- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

DENVER (AP) - The young man in the baggy cargo pants and scraggly hipster beard could have been among the dead.

Instead, Sir Martin was reading a poem at a high school in a northeast Denver neighborhood that has seen gang shootings and describing his own missteps that led to crime. A young man had greeted him by not-quite-playfully pelting him with a wad of paper, but soon the student was listening intently.

“Never did I contemplate death or the penitentiary,” Martin recited in a rapper’s cadence. “Both of those happened to those close to me.”

The paper hurler asked Martin for an application for a summer leadership and job training program with Project VOYCE. Martin has worked with the group since 2010, when he was still selling drugs as a teenage gang member.

Denver police say the city has seen 12 gang-related deaths so far this year, compared to just three for the same period last year and seven each for the same periods in 2013 and 2012. The deaths include the April 25 slaying of a 22-year-old who was shot while waiting for his uncle’s funeral. His uncle’s death also has been connected to gang violence.

City, state and federal authorities announced that they would seek more serious federal charges against murder suspects, step up surveillance and increase reward money.

They also promised more support for groups offering youth mentoring, jobs and sports - and equip the youth with decision-making skills to take advantage of the chances they are offered.

Meena Harris, director of the Department of Justice-funded National Gang Center, said determining what’s behind this year’s shootings is difficult. Cities with established gangs typically experience periodic upsurges and must be prepared to invest resources over the long term if they want to end it, Harris said.

Some of the complexities - and one solution - is offered by Martin’ story.

He was 15 in 2009 when he joined the Crips, and he didn’t abandon the gang when he joined VOYCE, or Voices of Youth Changing Education. His mentors at VOYCE did not ask him to, instead hoping he would come to see he was getting more out of the youth group than from the gang.

“I joined the gang because my cousin wanted to join. The older males around me, they were gang members,” Martin said. The Crips offered excitement, a sense of family, status.

Martin’s cousin is dead, a gang violence casualty in 2011.

Martin no longer fights or uses or sells drugs. But he calls himself “technically” still a gang member even as he tells youth not to join.

“I can’t just turn my back on the gang,” Martin said. He explains that he and others work or raise families but still occasionally get drawn into violence or crime by gang ties they cannot cut.

The Rev. Leon Kelly has worked with Denver’s disadvantaged young for three decades. He says gentrification in parts of northeast Denver is part of the reason for violence. Under the stress of change, gang members are increasingly desperate to assert their identity and hold over shrinking territory - though they take out their frustrations on one another, not newcomers, Kelly said.

Developers who want to flip gang-run drug houses call Albus Brooks, who represents northeast Denver on the City Council. Brooks said his constituents, whether they are black and Hispanic families with whom he grew up or the latest white arrivals, all want a safer neighborhood. He hopes he can persuade developers to build low-cost housing and community centers along with chic condos.

VOYCE co-founder Candi Cdebaca hopes the city’s anti-gang initiatives become long-term efforts to help neighbors she feels are anxious about being left out. “That anxiety is part of the root of the violence,” she said.

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