- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 28, 2004

Dominic and Hank are not leaders of warring factions in the West Bank. Vincent and Carlos are definitely not insurgents from Fallujah. But after years of sometimes deadly scrimmages between the Shadow High and Birchwood City (“B-dub-C”) crews in Fort Washington, these young men’s pending pact to lay down their arms is no less welcome than a Middle East peace agreement.

On Sunday, Dominic and Hank pledged to sign a peace accord to stop the violence in their Prince George’s County communities as the culmination of a weekend conference at Ebenezer AME Zion Church designed to help young black men turn their lives around.

“The whole thing is about an opportunity now,” said Hank, 32, leader of the Birchwood City crew. “Everybody thinks that PG is about the money … but the same things that happen in D.C. are happening in Maryland and Virginia.”

“I want to show I can break the chain,” said Dominic, 24, leader of the Shadow High crew, during an interview at the Southeast office of the Alliance for Concerned Men, which was instrumental in brokering the truce.

The promise of employment training and jobs as an alternative to earning money through drug-driven crime was a major motivator in bringing the feuding groups together.

For Dominic, that “chain” and “vicious cycle” of crime not only included everything he saw and learned in his working-class neighborhood but also his role models. They include a grandfather who spent most of his life in penitentiaries and a 42-year-old father who has been imprisoned for all 24 years of this young man’s life. Dominic said they have never met “as free men.”

Larry McMichael, 32, an outreach worker with the Alliance specializing in gangs, had a personal stake in bringing Hank and Dominic to the negotiating table. The latter’s father helped raise Mr. McMichael and asked him to help his son get straight. Dominic’s father, in turn, asked his son to cooperate with Mr. McMichael and the Alliance because he didn’t want his son to end up dead or in prison.

“He was basically telling me that he didn’t want me involved in all this drama out here,” Dominic said of his father’s phone calls from Lewisburg (Pa.) Penitentiary. But the young man already “evidently knew that something would happen if I stayed outside,” meaning on the streets. The critical Alliance intervention came about after Dominic spent five days in the hospital recovering from a bullet wound near his appendix, which he raised his jacket to show me.

Dominic, Vincent and Carlos were among the five young men of the Shadow High crew, who were shot in front of Dominic’s Fort Washington home about midnight on Sept. 2. That shooting supposedly was in retaliation for a fatal shooting of a member of the Birchwood City crew.

The Shadow High crew admitted that its initial reaction was to seek revenge, as usual. However, Ricco Rush, Mr. McMichael and Tyrone Parker of the Alliance enlisted the help of two young ministers at Ebenezer Church, the Rev. Tony Lee and the Rev. Bill Lee, who both gang leaders knew from the latter’s basketball coaching days. The elder men got the younger men to sit down over breakfast. It was the first time they had met, even though the live only 2 miles from each other.

Dominic said they found common ground in music, because both groups are trying to start rap bands. I suggested that maybe they should have the battle of the bands rather than the battle of the bullets, to which Dominic flashed a sly smile

“Rapping can be our way out of getting the fast money and a fast life,” he said.

Tony Lee said Sunday’s ceremony will “celebrate” the young men’s effort to reconcile. His church is committed to working long term with the Alliance by providing resources such as meeting space, funding, mentors, tutors and jobs to help young men learn life skills.

The Alliance for Concerned Men, an organization of reformed convicts who work with troubled youth, is well known for its work with juvenile offenders and community crews — the city’s loose-knit gangs. The successful truce they forged with crews in the Simple City area near Benning Road NE is in its ninth year.

Mr. Rush, co-founder of the Alliance, said the group has been invited to expand its successes in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, which are experiencing increasing gang activity. But they need resources and help to keep young men, who feel they have no other options, away from the life of crime.

Vincent, 23, said he only knows how to “live the fast life” because “we went from water guns, to cap guns to real guns.”

Clearly a brainy guy, who talked enthusiastically about fixing computers and cars, he said, “I just need a job, but nobody will hire me because I have a felony.”

If they can get the training they need, if they can get jobs, if they can stop the violent retaliation between Shadow High and Birchwood, what, if any, dreams do these young men have? Simple: Dominic, a high-school dropout, wants to be a computer drafting or design specialist. Carlos wants to learn a trade or own a business — “anything to make a better life.” Vincent wants “to do something where I could wake up every day and do something legal.”

“Man, I break the law about 18 times a day,” Vincent said, shaking his head and visibly frustrated with his own criminal behavior. “I’m not trying to go back [to prison].”

They agreed that they are ready “to grow up and be men,” as Dominic said. If he and Hank lead the way, “the rest will come with me.”

The last names of the young men are being withheld at the request of their mentors with the Alliance for Concerned Men. For information about its anti-gang programs, call Tyrone Parker, Ricco Rush or Larry McMichael at 202/986-6581.

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