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A Dogged Pursuit of Peace on the Streets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“The war,” Brian Long says, “is like any other war anywhere else, but it seems our lives aren’t worth anything.” The blood has been spilled for years in the urban core of Los Angeles, beyond the sweep of the Pentagon, beyond the will or the power of anyone to stop it.

So Long has stepped into the breach, doing what he can. He plots strategy. He carries his peace messages to homes and storefronts. He crosses neighborhood lines, bringing rival gangs together, toiling to shore up and expand the fragile truces that dot the nation’s most gang-torn city.

The work is that of Sisyphus--dangerous, often exasperating--but Long, 35, considers himself formidably qualified for the job. He is headstrong, articulate and by all indications fearless, a street-smart visionary with a prison record and a degree in mayhem from the Rollin 60’s Crips.

Long entered this year as a sage veteran of the peacemaking movement, an “Original Gangster” who answered the call of the landmark 1992 Watts truce. In January, after several months of hiatus caused by past failures, he was ready to make a fresh start. He had recruited new partners, found a place to resume his weekly gang summit meetings, and had revised his plan for turning peace into prosperity--a strategy that involved pooling money for commercial ventures. He had lined up a few important outside supporters and was filled with bold dreams for the future.

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What followed during the next half-year was neither astounding success nor abject failure, but rather a difficult, unfinished journey. It is a story that shows how hard it is--even for those with the most intimate understanding of the streets--to redeem the lives of young men bred apart from mainstream society, in a fierce culture of rage and despair. The story continues to play out in the urban combat zones of Los Angeles County, where 6,000 people have died in gang-related slayings in the past decade, a record 807 last year alone.

No one has counted the peacemakers, but they are out there, thinly scattered: Long and his allies. Most are unsung heroes, laboring with scant resources. Their successes, if any, tend to be hard-won and difficult to see; too often, the gangsters they seek to help want nothing to do with cease-fires and love-thy-brother rhetoric--not when siblings and homeboys are still being killed and maimed, not when there seems no practical escape from poverty, suspicion and crime.

Long, who was forced to suspend a series of volatile gang summits a year ago, has become pragmatic: “At this point, I’m trying to pull in the ones that are willing to listen . . . the positive minds. We’re basically the ones that’s going to get this off the ground.”

About 30 of these young men filed into the year’s inaugural meeting Jan. 11 at World on Wheels, a skating rink tucked beneath a bowling alley in the Crenshaw district. The site was neutral territory in a Crips neighborhood. It had been procured by one of Long’s partners, Darren “Bo” Taylor, 31, a former Schoolyard Crip and another leader in the peacemaking movement.

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Those present represented a sizable swath of South-Central Los Angeles. They were mainly Crips from West Los Angeles and Bloods from Watts and Inglewood. They were serious, reticent. While some solidly supported the peace movement, others seemed to find the idea so radical that they could scarcely grasp it.

“At first . . . it was like, ‘Man, you crazy . . . you know we don’t get along with them [Crips],’ ” said one Blood who called himself T-whirl. He spoke harshly, remembering homies who had died, angry that there are places in the city that are off limits to him.

"[You] can’t go to certain stores,” he said. “You’ve got to go in, have some of your homies stay outside and watch your back.”

*

Long’s plan for this group was complex and far-reaching. The first goal was to begin breaking down barriers, scheduling meetings and social events designed to foster friendships. The second aim was far more ambitious: to create economic incentives that would make peace worthwhile for all. He envisioned Bloods and Crips cooperating to run shops and other commercial ventures.

It was a quixotic idea that had really happened once: at a corrugated hunk of utopia known as the Playground, which sprang to life shortly after the 1992 riots. The Playground was a Florence Avenue shoe store that offered after-school care and a basketball court. Former gang members ran the place. President Clinton came one day and played hoops.

Ultimately, it folded, but Long, who worked there, came away inspired. If a few ex-gang members could share a place so special, what would happen if a great number of them could pool their resources--raise, say, $50,000? Or $100,000? They could borrow even more and open shops, promote concerts, share a stake in something that would get them working together and off the streets.

Long had found a mentor: a mysterious entrepreneur who boasted global business connections. She shared his free enterprise philosophy and his skepticism toward nonprofit groups that clamor for limited public funds. She kept herself hidden in the background, communicating with Long through her own 800 number. Gang members knew her only as J.P.

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J.P.'s role was considered vital to bringing gang members out of the wars and into the mainstream. By the time the summits resumed in January, she had helped draft the terms of Long’s venture capital limited partnership: Raise Intelligent Strong Economics. Through brokers in New York and Los Angeles, she was searching for outside investors. She helped to draft letters and advised Long to trim his fingernails.

*

Long resisted the grooming advice, believing his first priority was to relate to the young men on the streets. He came to the gang summits ready to sell them on peace, and ready to sell them a share of their own organization. The standard investment was $75. Long carried all the paperwork and sales fliers in a black nylon valise, along with an eclectic array of items: photocopied business cards, scribbled bits of philosophy, funeral fliers and an old photograph of himself, bare-armed and hoisting a 12-gauge automatic shotgun.

It was not a hard-sell approach. Long seemed to regard the peace movement as his first priority and the business plan as an avenue to get there. No one was required to invest. The real question was how to bring Bloods and Crips to the table, a logistic matter made extremely difficult by the complexities of the gang culture.

During the summits of a year ago, hard feelings had surfaced. At one session, a teenager came face to face with a man who had killed his uncle or brother--accounts differ as to which. The teenager became enraged and had to be restrained, said Chilton Alphonse of the nonprofit Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation, where the summits were held.

Guns began appearing, and Alphonse, a staunch supporter of Long’s peacemaking crusade, reluctantly halted the meetings. “It was only a matter of time,” he said, “before someone got killed.”

This time, Long devised a two-tiered structure: One week, Crips met with Crips, and Bloods with Bloods. The next, they met jointly. The idea was to allow rival Crips sets to address their differences before sitting down with the Bloods--and vice versa. Maybe that would keep pressures from escalating.

Long and Taylor, both former Crips, brought in an important third partner, a Blood from a set known as the Swans on the east edge of South-Central.

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Dion Breaux, a.k.a. Tweet, had spent most of his 32 years in gang warfare. He had beaten three murder raps and served time at San Quentin, Soledad and Chino for armed robbery, drug dealing and receiving stolen property. He agreed to lead the Bloods’ meetings even though cynical about his chances of inspiring change.

“Swans ain’t never going to be with no peace treaty,” he said. “Too many homies got killed.”

*

Long hoped that Breaux’s influence would enable RISE to attract Bloods from the east side of South-Central and Inglewood, where Breaux was well known. But in Los Angeles’ vast quilt work of gangland territories, crossing borders is a risk.

Breaux’s forays onto Crips turf began traumatically. Late one Wednesday, he was delivering four other Swans--potential recruits--to a meeting with Long and Taylor at World on Wheels. Breaux emerged from a van wearing a red shirt, the Bloods’ color. A police car--part of a gang unit--pulled over, pointing a spotlight.

Long approached the two officers to explain about RISE, but the police, intent on checking out Breaux, told Long to step back--an order he refused. Long persisted, met more resistance, and the clash escalated until he was handcuffed and hauled away, screaming.

“I tried to explain . . . [that] these guys were over here on a peace mission, and [the police] didn’t want to hear it,” Long said later. “So basically, I had to act as ignorant as they did.”

Long was released the next day--no charges were filed--but the incident was a vivid reminder of the intense distrust between black youths and Los Angeles police. It is just one of the barriers between gangs and mainstream society, difficult to surmount even for many peacemakers.

Long grew up as many gangsters do, waging an escalating battle with police. One of six brothers, raised by a single mother in the Crenshaw district, he gravitated into the gangs in junior high school. He burglarized homes to get cash, jewelry and guns, proud of his bravura. “We thought that’s what manhood was all about . . . wreaking havoc,” he said.

*

Though very different now, well-read and law-abiding, Long still subscribes to a theory widely held in the city’s poorer communities: that police want to keep the gangs at war. So long as the gangs are fighting, he reasons, the police always will have good, steady jobs.

Urban scholars believe that the estrangement is exacerbated by the inability of police and government to provide meaningful help to youths looking to escape the gangs.

Long is a case in point, said author Richard G. Majors, who visited Los Angeles last year during a 10-city research project for the Urban Institute in Washington. Of the hundreds of young men he met, none impressed him more than Long, Majors said. And yet Long has been left to do nearly all of his peacemaking work on his own.

“How come he doesn’t have a typewriter, a computer . . . an office?” Majors asked. “I don’t know of any man who’s done more than he’s done in trying to mobilize the community.”

Long was still keeping his files in his valise and a cardboard box. To solicit recruits, he and Taylor ventured into targeted neighborhoods. The discussions were generally informal, usually a few guys chatting in someone’s home: Man, we’re all the same color . . . enough people been killed . . . that dude ain’t the one that killed your homey; it’s the mentality that killed him; we’ve got to change the mentality . . . if you think it’s worth it, killing for a rag, when you go to prison for life you’re going to feel like the dumbest person in the world.

Long’s style was sometimes intense, his voice almost clanging with passion. Taylor tended to be soft-spoken, sincere. He talked about being on a mission from God, but expressed frustration when certain gangs, such as the Eastcoast Crips, listened to the peace pitch and said no way, forget that.

*

“These guys got over 200 people murdered due to gang violence,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to be able to go over there with a bunch of talk. Talk is cheap.”

Money was scarce. Despite sporadic income from working as a bodyguard, Long lost his apartment and moved into a friend’s converted garage. Later, his phone was turned off. He had to walk two blocks to a street corner to make his calls.

“I’m not concerned about my personal conditions,” he said, shrugging, “when there’s lives on the line.”

Young men seemed to drift in and out of the summits. One, Miguel Robinson of the Crips’ Rollin 40’s neighborhood, was himself a peacemaker. He had gotten his jaw broken a year ago, he said, trying to rally support for the cause at 74th and Hoover streets. This time, he found it difficult to attend--or to get his homeboys to attend--because the Rollin 40’s were at war with the Rollin 30’s.

Long got a $500 check from rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, but by spring revenues were still only a trickle. Long kept track of shareholders on a sheet of notebook paper. The list grew to 18 members, who invested a total of $218. Some bought in for as little as $1.

At the same time, the search for corporate sponsors was faltering. Long let it be known that he and J.P. were going separate ways.

“She was trying to groom me for [the corporate] arena,” he said, “and I knew that what I needed to do was in this [neighborhood] arena.”

He still had not clipped his fingernails.

Taylor lobbied to go a different direction--to create a nonprofit group. That would invite tax-free corporate donations. As it was, former gang members seemed to have no willingness to pool money they might never see again.

“So many times you want to say, ‘To hell with it. . . . I don’t want to deal with this no more,’ ” he said, voicing his frustrations. “And then you go to bed at night and you hear [somebody] got killed.”

Long clung to his capitalistic vision, saying he learned long ago that the “non” in “nonprofit” means “no.” But he fretted about the organization’s image. He had been lining up the support of business groups that endorsed his goals, adding credibility to his quest, and yet was afraid that their names might be tarnished if any of the RISE members regressed into crime or violence.

Ever watchful of how the former gang members behaved in public, he sometimes was critical of them, raising hackles. Long’s increasing involvement in Islam also concerned some gang members. Soon he answered to a new first name--Mustafa, “the chosen one.”

With internal strains pulling at the organization, there now came a jolting external event: the murder of a woman, in late March, on Rollin 60’s turf, the corner of Florence and Crenshaw Boulevard. A day after her 18th birthday, Lee Ambra Smith stopped for gas and was shot in the head by suspected gang members. She was wearing red.

Even in the brutal gang culture, the slaying of innocent women and children is taboo. Smith’s death was discussed at a RISE summit a few days later. Everyone agreed it was an atrocity, the very thing they were fighting against, but there were other feelings swirling below the surface. Some of the Bloods, including Breaux, considered Long partly to blame, for failing to involve enough of his Rollin 60’s homies in the peace movement.

“A lot of people felt he didn’t have authority with his neighborhood,” Breaux said later.

*

Long’s defense was irrefutable--"I cannot protect every person pulling into a gas station"--and yet the murder seemed to hasten a split that may have been inevitable. Long went one way, pursuing his dreams of commercial enterprise, and Breaux and Taylor went another, creating a new nonprofit group, Unity One.

The breakup cost Long his meeting place--Taylor kept rights to the rink--but he was philosophical. “I’m glad those brothers are doing something positive, period.”

In discussing the split, Long stressed the larger picture, how the peace movement seemed to advance in cycles--alliances forming, dissolving, mutating into new configurations. He also talked about his own commitment to the movement, steel-hardened by tragedy.

Nearly killed during a drive-by in 1988--Long still carries a bullet lodged in his back--he was bent on revenge, “ready to go on a killing spree. . . .” Instead, he went to prison on a weapons charge and learned, months later, of the shooting death of a close friend. The shocking part of it was, his friend was not killed by rivals, but by his own allies.

“That changed my whole mentality,” Long said. It awakened him to the insanity of gang violence, and the crusade against it became the dominant theme of his life.

During the weeks after the RISE split, Long seemed to be trying to regroup, concentrating on commercial opportunities. He printed caps and T-shirts and arranged to hang them in liquor stores and minimarkets. He promoted parties at a dim nightclub called the Chez Swain, charging $5 at the door for crowds that approached 200, and became co-manager of a three-story apartment house, a place with a steel-barred entry and a cemented-over swimming pool.

At last the unpredictable cycles of the city brought him the capitalist break he hoped for: Long reunited with two friends, Byron and Calvin Jamerson, who had spent 3 1/2 years raising $4 million to start their own ambitious venture: the Neighborhood Beverage Co., which already was shipping Vibes soft drinks to local markets.

RISE became the company’s distributing arm. There were no salaries yet, not even for the company’s founders, but Long got a ’96 Jeep Cherokee in the deal, and RISE members were able to earn shares of Neighborhood Beverage by helping to monitor local markets, making sure the shelves were always stocked with Vibes.

*

Unity One, meanwhile, continued to hold gang summits. One night there were scuffles in the World on Wheels parking lot; a week or two later, loitering Eastcoast Crips took umbrage at Bloods being allowed inside, and gunfire erupted. A Blood was shot--possibly by another Blood--and paralyzed, Taylor said.

Taylor managed to borrow office space at the Stop the Violence--Increase the Peace Foundation. He began lecturing for free at schools, hoping that administrators would see the merits of his message and get him some funding. But as the summer break drew near, Taylor was grumbling: He still had not raised a dime.

Another problem surfaced: Breaux was arrested on suspicion of car theft and held in lieu of $500,000 bail. Taylor carried on. At a fund-raiser at the home of O.J. Simpson, he met two Muslim activists who joined the next summit. They had Taylor speak Aug. 3 at a peace rally at a downtown hotel.

By now, Long was regularly visiting markets, checking supplies of Vibes cola.

Summer marked the midpoint of a year filled with turbulence and halting advances. Gang homicides in the county had reached 277, somewhat below last year’s pace. Long still was scrambling for cash, operating with minimal outside support, looking in new directions.

“I’m not trying to save the world,” Long said. Yet he seemed heartened enough to go on striving--one day, one life at a time. “If we can keep one kid . . . out of that hole in the ground, my job is done. It’s the best feeling in the world, man.”


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