Gang-intervention worker turns grief into motivation
The old friends were in their best suits, Ronald “Looney” Barron‘s the color of caramel and Tommie “T-Top” Rivers’ ribbed with pinstripes, a paisley pocket square peeking out just so.
It was uncanny how their lives had mirrored each other’s. They were born months apart, raised in the West Adams area. Both were good athletes, charismatic and bright, and both had squandered it all — rising to the level of “shot caller” in their respective gangs, turning their backs on their childhood friendship, then spending most of their 20s in prison.
Behind bars, they became voracious readers. They were 27 when they got out. Each had one son and one daughter. They both had a second chance, and together, dedicated themselves to forging peace on the streets.
Now here they were, together, one last time.
The mourners were packed around Looney’s body; one had left her tears running down Looney’s cheek. T-Top cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We need to close the casket.”
When Looney and T-Top got home from prison in 1997, it felt as if their old neighborhood was cracking open a window for the first time after a terrible storm.
Drugs and gangs had seized the impoverished interior of Los Angeles, creating a wave of violence that climaxed with the riots of 1992. Five years later, murder rates were still high but falling markedly. It was a critical moment for the city.
Soon, Darren “Bo” Taylor came calling for Looney and T-Top. Taylor was a former gangbanger too, who had helped quell the riots and become a leading practitioner of gang “intervention,” using street smarts to interrupt cycles of violence. Taylor enrolled Looney and T-Top in a program called Amer-I-Can.
Amer-I-Can came with an imposing, bound curriculum labeled with the words “The Responsibility of Self-Determination” — an owner’s manual of sorts that had been written by educators, psychologists and football legend Jim Brown, the nonprofit’s founder. It was equal parts self-help book, philosophy text, career counseling and bible of practical knowledge, from staying sober to balancing your checkbook.
“It changed everything,” said T-Top. “It changed the way we thought.”
By 2003, Looney and T-Top had helped forge one of the most significant peace agreements the inner city had ever seen, said leaders of the city’s effort to combat gangs. A dozen traditionally warring gangs came to the table, gangs that claimed neighborhoods stretching from USC to Venice.
Amer-I-Can began sending Looney and T-Top into schools across the city to preach their message; they put scores of at-risk students through the semester-long curriculum. In the classroom, their point of view was unusual and potent.
On one hand, they understood the allure of gangs.
“The lifestyle is addictive,” said T-Top, a former Geer Gang Crip. “It’s the power, the cars, the girls. It’s the respect you get.”
It’s also, he said, “crap.”
African Americans shoot at each other on the street, he said, then band together in prison, then shoot at each other again when they get home. Gang members think they live under their own code of honor, he said, but turn on each other in an instant.
“There’s no morals, no values, no guidance, no structure,” T-Top said. “You get all the way to the top, and there’s nothing there.”
It was a message that resonated with school administrators and students alike. Looney and T-Top were in high demand, Brown said.
“Looney was all about the kids,” T-Top said. “I wish I’d had somebody like him when I was coming up.”
In the schools, Looney and T-Top were a team. If Looney criticized a student’s grades, T-Top would talk about a path toward improvement. If T-Top assailed a student for fighting, Looney would offer reassuring lessons about forgiveness and respect.
“We were best friends. … I knew how to counter what he was saying, and vice versa,” T-Top said. “If I was on ‘em, he’d lift ‘em up. It was a tight operation.”
In December, Amer-I-Can was contracted to counsel students at Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School and gave the job to Looney and T-Top.
The school was on Adams Boulevard, not far from where they grew up. Of the 300 students, 96% were African American and 73% were classified as “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” The school routed students who were “at the greatest risk” into the program, said Karen Anderson, the school’s principal and director.
Looney and T-Top started working with a dozen kids in Room 9, a history classroom whose walls reflected the school’s rigorous academics. Most kids came from broken homes; some of them, even the sixth-graders, could describe the smell of crack cocaine.
Each session began with “feeling words,” an exercise meant to encourage introspection among students raised in emotionally muted homes. The kids picked words that reflected the ups and downs of middle school — optimistic, determined, afraid. Looney and T-Top always picked the same word: Blessed.
On February 7, about a third of the way through the course, Looney and T-Top watched the Super Bowl together, then dropped by a bar on West Pico Boulevard, not far from the streets where they’d met as 7-year-olds, 33 years earlier.
Outside the bar, Looney confronted a boy who was tagging a wall with graffiti. The boy, identified by police as Mark Anthony Villasenor, had turned 16 less than a week earlier. According to investigators, he shot Looney in the chest. T-Top rushed out when he heard the shot; Looney died in his arms.
The students were in shock.
“It was a huge loss,” Anderson said. “The kids felt like Looney was doing what he was meant to do. They felt comfortable, and then they lost that — they lost that connection.”
T-Top was lost, too.
Though occasionally accompanied by another colleague, he mostly soldiered on alone. More than once, he thought he saw Looney’s car parked outside the school. In class, when a student raised an issue that Looney would have handled, T-Top caught himself waiting for Looney to answer, then glancing around the room when nobody said anything.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, man,” he said.
A couple of weeks later, a student named Jasmine Derisso walked in with a poem she’d written for Looney. Jasmine was 14, an edgy kid who wore Chuck Taylor sneakers and a black leather jacket over her drab school uniform. She was bright and charismatic, but had struggled in school.
Looney, she wrote, “was the only person to get something thru my thick skull.”
“He had a hold on me,” the poem said. “I don’t wanna believe he’s dead.”
That’s when T-Top realized that he wasn’t alone — that Looney had touched the students’ lives too and that they were grieving together.
One afternoon last spring, T-Top gathered the class. Things would be different, he said. “Expect moments of silence,” T-Top said with a smile, offering a rare look past his confident veneer. But they were going to move forward.
“Let’s do it, ya’ll,” he said. “My name is T-Top. I feel mournful. And I feel blessed.”
Over the next four months, T-Top and the kids moved through the curriculum.
They talked about fear, about the lure of drugs and the difficulties of kicking a habit, about how to prepare for a job interview and save for retirement. They talked about extraordinary lives and extraordinary journeys — about South African apartheid, about how the work of a handful of scientists had nearly rid the world of polio.
They talked about social conditioning, about the story of a man who grew up in the segregated South, and continued to stay in the back of movie theaters long after laws were passed allowing African Americans to sit wherever they wanted.
Most sessions, T-Top would throw out an open question: “Are you handling your business?” At first, the kids offered little in return, but by the end they were chattering away, discussing headaches and homework, anxiety over dance recitals, happiness over the births of new cousins.
Increasingly, T-Top and Jasmine sparred and bickered, and learned together. He pressured her to stop saying “like” so much. One day, T-Top asked Jasmine what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“At first I wanted to be a lawyer, because my dad told me I was a good liar,” she said. “Now I want to be an OB-GYN.”
“A what?” T-Top said.
“It’s a doctor that delivers babies,” she said.
The kids were starting to get the curriculum — to internalize it.
“Jasmine!” T-Top yelled during one session a few weeks ago, toward the end of the school year. “I’m walking home from school and one of my friends is about to bust somebody’s window. What do I do?”
“Walk away,” she said, quoting the curriculum: “Eliminate the negative.”
At the end of the final session, T-Top cleared his throat: “I want to say something. Y’all have given me a reason to keep doing this work. I know it feels like everything around you is negative. Use it. Use it as motivation.”
He paused and said he wished Looney could have been there to see the students graduate the course.
“He would have been proud too,” he said.
Later that day, Jasmine confided that she’d initially been so drawn to Looney that she hadn’t given T-Top a second thought. Now, she said, she wanted T-Top to teach her how to facilitate Amer-I-Can courses herself.
“Some people come and go,” she said. “Some people will be in your life forever.”
It has been six months since Looney’s death. T-Top still keeps a picture of him next to his bed.
“I really miss him,” T-Top said. “But I know that God doesn’t make mistakes. He sacrificed Loon for a reason. And it’s up to me to fulfill his prophecy.”