Villager photos by Clayton Patterson
LEFT: Newark gang members flash their signs. RIGHT: Local leader Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris with his book, “Memoir: War of the Bloods in My Veins,” a look at life in the ’hood.
Newark gangs (tried to) work it out on the court
By Clayton Patterson
In America, especially in the inner cities, we have a long history of gangs, clubs and cliques, which have formed for various reasons, including because the members have similar interests or want to define and protect certain areas for their businesses, legal and/or illegal. One of the negative manifestations of these collectives can be the creation of conflict.
The origin of the conflict may be long forgotten, but the result of the original disagreement can result in a long and protracted war. Such disputes can turn violent, and sometimes deadly, leaving great damage and suffering in their wake. The area the disputants are fighting over may be of little commercial value, yet if the conflict escalates, living in the area will be dangerous. Each side may adopt symbols — fighting ones — such as a red or a blue color. Where you live can determine what you wear, where you can travel, whom you can hang out with, date or marry. The conflicts can go on for decades and can be intergenerational, in which case, it can mean it makes no difference if the enemy is a child or an adult.
But let’s drop the abstractions and get down to cases. In Newark, there has been a deadly feud going on between the Bloods (who favor the color red) and the Crips (blue). Certain community members have been trying to work out a peace agreement between the two rival groups, most recently by having the gangs participate in a friendly basketball game. Both sides agreed to meet at a neutral location. The game was billed as the Jiwe (Bloods) and Arsonal (Crips) present “The 1st Annual Unity in the Community Crip and Blood Basketball Tournament.” It was set to go down at Central High School, April 25. Then the politicians got involved and the game was first canceled, and then moved to Essex County College, set to start at 5 p.m. sharp.
What is my connection to all this? Dan Levin and Jenner Furst made “Captured,” a documentary film that centered on some moments in my life. They’re now working at Blowback Productions — which is led by legendary documentary filmmaker Marc Levin — on a Sundance Channel reality TV series called “Brick City.” The show centers on Newark and explores as many aspects of society as humanly possible, ranging up to the Mayor’s Office and down to gritty street life. The show explores how city and community leaders are trying to make Newark a viable, evolving, vital metropolis. From what I’ve seen of it, this undertaking reminds me of the remaking of New Orleans after Katrina.
Through my limited involvement with “Brick City,” I met an unusual, gifted leader and writer, an extraordinary person named Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris. Jiwe wrote a powerful book, “Memoir: War of the Bloods in My Veins,” giving a realistic story of life in the ’hood. Jiwe invited me to document the basketball game.
Back to the game. I took the PATH to Newark and hopped a cab to the college. Turns out I was let out on the wrong side of the school. Since this was unfamiliar territory to me, I had to ask people where to go, taking me on a journey that led me into wrong buildings, wrong floors. By the time I found the right place, I almost felt like I was in the wrong universe. So finally, I was in the right building, but the security guard told me, right building, wrong door: “Go back outside and circle this whole place till you get to the front.” By 5 o’clock, game time, I had found the right location. What did I see?
A speaker was telling about 30 people to go home. The game was canceled. The first time, they moved the location. The second time, they shut it down. I asked myself the big questions: Who and why?
Not sure who gave the order, but the why — at least the one the speaker was giving us at the entrance — was that someone had phoned in a threat, saying an F.B.I. agent would be killed at the game. That sounded loony. I mean, first, it is a city game, so why would the F.B.I. even be there? It didn’t really make any sense.
Since a celebratory cake had been made for an after-ceremony, and it was sitting there, a part of the group that was left decided to retire to a bookstore to “break bread” and to keep the peaceful vibes from disappearing altogether.
Walking to the bookstore, I was running through my head what I had just witnessed. First off, I have to say that I have documented many tense situations, hostage standoffs, bomb threats, a distressed individual ready to commit suicide, all the way up to the August 1988 Tompkins Square Park police riot. It’s given me some sensitivity to conflict situations and, as I went over this one mentally, I smelled a lie.
First off, since I’d come in a cab and then wandered all over the area, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no at-the-ready riot cop reinforcements standing in formation or sitting in buses stationed around the perimeter of the college, poised to respond to this so-called threat. The buildings I entered certainly weren’t in a state of high alert. School security guards were hanging out, talking to friends or students. The general vibe was casual — certainly not that of a code orange alert. Even the three cops who were standing there at the main entrance where we got the announcement were dressed down in regular uniforms, not the code orange riot helmets, batons and mace containers. They were not tense, nor were they aggressive. Something stinks, I thought.
I kept thinking as we strolled along, “What idiot would want to stop these feuding gangs from making peace? Who benefits from this bloody conflict continuing?” I suddenly remembered what happened when a Chinese man breached security at Kennedy Airport to kiss his lover goodbye. The whole airport was shut down! Compare that to a death threat at a volatile basketball game. Here there were three cops, no troops. Hmm.
Whatever the fear was that had this game shut down — which in my opinion came from outside the community not from within it — it is a fear based on seeing the community’s people come together. In the bookstore, at the end of my day in Newark, what I experienced and saw was a group, from teenagers to middle-aged adults, hanging out, conversing, having a pleasant time in a harmonious atmosphere. These were people, gangsters included, who were genuine, friendly, warm — who on this day were set on spreading peace and positive vibrations.
These are the people — and not those sowing distrust and paranoia — who will rebuild Newark. And even with the setback of the canceled game, my hope is that they will not be turned from their magnificent task.