Metro Denver Gang Coalition: Beyond Darrent Williams

At least five people have been killed so far this year in gang-related homicides, but sixteen other murders remain unsolved in Denver. Several of these may be tied to gangs as well, though police can't confirm that because no arrests have been made.

Some of the shootings took place during the warmer months, meaning it wasn't quite the Summer of Peace that anti-gang activists had hoped for. But at least it wasn't the bloody sequel to 1993's Summer of Violence that so many had expected.

Gang prevention and intervention is hard to measure, but credit should be given to the Metro Denver Gang Coalition, an informally connected group of anti-gang activists from different backgrounds and different sides of town who came together after Denver Bronco Darrent Williams was killed early on New Year's Day.

An earlier version of the coalition was formed in 1993 after several non-gangsters were caught in the crossfire and woke the general public and elected officials to an expanding gang problem in Denver. But it disbanded five years ago when funding ran out, and gang violence slipped on the city's priority list. Williams's death — he was killed by bullets fired from a truck belonging to a Crips member as his stretch limo rolled down Speer Boulevard — sparked new outrage, as well as the coalition's resurrection in January.

Led by Regina Huerter, executive director of the city's Crime Prevention and Control Commission, the coalition includes ex-gangsters, social workers, government officials, school administrators, cops, prosecutors and religious dignitaries. It is operating on a $15,000 budget, although more money is pending.

Since January, however, attendance at monthly coalition meetings has dropped from about 100 people to 50. Conflict has threatened the organization; striking a balance between street cred and politics hasn't always been easy. For instance, an anti-gang approach that might work in the black hoods where former Blood Terrance Roberts operates won't necessarily be successful in the Latino hoods where Francisco Gallardo of the Gang Rescue and Support Project focuses much of his attention.

"We're at a crossroads. We can either buckle down and make the coalition work, or we can work our way into obscurity again," says Gallardo, a former member of the North Side Mafia gang. "I think people are committed to making it work; it's just a matter of keeping focus."

"It's too many ex-gangsters sometimes," says Roberts, who now runs the Prodigal Son Initiative, a non-profit after-school program. "Not everybody gets along, and a lot of these gang mentalities bleed into this coalition work. People we know are still getting killed. It puts us in emotional situations, and we take it out on each other."

Most of the coalition members agree that the best thing to come out of their efforts is a new, behind-the-scenes network that locates and provides services, from parent education to job placement for ex-gang members with felony records. Several coalition members have taken to the streets on their own, trying to cool tensions between feuding gangs and provide a sense of security — that doesn't involve the police — at functions and events.

"To me, the fact that there are ex-gang members involved in this initiative is probably our greatest resource," Huerter said.

But coalition members know there's a fine line between being perceived as a neutral third party and being perceived as a person in a position of authority. It's a determination that could have deadly results, one that the ex-gangsters who are doing the work don't take lightly.

At one meeting, for instance, Huerter called for a "thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote" on whether coalition members wanted to turn in older gangsters in order to reverse their influence in the community and allow the coalition to better reach the youth.

"Hold up a second there, Reg, don't get anyone shot in the head," Roberts responded. "Something like that is going to take way more discussion than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote."

The members eventually decided that snitching was not in their best interest.

What is in their best interest, however, is intervention work, particularly squashing rumors between rival sets, a responsibility Gallardo and Eddie Armijo of His Side Gang Rescue took to new levels in the Latino community this summer.

Armijo grew up in Curtis Park and ran with a gang called the Curtis Boys in the 1970s. He's been doing anti-gang work around the way since 1980 and hosts block parties with barbecues for kids. All summer, he worked with two rival Latino gangs whose feud left behind a trail of death and despair.

Too often, though, Armijo gets to gang members after the fact, as was the case with Angel, who was shot in June while he was hanging out in northeast Denver, and left paralyzed. No one has been arrested in the case. Armijo is trying to encourage Angel to join the anti-gang cause and speak to other kids about where gangbanging leads.

In addition to its city-allocated budget, the coalition hopes to begin spending a $100,000 grant that it won earlier this year from the Denver Foundation. The money will be used to support a Comprehensive Gang Model made up of components including community mobilization, job creation, education and social intervention to keep kids from falling through the cracks.

The coalition has several other grant proposals pending, and Gallardo and Armijo raised $3,000 from a donor for the painting of two peace murals in gang-infested neighborhoods at 37th Avenue and Williams Street and 43rd Avenue and Clayton Street. The Summer of Peace, which was actually born in the Chicano community and quickly absorbed by the coalition, also spawned a Friday-night basketball league, which had nearly 100 kids participating. The program included a life-skills component, with speakers ranging from a former California gangster to the Oracle of Tibet.

As summer turned to fall, the Summer of Peace campaign rolled into the Keepin' the Peace campaign, and Huerter believes it is stronger now than ever.

But as the Reverend Leon Kelly, executive director of the Open Door Youth Gang Alternative, points out, it's a battle that's been abandoned before.

"I'm still hearing the same concern from a lot of these kids in the hood: 'Who's it for?'" says Kelly, who continues to run an after-school program and respond as an intervention force. "I haven't seen any changes in the hood for some of these kids to make them feel like they're dealing with the Summer of Peace, or like anyone from the city really wants to change. You can have peace signs all over the place, but we got tombstones still coming up alongside the peace signs."

But others, like Gallardo, Roberts and Armijo, see positive results beginning to take hold. And everyone agrees with something that one of the out-of-town speakers said over the summer: "Peace is a journey, not a destination, not a place that you get to."