Photograph by Joe Del Tufo
Shawn Allen, Coley Harris and Darryl Chambers (from left) believe young men and boys can identify with their experience and find inspiration in their stories.
Lynell Tucker had left Wilmington at 27 to escape a charge of attempted murder and other offenses. By the summer of 2011, having run afoul of the law in Florida, he was back. During Tucker’s seven years away, things had changed. The boys in the neighborhood were different. Dominique Helm had grown from the impressionable adolescent Tucker once knew into an honor student, a football star and a new father. Having recently graduated high school, he was on his way to the military.
“When Bubbles [Tucker] came back, he told wonderful tales about life in the street,” says Helm’s father, Darryl Chambers. “A lot of it was about belonging, trying to make himself more important than he was. He still saw [Dominique and the others] as 12-year-olds. He tried to establish himself as a leader.” But Dominique, 19, and his friends didn’t look up to Tucker anymore, and they didn’t appreciate his disrupting the neighborhood. They’d decided that, somehow, it needed to stop. Then came the altercation.
Dominique’s cousin, Shakeem, lived with his grandmother a few doors down the street. Over the years, Dominique had spent so much time at their home that she considered him to be damned near a grandson. It was a fact Tucker—Shakeem’s cousin and also a grandson—had come to resent. One September afternoon, as Dominique and Shakeem hung out on the porch, Tucker drove past, yelling, “Anyone who isn’t family better not be here when I get back.”
“I am family,” Helm shouted back. Tucker drove away. But he returned a short time later, and a fight ensued. Dominique was getting the best of Tucker when the latter’s father charged in. Dominique backed off. As he walked toward his own home, he called back to Tucker, “You’re lucky your pops just saved your life.” Dominique was opening his front door when Tucker rushed up, pulled a pistol from his waist and shot Helm in the back. He died in the doorway, in his mother’s arms. “I’m just now able to close my eyes at night without seeing the blood come out of his mouth,” says Chambers.
For almost 19 years, the number of shootings in Wilmington has been rising. The city, with 11 murders by late April and warmer weather on the way, is on pace to break the record of 29 set in 2010. The most recent spate of handgun violence is characterized by something new and even more disturbing: a brazen ruthlessness among the shooters. In recent months, they have killed on busy streets in mid-afternoon, near schools and in front of churches. As the old systemic causes of urban poverty and crime persist and the city wrestles with policing strategies, a new feeling has grown in the neighborhoods most affected by the violence. “It’s time [for us] to create some order inside our own communities,” says Chambers.
Perhaps no one believes that more than the so-called “old heads” who survived street life. They know that, for every teen or young man taken off the street by a cop or a bullet, there will always be another to take his place. They’ve learned the hard way that they could’ve made other choices—choices many young people haven’t yet learned are theirs to make. They know there’s hope in the hood, even if the younger generation can’t see it.
In Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods, many black males feel compelled to provide for their families—or at least support themselves—through illegal activity. The result: 60 percent of the adult black men in those neighborhoods are missing, often because they’re in jail.
A 2011 Criminal Justice Statistical Review Committee report shows that African-Americans make up 20 percent of the state’s general population, yet they account for 64 percent of the prison population. Almost 88 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses are black. The authors take pains to report that the disproportionately high rate of incarceration is not a result of more criminal activity by members of the group. Simply put, black men are more likely to get arrested—six times more likely than white men, according to a report from The Sentencing Project to the United Nations in April. Black men are more likely than men of other races to be convicted, and they are more likely to receive harsher penalties.
The high numbers are nothing new. Social psychologist Yasser Payne, a street ethnographer and professor of Black American studies at the University of Delaware, points out that black men have been hyper-incarcerated since the birth of American slavery, especially in Delaware. The phenomenon has led to unique cultural accommodations. Today their absence has left 85 percent of poor black households in Wilmington to be run by a single adult, usually a mother or grandmother. Young men have grown up without a father in the home and, often, too few male authority figures outside it. Or should we say too few of the right kind of adult male authority figures.
That’s almost three generations, going back to the crack epidemic of the 1980s—unless you measure such a generation by adjusted life expectancies. If that’s the case, make it four or five. So, if you’re 13, your father is likely to be absent and your old heads—or “big brothers”—are street-identified 17-year-olds. Their fathers are also absent, and their old heads are 21-year-olds with dads who are locked up. You’re unduly influenced by someone who’s unduly influenced by someone who doesn’t know much more about life—or the code of the street—than you do. You haven’t had the experience to develop good decision-making skills. And if you’re using and abusing drugs and alcohol—which you most likely are—your thinking is clouded.
Then add guns to the equation. When someone posts on your Facebook page, “Yo, I was with your gurl last night,” you have to make a point. If you roll over and take it, you’re a punk. “It’s deeper than territory or drugs or money,” says Keith James, founder of Voices for the Voiceless, which is working to stop the violence. “They want that respect. And because they don’t know what respect is, things happen. That’s going to be worth killing for, because you don’t respect me. But people don’t respect a gun. They fear a gun. And fear lasts longer.”
Police could keep arresting the criminals, judges could keep filling prisons, the corrections department could continue to periodically empty the jails to relieve crowding, and the men could be returned to streets saturated with other male criminals. But, worse than perpetuating the cycle, this compounds the problems. What I’ve read consistently is that we haven’t seen a commensurate decrease in crime with the increase in incarceration, says Charles Madden, executive director of the Hope Commission. The world is taking note of that on both sides. Where’s the proper balance? We can’t jail everyone. We have to be smart about incarceration. What are we going to do while we have them captive?”
The Hope Commission was established in Wilmington 10 years ago to prevent violent crime. Its year-old Achievement Center on Vandever Avenue works with men leaving prison and returning to the city’s worst neighborhoods to establish life goals and find suitable work. The center also provides other support, like therapeutic counseling for emotional issues and the stress of street life. “When you have a felony conviction on your record, your options are limited,” Madden says. “You can’t take care of yourself or your family. So many men run away, with no hope for change. When the only skills you have are street life, then guess what? That’s what you do. These guys say, ‘This lifestyle was handed down to me.’ They will talk to you with great pride about teaching their sons to hustle.”
The Hope Commission worked with the University of Delaware in 2007 to train 300 people in community outreach. The Southbridge Hope Zone, an area of 1,800 residents, saw a significant decrease in crime from 2007 through 2009, at a cost of $750,000, while seeing better academic performance among young people and an increase in strategic partnerships. In 2009—the year before the city’s murder record was set—resources dwindled due to the recession. There went the plan to replicate Hope Zones across the city. “With three times the number of people on the East Side, we just couldn’t afford it,” Madden says. “It would take $10 million to do it across the city, and that money wasn’t forthcoming.”
The most cited cures for poverty and crime start with quality education and decent-paying work. But true reform of Wilmington schools—the worst in the state—remains some time off, and no one is giving away jobs. If violence is to be reduced anytime soon, the solution is elsewhere. Even a good job can’t replace a feeling of relevance. “Supporting men is fundamental, so that we can strengthen families and strengthen communities,” Madden says. “It’s not the only solution—it’s not a silver bullet. But it’s fundamental.”
And until those men are ready to take their places in their families, their sons continue to need direction and guidance. “Two men can have an influence,” says violence-prevention worker Coley Harris. “The first is at home. Dad is the first teacher. That’s the natural order of things—basic mathematics, because he has the most time to spend with a boy.”
As for the other man: “My old heads, my OGs [original gangsters], my homeys—they played a significant role in my life. That culminated in my taking someone’s life. But the dealers and criminals and robbers played a significant role in me not being wilder than I was.”
Coley Harris grew up at 28th and Church streets. He attended Brandywine and Concord high schools, and though he was an excellent student when he wanted to be, he dropped out of 11th grade in 1989. Now 42, Harris started selling weed when he was 12, and things evolved from there. Unlike most of his friends, Harris grew up with both parents at home, and he didn’t need the money. He wanted something else. “I started out to get more—more money, more prestige, more self-esteem,” Harris says. “It was about fitting in. And it was about maintaining a lifestyle.” He dealt in volume. He ran a crew. He did well.
One day Harris was at a barbecue in The Bucket—the bottom of Fourth Street—when one of the crew alerted him that another member was in an altercation. Harris rushed to the scene to confront the stranger. They started to fight. When the stranger pulled a gun, Harris shot him in the stomach. “I was drunk—not pissy drunk, but I had been drinking,” Harris says. “My logic was, I’ve got to stop him. I didn’t intend to kill him. I knew I was going to hurt him bad, but I didn’t mean to kill him.”
The next day, Harris fled the state, leaving behind his year-old son. But with no work or housing options, he was forced to return a few months later. He was arrested May 9, 1994, convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced on March 22, 1995. “The first three years in jail, I had the same mentality I had on the street,” Harris says. “I started getting involved with anything I could get involved in.” Then a cousin who was finishing an eight-year sentence introduced him to Project Aware. The program employed inmates to steer youth away from crime.
While working with Project Aware, Harris entered a drug and alcohol treatment program. He found his own mentor. Until that point, I didn’t know what made me tick. I was angry, frustrated, misprocessing my emotions, he says. “My mother and father had their challenges. My father was an alcoholic. There was verbal abuse. It hurt me to see the two people I loved most fussing. I didn’t process that. I bottled it up. So how I dealt with that was warped. I was looking for an understanding of myself outside, on the street.
By the time Harris left prison in 2008, he was far more self-aware than the 23-year-old who entered it. As a violence-prevention worker for a social service provider, he now has the advantage of wisdom born of experience. “I have a reputation,” Harris says. “I’m a shooter in the street. That gives me a leg up. My jagged edges are smoothing out with age, but they can connect with who I was.”
Shawn Allen has been to a lot of funerals. “I’ve been to a lot of families’ homes after it happened. Parents will say, ‘They were just in that kind of life,’” says Allen. “We have to change that norm. It is not normal for a kid to get shot outside your door at 10 o’clock. So we’re saying, ‘Don’t wait for someone to solve a problem in your community. It is incumbent upon us.’”
Before Allen became deputy director of Parks and Recreation for Wilmington two years ago, he’d worked with adjudicated youth for 22 years. There isn’t anything new you could tell him about poor neighborhoods or fatherless homes. He grew up on the East Side. His dad was murdered when he was 5. His mother, now clean, was a heroin addict for 26 years. “I know what it’s like,” Allen says. And it gives him credibility on the street. “A cop can’t walk up to a kid and do a shake-and-pat like me: ‘Hey, man, why are you still carrying that gun?’ Individuals see me now, and I inspire them,” he says. “I’m able to walk into any neighborhood … and try to convince any young man to put the gun down.”
Six years ago, Allen learned about the Cure Violence program in Chicago. It employs individuals “who were once tearing down the community”—dealers, shooters, other criminals and the formerly incarcerated—to rebuild the neighborhoods. In the 20 percent of Chicago where Cure Violence operates, it has reduced violent crime by 60 percent. “The model shows a 67 percent reduction in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City and New York,” Allen says. “New Orleans just celebrated 200 days without a murder (in March).”
The success of Cure Violence is based on “violence interrupters”—the old heads and OGs—establishing the kind of relationships with street-identified individuals that can prevent them from committing crimes. Allen launched his Cease Violence program in Wilmington in August, operating in the four most violent areas of the city, each with its own violence interrupter. It works to provide for the needs of young men and boys—schooling, job training, work. When someone is shot, it immediately deploys a response team to the hospital to investigate the circumstances and work with family members and others to prevent retaliation.
In a city the size of Wilmington, kinship groups and other social networks are tight. Guys like Chambers, Harris and Allenhave relationships that go back to their school days. They know guys who are still running the streets. They stay close to the families of old friends they’ve outlived. They’ve had to comfort those who’ve lost their sons to street violence. Such personal relationships give Cease Violence an advantage over the police. Ninety-nine point eight percent of the time, we know the mom, a cousin, someone who knows the victim, Allen says.
Between August and March, Allen estimates that Cease Violence prevented 16 shootings. He’s now looking to increase staff and streamline the resources of the 17 nonprofits involved in violence prevention in Wilmington. “No one can sustain the effort on their own,” he says. “We have to focus on capacity-building and sustainability, or else we’re just wasting time and money.”
Members of the community who understand the power of positive male role models believe in the potential for Cease Violence. “Law enforcement is stepping up. What’s missing is the prevention community,” says Kirk Lacey, 54, a retired law enforcement consultant who’s lived on the East Side all his life. “Growing up, we always had big brothers. There aren’t enough males to guide these guys, outside the churches and the community centers. Lots of professional men don’t live in the city anymore. They just work there; they don’t have a vested interest.
But those who’ve been incarcerated know the dads and the families. “They could help,” Lacey says. “When they were locked up during the sweeps, a lot of these guys had a lot of respect. A lot of people discovered their ability to prevent crime. They’re father figures to fatherless kids.” Among these older men, there’s a sense of destiny and inevitability—that all the events of their lives have put them in position to affect real change. “Now, we’re in a unique position,” says Chambers. A former drug dealer, Chambers is now a doctoral student at UD who sat on the governor’s Wilmington Crime Strategies Commission. “We’re making the argument that guys like me and Coley who have criminal histories—don’t just throw us away,” he says.
Harris talks of his “faith in God” that people can change. “And I have my own story,” he says. “My rap sheet is three pages long. It goes back to [when I was] 16 years old. For all intents and purposes, it was a wrap for me. But here I sit. The people who say there’s no hope in the eyes of these kids-—they’re the problem.”