Reverend Leon Kelly, the man behind Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, has devoted decades to the fight against gang violence in Denver. He's served as a vital conduit between the gangs, the police and the community at large.
So he's understandably concerned about the recent flare-up of gang violence in the Cole and Park Hill neighborhoods — and he's frustrated that his theory that much of the tension behind the violence has been fueled by gentrification has led to online accusations of racism.
"Facebook is blowing up, with people saying I'm blaming white folks for the gang problem now," he says. "But I'm not blaming white folks — and I'm not a racist. Not in any way. But whites are contributing to the element of change in these neighborhoods."
The most recent incidents of gang violence in Cole and Park Hill include the murder of Abdul Muhammad; the subsequent slaying of Nolan Ware prior to the scheduled funeral for Muhammad, one of Ware's relatives; and a pair of April 28 shootings that left two men badly injured and another dead. Kelly provides insight into each of the latter three events, which he feels haven't been accurately portrayed by some media organizations.
Kelly wasn't scheduled to perform Muhammad's funeral. Instead, he was in charge of security — a task he's tackled at all too many services over the years. And since the funeral itself was supposed to take place at Pipkin Braswell Chapel of Peace, 6601 East Colfax Avenue, that's where Kelly concentrated his efforts
But near 32nd and Gilpin, Kelly says, "a group of the young people — pallbearers and all — were waiting for the limousine to pick them up. And as they were standing there waiting, a car pulled up that had some of the oldies in it. Words were said back and forth to the effect of 'See what happened to your uncle? The same thing is going to happen to you?' And that certainly didn't sit well with the young people. One thing led to another, shots rang out, and Nolan was killed."
Given his security mandate, Kelly wonders if there was something more he could have done to prevent this second homicide. "Maybe I dropped the ball," he says. "But in thirty years, I've never had an incident where you send the limousine to pick up the family and having something happen there instead of at the church."
As for the "oldies," Kelly believes they live near the 1625 Bruce Randolph Avenue home where Muhammad was killed. But he isn't surprised that no arrests have been made thus far. "In a lot of these open cases, the police say they have suspects, but there are no witnesses — no witnesses willing to talk. And it's hard to try to develop a case if no one wants to come forward" due to fear of retribution.
More terror followed on the evening of the 28th, following a peace rally at George Morrison Sr. Park in which Kelly took part. And while the goal of the gathering was non-violence, Lelly says "there was still some high tension among the young people there. Some were friends of the family, and the way things were going, we knew there was going to be some retaliation."
Is Kelly saying that the people who took part in the two shootings that followed were actually at the rally? He doesn't go that far. But he does mention the proximity of a liquor store near the park. "These kids get puffed up and aggravated by liquor and drinking. It gives them the idea of 'I'm going to go out and do something' instead of dealing with rational thought."
According to Kelly, the two shootings — one in the vicinity of 33rd and Krameria in Park Hill, the other close to 35th and Williams in Cole — are linked, but the motives were different. "The crips were having an issue with the bloods in Park Hill, and there was also a rival gang they were having an issue with."
Some of the "oldies" with whom Kelly is in contact "have been trying to defuse some of this stuff behind the scenes. They've been telling everyone, 'Stand down. Don't make yourself an easy target.'" But the victim of the 33rd and Krameria shooting — he hasn't been publicly identified at this writing — "wasn't standing out," Kelly emphasizes. "He just happened to be putting his baby in the car, and he was a victim of opportunity. Thank God he survived, because anything could have happened. He could have been killed, the baby could have been hit...."
In regard to the 35th and Williams shooting, Kelly says, "the oldies told these kids, 'Watch your back. Stay out of the way.' They were warned to keep a low profile. But egos set in and you think, 'I'm not scared. I'm not going to hide. I'm not going to bow down to whatever.' So you're sitting on your porch, chilling, doing what you do, and all of a sudden, you become a visible target. And the outcome is tragedy" — one person killed, another wounded.
The timing of the shootings was coordinated, Kelly thinks. "It was almost a military type of strategy that they found themselves being a part of," he says.
Neither of the 35th and Williams victims have been publicly identified at this writing, either, and while Kelly feels the police may have suspects in the crimes, witnesses are in mighty short supply. "In cases like these, some people are not willing to put their safety and their life on the line to talk to the police," he says.
Afterward, Kelly took part in an interview with 9News in which he said the upswing of gang violence may have been precipitated in part by the changes in neighborhoods like Cole, which has long been dominated by residents of color but is now seeing an influx of wealthier Caucasians. That's led to the racism charges noted above — allegations Kelly passionately rejects.
"People have been asking me why we're seeing this resurgence to the degree we are," he points out. "And I've said one of the contributors is the migration in the neighborhood. Thirty years ago, that neighborhood used to be all black. Then, twenty years ago, it was majority Hispanic or Latino. Now, there's a majority of whites moving in.
"Back in the day, the blacks and the brows could coexist because there was room for each of them to occupy territory. Now, the whites are consolidating, boxing in the blacks and browns, who are trying to hang onto this little bit of space — and that's forcing them to get closer together and it's causing a reaction.
"That's reality," he stresses. "But some people don't want to deal with the fact that the 'hood is changing. And we have to embrace that change, and understand it. But when we look at these gangsters, they feel they're being smothered. Then one thing leads to another and the end results happen to be what we've been seeing."
He offers an example of the clashing cultures: "Some of my kids have been used to sitting out on weekend nights smoking and drinking, and they think it's their 'hood. But now, due to changes in the community, the white people are coming in with their strollers and dogs, and they see these kids hanging out — and they're not used to it. They want the city to do something about it, and the kids are reacting to that.
"I'm not saying that's a white problem, though," he goes on. "No, that's just a change that we need to deal with."
In his view, the way to do so in a productive way is for whites, browns and blacks to join forces. But he sees the latter two demographics as resisting these efforts — or at least not making as much of an effort to improve things as he'd like to see.
"I've been going to these community meetings, and they're majority white," he allows. "And I'll say, 'Where are the people of color?' I've got these kids on slabs, but no people of color are there. Where are their families? Where are their mothers?"
He's equally bothered by the spotty attention the issue is receiving in the press.
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"If a policeman had shot any of these kids, or if a white person had been shot — if all of these kids who were killed were white — it would make national news. Not city news or state news, but national news. So where are the people of color? Where are the people demanding that we take back our neighborhoods? When I see the people who are protesting about Baltimore and Ferguson, they're not all black. It's a cross-section of folks. And if we had that kind of support here, it would put pressure on the kids who are shooting and terrorizing these neighborhoods."