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"We're Going to Protect Our Community Ourselves"

Baltimore's gangs came together to protect their community. But is that all they want?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Justin Fenton walked into the heart of the riots in West Baltimore on Monday night, a group of men surrounded him. Wearing blue bandanas, a hallmark of Crips gang members, the men said they wanted to protect him after a photographer appeared to have been hit by a rock, said Fenton, a veteran crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “They kept repeating that the looting was wrong, and reporters were there to tell the truth,” he recalled.

Fenton kept walking, approaching the CVS that went up in flames on Pennsylvania Avenue, but quickly ran back to the group wearing bandanas after a man tried to steal his cell phone and ran after him with pepper spray. When Fenton finally left the scene for the night, one of his self-appointed protectors escorted him through a crowd of rioters, throwing his arm across his shoulders. 

“A part of me believed he might ask me for something or rob me when we got around the corner—it was complete mayhem and here was someone going out of their way to be kind. But he asked for nothing; we shook hands,” Fenton told me in an email. Later on, the same man appeared at a press conference of gang members as they announced their truce. “I can’t verify who he is or why he did what he did,” he said, stressing that he wasn’t sure if any of the men who protected him were actually part of a gang. “But I am very thankful for him.” 

It’s one of the many surreal developments during an unreal week in Baltimore: Self-identified members of the city’s rival gangs—the Bloods, Crips, Black Guerrilla Family (BGF)—say they’ve declared a truce and vowed to bring peace to their communities. At the street protests since Monday, they’ve linked arms to form a buffer between police and the public to prevent violent clashes, breaking up fights, and trying to convince residents to go home after curfew. Self-described gang members are showing up alongside city officials at news conferences and church leaders at peace rallies; theyve moved from blurbs in the crime blotter to sit-downs with HBOs Larry Wilmore.

“The police is already killing us, and we being at war with each other, we killing each other—it’s just a lose-lose situation. So we came to the conclusion that the cause in our community is bigger than any color,” said Charles Littlejohn, 26, a self-identified gang member who wore the Bloods’ signature red bandana under his hat. “Now we march together every day, side by side,” he told me. His former rivals are feeling similarly bullish. “It’s history!” said a 15-year-old Crip named Sinful, who was wearing blue braids and a blue bandana. “We’re not even supposed to be doing this for real, but we came together as a family,” she said, walking alongside a group of Bloods headed to another Freddie Gray demonstration on Wednesday.

The contradictions are too much, however, for some who’ve witnessed the city suffer from the violence and crime linked to gang activity. Two years ago, 48 suspects were indicted for a “violent, years-long campaign” to avenge attacks on BGF gang members, according to law enforcement, including charges of murder, conspiracy, and drug-related offenses. Between January and September 2013, law enforcement data listed “gang or drug motives for 65 of the 167 homicides,” according to the Sun. While gang members say they protected black-owned businesses during Monday's riots, they reportedly told rioters to attack Arab- and Chinese-owned businesses instead. (Littlejohn denies the report: "We didn’t want them destroying our community—whether it was Black-owned, Korean, Chinese, we wanted them doing none of it.")

Some local leaders who’ve spent years helping their communities recover from poverty and violence have been disgusted with the attention that gang members have received. “People don’t need to hear about it. We really need to get some other stories out there—nothing about gangs, said one Sandtown-Winchester community organizer, who declined further comment. 

Local police had its own explanation for the gangs’ avowed truce: Hours before the unrest broke out on Monday, the Baltimore Police Department issued a statement saying it had “credible information” that members of rival gangs “have entered into a partnership to ‘take-out’ law enforcement,” warning law enforcement across the country to protect their officers as well. (The BPD did not respond to a request for comment.) Self-identified gang members have vehemently denied making such plans, and some prominent local officials have taken their side. “After meeting with them today it is clear that the notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots,” Baltimore City Council President Bernard Young said on Tuesday, standing alongside gang members and city council members. “I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking out for our city.”

It’s not the first time that gang members have declared a ceasefire, but Pleasant Hope Baptist Church pastor Heber Brown said it’s been unusual for them to be willing to be so public about it. He has been working closely with gang members to prevent further unrest in Baltimore this week. “This is on a very public scale, and there’s some novelty to that. In a very public way, people are coming out with their flags in full view of everybody,” said Heber, referring to the colored bandanas. “With the preachers, with the imams, with everybody.”

Donning a red Bloods flag under his cap, Littlejohn and other self-identified gang members had joined Heber and a local imam on Wednesday afternoon at the Mondawmin Mall, where Monday’s unrest had broken out shortly after school had gotten out. It was the first day of school since Monday night’s riots, and they wanted to make sure that students got home without incident. Riot police had lined up across the entire parking lot across from the bus stop, holding their shields up while armored trucks waited behind them. But Heber and his group soon convinced them to back down from their intimidating posture; not long afterwards, state troopers were resting on the grounds on the mall, some using their riot shields as back rests. 

“At the end of the day, we don’t need police to protect our community, because we’re going to protect our community ourselves,” said Littlejohn, standing near the bus stop as his crew members were telling students to get on home. After the crowds of kids had thinned out, dozens of gang members posed for a group photo, first throwing up their respective gang signs, then all raising a single fist together in the air. 

“Unify or die!” one of them shouted. “Unify or die!” 

In some ways, it’s a return to the historical roots of black street gangs themselves: In the mid-20th century, black street gangs emerged as Southern blacks migrated north en masse. “White male youth groups formed and violently resisted racial integration of neighborhoods, which led to Black brotherhoods evolving into social protection groups,” writes sociologist Stephen R. Cureton of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. In the late 1960s, the Crips emerged in Los Angeles after the FBI and police teamed up to arrest and imprison the Black Panther Partys leadership. Though their focus ultimately shifted to drug-dealing and gun sales, “the Crips were originally organized to be a community help association and were even endorsed by the mayor as Community Reform Inter-Party Service,” writes Cureton. That’s what Littlejohn and his crew say they want, too: to help build a boxing arena in the neighborhood; to keep working with local churches; to mentor kids to keep them from following the same path. “Basically at the end of the day, the violence comes from us—it comes from rival gangs and things like that,” said Littlejohn.

After criminal charges were filed against six police officers in Grays death on Friday, gang members were among those celebrating in the streets, crowding around TV cameras with blue, red, and black bandanas tied together as the crowd cheered. Littlejohn was heartened, but says its hardly enough. “Justice is served, but it’s not enough justice. There are still a lot of cases outside Baltimore between police and black men that are not solved,” he said on Saturday, hours after he had taking the stage at a huge rally at City Hall.

As the sun went down, they marched back to the burned CVS that’s become the epicenter of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray protests. Crips, Bloods, and Black Guerillas gathered to hang out on the stoops, sharing drinks as the sun went down and the march turned into a veritable block party. “We got kids, we got families, we got schools, we got jobs—this is just a lifestyle we chose,” said Littlejohn, who joined the Bloods when he was 13 years old because “they was my family.” 

“I've never been in jail,” he added, giving a fellow Bloods some money to buy a drink.

“For real?” his friend Dominic interjects. “I’ve known him since I was a little kid, and I ain’t know that.”

“Never smoked weed, never been locked up, finished high school, did three years of college,” said Littlejohn, who now works as a welder. Danny Stewart, 32, another Blood, feels similarly angry about the assumption that they “are automatically out there killing people, trying to hurt people” because of their gang colors and tattoos. Stewart has the phone number of a community organizer who wants them to counsel men who are currently in prison serving life sentences, he explained. 

But the truce wouldn’t mean nearly as much if Baltimore’s gangs were always so peaceful and civically minded. Daniel Webster, a youth violence expert at Johns Hopkins University, believes that the gangs’ self-declared commitment to peace should be taken seriously. “I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt— let’s give them a chance to demonstrate that,” he said. But he also believes it’s not simply altruism that’s motivating them: Rampant violence and chaos are also bad for those involved in the drug trade. “If some of them are selling drugs, their clientele has to meet them or make a connection, maybe they don’t want to go in areas that are in flames or highly violent,” said Webster. 

That said, it’s also a mistake to think of Baltimore’s gangs as tightly organized crime syndicates akin to the Mafia. While some affiliated with gangs commit violent crimes and are involved in the drug trade, such criminal acts are not necessarily gang-motivated. The tensions between members tend to be more personal, motivated by old rivalries, fights over women. “The Crips and Bloods—red fights red, blue fights blue, they fight each other,” said Aqeela Sherrills, a former Crip who helped broker a historic 1992 truce between Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles. 

Gang-related homicides fell after the 1992 truce, but Sherrills stresses that such breakthroughs need outside reinforcement to succeed. “There are a lot of things that can derail it—it’s fragile,” he said. He notes that L.A. officials and law enforcement were active in partnering with gang members to move forward (though the billion-dollar investment project intended to transform South L.A. has fallen short of expectations). Webster agrees: “In terms of sustainability, everybody’s responsible for their own behavior. What I will look to is, are people actually going to extend them some opportunities to become fully engaged in society in positive ways?” 

Pastor Brown believes the gangs' alliance can hold so long as everyone remains focused. “Racism, white supremacy, lack of police accountability, political corruption—as long as we can continue to see that enemy, we’re alright,” he said. “When you lose sight of who your enemy is, you’ll lash out and kill your brother, your sister.”

Gang members themselves still feeling bullish about their newfound alliance, describing the truce in high-flying terms. “It’s not going to be no two-month truce—this is from now on,” said Stewart, wearing red shorts and a “Save Black Boys” t-shirt to Saturday’s protests. The rival gangs are working out a new leadership structure to make decisions going forward, he explained: “Everybody has an opinion, and everybody has a right to say what they want—we’re going to do a vote on it, like a Supreme Court justice-type thing.”

A young kid in the crowd came up to Stewart as we were talking. He pointed to the red bandana tied around his neck. 

“Where’d you get that?” asked the kid.

“It’s my flag, homie,” Stewart said. 

“Oh—I thought they were giving them out," said the kid, glancing around at the men decked out in their colors.

 “You don’t want to wear this anyway,” Stewart added quietly as the boy walked off to join the crowd.