The Gangs of East New York

Students Melvin Hill, 19, Nikia Griffin, 17, and Jireh Gabsy, 18, aren't strangers to gangs. The unrest, gunshots and fistfights mark their pasts like seasons. They are like most of the students at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School--overage and under-credited, taking one last shot at a high school diploma. For these seniors, and many of the East New York schools and students, it's impossible to separate street life from school life.

For this reason, Aspirations' principal, Matt Molloy, hires men who know the streets to roam the halls and guard the doors of this school on the corner of Fulton and Herkimer streets every weekday. The effect of gangs, he believes, is underestimated. Gang leaders and members cast as large a shadow in school as do teachers, or other students, because they have the power to stop a student from learning or from participating in school activities.

Some students at Aspirations were born into gangs whose membership can be as exclusive as a single street. This birthright determines where they do and do not go. But there are no boundaries at Aspirations, he said, and anything that happens outside the building often finds its way in.

"It's like your parents take that choice away from you. You don't know wrong or right; you just born Blood or you born Crip," said Dane Pearson, a Safety Agent in the school hired to keep the peace. "With that mentality at home you have nothing better to do than to bring it to school."

This new small high school in its infancy has its own problems. It straddles the border between Brownsville and East New York, two of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Brownsville has more low-income housing projects than any other in New York City, and over half of East New York residents live below the poverty line. Together, they account for between one-third and one-half of all crimes in north Brooklyn 10 precincts.

The school’s building, a former sewing machine factory, sits among auto repair shops, towing lots, barbed wire fences and unmarked brick buildings. The 73rd Precinct is nearby, along with the Broadway Junction and the back lot of the New York Transit Authority Maintenance Shop (home of the J, Z, L, and M trains). A well-placed ad for Tanqueray Gin towers above the school: "Respect Complexity," it reads, "Celebrate History."

Melvin and Kia met in class and are rarely apart, even though historically speaking, they hail from rival gangs. Jireh met Melvin and Kia at their after-school jobs tutoring kids. Though Jireh no longer works there, the three still talk at school. Melvin was a Blood, Kia was a Crip, and Jireh has twice been the victim of gang violence despite choosing not to join one. Only Melvin is still in a gang today, and his gang, the Decepticons, is trying to change its image. Once known as senseless murderers, they are now trying to promote unity by rapping together and encouraging each other's talents.

Melvin wearing neon green, or "flagging", for his gang, the Decepticons. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)

Melvin is proud of his gang, and he points out that he isn't being asked to "flag," or wear his gang colors, purple and neon green.

"I choose to flag," he said, with conviction.

Melvin isn't scared. He says he gets respect for being himself, and for being quiet because it makes people uncomfortable when they don't know what he's capable of. He believes that growing up around gangs in the projects taught him about survival, about dropping if he hears gunshots and running when he sees the gunman, about staying aware in the summer, because "when it gets hot, people shoot, stab, and jump."

But Melvin isn't about all that anymore, because his new weapon is his mind.

"If I can kill 'em up here," he said, pointing to his head, "I can get 'em right here."

He points to his heart, "Now that's gangsta."

Molloy said he had a steep learning curve about gang life when he first came to the school from the Bronx. He was prepared to understand his students’ behavior as boys being boys. But that was impossible once he realized the behavior was, instead, Bloods being Bloods, or Crips being Crips. It dawned on him that even the non-active members were often only one degree of separation from either a Blood or a Crip. These large gangs often had rivalries among themselves. He relies on Pearson, his Safety Agent, who lives in Brownsville, to tell him what's happening in the streets so that he can anticipate incidents that might play out at school the next morning. But it’s not always possible to arrest the tension before a student snaps. One morning last school year, a male student slashed a female non-student in the face just outside of the building because he thought she had cheated on his friend. No one saw it coming.

Artists worked with Principal Matt Molloy and several students to create an anti-gun mural in a school hallway. (Photo by Nushin Rashidian)

Molloy worked for months to put together an anti-gun violence mural that, when finished, will cover almost all of the school's walls. He was inspired by a conversation during which he asked students if they knew how guns got into their communities, and they nudged in response.

"There's no question, it's just a reality, it's just the way things are," he said. "Many young people don't think 'It doesn't have to be this way.'"

Molloy hired two artists to come to the school and teach the students about the design process for seven days. The group decided that it wanted the mural to show the uncomfortable truth about gun violence because most people don't know the severity of it.

Principal Matt Molloy insisted on images of guns in the mural because he wanted the school to be fearless and the message direct. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)

"I want people to ask questions, to look and say, 'Damn, what is this about?'" he said.

The mural is unfinished, but is now a collection of images that includes one of a guy walking away from a gun, another of a guy contemplating using a gun, and a colorful rendition of what Molloy calls "the urban tragic scene." Police lines, people holding each other, a man in handcuffs.

Somebody dies, somebody gets shot. It's Brooklyn.

In Aspirations' first year, 2008, one student was shot and killed in the neighborhood, and two others were shot at and forced into hiding.

Jireh, a victim of gang violence, holding himself up without his walker in the hallway of Aspirations Diploma Plus High School. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)

This year, Jireh, a senior, was shot in the back, but he doesn't like to talk about it.

"If he wasn't on a walker, I doubt he would ever recount the happenings,” Molloy said of Jireh’s being shot twice. “It's devastating.”

He believes that the near-death experiences have had an impact on Jireh’s perspectives. “It very much signaled what might happen to him."

Jireh transferred in 2008 to Aspirations from nearby Paul Robeson High School, a place he remembers as being out of control with a handful of students showing up to class only to be met by teachers who felt too frustrated to teach such small groups. A little over one year later, the Department of Education placed Robeson on the list of failing high schools scheduled to be slowly shut down.

If Jireh could help it, he would never talk about getting shot–not this time, not the other times. People keep asking him why he’s forced to shuffle down the hallways on a walker and, if he can’t dismiss them, he’ll admit he was shot. Jireh rarely mentions that this was not the first time he was shot. The first time was on his block four years ago when he was 14. He came out of his building because he heard loud talking and saw young boys getting ready to fight. Then he heard shots and went into shock because it was happening so close to him. He didn't move until the shooting stopped and when it did, he ran and didn't look back. He heard more gunshots but didn’t realize he had been shot until he felt something drip off of his left arm. He looked down to see blood and two large holes where the bullet had torn through his flesh.

The second time, in August of 2009, he was on his way home from the Brownsville Recreation Center and stopped by his friend's house in Flatbush. They were hanging out outside near a barbeque listening to music when a fight broke out and a man jumped into his car and drove off.

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"I didn't pay no mind," he said. "I went across the street to chill, see what's up, get food. The guy came back and there was a fight and then I started hearing shots. I was running, going behind cars, running across the street to my homeboy's building. Then I felt that shot in my back and I dropped. It went from my hips down to my toes . . . the worst feeling ever. I was just praying, looking up at the stars, hoping I don't die."

Two large circle scars are still visible on his arm from the first shooting, and now another on his torso, marking where surgeons went in to extract the bullet. The new scar is fresh and foot-long, running vertically down the center of his stomach.

Jireh acts nonchalant about growing up surrounded by violence.

"In my neighborhood, you grew up seeing stuff like this. Somebody dies, somebody gets shot. It's Brooklyn," he said, and added, laughing, "Who don't see that? It's just a regular day, you know?"

But other things Jireh said suggest that he might not be as unaffected as he thinks he is. He once said, ominously, "Before the second time, I always felt like I would get shot or die or something."

After being in a brace for four months, he now goes to physical therapy three times a week so that he can slowly regain the ability to move his legs, but he is still unable to move his ankles or toes. He is often late for school because he relies on an Access-A-Ride bus to take him to and from school, and the company doesn't schedule around school hours.

"I can't be chillin' outside late nights," Jireh says of lessons learned. "I need to keep myself occupied, be aware of my surroundings."

He came to Aspirations at age 17 with fewer than 10 credits from Paul Robeson. As a junior, he should have had 22 credits by then, but he still has a chance of graduating in June if he plays it safe.

"I just want to get my leg functioning properly," he said, "then I wanna go to college."

Jireh avoids gangs because he has twice been a victim of their clashes. But many guys and girls his age are drawn to the perceived safety of being part of a network.

"Everybody is looking for protection,” said Officer Williams, a school safety officer at Aspirations, of gangs’ appeal. “People are scared, and fear pushes them into family groups. Gangs recognize your attributes. It's like another home when your parents are busy."

Kia will graduate from Aspirations Diploma Plus High School this June. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)

This protection and attention drew in Kia, who had been without a loving family for as long as she could remember. Kia's father died in a motorcycle accident when she was six. His mother, her grandmother, took in Kia this January because, she said, her own mother was abusive to her.

"It was hard for me," said Kia. "I never really felt loved."

She tried to get into a gang from the time she was 14 years old, bouncing back and forth between Bloods and Crips, and finally deciding to be a Crip because she had cousins in a different branch of the gang. As the only girl in the group, she had no one she could fight in the gang, or circle, so she had to select a stranger from the street and beat her up for 52 seconds. The number is significant because it comes from the name of her "set," the 52 Hoover Gangster Crips, named after the street in Los Angeles from which they came.

"What if my sister was walking down the street and a couple of girls come and just beat her up because they want to join a gang?" she asked, remorsefully.

A Blood at the time, Melvin first noticed Kia at school when she wore her "crates," a beaded necklace with the gang's colors, blue or orange. Ironically, their friendship started with light teasing. Kia would call Melvin a "porkhead," and he would call her "crabby patty"--the insulting street names for their respective gangs.

"That's Melvin, 24/7," she says of his laid back personality. "That's how he is when he's drunk, when he's high, when he's sober, when he's by himself, when he's with people. That's what I believe makes a really strong friendship between a man and a woman."

Kia left the Crips after realizing that she was just looking for attention, for a group to be around, and the Crips didn't offer her what she craved.

"They make it seem like y'all going to be friends for life and no matter what y'all down for each other and they like a family,” Kia said. “That is not true. Gangs is not like that. Your worst enemy can be in your gang."

Kia "folded" her flag, which mean that she no longer belonged to the set, but was still a Crip.

"I feel like with the personality I have, I'll always be Loc at heart because their style their way is different," she said, referring to Crips. "They're about making money and being cool but not every person is like that. There are a lot of people just out there to hurt people and commit crime and all that, and I wasn't the type."

Kia had seen enough violence in her life, including a time when she was 11 and saw a man on a motorcycle shoot another man who collapsed and died on the sidewalk in front of her home. She said that at the time it just seemed like a scene from a movie, and she thought it was cool.

"Looking back on it now, that was a horrible thing to see," she said, "somebody gasping for they last breath."

But she isn't fazed by death now. To her, it's just something that happens every day.

"Everywhere, you hear gunshots," she said. "It's just sad that black people is killing each other and Latino people is killing each other; if you go to white people neighborhoods they ain't killing each other, they ain't shooting at each other every night."

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series on Melvin and his friends and the story of taking one last shot at a diploma in East New York, Brooklyn. For part one of the series, click here.