It's been 20 years now since the worst of the gang violence in Little Rock, when the neighborhoods south of Interstate 630 crackled with gunfire and the streets ran with blood. In those days, Little Rock was very much a city of nations, each invisibly bordered, each with a standing army ready to die to keep their territory unmolested by rivals.
In 1993, the number of homicides in the city spiked to a record high of 76, then the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Most of the dead were young black males, most of them shot with handguns, many of them killed either while protecting gang territory or conducting open-air transactions for powder or crack cocaine. Around the time the murder rate hit a peak, a crew with HBO came to town. While HBO's original plan was to show gang life in multiple American cities, when the crew got to Little Rock, the magnitude and diversity of gang life they saw here convinced them that this was the only stop they needed to make. The resulting documentary, "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," debuted in 1994 and gave the city a lasting black eye, driving away business and accelerating the white flight that had been going on for years. But, as several of those we've talked with have noted, it also made the issue of gangs and gang violence in the city impossible to ignore.
We have left behind those bloody days, thank God. Not the gangs, however. The Little Rock Police Department's chief gang intelligence detective says there are currently over two dozen active street gangs in Little Rock, including the vast majority of the gangs that filled the city's most desperate neighborhoods with death in the 1990s. Don't be mistaken: This is a problem that has gone somewhat quiet, not one that was cured.
History is not required to be pretty. It's usually anything but. Whether we like it or not, the gangs of Little Rock stitched themselves into the historical fabric. Before more time and memories slip away, we decided to go and seek out some of the people who lived through those bloody days. What follows are digests of over 15 hours of interviews with key players: prosecutors, law enforcement, community activists, the gang members themselves. Every one of them, in his or her own way, is a survivor of terrible times.
The biggest question we had for all of them was: Did we learn anything?
- Brian Chilson
- REPRESENTING IN HIGHLAND PARK: O.G.T.A. was one of the founders of the Highland Park Pirus.
When we asked him his real name, he said: O.G.T.A. For him, O.G.T.A. is as real as it gets. One of the founders of Little Rock's Highland Park Pirus, a Blood set that originated in the now-demolished Highland Park housing project that once stood on 12th Street, O.G.T.A. is currently working on a memoir and a film script, and wants to try to steer the next generation of kids away from life in the gangs. He'll always be affiliated, he said. Nothing can change that. Even at 44 years old, he still never says the hated word "blue," he says "flue." He never says the hated word "Crip."
It was HCC at first — Highland Court Crew. We were a dance group. We used to battle against local gangs: Vice Dice, 8-Ball Gangsters, Granite Mountain, East End. We used to battle against them, dancing. Our fights with them were just over dancing, and them losing. They couldn't stand to lose. Those were our fights. But in '87 or '88, a few [Crips] came to town. But at the time, they weren't with the nonsense. L.A. Moe, he got big-headed. He seen how the dope was flowing. He went back home, got some dope from his homies, and came back with it and some more homies and tried to take over. They took over East End and half of the Central neighborhood. When they tried to ease over on 12th Street, that's when we changed our name from HCC to Highland Park Posse. "Highland Park Posse" was just a way to keep us from using the C's. That way, they wouldn't mistake us as [Crips]. Even though our color was red, you had some folks still say we was [Crips].
Originally, it was a good 27 [members]. I can't mention their names because they don't want their names mentioned, but the original was 27. We'd been friends ever since elementary — from elementary to junior high, from junior high to high school, from high school to the penitentiary. If one fought, we all fought. If you messed with one, you messed with all. There was no such thing as you fight one person from Highland and think it's going to be over with. We're coming to get you the same day. We don't mess with your parents' house. We don't mess with your sisters or brothers. We go for who we into it with. We don't shoot your parents' house up. We didn't believe in that. I think Highland is the only ones who didn't believe in drive-by shootings on your parents' house. We believe in going to get who we got beef with.
I never sold dope. I always worked. My first job was at Rally's. I saw what crack did to friendship and what it did to families, so I never sold dope. My associates, and all them, that's what they did. But I never touched it.
With us getting into it, we all fought with our hands. Baseball bats. Tire irons. Back then, whatever we could get our hands on we used as a weapon, but you'd live to see another day. The pistols came in when the [Crips] came in. That's when the pistol play came in. They came in at the end of '89 and the beginning of '90. That's when it took a turn for the worse.
- Courtesy Little Rock Police Department
We didn't believe in representing no California 'hood. We believe in representing our project, representing our neighborhood. We looked at it and felt like: We didn't bang in California. We didn't put work in in California. Why should we represent their 'hood when we're not from their 'hood? We put work in on our block, in our project, in our state. So I felt that, if we're representing California, we're being busters. We didn't put no work in there. We didn't sell dope there, the ones who sold dope. We can't tell you who the true OGs are. We can't tell you how many homies are gonna die for their 'hood. But in our 'hood, we can tell you who the true OGs are, how many are locked up, how many done died. We can tell you that.
We was mostly killing and shooting and fighting because you representing your 'hood in our 'hood. It was about protecting our neighborhood. Protecting our women. Back then, the [Crips] felt like for those who sold dope, if they weren't selling for them, they can't sell dope. If you were dating a girl, and one of them liked the girl, they think you should stop talking to her so one of their homeboys can talk to her. That's really what sparked everything. It just turned ugly.
I can't say I've shot anybody, I can't say I didn't. I'll just put it that way there. I plead the Fifth. I can't say I did or didn't. I'll just put it this way here: I'm standing on the ground. Above the ground.
Back then, I'd give you an opportunity. You could either be a man and drop your pistol and let young Mike Tyson whup your ass, or you can be an asshole and grab a gun. But you're gonna lose. Because when one shot, we all shot. We were never alone. We never walked the streets alone. We were always 3, 6, 12, 13. We didn't walk alone. You could be in your car and we'd hold traffic up in the neighborhood just walking. You're going to have to wait until we get where we're going to go past us. If you honk your horn or cuss us out, then your car gonna get shot up or bricks threw at it. You had to wait until we got where we were going. That's the way it was back then.
When everybody from Highland got locked up, that's when everybody started saying they were Bloods. Six months after we got locked up, everybody started saying they were Bloods. I'm talking from Oak Street Posse to West Side Posse, East Side Posse, Granite Mountain Posse, Park Street Posse. It all went from Posse to Piru, and from Posse to Bloods. Once Highland got locked up, it was just like a domino. Once the domino falls, everybody falls. Early 1990s was when all of us got locked up. When they cleaned Highland out, that's when 21st Street formed, Murder Mob, Hilltop Hustlers, Monroe Street. All them started forming. My momma came down to visit me. I was at Cummins Unit. They let her in with the newspaper. She slapped it down on the table, and she said, "Look what the fuck y'all got started."
A lot of homies died over nonsense, but none of them died because of the hands of a [Crip]. They might have got time for putting work in on them, got a lot of time, but none of them died at their hands. That's one thing I can say. We didn't lose none of our homies, during the time when we was banging, to the hands of a [Crip]. I can say that much. I couldn't see myself letting no [Crip] hurt me. That wasn't my MO. I could never lose to a [Crip]. I don't care how big, how small, how tough you are. I can't do it.
Respect is worth dying for. Respect and my turf. I don't believe in arguing. If you've got a problem, go on and fight. If you've got a problem, go on and shoot. Arguing can cause you to get hurt. My daddy called it swapping spit. He don't believe in arguing, and my Uncle Baby, may he rest in peace, told me the same thing. When I got my first pistol, a .22, he told me, "When you pull the pistol, pull the trigger. You ain't gotta kill them. But you let the person know that you will pull that trigger. Once they know that, they're gonna stay out your way." That's how it works.
I watched [HBO's "Bangin' in Little Rock"], but I didn't approve of it. It was fake. Most of them just told on themselves. They were just glad to be on TV. They were on video, so they said some of the things they had and some of the things they didn't have. They wanted to be seen as important. Most of them said they had something, and they didn't have it. That's why I'm writing a movie now called "Hood Territory," which is to get everybody to understand how Bloods and [Crips] actually started in Little Rock. If I can just save 10 kids from joining the lifestyle I joined, then I've accomplished something. That's how I feel. If I can influence 10 kids not to join the gang lifestyle or the drug lifestyle, then I've accomplished something. I'll be on Facebook asking for help, asking for the so-called OGs and Big Homies to help me talk to the youth. It's going to take more than just one to do it, because I can't go to a [Crip] neighborhood, or a Vice Lord neighborhood, or a Gangster Disciple neighborhood trying to talk to them youth over there. It's going to take the OGs to stand up and take the streets back. It's going to take the OGs to stand up and take the neighborhood back, and take it back the right way. But we've still got OGs out here putting guns in the kids' hands, putting dope in the kids' hands.
I got two kids, and they're not a part of nothing. They know everything. I'm not going to keep nothing from them. They know who I am, what I was. When they're with me, they see me get love and show love to the homies out here, because I still show love to them, even though I'm inactive now because of what I'm trying to accomplish with my book and my movie. I'm trying to show my kids that just because your daddy was a gang member or a gang leader, that don't mean I can't change and do something productive.
- Courtesy Little Rock Police Department
Judge Wendell Griffen
Born in Delight (Pike County), Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen also serves as the pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock. In the 1990s, as the pastor of Little Rock's Emmanuel Baptist Church on West 12th Street, he saw the insidious creep of gang violence.
It was in the '80s that those of us who had some direct involvement in community life could see things changing. We knew we had more and more young people and young adults that were being involved with the gangs in one way or another. We were seeing incidents that were more than the run-of-the-mill youthful indiscretions. More armed confrontations. More drug-related confrontations involving firearms. We were getting the impression that the forces behind the drug movement had shifted inland from California and Miami to the heartland. We could see it in the kinds of things that were happening to kids.
The ministers could see it. Jim Dailey was the mayor at the time, and the ministers were trying to tell him we had a gang problem. [City leaders] would say, "Stop saying that. It's bad for business. Bad for tourism." I was in the room.
These are people who were saying to the public, "We don't have a gang problem." Folks were burying kids. Their mamas were calling me in the middle of the night, saying, "My kid just got jumped into a gang" or "My kid got jumped on because he won't join a gang."
There were people who had positions of power and influence who heard the truth, which they chose not to heed. There are none so blind as those who choose not to see. But we weren't surprised we weren't being heeded. I was the pastor of the congregation of Emmanuel Baptist Church between 1988 and 2001. Gang signs were painted on the side of our church. I didn't need the mayor of Little Rock to tell me whether we had a gang problem. I didn't need the mayor talking to me, I needed the mayor listening to me.
I had young people in the congregation who were living in the 'hood, dealing with the Oak Street Posse, the Bloods and the Crips. These kids knew to get in the bathtub when gunfire started. They had the hypervigilance of combat, which means they no longer were kids. When a kid has to go to a funeral of a classmate shot by a stray bullet in a drive-by, you're no longer a kid. When the mayor said, "We don't have a gang problem," that kid's parents know their kid's life doesn't matter. Young people saw that their lives didn't matter.
We ended up on HBO as entertainment. The HBO documentary wasn't fair to the city, nor to the community. One of the hooks of the story is that nobody would expect heartland like Little Rock, Ark., to be a place where gang warfare happens. When the HBO thing came up, folks in Little Rock and our leaders were doing a backfill about how surprised they were. We weren't surprised. When the reality came home, the city leaders scrambled, as politicians do, to try and find a fix. The fix they found is the kind of mess we see responsible for police-community relations being bad in New York, Ferguson, Baltimore and around the country. What you do is you militarize the cops. You call this a war on drugs, when actually it is people who don't have jobs, who don't have work. They are being forced into an underground economy.
We poured money on the police. Instead of putting supermarkets in black neighborhoods that will hire black people as stockers and assistant managers and give them career choices, we moved supermarkets. We allowed neighborhoods to become food deserts and allowed people to rely on convenience stores, which also are places where folks can gather to exchange contraband.
Every week, week in, week out, churches, pastors, youth leaders were trying to come up with programs. But it is more than the local community can do alone. When Little Rock moved from a manufacturing to an information-based economy and people in business were not investing in the neighborhood, you've got two options: leave if you can, or survive as best you can. No churches have enough resources to build a Timex factory. How much can you preach: Don't do drugs, don't steal, don't join a gang, when the only people with money were drug dealers?
- Brian Chilson
- COLORS: A collection of belts and buckles made by gang affiliated inmates in Arkansas prisons.
I am no apologist for gangs. But nature abhors a vacuum. And when there is an economic vacuum of jobs, when the education system is being systematically re-engineered against the interests of your community and your family, when the political establishment is both willfully ignorant and callously dismissive of your concerns about safety and security, when a young person has a choice between being killed individually or having a sense of being safe as part of a gang, we are given a devil's set of options.
We could have invested in the black kids but we chose not to. We're not dealing with root causes. These are kids who need us to invest in them, give them a more excellent way, other choices other than killing themselves or other people.
They aren't the problem. We are.
My problem with "Bangin' in Little Rock" was it made it look like these folks were the problem. The gangs were a symptom, a glaring symptom. But the root cause was not the gangs. The root cause was City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce and folks sitting in air conditioned buildings making deals to export precious city resources west of University and west of Shackleford, away from communities that needed us to invest in them. We created the disease that produced a symptom called "Bangin' in Little Rock." We chose to disinvest in the health of our center city and mis-invest in the wealth of what was at that time woodlands. Now, of course, they go out to Chenal and play rounds of golf and talk about their kids going to Pulaski Academy or CAC and Episcopal Collegiate and they don't give a damn about how things are going in the Little Rock School District.
There was a colossal and calculated decision to invest away from people who needed the city to invest most in them. And I will say this to my dying day: There is a special place in a bad place for folks who have the power to make a difference for good for those who are the least [but] who intentionally use their power to make the privileged more comfortable.
Simply put, it was racism. People who did it will say that's an unfair charge because they don't have a bigoted bone in their body. That's because they don't understand the insidious and pernicious nature of racism. I use the term "cultural incompetence" because it's less threatening. At bottom, it is racism. And here's the nasty, unpopular truth: The dominant society in Arkansas and this nation has never cared about communities of color except to the extent that communities of color could serve their interests for profit.
Did Little Rock learn anything from those days? It has learned something, but has it learned the right things? And the answer is no. We haven't learned that Little Rock cannot succeed if poor people are treated as the problem, as opposed to a reflection of our insincerity and hypocrisy. Little Rock cannot succeed if we believe we can heal violence with more violence, and exchange the dollars of street gangs with dollars for police officers and task forces that run around and throw flash bangs in people's houses.
Police officers are the containment force. The reason the black community has such a distrust of the term "community policing" is that the police have never been part of our community. They have been the force applied to our community, by people who wanted us to be kept separate from them.
- Courtesy Little Rock Police Department
Former Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was elected mayor by the Little Rock city Board of Directors under the old system in 1993. In 1995, he became the first popularly elected Little Rock mayor since the 1950s. He served three four-year terms before leaving public office in 2006.
I can still almost see myself sitting there when we realized we were in the headlines nationally as one of the highest homicide-rate cities in the nation. Most of it at that time was young people against young people and it was gang related. There were several things that went on at that time to try to address the problem. Everybody was aware of it. I can remember the business community calling me and the city manager and saying, "This has got to stop. What are you going to do about it, mayor?"
Part of it is public safety, policing. Part of it is, how do we get to the root of the problem? I remember that one of the things we tried to do at that time was to make sure to pull the community together and we also put together what was called the Future Little Rock. That ended up being about a 2-year-long community goal-setting process. The reason we were successful passing a half-penny sales tax was primarily because people were scared about the crime issues, scared about the national attention. The Convention Bureau was sitting there saying, "We have people calling questioning whether they should come to Little Rock." It hit us economically. Alltel was saying, "We're recruiting people to Little Rock to work here and their families are saying, 'Oh my God! That place is crazy. You'll get killed just by being in the town.'"
I disagree with anybody who says we tried to cover up the problem. I don't think there was ever any attempt to keep it quiet. In fact, when "Bangin' in Little Rock," the HBO special, hit, that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back community wide. I totally disagree that there was any attempt to hide it. I do think that there was probably ignorance on the part of everybody at the level this thing was bubbling up to.
I think we were shocked when we suddenly realized that this was not just something that was a blip on a radar screen, something that was going to go away. I can remember Lou Caudell, who was our police chief at the time, coming before us when we started to see the numbers going up. He said this had slipped up on them. It was like, all of a sudden, wham, it was here.
He explained part of it as Little Rock being a crossroads of Interstate 30 and Interstate 40 and the trafficking of drugs from Texas or wherever it was coming from — Mexico, or you name it. But trafficking of drugs became the business model. This is a huge problem. How do we address it?
It was an incremental thing. It was like, let's work through this process and let the public get engaged in it. I chaired the public safety task force, which was one of probably a dozen or so task forces we had. And what came out of that public safety task force was, No. 1, we needed more police. That was part of it. And No. 2, we needed to get to the root cause of this. Why are these kids doing this and what can be done about it? The more you dig into that, the more you find that maybe they were without a job. Maybe they had a dysfunctional family. Maybe they had no incentive to try to do something that was positive. Their family, many times, became the gangs. Then it became a gang war that ended up with kids being killed by kids.
Ultimately we passed a half-penny sales tax to fund some of the initiatives of that Future Little Rock vision. Part of the reason that passed was because people knew a big chunk of that money was going to hiring new police officers. So part of it was to get it under control and get new police officers in place. But the other part that we did in Future Little Rock was working with New Futures for Youth and other groups. We had some of these contracts that helped us set up some programs that could be a benefit to the neighborhoods and a benefit to connecting with young people in ways that hopefully would solve some of the problems. We established what we called neighborhood alert centers in 15 or so neighborhoods that were most affected by the high crime rate, each kind of a miniature city hall. You had the police department that worked out of there, code enforcement that worked out of there, and you had someone who was kind of the neighborhood advocate, the neighborhood connector, so they helped to bring people together. We also worked harder on supporting the idea of the growth of neighborhood associations and City Hall working with neighborhood associations so you get that kind of feedback back and forth. We also created a fund that we still call PIT — Prevention, Intervention and Treatment. We have about $3 million set up per year in that initial PIT fund. We had a couple of agencies we were already working with like New Futures for Youth and we continued to fund them. But then we advertised for certain types of programs that might work with youth and hopefully that would begin to develop over a period of 5 or 6 or 10 years a change in behavior, a change in patterns, and what needed to be done to connect to these individuals. So anyway, that's the long way to tell you what was going on and that this was a serious problem, multilayered, with law enforcement needs, with social needs, with intervention needs.
- Courtesy Little Rock Police Department
One of the things that I did at that time, and fortunately the media honored it and did not publicize it, is that I started visiting the homes of the families of every victim that was killed. Ultimately, I put together a small group of folks, and we'd go to the homes, visit with the family members. We would say, "We just want you to know we care. What can we do to help you?" Sometimes it was a family that had no money and the electricity was just about to be turned off. It wasn't always that they were bad kids. Some of them were incidental victims.
Some of the families, you'd go into their homes and you could tell it was really very unsettled. And then you'd go into another one and they'd want to show you the pictures of their family and their kids.
I remember going into one home. It was a rainy afternoon. They let us in, and the grandfather of this young man who had been killed was in home care, in a bed there in what was the living room. The grandmother was sitting in another room with a fireplace going, sitting there in a rocking chair. We came in, and she didn't so much want to talk about the loss of her grandchild. She showed us the certificates of her granddaughter, who was living with her, who was in school and was doing well with her grades. She wanted to show us that. That's what she wanted to focus on. Her husband is here dying in the living room, she's just lost her grandchild, and she's focused on the future. That's the good we saw.
Over a period of probably three years I would imagine that I visited with about 100 families. I still, every now and then, will run into one of these individuals. They will just come up and give me a hug and say, "Mayor, I'll never forget that you came to visit us when we were hurting."
I think it would be hard not to have learned something. Probably the thing I learned, that took a little while for it to sink in, was that we must deal with these major problems at the human level. I grew up in the business world. There's a balance between the natural reaction, particularly for a businessman or a conservative, to say, "We can fix that now," and the reality that you can't, in most cases, just fix it now. You've got centuries of history. And to change that, you don't just walk in and say, "We're going to take over and everything is going to be fine," and declare martial law in the streets of your city.
In reality, you've got offenders out there that have made bad choices. Are there things that we can do, even though it takes time, to reduce the number of those individuals? If we just got them off the street, things might be better. But if we just get them off the streets, we haven't addressed the neighborhood issues and the [inequality] of different parts of the city. We haven't addressed the code enforcement in East Little Rock. We haven't shuttered or boarded up or removed certain houses that are the places that the gangs have their meetings and all that. We don't bring people together in the neighborhoods. The thing I've learned is that there's just no simple answer to the issue.
- Brian Chilson
- DETECTIVE HURD: "A lot of Times you almost end up as a surrogate parent for some of these dudes."
Detective Todd Hurd
A 23-year veteran of the Little Rock Police Department, Detective Todd Hurd is the only law enforcement officer in Arkansas who is certified as an expert witness in both state and federal court on the subject of gangs. During his career, he has worked undercover extensively, developing intelligence on Little Rock gangs. We spoke with him at Community Bakery on Main Street, just blocks from what had once been some of the city's most violent neighborhoods.
Before LRPD, I was a detention officer with the North Little Rock Police Department. Before that, I was a residential treatment counselor at Youth Home Inc. out there on Col. Glenn, working with psychiatrically disturbed young people. Now I work with psychiatrically disturbed older people, my co-workers mainly. Youth Home is what got me interested in it, because I had close contact with kids who were active gang members. I was fresh out of college, and I had a Blood, a Crip, a Gangster Disciple, a white supremacist skinhead, and they're all living in the same house. As a white kid from West Little Rock, I picked up on a lot of stuff very quickly. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to do law enforcement, especially gangs. In 1992, I got hired by LRPD.
The officers that were on the streets knew we had a gang problem. When I hit the streets, it was all people talked about. At the time, it was City Hall that was in the denial phase of it. In all reality, it's because it was bad for business. Nobody wants that to be the heading of the first thing that people think about as far as your city goes. The problem with that is, when the HBO special hit the air, they lost all control over that. Then it was, at that time, it was about trying to mitigate the damage that the nationwide press coverage was giving.
You've also got to remember Clinton was running for president at that time period, too. At the same time we were guarding him at the Governor's Mansion, you were hearing gunfire every night from the surrounding neighborhoods. These Secret Service guys who aren't from here, they're diving under their vehicles. We're trying to explain to them, "Look, this is just how it is. Nobody is shooting at you." Then we made national news with the shooting that happened at 1519 Hanger. That probably would not have made the news, but for Clinton and the attention that Little Rock and Arkansas was getting at the time. A couple of kids were shot. The baby was shot severely, and it was done with an AK-47 type rifle. I mean, it was like a one-two punch for the mayor and the city board of directors. Helen Keller could not have denied it at that point. It was everywhere.
They started with small units around the police department. The first one was just called "The Goon Squad." It was several guys and a sergeant that had citywide run, and they went to hot calls, did a lot of stuff in the housing projects, a lot of narcotics arrests, a lot of gun arrests. When we got to the point where we needed more bodies doing this type of work, then they created the Zero Tolerance Task Force. Zero Tolerance was a combination of patrol officers that were pulled out of the neighborhoods that had been working these areas previously, combining them with plainclothes narcotics detectives and plainclothes intelligence detectives that were gathering information on street gangs. So within the intelligence unit, there was the seed corn, if you will, of the formation of what we have today.
Back then, with Zero Tolerance, we had face-to-face contact with these guys. We weren't working accidents or domestic disturbances. We were going from shooting to shooting, from robbery to drug deal. We were dealing with gang- member-specific complaints and incidents, so we were going all over the city to the gang hot spots. As we got there and we made contact with those individuals, we could take their photographs, we could check them for tattoos, specifically gang-related tattoos, we could do things like hopefully obtain information on what their nickname was, their street name, and get these guys while they were in a group. That one-on-one contact with these gang members was very important. It really took us from being the per-capita murder capital of the United States down to somewhat of a manageable level. We knew all the players, we knew how to lay hands on them if need be.
- PARAPHERNALIA: An assortment of used crack pipes seized by LRPD detectives in the 1990s.
A lot of the interactions I had differed from gang member to gang member, neighborhood to neighborhood. There were some neighborhoods where I could get out of the car, and you'd hear 20 gang members going "Huuuuuurd!" as I'm getting out. There would usually be one or two that would run, because they're the ones with the guns and the dope on them while the others were yelling my name. But there was an acceptance. I was part of their culture. Some of them would do little rap songs and my name would be in the rap song and stuff like that. They knew my days off. They knew if I gained weight, lost weight, cut my hair, changed my partner. Anything like that.
I went with my daughter when she was little to Park Plaza to go Christmas shopping, and I see a group of about 15 Blood gang members that I had this better relationship with. I'm thinking: I've got my 3-year-old kid with me. I knew there was no way I could get out of this place without them seeing me. So I had a choice to make: either they see me sneaking off, or I go up and say something to them. So, the biggest one had his back to me. Even though he was the biggest one, he was the softest one out of the bunch. So I go up to him, and I've got my daughter by the hand. I go up to him and I stick my finger in his back and I say, "Give it up!" He hits the ceiling, and all his buddies start laughing at him: "Hey man, Hurd got you, man!" So I introduce them to my daughter, and of course, they look like the Arkansas Razorbacks with the colors, head to toe in red. This is when the Power Rangers were big. They said, "Hey little Hurd, what do you want for Christmas?" She said, "I want a yellow Power Ranger!" And in unison, they said, "Nooooo! You want a RED Power Ranger!" She's 3, and she's looking at these 15 gang members and she's giving them the stink eye and a wrinkled-up nose. She's like, "red?!"
Stuff like that happens, but then you get other stuff that happens when violence occurs. You go from getting out of the car and hugging on some of these guys to the bitter end of something as horrible as [a murder]. It can change at a moment's notice.
I do care for some of them. I've lost some. You've got to remember, they're still in the gang. It's tough. You're involved with these people. You hear when they're having problems with their old ladies. You hear when they're having trouble at work. When they're having money trouble. When somebody is trying to get them to do something they're trying to get out of. You hear all that stuff and a lot of times you end up almost as a surrogate parent for some of these guys. I had one dude, he got out of prison, and I was driving him around. We were just talking about where he needed to get a job. He said he'd turned in an application at this particular place. I said, "Dude, I'm really proud of you." And this guy, muscled up, just out of prison, this guy started bawling in my front seat. He said, "Nobody has ever told me that they're proud of me."
A lot of the time, those relationships are formed under the most adversarial conditions. We're not sitting down in a coffee shop and kickin' it. A lot of times, many of these relationships are formed when I'm jumping out of a vehicle with a gun in my hand. It starts from there.
I've been married a couple times. The first one didn't work out. The second one is hopefully the last. So I've only proposed to two women. Officially. But in my role as a gang intelligence detective, I've actually proposed to three. I'd never proposed to an African-American woman before, until I was on my knee in a house in midtown, giving this girl a ring and reading a letter to her from her boyfriend that was in prison. He'd sent me the proposal. I had gotten a deal for him from the local jeweler for the tiniest, most bullshit diamond you can imagine. I proposed to her for him. So you do all sorts of different things that never make the paper. I hate to say it's the job, because that's not part of the job. It's just something that kinda goes along with the job.
Most of the news people get comes from the Police Beat, which is three to five stories. They think Police Beat is all that happened. For their sanity, that may be a good thing, because knowing all that I know, it sort of makes the town haunted. If I'm driving through a neighborhood, I can't help but think, "OK, we hit a search warrant at that house. We had a shooting right there. A kid burned up in a house fire right there." You can't go anywhere in the town without running into something. As I'm sitting here, I'm thinking of all the stuff that used to happen when Juanita's was just down the street, and they'd let out, and they're shooting in the parking lot. Just craziness.
It's sort of like, if you're driving down the interstate and you see a grouping of flowers? Well, a lot of people think, "Probably somebody had a wreck there and somebody probably died." If they did that where all these killings had taken place in Little Rock, it would freak you out.
- Brian Chilson
- KEN RICHARDSON: "You never know the impact you're going to have on someone."
Little Rock City Director Ken Richardson grew up near 12th Street, and has been involved in youth intervention and trying to steer kids away from the gangs since he moved back to his home state of Arkansas from California in 1992. He currently serves as the director of program services for the Little Rock nonprofit group New Futures for Youth.
If you ask people why they join gangs, it's basic human needs. None of them join to do drive-by shootings and sell drugs. They ultimately do that. When you ask them why they joined, it's a sense of family, love, acceptance, power, respect, money, a sense of belonging. We all need that. You expect to get those things from your home, but if you're coming from a broken home, you won't get that. Once upon a time, when I was growing up — and I don't want to date myself — but if your home didn't provide it, then your extended family would. Your blood family or your community. So you've got these folks coming from fractured communities and fractured homes and they tried to find anywhere they could to get that sense of belonging, acceptance, love, respect, power, power over your own life. That's why they would join.
When I came back to Little Rock, I saw remnants of what I saw in California. I saw a lot of colors. I saw a lot of graffiti. Obviously I saw a lot of the violence in certain parts of the community. I saw the community disintegration in the inner core of our city.
When I left [Arkansas] in '84, it wasn't like that at all. We certainly didn't have the gang violence. We certainly didn't have the high number of young people disconnected from positive institutions. It was a good place. A nice place to live. If you had a homicide, if a young person was killed, and especially if he was killed by another young person, that was an aberration. If a young person was killed back then, everything would stop. Unfortunately, I think that's why our gang problem grew to what it was: We didn't have that same mindset. We had young people dying in record numbers, and we were going about business as usual. We had young people dying in record numbers, where both the victim and the perpetrator were 14 or 15 years old, and society would not stop. We kept having our banquets. We kept going about our day-to-day routine. I think that sent the wrong signal to young people: that your lives don't matter. That we don't value you. They would internalize that and play that out among their peer groups.
Look at these communities that produced these gangs. Do a drive-through right now. What are you going to see? A bunch of boarded-up, vacant homes. Empty, vacant lots. It's almost like one of those old war movies, where they've dropped a bomb on a city. In Little Rock, the bomb that was dropped wasn't a neutron bomb, or an atom bomb. It was a bomb of crack cocaine, and it tore families. That's why a lot of those kids weren't getting the basic human needs from their home. Had it not been for crack, you probably wouldn't have had as strong of a gang problem as we had.
When I came home, I was doing direct coordination of a YIP site, the Youth Initiative Project. It was the first gang intervention and prevention program in the city of Little Rock. Once we got them in the program, we'd provide activities for them. We had a three-pronged approach. There was recruitment, enrichment and empowerment. The enrichment phase is where we talk to them about conflict resolution, getting them to get away from those abnormal-normal cultures — the cultural norms they accepted which were abnormal.
A lot of those kids didn't see any hope. They didn't see a future for themselves. What we had then, and I think it's creeping back, is a dangerous combination of hopelessness and fearlessness. They didn't have any hope for anything. They didn't fear anything. So all bets are off. What we were trying to do is trying to give them a chance to see themselves in the future. Give them a chance to see themselves doing something differently. All they thought they had in their lives was what they were doing. They didn't think they had anything else beyond bangin' and slangin' and hangin' and gangin'.
Out of my initial group, I lost five. Five out of 25. The youngest was 14 and the oldest was 17. All of them were killed in drive-by shootings. It was terrible. It was like you were losing your own kid. It's the worst feeling. To watch the impact it has on the other kids in the program was one of the most disheartening parts. It gives them a different mindset. It gives them the opportunity to say, "If it happened to Cray, it's probably going to happen to me. If it happened to Cedric, it's probably going to happen to me. If it happened to Robert, it's probably going to happen to me." The sense of hopelessness creeps in and gets reinforced.
- Courtesy Little Rock Police Department
We had that idiotic documentary ["Bangin' in Little Rock"] come out that really reinforced some idiotic actions. That was horrible, too. I was approached about letting some of my kids participate, and I said, "No, we're not going to do that." They ended up filming some of my kids anyway. There are some kids in that documentary that were hardcore gang members, and there were others that were just acting out for the camera. A lot of those kids in that documentary weren't hardcore gang members. After that came out, they were labeled as, viewed as, and unfortunately unfairly penalized as hardcore gang members. They'd go to school after that documentary came out and get identified as troublemakers, get singled out. They were labeled. I think if President Clinton had not won that election that year, we never would have seen that documentary.
This is always a big challenge: How do you generate sympathy and empathy for a group of people that society, both black and white, wants to write off and throw away, just because of their income level and just because, geographically, where they live? I've gone to far more funerals of young people than I care to remember or acknowledge. And the disheartening thing is to be in a church with about 100 young people and 10 adults. You've got these young people trying to help figure this out, trying to help each other figure it out, trying to help make sense out of nonsense. And you go to the church and there's a hundred kids in there and 10 adults, and that's the pastor and the ushers and the people that belong to that church. You didn't have a community of adults trying to help these kids figure this out, to help them grieve, to help them understand what it is that's happening with them and to them. None of those kids have the maturity — no training, no experience — to help another youngster through grief. That was the insane part about it in my mind. You've got these babies holding each other, crying, and trying to provide for each other and console each other.
What I learned personally from those days is the value of consistent, caring adults in the lives of young people, and what that means. You can't measure that. You can't quantify it. I know it means a hell of a lot. I had a young lady who was in my program who posted on Facebook on Father's Day: "Happy Father's Day, Pops." She always called me Pops. She let everybody know that I've done more for her than her own father has. That resonates, when you see something like that. She was in my program 20 years ago. These kids, I see them now and they're grown. They're 30, 35. And they still call me Mr. Ken. They still look at me as Mr. Ken.
You never know the impact you're going to have on someone. I didn't know it then. I was just doing it because I was concerned about them. I didn't want them to get in trouble. But it stays with them. I see them today and know how important that is. That's what I learned: the importance of that. I didn't know it then. You wouldn't know it. There were people who were mentors of mine growing up and they probably don't even realize the impact they had on my life. I think about the things they instilled in me. When you make those kinds of connections, they become your extended family. They're not numbers. They're family. They stay with you for the rest of your life, in your mind and your heart.
- Brian Chilson
- KEYON NEELY: "You're not an official set if you didn't get someone from The Land to come here."
A member of the West Side Pirus, a Blood set centered near 14th and Elm streets, Keyon Neely might be the oldest 37-year-old you'll ever meet. He's been shot multiple times, once severely enough to leave him paralyzed for months while nerve damage healed. His eyes are the eyes of a man who has seen things he shouldn't. Along with plentiful tattoos representing his love for West Side and his neighborhood, his arms are covered in the tattooed names of the dead.
Thirteenth and Elm. Right there where it all started at. That's why our 'hood is 14th and Elm. West Side Piru. We actually had a guy that come down from California. You're not really an official set if you didn't get someone from The Land to come here. Cali. Someone to actually put their feet down here and be like, "Yeah, this gonna be my new stomping ground. Right here." He was West Side Piru.
I was coming down here in the summer from Georgia. My mom was married to a guy in the military, Fort Benning. But I was coming down here for the summer and staying with my grandparents. There weren't any gangs then. Maybe a year or two later was when the guy came from Cali and it began.
We went way back before all of that, our brotherhood. We were like family. Everybody stayed across the street from each other. We weren't a gang then. You just couldn't come in this neighborhood. Wasn't no breaking into Mrs. Parker's house. Ain't no stealing Mrs. Jones' car. I mean, you had fiends back then. But more or less, we just went out to the Heights stealing bikes. Man, y'all making me go back. That was a great time. Worry-free.
You start out killing. Muscle. Off the top, your foundation is built on muscle. It's built on fear. A lot of people are like, "I don't want people to fear me." But it's whatever it takes for you to respect me. You're going to need that [fear] in all situations and you're always gonna need understanding. You've got to have that. You don't want your people to hate you. You never want your constituents to hate you, because they are the only ones that can get to you, they are the closest ones to you. Everybody needs to eat and everybody is gonna follow money, even the people that don't like you are going to follow the money. Now no one is going to rob you, no one's going to come to your neighborhood. No one's going to sell in your neighborhood and even if someone's over in your neighborhood, they're selling your dope.
Now, here comes the help. Here comes the humanitarian that you have to have in you with being a leader. This comes with feeding your people. The guys that don't have the hustle or the drive that we have to get up, get out and go get it, you still got to feed them, too. You have to feed your people. You feed your people and they're less likely to tell on you. Less likely to stab you in the back. Less likely to be the ones to set you up or to take a couple dollars from the police to make a phone call to you. Because it's like, "Nah, dude, last time I was over here, man, he gave me $50 when I told him my phone was getting cut off." You never turn nobody down, you making too much money to turn somebody down. Never turn nobody down, that's what's keeping these people in check. All that comes with building a great foundation. A great foundation will stand firm even though everything else around you is in disarray. No matter who's at the top, different changes, the foundation was built right. That's why we had generations of West Side. We didn't come and go.
We kept on a business mind. Back then you had people, seven or eight people, out here on this block, all shuffling for these dope sales that's pulling up in these cars. When the cars pull up, people were actually running to these cars trying to get to these people. Guess they call that proper networking. But these guys were actually building something then, they didn't know it. They were building something then on respect. That's what we did back then and those guys were really out there just like corporations today, muscling to get to the demand. You had to do certain things so that nobody runs up to your certain cars, and when someone does run to your car, you say, "Hey, man. Come over here and come holla at me right quick behind that house," and hopefully the other guy can fight just as good as his heart thought he could for running up on my sale, 'cause I'm gonna beat his ass. He's taking money out of my pocket.
Once you've done that, then you've got it established. No one fucks with your sales, when you see the white four-door Honda Accord, everyone knows don't run to that car, that's such-and-such's car, and no one would fuck with them.
I went to Varner Unit when I was 15. I was down in Marianna, Phillips County. I had about $1,100 in my pocket, and I had another guy with me. He was older than me. We went down there to get some dope. I'm sitting in the backseat. He in the front and the other guy is in the front. The other guy reached to the back like he was pointing a gun, I grabbed the gun, he shot and it shot him — shot the guy in the front. So I pull my gun out and I shoot him: "Boom!" He gets out the car, he's running, so I jump out the car. My mind was crazy back then. I'm shooting. I'm just a-shooting. He gets hit a couple more times, but he lived. We ended up getting locked up for that. I got 10 years with seven suspended under Act 371, First Time Offenders Act. Never been in no trouble before. Never got caught before, because I lived by that: not getting caught.
Prison was different then. No one from West Side was in prison yet. It was a younger gang, established but still young. It was Highland Court, Granite Mountain, and 21st, things of that nature. These guys were in their 40s. So I was the first one from my neighborhood to come to prison. And when I got there they were asking me, "Who you know? Where you from?" And it was great that the guy who originated our set was from California so we had the stamp. We were certified. That protected me somewhat. You still have to have a certain way you carry yourself, as a man, going the way prison goes. It's not quite where Martha Stewart was.
In those days, we were over here straight at war. Like literally at war. I was shot five times in my back and on the same day my brother was shot two times. I had a colostomy bag put in because of it. Dude tried to shoot me in the head and I hit the gun. It shot me in the back and it came out here. God was taking care of me back then 'cause I was a fool. God only protects fools and babies, man, fools and babies. We didn't know any better.
Religion is 100 percent based on faith, believing in your heart something that you cannot see. History is something that you can't deny. I try to separate religion and history. It's what helped me stop being so violent. I found some of the pieces that were missing. I went to private school and we read the Bible, and it opens with: "Let us create man in our image."
If you believe in that, that's a great thing, because I do, too. Hell, I was gonna die for my neighborhood. Who's to say someone wouldn't die for your soul? How can you be from the streets and claiming a neighborhood, and not believe someone was going to die for your sins? You don't even own a house over here! Yet you were willing to die for someone who was willing to steal from you and lie to you. How can you deny the man who showed you His true intentions? He was nailed to a cross for your sins.
I always question: "What the fuck did you get out of that, man, besides some bullet holes and not being able to bear arms and protect your family 'cause you're a felon?" I learned then what not to do in grown life. I realized that I didn't know there were that many people following, that many people watching, even outside of your neighborhood. I didn't understand that. But I always did it right and I'm glad I did. I'm still in good standing with everybody, 'cause I did it right. I always broke bread, made sure everybody ate. I split a few hairs, beat a couple of charges, did a couple of bids, but I always did it right. And I'm not the only one. That's why it's still going on, because I'm not the only head that played it right. There's a lot of heads that played it right.
I'm amazed I'm still alive. That's why I'm always smiling all the time! Nothing bothers me! My wife be like, "Can you tell the kids to be quiet?" Man, I was in prison with some motherfucking voices I was forced to listen to. You couldn't shut 'em up or tune 'em out, even with headphones. You didn't have any control over that. Those are my kids. I love their little voices down there yelling. I missed that, so it doesn't bother me, because I know I was supposed to be dead and gone, man. Like seriously, no bullshit. All my homeboys are either in prison or tattooed on my arm.
Now I see the product of those cracked-out moms: these crazy motherfuckers out here right now. I see that and it kind of scares me. That's the part that hurts; the part that makes you wake up and say, "We've got to end this, now." I didn't understand that back then. That the dope you're selling is destroying two generations, the mother and the child that's inside her.
When I talked to my wife about it, she asked if I felt guilty. Now I do. But you can't escape reality. That book never closes. If you were real, if you were serious, a real gangsta, you never really leave the streets. The guys that you killed back in the day, the ones that got locked up, their sons are 20 years old now. They shooting now. Somebody is telling them, "The guys who shot your daddy are over there."
- Courtesy Little Rock Police
- REAL ENOUGH TO GET YOU KILLED: A BB gun taken off a young gang member by LRPD Detective Todd Hurd in the 1990s.
John Johnson is the chief deputy prosecutor in the Pulaski County Prosecutor's Office. He's worked there since 1990, and served as the gang division chief through the worst of the violence.
We tried a lot of murders. When I started, I had been in circuit court a very short amount of time before I tried my first murder case, so I didn't know any different. It was just the norm to be trying murder case after murder case. It was so tit-for-tat — a lot of retaliatory homicides, graffiti related to someone being killed. And once it was able to be interpreted, there were more clues. It was a different world for the investigations and the investigators. You went from one case to the other. That's just what you did. At the time, when you're doing it, it never made sense. You always wanted to believe that there was something more to it. I think that was the general public perception to it, too. It was hard to believe that that [gang affiliation] was the cause for people being killed and killing.
To some extent, Little Rock was in a weird circumstance. It would be an interesting sociological study. The state used to be so agrarian, then you had all the people who were raised here who went to the cities to raise their families, but they left Grandma and Grandpa back home. Things went to hell in the cities, so they started sending their kids back to good ol' Arkansas, to live with the grandparents. And that's how a lot of the gangs got to Arkansas. It's weird to think about how all that came about.
We knew there was a gang problem early on because the police knew. City Hall was denying that we had gangs or that there was a problem. But you heard it from the police. You saw it in your case files. It's hard for me to speculate on the part of city officials, but I think that it was sort of like having a disease and not wanting to believe it was true. It was happening everywhere else, just not here. It was happening in Los Angeles.
You look back now and it's like Mayberry. I don't know if that's a good analogy. But the innocence — and by innocence, I mean not knowing, the lack of awareness of what was going on — was pretty amazing.
It wasn't spelled out the way it would be now. The police would talk about things being gang-related, but they were really undefined terms for us back then. You didn't have a sense of what it meant when it was gang-related. Back then it was an amorphous term that lacked definition. It was about what area you were in, what colors you were wearing, what side your hat was turned to. Back then, gang-related meant that someone was killed because they were in the wrong part of town, claiming different colors. Someone gets shot. Then there would be a very direct and specific retaliation against the people who did that. Of course it didn't make much of a difference if they got the actual person who did it, so long as they got the group of people that did it.
You asked me about a case that stood out. There was a group called the Southwest Kings. They started out in Southwest Little Rock and because of white flight, they went to Cabot. All these kids went to school out there. There was a fight [between gang members and athletes] that turned into a shootout on the parking lot in Sherwood. There was a kid that was killed. All the shooters were Southwest Kings. So you had one guy who was initially involved in the fight and all these other high school kids who showed up to watch the fight. Then a Honda pulls on the lot and [the kid inside] starts shooting. The beginning, the genesis of it all, was the Southwest Kings throwing up gang signs at the athletes and following them onto the parking lot. This was at the beginning of the gang warfare thing.
The judge, Judge [Marion] Humphrey, refused to allow any testimony that they were in a gang. For obvious reasons the defense didn't want the jury to know that their clients were gang members, but from our standpoint that was the motive for the fight. That was why there was a confrontation on the parking lot. That's why they were there: One guy who was in the fight and the two others who showed up out of loyalty to back him up, they pull out their guns and end up shooting our victim. He's running away and catches a bullet in the back.
The rationale that the judge used is, "How are you going to prove he's in a gang?" Well, we have people who can say they've seen them throwing up the gang sign at parties, they wore L.A. Kings hats because of the crown. The traditional way you would prove it now. He called it hearsay and asked, "What's the difference between being a part of that organization and being in the Boy Scouts?" It was very frustrating.
As time went by, we would be able to qualify somebody from LRPD as the gang expert and put them on the stand to talk about clothing and signs and initiations and graffiti. It was a process that you just had to go through.
It was hard to get people to flip. It wasn't other gang members who were testifying, it was other people who had witnessed the crime or other evidence that led you back to who the actual shooter was.
I had one witness who was a kid and he plain ol' disappeared. He was at the alternative school. I would go pick him up and bring him in to talk. It was Friday one day when I was taking him back. He wanted to stop at the Kroger down the street and get some groceries. We pull up to the store and there's some guys sitting outside. Well here I am, a white guy, and he's in my crappy car that I was driving at the time. So they're giving him a hard time about being with me, and he was like, "That's my lawyer." It was funny at the time, but it was a relationship you had to build up. And then he disappeared. I don't know what happened to him. I never found out what happened to him.
They were kids and you did feel sympathetic. When you do this job, you need both sides of the coin. There were the people that fell prey to that. But there were just as many if not more people living in those same circumstances that did not. They made a different choice. Yeah, you feel bad not just for the kids, but also for any person in those circumstances. But you look at what they did. It never makes the victim's family feel any better to say, "Hey, he had a tough life."
- Brian Chilson
- DEPUTY PROSECUTOR BARBARA MARIANI: Gang territories are less defined.
Barbara Mariani is a deputy Pulaski County prosecutor. She was hired in January 1997, at the tail end of the gang wars, and once served as the office's gang division chief. She has the unfortunate distinction of being the only prosecutor ever physically attacked in Pulaski County Circuit Court. In July 2004, George Larue Hall, who had just been convicted of two counts of capital murder, lunged across the courtroom and punched her in the face before Little Rock homicide detective Ronnie Smith and fellow prosecutor John Johnson could pull Hall off her. The blow crushed bones in her cheek and eye socket, which required extensive reconstructive surgery to correct.
I came in pretty idealistic. When I first started, I saw everything black and white. There was wrong and right. That was it and that's just the way it was. I just thought, "I'm going to fight the good fight." I was always on the right side. And the more I do this, the more I realize there's a whole lot of gray out there; it's just not that clear. Obviously crime is awful and you have to have laws for everyone to abide by for society to work, but motivations are interesting. I've seen some reasons why people will do things, and it's not always necessarily that they're bad. It's a combination of things that led them there. With maturity I look at them differently. Where did this person come from? How did they get here? Why are they doing what they're doing?
It's different. When I came in, it wasn't like the early '90s at all. But there was gang violence. Sometimes now, different gangs will work together, especially to make money, however that may be. When I came in on it during the tail end, they were pretty separate. The Bloods and Crips did not get along, Folk [Nation] didn't get along with Vice Lords. They were pretty compartmentalized. They still had territories and they still claim those territories, but it was starting to melt away. Now there just aren't defined territories. People are claiming them, but they don't really exist. They are so young, using social media. There are new gangs popping up everywhere. Like, "Hey I'm claiming Crip Polo Group." That's just an example. But it's stuff you've never heard of.
When I was doing it, there were set gangs. You knew where they were. They called themselves the Oak Street Posse, and you knew they were from Oak Street. It's not like that anymore; I think it's changed. Part of that is due to all the prosecutions. After a while, people start to catch on. I think social media has a big impact on it, too.
I do know when I was [in the gang division], the West Side Piru Anarian Chad Jackson was definitely the leader and the head of that. I prosecuted him on two homicides. He's locked up for life. Another one was Antoine Baker. He was a Gangster Disciple. I think they were the last two that were definitely organized. They were the heads of their respective organizations. They had a structure, with people under them. After that it became looser. People were still in the gangs, but I wouldn't say, "That's the leader of that gang." So it's different. I don't know how organized they are, but the belonging is still there.
When I was in the gang unit, I would actually meet gang members and defendants through negotiations. We're talking to them in court with their attorneys, and I'm like, "You know, I kind of like this guy, honestly." I'd meet some of them and think, "That guy is really scary, and is pretty void and would think nothing of killing anyone."
The young kid that's 16 or 17 — he comes from nothing, doesn't have any family, no support system — they get involved because the gangs are a support system. Someone cares about what they're doing. That's just sad, really. I see a kid that could've gone either way, and unfortunately they went the wrong way. That's still is an attractive thing. There's money, let's face it. I mean, what are you going to do? Get a job at McDonald's, and make what? You can take dope somewhere and make so much more. It's quite enticing.
There was some organization, with the police department identifying gang members. Obviously we had a gang unit here; there was a targeted prosecution and law enforcement to try and get those gang leaders, and we did. After Chad Jackson went away to prison for the rest of his life, the West Side Pirus kind of fell apart. There are still people claiming it. Gangster Disciples, I think the same thing; they're still around but they are not a cohesive unit. I think they have cells within them. You can say, "I'm a Blood, but I've got this group of guys here, this group of guys over here, this group of girls here," because every once in a while you'll see that, too. You didn't use to see that, but that goes on too. I think that there are kind of little groups, what I'd call cells, there isn't a hierarchy like I first saw when I started.
I was working with some scary people, but I was never really afraid. Looking at the case files, some of them were crimes of opportunity, some were just really sad situations, people who went really wrong and others were just scary individuals. I never thought of retaliation. A lot of the threats I saw were against witnesses. "You know what happens to snitches" [they'd say], which made it really hard to get people to cooperate. That was the only retaliation I saw. I never saw a retaliation against any prosecutor. When I came, no one in our office had been retaliated against, at least that I was aware of. And I had never seen one attacked in court, I can tell you that [laughs]. It didn't really enter my mind. I guess you might think of it, but you think like everything else: "Well, if it hadn't happened before, why would it happen all of a sudden? It didn't happen in the '90s, why would it all of sudden happen now?" I guess that was my attitude about it.
I'll tell you, "no snitches" is a real thing. It still persists. That's what I consider a code of silence. There are people who have information about unsolved homicides here in Little Rock that could solve them but won't come forward because they are scared. I understand that. Among gang members themselves, it depends. There were some: "I don't care what you give me, I'm not testifying against my brother, I'm not doing it." And there were others who'd say, "I'm looking at too much time, I'll testify against him." I think it just depends on who you talk to. In the high days of the Mafia, no one talked, that's why it worked. But by the time I got here I don't think it was still that organized.
In the early '90s I could see the city thinking that gangs are not that big of a deal. "It's Little Rock. Stop focusing on it." That wouldn't surprise me. But by the time I got here, Little Rock was trying. Todd Hurd worked really hard. He had geographical areas mapped out. He had the areas where the gangs were and where they weren't. He even qualified as an expert on gang identification. He had a pretty extensive database. They were tracking gang members. With other jurisdictions, it was a little bit harder. North Little Rock did all right, but I remember with the other jurisdictions I had to remind them, "When you arrest someone, note their tattoos." We had to constantly ask them to note their tattoos, so we could track them.
I saw a ton of overlap from case to case. I guess you would call it cyclical. I prosecuted this guy on a pretty bad homicide, and he was found not guilty. The identifying witness went south on the witness stand. There's not much you can do about that, so that was that. And that family was pretty hostile towards the prosecutor and the police. About five or six years later he gets shot in his car in the back of the head and gets killed. All of a sudden I'm real close to the family, I'm working with the family. I mean, that happened. It's a strange thing.
My attitude was, a life is a life. It doesn't matter what this person's done in the past or what kind of person he is. No one deserves to be shot in the back of the head and killed. It's difficult to get juries to care. That was one of those difficult things in gang cases. Oftentimes, your deceased victim wasn't the nicest person. The biggest thing is that no one deserves to die horribly, bleeding out, alone out on the street. I don't care what they've done. The second thing is: Is it OK to murder someone so long as they were a "bad person" or as long as they live in a certain area, or as long as the people around them don't care? As a society, is that what you want?
It's really easy to villainize defendants and co-defendants until you sit down and talk to them. They become so much more human to you. I always fight 100 percent for the victims, but I can't have a point of view that excludes sympathy or empathy. I grew up really poor and I am where I am, but at the same time I realize I could have gone another way, save for a few good things that happened in my life. I could have gone another way. You always have to keep that in consideration.
I've sat down with a lot of co-defendants who flipped and just thought to myself, "What a waste. An incredibly awful waste." You get people who say, "I just thought it was going to be aggravated robbery, no one was going to get hurt. We were just going to get some money so we could get a Playstation." Then, all of the sudden, the co-defendant shoots someone. And now it's murder. I sit and talk to them and I'm always wondering: What was going through their minds?
The current director and co-founder of Arkansas Stop the Violence, Walter Crockran is a former gang member turned violence-prevention advocate.
It's like there are two cities, West Little Rock and Little Rock. If something happens in West Little Rock, they're going to camp out, but south of 630, not a chance.
As the city moved west and the violence increased, the city didn't help or care what was happening in our communities. In the black areas of town they put up all these package stores. In West Little Rock and North Little Rock that kind of stuff wasn't allowed to be put up in as high numbers as they were in West End and East End. They were selling items they shouldn't have, encouraged loitering, and no one cared because of where the stores are, who they are serving, and what happens near them. Selling loose cigarettes and other things that are illegal, but no one stops it. Even after the feds have come through and busted them. Those stores are still operating. Woodrow Street and the 12th Street corridor has always been a problem area. Anti-loitering laws were passed and enforced in the '90s, but now not so much. Every day you've got the same people sitting outside these stores, loitering, gambling. You don't see that in West Little Rock. It's almost as if the only way for the neighborhoods to get help is for white residents who live in these neighborhoods to complain. Like the white man who wrote a letter to the mayor about the gang members being in Centennial Park, which was a Crip territory in the '90s. He responded almost immediately and had a sign posted that says you can't be in the park after sunset. Now they're stopping anyone in the park barbecuing and wearing blue because they think they're gang members. But when the real gangsters were out there we couldn't get them to do a damn thing.
The gang violence really started down here when [the 1988 film] "Colors" came out. The California gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, that's when the nonsense started. People were getting killed over shoestring colors.
You had the ones who couldn't make it in the California or Chicago gangs and they came down here and started their own. From Chicago you had the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Shorty Folk and them. A lot of that was copycat. The Folks and the Gangster Disciples that came down here from Chicago weren't Gangster Disciples or Folk in Chicago, they were something else. In Chicago they stacked; down here they only threw up signs. I lived in San Diego for a little bit and it was about colors. In Chicago, not so much. It was more hats and jerseys. A lot of them when they came down here did what they saw on TV. They weren't real. They were copycats. Every area was claiming different things.
A large part of it was the music I was listening to. It became a part of me. I wanted to do it, too. You had to be careful what you were listening to. MC Eiht was making music for the Crips, the Bloods were listening to Suge Knight. They were claiming their areas in their music, too. When the rappers were claiming their set and their area, they were banging on wax. Down here you had Wolfe Street come out with a tape, you had the 490 Clic out on Fourche Dam, they put it on record. People started claiming stuff just because of the music or whatever neighborhood they lived in. The music becomes a part of you; once it's in your bubble it's hard to tune it out.
They were really only killing over colors. I didn't know much about killings over drugs; a lot of these killings were over colors, nothing more, nothing less. And territory. A few of the gangs were actually, like Leifel and them, that were really selling drugs and killing over them. But that was still more of a territory thing, really.
- Brian Chilson
- LEIFEL 'O.G.' JACKSON: "We were guerrilla, and that's what made us so dangerous."
Leifel 'O.G.' Jackson
Leifel Jackson, one of the founders of Little Rock's OG Crips, was — by his own admission — one of the city's most ruthless gang leaders until he went to the federal penitentiary in 1993. Now 53, Jackson has served for over a decade as the director of a nonprofit that offers after-school programs and mentoring for underprivileged children in the old Rock Island Depot in North Little Rock.
I moved to California back in '89 to get away from the drug set here and to go become one of the best chefs in the world. I was 28 when I went to California. I could cook. I won the Junior Chef of the Year award for like three years straight. I worked at Pleasant Valley Country Club, the Little Rock Country Club. We opened up the Capital Hotel. The Packet House. I could cook my butt off, but I had this problem because I started using drugs.
Hollywood! That's what I was picturing in my mind. When my brother Dewitt came and picked me up from the bus station, though, we rolled right past the Hollywood sign. I ended up in the projects in Watts and Imperial Courts. That was Crip territory.
I'll never forget. I saw some dudes hug dudes. My dad raised me to where he always said, "A guy shouldn't hug another guy," because if he did there was something kind of wrong with him. When I moved to California and I seen them dudes hug each other, I was like, "Wow!" They looked like straight guys to me, and they huggin' each other, and they're telling each other "I love you." I'm like, "What am I missing out of my life?" Right there, they had me.
When I came home, my mom was sick from cancer. I always said that was God's way of preparing me for what was to come next. That was the worst death I've ever seen in my entire life, was my mom dying from cancer. I've seen people shot up close, heads took off. To me, that was my worst death. At that point, I stopped getting high. I'll never forget that evening. I walked out on the back porch and said, "I'm done." I can truly say I haven't touched anything since.
As a person who has an addictive personality, I started selling drugs. That was my high. I went to Radio Shack and ordered a whole lot of walkie talkies. We had a base. I would employ young dudes, give them a hundred dollars a day; soldiers to go out and stand on the corners. They would always let me know if some police was coming or something looked strange. That was our drug operation. Fourteenth and Booker. They call it the Four Block.
At that point, I didn't know not one Blood. But things changed really fast. As we started to be a lot more aggressive, I started seeing a whole lot more neighborhoods choose colors. Then you start seeing all the other neighborhoods switch up and become either Crip or Bloods. Within about two or three months, we had gang wars.
At first, it was about confrontation. After the confrontations, then the territory popped in. In carving out territory, more people were killed than you could even imagine. One day you're here, the next day you're gone. Shooting every day. We'd go out just to do that. We used to sit at night, planning ways to get the other sets. It was crazy. I felt like I was at war. I'm looking at some of these people going over to Afghanistan. That's how we felt. Every other night, the whole neighborhood smoked. Not from burning fire. From gunshots. I know I had 70 guns. I had assault rifles. Fifteen or 20. I had an AK-47 that would fold up and go under my arm.
I was very guerrilla warfare-like. I would pull right into the Blood neighborhood with all my blue on, but I would have two dudes up on the corner with rifles way up out of the way. I would ride through a neighborhood and shoot one time in the air, or have a girl ride through in another car and shoot one time in the air. They'd run out from between the houses, and there'd be two cars. They'd be right behind the other car [that shot once] and we'd catch them all in the streets. We were guerrilla, and that's what made us so dangerous. We would set up tactics. We wouldn't just do silly stuff. When we come to get you we were coming to get you, basically. But be mindful: I'm telling you this not in boasting. Don't take it boastful. It's sad that so many people lost their lives in the midst of our ignorance.
I think the city purposely ignored it. Just to have that hanging over you — that we had gangs here — wow. When they finally recognized it and came forward on it was when the shooting happened out on University at the Burger King. That's when it became, "OK, yeah, we've got a problem."
Once the HBO documentary thing happened, after that, money started coming in, funding the programs. You saw the change. There's some people that would argue differently. I think that "Bangin' in Little Rock" and the second one, "Back in the Hood," did something that needed to be done. A light needed to be shined on what was going on. We tend to say, "Whatever happens in our house, let's keep hid. Don't tell nobody." But we couldn't do that with the whole state of Arkansas. People were getting killed daily. It wasn't something that should have been just brushed up under the carpet. But once they did it and aired it, money poured into the intervention programs.
I went to federal prison and got out in 2000, then did two years in the halfway house. When I went away, I'll never forget, I was in a cell with a friend of mine, a little homeboy. He had to come back and do life in state, but he was doing federal time. He asked me, "What are you gonna do when you get out?" I said, "Man, I don't want to see not one more black man getting killed doing stupid stuff. I'm gonna work with kids."
He told me, "Oh, man. You're going to have 150 dudes follow you out here doing wrong. Ain't nobody gonna follow you doing right!" Fast forward, I did my 10 years, he ended up going to the state. He's in Tucker Max. I came home and started working with the youth, and I've been at this program for 15 years. He sent me a letter. He said, "I seen you in the newspaper. Man, you did what you said you was gonna do. So I know I can do better." He started a program down in Tucker Max called UNITY. So I think that, at the end of the day, we have a chance.
I have a lot of trouble myself. I stay up most of the week, because I work, and then I'll take something to make me rest, basically, on the weekend. My mind is bad. I'm always in my mind thinking, "They're gonna come. They're gonna eventually come." I'm always feeling like that. I'm jumpy. I watch everything. I always feel like they're coming. I know that sounds strange, and it may seem like I'm crazy. But I always feel like they're eventually going to come get me. They're going to come in. They think I did the HBO thing and I've got a whole lot of money, or somebody that I have hurt. I don't know. It's just to show you how it is. This has really bothered me.
I was doing coats for kids. I always do a coat drive, and this one guy came in and he needed three coats for three girls and one for his grandson. I had the three girls' coats. I stayed on 11th Street in Little Rock then. This was about two years ago. I said, "I'm going to have to go to my center and get the boy's coat, and I'll bring it tomorrow." I said, "I'll have my neighbor to call you. What's the name to call?"
He said, "I can call you. I know you, man." I said, "You know me?" He said, "Yeah, you saved my life." I said, "How'd I save your life?" So now I'm looking at him.
He said, "You shot me."
He opened up his mouth. He said, "You shot me in my mouth. You shot me in my head, and when I turned to run you shot me in the back of my neck. You shot me in my back and in my butt. I fell right in the ditch."
Then it all dawned on me. I thought this guy was dead. I had went to go take some drugs to someone. I was like, really Crippin'. I didn't care. So I'm in a blue 'Vette with a blue rag around my head, and I'm taking a pound of cocaine to somebody who was a Blood.
When I got out the car, the first thing the dude said was "You C-Rab. You comin' over here with all that [b]lue on?" He brought his hands up. I didn't care. I didn't really argue much. Right when he ran up to me, I started shooting. I didn't know what his intentions was. But the part that he said saved his life was: He was able to sit there and watch me hand his homeboy the drugs, and his homeboy left him. He said, "They went off and left me in a ditch." He said, "You know, that saved me. None of my babies are involved in gangs. You saved my life, because I would have put my life on the line for them." That was deep. Right then, I'm looking at this guy and saying, "Thank you, Lord." Because that was one of my nightmares.
I've learned that when you take a life, there's no coming back from that. When you shoot someone, and they die, there's no second chance. When you take someone from someone, from their kids, from their mother and the father, you can't go back and recreate that person. It has the same effect on you. Once you pull that trigger, you can never go back. Ever.
There's something else that I've learned. I've learned that one person can make a difference. All you've got to do is start doing something positive. I'm living proof. I'm not even supposed to be here. Let me tell it: I thought I was going to die back in those days. I'll never forget, I was coming back from the [horse] races about a month before I went to prison. The person I was riding with asked me, "Where do you see yourself in six months?" I told him, "I see myself dead or in prison for the rest of my life." That was my outlook on myself. So I can imagine the outlook that a lot of these kids have on their selves. But they can make a difference. As long as they're breathing, they can make a difference in this world.CORRECTION: A previous version of this timeline said that Nicole Chunn was permanently paralyzed in a drive by shooting in 1992. Contemporary news accounts said she was disabled after the shooting, but she was not, in fact, paralyzed. We regret this error.