2 gangs find real peace, in secret

Secret negotiations culminating in a “peace summit” have produced an unprecedented truce between two of the most dangerous street gangs in Boston, dramatically reducing violence on their turf.

When the effort began in June, the FBI had attributed about 20 shootings since January 2005 to the decades-old feud between Heath Street , a group of about 30 youths who live in or near Jamaica Plain’s Bromley-Heath public housing development, and H-Block, a slightly smaller group from a nearby part of Roxbury around Humboldt Avenue.

That violence stopped abruptly in July, when a temporary cease-fire took effect, later strengthened by the truce. In the nearly four months since, there has not been a single shooting that police have connected to either group, two law enforcement officials involved in the truce effort told the Globe . Overall violent crime in the sections of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury where the gang members live has plummeted by as much as 80 percent, said one of those officials.

The truce was finalized at a carefully organized summit held July 24 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The gangs agreed to stay away from each other’s territory until at least Labor Day, not to shoot on sight when they saw each other at events such as Boston’s Caribbean Festival, and to call a minister before retaliating for any disagreements.

Within days of the two gangs shaking hands on the treaty, members of other gangs began contacting clergy and youth workers to ask for similar peace summits. Police and clergy are talking with eight other street gangs, hoping to broker truces — with similar incentives and commitments — across the city.

“I don’t think there will ever be a strategy for dealing with gangs in Boston again that doesn’t involve a truce,” said the law enforcement official. “They don’t want to be afraid. They don’t want to shoot each other.”

Acting Boston Police Commissioner Albert Goslin declined through a spokeswoman yesterday to discuss the effort.

“Commissioner Goslin believes that it is premature to engage in public discussion about this ambitious initiative,” said spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. “Disclosing details is potentially detrimental to the mission, which is decreasing gun violence on the streets of Boston.”

The Globe — from interviews with three participants and from the journals and the notes they kept — has reconstructed how a dozen or so Boston police commanders, ministers, and youth workers used methods more akin to international diplomacy to bring peace to two violent gangs. The participants spoke on the condition of anonymity because the effort has not been made public.

Many of those involved were also key players in the “Boston Miracle,” a collaboration of police, ministers, and community leaders that helped end a murder wave in the 1990s. Now, police say, gang feuds are helping to fuel the resurgence in gun violence in the past two years. Boston is on pace this year to surpass last year’s 10-year high in homicides.

The turf war between Heath Street and H-Block has contributed to the bloody toll. In April 2005, the slaying of 18-year-old Yorki Lipscomb , identified by police as an H-Block member, sparked an escalation of violence. In November 2005, Heath Street’s Carl Searcy was fatally shot as he biked away from a friend’s house.

The idea among the police commanders, ministers, and youth workers to push for a possible truce emerged in June after a 17-year-old male was shot multiple times on a basketball court in front of Bromley-Heath. The teenager survived, but the brazenness of the early evening shooting alarmed Shakeem Allah , a youth outreach worker who is a former Heath Street member. He reached out to friends whom he had been working with on gang violence, including Michael Hennessey , assistant chief of the Boston School Police; Lieutenant Detective Gary French , former head of the Boston Police gang unit; Mark Prisco, a probation officer at West Roxbury District Court; and the Rev. Jeffrey Brown , a cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition.

Within days, the group decided to pursue peace talks between the two gangs. They invited several Boston police commanders to participate, including Captain James Claiborne , then in Jamaica Plain, and Lieutenant Detective John Danilecki in Roxbury.

The effort gained urgency on July 12 when Herman Taylor 3d , 18, who police believed was an innocent bystander, was shot and killed while standing on Humboldt Avenue next to an H-Block leader.

A secret summit
In the weeks before the summit , the organizers met separately with each gang to pitch a truce. Police papered the H-Block neighborhood with fliers advertising peace talks and listing Brown’s cellphone number. Truce organizers fanned out into the neighborhoods to gather intelligence and compile rosters of gang members so they could identify gang leaders to invite to the summit .

Later in July, both gangs agreed to a temporary cease-fire and to show up at a peace summit. The truce planners kept its location secret and took other security measures to prevent a violent confrontation.

On July 24, church vans picked up about a dozen gang leaders at predetermined spots in their neighborhoods without telling them the destination. They were searched for weapons, and cellphones were turned over so they couldn’t contact allies who might have been planning an ambush.

Truce organizers arranged for after-hours use of the Kennedy Library, one of the city’s grandest locations, but a place none of the youths had ever visited. As the talks unfolded, the youths had panoramic views of the sun setting behind the city’s skyline.

“One of the most important things I think you can show a kid who is involved in this madness is that there is a world outside of it, that the world is larger than the six blocks that they live in,” said one truce coordinator.

Brown started the meeting with a prayer and a speech about the library, the president it honors, and how the possible truce could make history by giving their neighborhoods a chance for peace.

A sign posted in the room reminded the gang members about the ground rules. Avoid blame. Don’t discuss past violence. Don’t make offensive hand gestures or other signs of disrespect.

Three officers from the department’s gang unit stood outside the room, but were prepared to rush inside if anything went wrong.

A youth worker started the talks by saying, “We all know who’s supposed to speak first.”

An H-Block leader, who had been shot a few days earlier, said, “It’s time to throw up hands,” street lingo for an offer of peace.

His counterpart from Heath responded simply, “Then it’s done.”

The two rival gang leaders had been playmates as children .

As they ate pepperoni pizza and drank Cokes, gang members agreed they would stay out of each other’s territory until summer’s end, attend weekly meetings, and, most important , call Brown or Allah if they believed the other side had broken the truce.

At the end of the 40-minute meeting, rival gang members shook hands.

In mid-August, when a Heath Street gang member reported to Allah that shots had been fired inside Bromley-Heath, Brown contacted French, who quickly found out from officers on the scene that the noises were firecrackers, not gunshots. More recently, an H-Block member called Allah when a suspicious car drove slowly through H-Block territory. H-Block members trained five guns on the car until Allah told them that the Heath Street member they thought was in the car was with him.

Aid and incentives
The truce organizers have been meeting weekly with gang leaders to maintain the peace. Also, officials and clergy are giving incentives to keep the truce.

For example, with the help of the mayor’s office, they provided summer jobs to some gang members. On Aug. 26, Heath Street gang members sat in a corporate box at Gillette Stadium to watch the Patriots rout the Washington Redskins 41-0, a gift donated through the Police Athletic League.

Now, the city and truce organizers are upgrading a teen center on Heath Street, known in the neighborhood as “The Cave.” City Hall is planning to buy ping-pong and pool tables for the center. Late last month, with the help of truce coordinators, Bromley-Heath tenant leader Mildred Hailey hired a tutor for more than 15 Heath Street members as they prepare for high school equivalency tests.

H-Block teens are also receiving tutoring, and last weekend both groups were given tickets to the Boston College football game against Buffalo. Truce organizers are seeking donations of Celtics tickets.

Brown has appeared in court to vouch for members of both gangs who face charges from before the truce, and has asked probation officers to count truce meetings toward community service parole requirements.

Truce coordinators have spent the past 3 1/2 months shuttling between gang members to smooth over tensions. While there have been some close calls, the truce is intact.

“They were ready to lay it down,” said one truce organizer. “They just didn’t have the mechanism in place.”

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Boston Globe, USA
Nov. 5, 2006
Suzanne Smalley, Globe Staff

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 6, 2006 at 12:20 PM, Central European Time (CET)