Q&A: Allen James of Save Our Streets

Photo by Anthony Rhoades

Q&A: Allen James of Save Our Streets

A visitor to Crown Heights might see the rows of new restaurants and luxury condos around Franklin Avenue and the historic brownstones nearby, and assume the neighborhood is broadly affluent. But like most areas in Brooklyn, Crown Heights is multifarious. Parts of the area have rapidly gentrified over the last five years, a change that has brought its own share of conflicts. But the struggles of a low-income community remain in much of the neighborhood: high rates of unemployment, drug use, and, sometimes, violence.

We sat down with the program manager for Save Our Streets Crown Heights, Allen James, who has worked in almost every area of social service through a career that spans three decades: addiction and recovery; AIDS and HIV prevention; criminal justice reform; and anti-violence, in places from New Orleans to Newark to Brooklyn. Since, 2011, James has worked at S.O.S., which seeks to reduce shootings within an area of 40 square blocks bounded by Atlantic Avenue and Eastern Parkway, and Kingston and Utica avenues. Since James started, the number of shootings has fallen: there were 40 shootings in the target zone in 2010, he says; last year there were thirteen. There have been two so far in 2014.

You’ve worked on so many different issues, at numerous organizations. What brought you to S.O.S and its anti-violence work?

In Newark and in New Orleans, I was interested in the violence. I became conscious of how pervasive the violence was. I had remembered it from the ’80s, but by ’88, ’89, it had stopped.

I wasn’t aware of this resurgence that came about among loosely organized groups, gangs, crews. And it wasn’t about anything that I could identify. I didn’t understand where it was coming from. I tried to understand a little more what was driving kids into this behavior.

Also, I was noticing a willingness to fight, just the aggression. I worked in schools in New Orleans and some things that surprised me — I had been at this for a long time, working with young people for a long time — and I was really surprised at the amount of aggression, the willingness to just do damage to another person. In New Orleans, the kids call it “cliquing out,” and that means no information comes in from the outside. It’s just the focus on conflict, on doing damage. I’d seen it in Newark and it didn’t remind me of anything that I experienced growing up, and it didn’t remind me of anything that I’d experienced in my earlier work with kids.

Is that any different in Brooklyn?

It’s the same: the same baffling inclination toward violence and underlying aggression. I’m not even sure what the emotions are that accompany that. Fury, for one, but though I’m aware of a lot of underlying factors, I don’t quite know how they knit together to create this pervasive behavior around violence.

And it’s not all young people. It’s a small percentage, but it only takes a small percentage of disruptive behavior like that to create chaos and fear — in a school, in a local community, in a city.

You said you’ve noticed a change in your three decades working with young people. What’s changed?

First of all, adults were more willing to engage with young people and wade in with them. So if there was a schoolyard confrontation, first of all, there would be several steps in that confrontation before the two students actually got involved in a physical fight. There would be a lot more talking; there would be a challenge and a return challenge.

During that period of time, there was lots of time for a responsible adult to come in and intervene and break it up. Now it goes from a look to a fight. Words may or may not even be passed. Or words like “Wassup?” or “What are you looking at?” and poof, now we have a fight. Boys and girls. Girls fight at a more frequent rate now, are more willing to fight now, than I remember. Cliquing out, you know?

Some parts of Crown Heights have changed enormously since you started working with S.O.S. Is there still a lot of violence in the neighborhood?

Yeah, of course. Because Crown Heights, in a gross, kind of oversimplified way, is three communities living side by side. But there are poor people and densely packed people, and then there are the people who are more affluent. So we commonly associate poverty and residential density with increased violence, and rightly, so as far as I can tell, given the data and research. So yeah, it’s still there. It’s at a lower rate now than it was the year I arrived, but it’s still happening. There’s not a raging war of gangs or crews that’s causing daily violence — there was when I got here — but that’s changed.

It’s not like Brownsville or East New York or some parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant. But there are still shootings going on here. And not just in our target area, but throughout the 77th Precinct. There’s still gunplay and shooting, there’s lots of guns, and there are still a lot of young people who have been socialized and acculturized by very violent media and by a previously violent generation, and who are poorly supervised, who don’t have the kind of habitat or the kind of parental guidance growing up, have been schooled by their peers and by the media. And that group is involved in a lot of violence.

How closely do you work with the NYPD and what is the nature of that collaboration?

Well, our intervention involves street work. We have a team of eight people out there on the street every day, and they are intervening in disputes when they recognize them. But they are moving around and canvassing our entire target area. Sometimes they go out and do mass canvassing, just walking in a group, talking to everybody on the street, giving out literature, stopping in at stores, saying hello, talking to kids, talking to old folks, creating a presence, and sending a message. And the message is basically, “Live and let live. They wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t have at least the tacit approval of our local precinct. They know what we’re doing, they give us space, they’re not hassling us and throwing us up against the wall. You see eight black guys traveling in a group, wearing black jackets, and all dressed alike, the average cop’s eyebrows will go up. But they obviously know who we are.

How do they go about forming relationships with kids in the community who need their help?

They build relationships with people who will give them a call when something’s going on. If Sam and Jack are beefing out there, you know, maybe they can come before something breaks out. That’s an important aspect of what they do. But they’re not authority figures. They’re from the neighborhood; they might have been bangers themselves. They have to have some reputation in the street. If they don’t have a reputation for having been violent themselves or having been a person not to be fucked with, then they wouldn’t be able to do the work. And that gives them influence with the kids on the street and with guys who are involved in gangs.

Can you walk me through the process by which an intervention occurs?

I’m probably not the one to get a phone call. It would be probably be a member of the outreach team. They go and look into it and see who the principals are, find out what’s really going on, try to figure out how to talk to each of them, try to find out what the beef is about.

A lot of times that’s the hardest thing. I mean, people are talking violence and posturing and exhibiting all the behaviors that lead up to a violent confrontation, and you don’t know why. You can’t mediate it if you don’t know why and you can’t know why unless the parties involved tell you. And the only way they’re going to tell you is if they know you and trust you. So that’s really what this is based off. If you or I walk up on a conflict that’s brewing and people don’t know us, we’re as likely to get hurt as either of them. But if you are known and you ask somebody to hold up a second, and they see you, they may hold up a second just so you can approach them.

Sometimes, you cannot. Sometimes it’s beyond that. If you arrive a little too late, it’s escalated to the point where there’s going to be a confrontation of some kind. But the outreach team members know who’s likely to be carrying a gun, they know who’s likely to actually be just loud talking, and they know who’s likely to act.

How easy is it for a kid in Brooklyn to get a gun in 2014?

Pretty easy. The word goes from place to place to place. I mean, if you have a room of a hundred kids in it and you asked that, 70 kids would raise their hand. They know how to get it, or they feel they do. And there are some blocks here where, particularly in the summertime, a bunch of guys who go outside, and none of them have a gun on their person, but there’s one somewhere nearby, and they know where it is. It’s sort of like the community gun. Guns are not a big deal, and you can tell that.

First of all, it’s a lucrative business. It’s an underground market and you know they’re all over the place if there’s money for it. And then there’s a media that constantly glorifies the gun and the position of the gun, and using the gun.

There’s obviously a longstanding debate over the role that violence in our visual culture—movies, television, video games—plays in this. Can you comment on that?

I think it’s a cumulative effect that normalizes this kind of violence. It’s not like kids don’t know the difference between a game and reality. They understand that when they’re playing a video game, it’s a game. It isn’t that they take from that this is an OK behavior or lifestyle, but it’s the lifestyle that’s glamorized. It’s the persona, it’s the toughness, it’s the respect that people get in these various depictions.

And I think African-American kids are particularly vulnerable to it, having first of all, lost many, many of their adult role models and their male role models, to what’s gone on over the past 50 years. My family wasn’t particularly strong; my family was troubled. But it was a family nevertheless and people were looking out for me, and I couldn’t get too far away without somebody questioning what the heck I was doing. Somebody always wanted to know who I was with — “Oh, you keep telling me about you’re hanging out with Bernard. Why don’t you bring Bernard up so we can meet him?” And there’s less and less of that.

In the past 20 years, Brooklyn has made its way from being perceived as a backwater to being one of the cultural centers in New York. With all the activity and development around Brooklyn, and especially in a neighborhood like Crown Heights, as well as a mayor who’s a proud Brooklynite — do you think that makes the borough seem more like a place of opportunity today for those who grow up here?

To young people who have some vision of the future, that might be making them hopeful. But for those kids who have no future vision, whose life is day to day in the street in a really prescribed geographic area — which they’ve created for themselves now, because it’s unsafe for them to go over here because they’ve been beefing with these guys, so they can’t — they’re blind to what’s going on around them. They also are poorly educated. They don’t know much of anything.

They’re also — it’s common for a whole subset of them to be medicating themselves. A lot of marijuana and alcohol. So I’m not so sure that that’s on their horizon, that there’s a change coming. They’re not old enough to have seen what happens in neighborhoods.

I get furious at some of the behavior. But after a few minutes I back off and I realize, this kid’s responding to something I haven’t even seen. But when I visit homes, then I can really see. And that’s always been the case, as long as I’ve been working in the neighborhood. The greatest insight I can get is by visiting their homes, talking to their parents — if there’s a parent around. And once you see that, then you realize, “Okay, this kid’s just figuring it, out day to day.”

Your organization says it engages with those who are most likely to shoot or be shot.” How do you identify kids that are at risk? Do you have a database? Do you map out the groups or kids that are potentially in need of intervention?

Nothing that scientific. We target about 90 kids a year, and our outreach workers target up to fifteen people a year that they are working closely with and trying to get to do specific things — to consider whether or not the lifestyle they live in is working for them. There are mixed results. Some of them, they work with for eighteen, nineteen months, and you don’t really see a change. The only thing you see at eighteen months is that they haven’t shot anybody and they haven’t been shot. And then sometimes they’ve worked with somebody and the next thing you know, they’re in jail for a gun charge or shooting somebody, or in the hospital from being shot. The most important thing we can bring to a young person is an adult who cares and who’s on the scene, and providing support. But our outreach workers don’t provide a lot of things the kids need. We’re basically trying to get them to stop one specific behavior, and that’s gun violence.

We have a risk assessment tool, but it’s a blunt instrument. It’s looking at things like, has this young person been involved in violence in the past? Are they known to carry a gun? Are they a member of a gang or crew that’s involved in violence? Have they been arrested? Have they hurt themselves? If they conform to four out of five of those, then we consider them to be at high risk of involvement in violence.

Places like Chicago have experimented with identifying kids who are at risk for certain types of violence, but have still found difficulties stopping it — even if a kid has been pre-identified.

That’s right. You’re not with them 24 hours a day. You do all these things with them, then they have to go back to the place that they came from, where there’s a set of realities, pressures, and threats and norms that you can’t change. That’s been the bane of every social worker, change worker, and youth support person I’ve ever worked with. You have to send them back. Some of them are stronger than others, and some of them have that one support that’s back in their home area. But if they don’t have somebody back at the home that’s reinforcing all that, they’re at the mercy of whatever the forces are there. And some of them are pretty brutal forces.

The newspapers have been filled with stories about recent shooting the recent fatal shooting of a 39-year-old father on the B15 bus. Cops say a 14-year-old kid from Bedford-Stuyvesant fired the shot — there were stories about how he was a popular kid, lived with his mother, had a good jump shot on the basketball court. What did you make of it?

What I read about it, I didn’t internalize, because I’m skeptical about what I read. But it’s an example of what I’m saying. We don’t know the other part of this kid’s life. We don’t know the other part of his reality. He was responding to something real; he didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’m tired of this good guy shit. I’m going to go out here and cause some trouble.” He was responding to something, but I don’t know what that situation was. The fact that there was a gun and the fact that in the reality of youth culture — that violence has become an acceptable route to take, and because of the awareness that violence can happen anytime — self-preservation says act violently. A lot of young people, when you talk to them about guns, they say, “I’m not going to put down my gun. I’ll be the only one who’s unarmed. Everybody around here’s got guns.” And whether we know it’s true or not, we can’t argue with it. Maybe everybody doesn’t have guns, but if that’s what they perceive, you can’t argue with them that it’s not true.

How would S.O.S respond to that kind of event, if it had happened in the target area?

Well, we’d first try to figure out whether it was intentional or whether something happened accidentally. But if it was an actual conflict, we would try to get involved with the people who might be amassing to retaliate. We would try to talk to the families, to try to get a sense of what their needs are, to try to calm them down, connect them with services and support. And within two days or 72 hours or so, we would have a rally at the site of the shooting incident. Not a vigil, but a rally for the community to say, “This was a terrible thing that happened. It can’t happen. We have to stop this, we reject this behavior.”

Has your work changed at all with a new mayor and NYPD commissioner?

Well first of all, it’s early in the game, so we don’t know what it’s really going to be. The stop-and-frisks that used to go on here, they’ve stopped, or at least abated. But nothing is being done to change the circumstances of young people. The underlying forces and circumstances still exist. We do what we do with the forbearance of the police. They probably think we’re some kind of hug-a-thug program, we’re just a bunch of ex-bangers out there. But we have their tacit approval, and that’s all we really want. I’ve done a lot of work around police and police accountability. I also have cops in my family. I have deep insight into what’s going on in the department here. Mostly what they do is cultural. They have a way of looking at the world; it’s them and others. That’s the way they become culturized in that line of work. A new commissioner may change some of the practices, but it doesn’t change the attitudes of police officers. It’s up to a neighborhood to change the attitude of police officers. Until quite recently it’s been a generational thing. “My uncle, my father, my grandfather were all cops …” This culture has been passed down. It’s changing a little bit now in terms of the family aspect of it, but still, it prevails. And I don’t see anything changing in the street with the police department.

There’s been a lot of talk about implementing policies that are more community-oriented.

Maybe it’s in the works, but you can’t see it in this neighborhood yet. You don’t see cops in the street, and when you do see cops in the street, they’re 19 years old, scared to death, out there all on their own in a sea of black people. They haven’t been given any training on how to interact with the neighborhood. Mostly what they hear is bad things about the neighborhood — stuff happens, and then you can’t get a word out of these people, these people, these people! If they’re planning on going to a more community police model, you can’t see it here yet.

Just as I was talking about the deep-seated cultural attitudes of the police, there’s a deep-seated attitude in the community. There’s a natural antagonism between the police and a poor black community, or a poor community anywhere. And you see this in cities all over the world. We have officers come and visit us from places like Belfast and London and New Zealand, who really have decided, “We’ve got to change the way we do things,” who really are experimenting with and are many years into working in community-oriented policing. It’s nothing like what we do here. We’re not even close to that.

Has anyone from the department reached out to you about that at all?

I would be highly surprised if they reached out to us. What I see them being with us is just tolerant. They don’t engage with us as a partner. That would be a surprise if they did. In fact, it would present a challenge to us because part of our credibility is that we’re not involved in the police.

So what would you like to see from NYPD?

First of all, we’d have some police officers who could be recognized and whose names we’d know, and they’d stop by and say hello to people. They wouldn’t start by talking to the kid with his pants sagging. They’d start by going into stores and talking to shoppers on the commercial strips. They would be interacting with folks, and humanizing themselves, and demonstrating that they see others. And then when there’s an incident, when they came to investigate an incident, they would take a different approach. [Right now] they rely on the community to tell them what’s going on and what’s happening, but the enmity with the community, it’s a no-win situation. I think it falls to the community to jump-start this change, and I speak to people in public. I say, “When we pass that officer on the street, we say hello.” They think you’re messing with them at first — they’re not used to it.

S.O.S is expanding into Bed-Stuy. Can you talk about what it takes to make this kind of program successful, and replicate it in other neighborhoods?

Well, why Bed-Stuy? It’s not contiguous to the place we’re working now, but it’s close to the place we’re working now. They have a high rate of shooting. It lends itself to us. We could expand it in any direction. We could have gone east on Ralph Avenue. We could have gone on the other side of Eastern Parkway. There’s anywhere we could have gone. We landed there through a variety of questions and decisions.

What does it take to be successful? It’s the staff. That’s what it takes. You’re as likely to be unsuccessful and fall on your face with one of these initiatives as you are to succeed at it, and it all depends on whether you can find those key people who come from the neighborhood, who are known in the neighborhood. And that they have integrity, they are not trying to game you — if they have one foot in the life and one foot in the square world, you know — you’ve got to have people who actually have influence in the community, who are known, and are respected, and recognized as someone who it pays to listen to.

Eli Rosenberg is an editor at BKLYNR.

Anthony Rhoades is a freelance photographer and the photo editor of /ONE/. He lives in Greenpoint.

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