started making special trips to his ‘hood to see him everyday. We would text throughout the day so I could get a good sense of his demeanor that day. Was he agitated about something? Was he having a good day so far? I was trying to find his “triggers”. When you know what can set someone off, you can consciously avoid it.

For a long time, I failed at this. Sometimes when I arrived in his neighborhood, the fight of the day would already be over. Other times, I was just in time and would find him walking down the street about to get in somebody’s face to hit them. At first, I didn’t have his respect, so I had no influence on whether or not he beat the person senseless; but as I established a relationship with him, he came to understand that I cared about him and wasn’t going to give up on him. Still, I needed him to stop hurting people.

Very slowly, things started turning around. Maybe I lost my mind, but I became bold enough to jump in the middle and get in his face if I could get there before his daily fight. Thank God, to this day, he has never swung on someone when I did that. He would yell and curse at me to move and warn that if he hit me, it wasn’t his fault because I shouldn’t get in it anyway. But, I stood there firmly shaking, yelling at him to get in the car and leave so-and-so alone. Time and time again, he showed me that he possessed the inner discipline to control himself when it counted the most.

I began meeting him right after school and keeping him with me all evening just riding around, talking about his day and the other kids I work with. G. is a very well-known gang member, so we knew a lot of the same people. I made sure I wore his crew’s colors around him to be respectful like I do with all my kids. I started teaching him how to drive so I could relax on our small trips and he loved it. It gave him something to do.

We were riding around one day and this guy just happened to make eye contact with him as we came around a corner. G. slammed on the brakes, threw my SUV into park, jumped out and got in the kids face ready to bang. I was hot on his heels, totally oblivious to what upset him. I figured they knew each other. They didn’t. G. simply did not like how the guy looked at him when he saw us in the car together.

I immediately wedged myself in between them and began pushing G. back away from the other guy. They exchanged heated words and wanted to fight, yet again I wouldn’t budge, so G. concluded that the other guy was indeed as scared as he should have been and that he made his statement and we could leave. Then, he would tell me to quit saving people, especially one guy in particular that he has strong hatred for. He calls me this guy’s guardian angel and promises he will get him one day when I’m not around.

As summer approached, I knew from experience that things were going to get violent as the weather got warmer, so I hatched a plan. I asked G. to stay with J. and me at my house about an hour north of the city. He was already there practically every weekend so he may as well stay for the summer. He agreed because he knew that I would be traveling to the ‘hood regularly anyway, so his withdraw from not being in the streets wouldn’t be too bad. As it turns out, he ended up staying with me for two years. 

I remember the first time G. spent the night with us, he didn’t want to come into the house and it was pretty late at night. I went onto my back porch and asked him what he was doing. All he said was, “These stars are gangsta.”  I made a point to look up at the night sky the next time we were in the city and I realized in most ‘hoods, from most angles, all you see is street lights.

I quickly discovered that G. is practically a chef! He is truly a talented cook as well as a baker. His passion is cooking and he puts me to shame in the kitchen, making everything from chili to ghetto pizza to cake. Keeping him cooking was the best way to keep him out of trouble so we all ate good when he was there.

I don’t always think about the danger of a situation before I respond to it. Since J., G., and I were constantly together, G. saw how I worked with my kids and the gangs I was with, and how J. worked with me to control situations and protect me at the same time. He started to shift his power and use his fighting skills for a good cause – to protect me and get me out of the middle of a bad situation. He seemed satisfied because it still allowed him to occasionally fight somebody and “keep his skills up,” but it wasn’t out of anger. Honestly, just like J, his mere presence intimidates people. He learned that he didn’t need to lay a hand on anybody because people in the hood have a saying, “Real knows real.” People knew that he was the real deal and not to test him.

I remember one particular fight that broke out at a local restaurant we were eating at in the city. His focus by this time, in my work with him, had switched from fighter to protector. He grabbed me and put me in a corner, then just stood there blocking me as the crowd went crazy. When it was safe, we made a break for the door.

Sometimes I think I’m slick and in an effort to try and keep my guys that look out for me out of danger, I would attempt to handle certain risky situations with my other kids on my own. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why it wasn’t safe for me to go alone into certain neighborhoods. I just knew that one of my kids had “beef” with somebody from that area and if I could explain things, and reason with that person or crew, I could make a peace agreement between both sides; it would prevent violence and bloodshed so I went. I believe it earned me the respect of gang bosses that certainly didn’t have to respect me, and I managed to get in and out without being touched, but in hindsight it was stupid and I shouldn’t have done it.

I think some of these guys agreed to peace because they probably thought I was the craziest white girl ever to come into their ‘hood alone asking for peace.

However, sometimes, my secret plans were foiled because G has a sixth sense about me and knows when I am lying to him and about to do something stupid without him and J and against their advice. I began thinking that they planted a tracking device on me because they would just show up out of nowhere about the time things started to go sour and I needed help. I call them my guardian angels.

I’ll never know why they risk their lives for me, but they have saved mine more than I can count and I am truly grateful.

I am proud to say that G. did not become a statistic. Instead, he became the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college. He is now 20-years old and has a daughter, a wonderful job where he has been promoted, coaches pee wee football, and has even been featured on the evening news and local newspapers for his achievements. I feel blessed to know him and still have him as a significant part of my life and my work.

With prayer, intervention, love, and a mustard seed of faith, he made it. No one believed he would, but he made it.




For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.