Like a lot of other lobbyists, the young men sitting in the office of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) on Friday wore slick suits or designer jeans as they sought his support for more aid for America’s inner cities.
“We’re here to ask for a better quality of education and for a safe living environment for our children,” Charles Harris, 25, said afterward. “We’re hoping the bills be passed so money gets down to the community.”
It was a solid pitch but it came from an unlikely source.
It so happens that Harris prefers to be called by his nickname, “Chopper.” And he was there representing the interests of the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, where he used to head the local Crips gang.
Outspoken and articulate, Harris and two other former Crips from Los Angeles came to Washington for two days this week for an unusual lobbying trip arranged by Bob Campbell, deputy director of administration and operations at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.
Only 18 months ago, Harris and colleagues Gregory Hightower and Reggie Johnson were leaders of rival gangs; they wouldn’t have been seen on the same block, much less in the same room. But now they are united in purpose, beneficiaries of the truce they helped organize last year between rival Crips gangs as well as with the Bloods.
They flew to Washington to lobby for legislation introduced by Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would provide $10 billion in loan guarantees to local governments for various economic development and housing activities and $3 billion to rehire laid-off workers, restore services and expand programs that have been cut back because of the recession. The measures would be included in the $30-billion urban aid and tax bill pending in Congress.
“The whole thing was a new experience,” said DeFazio’s press secretary, Ann Larsen. “We have a negligible minority population in our district. We’ve got the timber crisis, the spotted owl and the salmon problems, but that’s it.”
She said the stories of the three former gang members were also valuable because they gave a personal touch to often-numbing and overwhelming statistics.
DeFazio was not available for comment Friday. But Larsen said her boss “was sold. He thought the visit was fantastic.”
Johnson, 23, who represents the Crips of the Imperial Courts Watts Housing project, said he only decided to quit gang life after his cousin was shot to death.
Hightower, 29, also of Jordan Downs, told DeFazio he had spent 10 years in state prison before eventually turning his life around.
The men said they had tired of “shooting each other” just for the sake of violence, and wanted to help rebuild their communities. Two are employed in private businesses and one in a charitable organization.
“This is unprecedented . . . that real-life (former gang members) came here to describe what they need, based on their own experiences,” Waters said. “Usually the only people who testify are those from big corporations having a lot of money.”
Aides to Waters said the ex-gang members managed to gain the favor of House Majority Whip Dave Bonior (D-Mich.), who is crucial to their effort to add the two extra bills to President Bush’s urban aid package.
The three former gang members were surprised when they met with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). “I didn’t think there was any more of them around,” said Harris, smiling. “This is something I’ll be telling my kids about one day.”