In East New York, Former Gang Members Take a Shot at Violence

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In East New York, Former Gang Members Take a Shot at Violence

Man Up’s office in  in East New York. Photo: Renny Grinshpan.

This story is part of a special report on “Homicide in Brooklyn”

By Salma Amer, Nicholas Nehamas, Renny Grinshpan, Vanessa Alvarez, and Matt Collette

1-DeQuan Gelzer
DeQuan Gelzer says Man Up is helping him find a job, get a degree, and build the kind of life he wants to live. Photo: Renny Grinshpan.

Last week, DeQuan Gelzer dropped by an office near Van Siclen Avenue and Linden Boulevard in East New York. Gelzer is 21 and trying to get a construction job and complete his GED, so he’s working with a group called Man Up. He first got involved with them back when he was 14, but turned away from the anti-violence organization after he fell in with a rough crowd.

Now he’s back.

“You’re either going to live the right way or you’re going to be a gang member for the rest of your life,” says Gelzer. “But it’s not going to be a very long life.”

Man Up is a group of former gang members and volunteers trying to end violence in East New York, one of Brooklyn’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. The nonprofit believes in treating violence like a disease: something that can be stopped if diagnosed and treated before it spreads.

As they work to spot violence before it erupts, it helps that the group’s 15 employees all grew up or live in the neighborhood: They call themselves “credible messengers,” says Man Up founder Andre Mitchell, 47. Mitchell says it is easier for Man Up to work with locals than it is for law enforcement, which is often treated with suspicion. So far this year, the 75th Precinct, which polices East New York, has reported 17 murders — more than any other precinct in the city. In Community District 5, which includes East New York, 51.2 percent of people receive government assistance in the form of welfare, Social Security, or Medicaid.

Mitchell grew up in the area and says people in the neighborhood know he’s for real because he’s been that person, the one standing out on the corner selling drugs. He’s lived the life. And now he’s out of it. “A lot of the [kids] they say that can’t be done,” Mitchell explains. “But I’ve been shot, you know? I’ve been stabbed so I understand all of that.”

In his youth, Mitchell spent 5 years in prison for manslaughter. He says he was innocent, but nonetheless time in jail convinced him that a life of crime wouldn’t pay. “While incarcerated, I started helping people in prison, working with them,” Mitchell said, “and I became a model inmate and ever since I’ve been out doing the things that we do.”

One of Mitchell’s top lieutenants is Tislam Milliner, 39, a supervisor at Man Up and a rapper who was featured in an award-winning 2002 documentary about life in East New York’s public housing projects.

Brother Tiz — most employees at Man Up address each other as “Brother” or “Sister” — says he used to deal drugs while doing a little armed robbery on the side. But he grew sick of watching his friends and family members die young. So far, he’s attended 42 funerals — just of young people.

How It Works

Man Up is based on the work of Dr. Ron Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois who runs the nonprofit Cure Violence. Slutkin pioneered the idea of treating violence as an epidemic; Man Up is a national partner of Cure Violence. 2(1)

The goal of Man Up is to mediate conflicts before people turn to violence. Three employees called “Violence Interrupters” are tasked with the responsibility of talking to people in the neighborhood and finding out where the “beef” is brewing.

And the good news is that residents do talk. Especially those who worry about violence. A survey conducted in 2010 by The Center for Court Innovation, a justice think tank, found that 72 percent of Brownsville residents thought guns were a “big problem” in their community, the highest percentage for any single issue. Seventy-one percent also thought gangs were a big problem.

Tislam Milliner, who was an interrupter before becoming a supervisor at Man Up, says that any time he hears of a conflict escalating in the neighborhood he calls all of the parties involved and counsels them: “Before you grab that pistol we got to talk before you do something that’s going to ruin your life,” he says.

Man Up focuses its efforts on one of the hotspots in the 75th precinct. The longest that target area has gone on without any shootings was 371 days. But that number fell back to zero after 46-year-old Shawn Rhodes was killed 43 days ago on Wortman Avenue.

Man Up also employs outreach workers who manage caseloads of around 15 “high-risk” individuals— young people who have dropped out of school or already been incarcerated. The job is about helping them make the right choices. ““Say the young brother doesn’t have a job, then you go with him to the job interview,” explains Milliner. “Say he doesn’t have an ID. Then you take him down to get an ID.”

In the event of a shooting, the police  will call Man Up. A Man Up employee will then travel to the victim’s bedside and talk about what led to the shooting. Milliner says he will often tell the victim that this might be his last chance to change. “There’s no way you can keep getting shot and keep living,” he says.

So why are people getting shot in Brooklyn? Mitchell says the violence isn’t all about drugs, gangs, and crime. In fact, in his experience, the issues are mainly personal and distressingly petty, like an insult to a sister or stepping on someone’s brand new shoes.

“It’s not that deep,” says Mitchell. “It don’t take rocket science. It’s shit that can really be ironed out. We go in there with anger management, with conflict mediation. They’re really dealing with an emotional, personal thing that is really driving their anger.”

The Police and the People

In Brooklyn, most people don’t go to the police. “That’s not happening, unfortunately, anymore, ” Mitchell says. The community looks at you differently once you’re known to be talking with police, he says. Mitchell says Man Up has a good working relationship with the cops, but doesn’t pass them information of any kind. He does wish that police would become more involved in the community, and end the practice of Stop and Frisk.

(The New York Police Department did not respond to requests for comment about Man Up or their officers’ enforcement tactics in the area.)

DeQuan Gelzer, for example, says while he appreciates that police in the neighborhood are trying to do their job, he doesn’t think their tactics are very effective. “They’re chasing the wrong kids,” Gelzer argues, “the kids carrying nickel bags, the small-timers instead of the people carrying guns and killing each other.”

Not everyone in Brooklyn is sold on the Man Up model. In the Kingsborough public houses, in the northeastern part of Crown Heights, a young man named Paul is visiting friends. Residents of a building here are feuding with a group from a neighboring area, he says, but he won’t discuss what the beef is about. He knows both groups and is here to talk some sense into his friends before they resort to violence.

But he wants nothing to do with Man Up. He suspects they cooperate with the police. “I’m not trying to give up any information on anybody,” Paul insists. “As soon as I start doing that, that’s when there’s a problem.”

“I Get Them to Believe in Themselves”

Ron Moore grew up in East New York before getting drafted by the New York Knicks in 1987. A seven-foot-tall power forward, Moore played for two other teams in the NBA before a nine-year career overseas that took him to pro leagues in Israel, Greece, France, and Switzerland. Now he volunteers at Man Up. “I felt the obligation to come back to this community to help young people aspire to do the same things I had the opportunity to do,” Moore explains in a deep, resonant voice. “I get them to believe in themselves, as people, as a person. And I’ve seen the transformation in a lot of them.”

Moore works directly with a hundred and sixty students in the neighborhood aged between 10 and 18 through the Urban Athletes University program. “It’s scaled towards helping kids build a lot of skills, self-esteem, and character,” Moore says. “It also helps them towards getting good grades educationally, so they can be prepared for high school and college sports.” He says 9 out of 10 African American youth have an interest in sports as a career, so “we try to make them understand that education and sports go hand in hand. You can’t do one without the other.”

But he acknowledges that very few kids will be able to make a living for themselves as athletes. Moore says he helps his students understand that they can use sports to build character and discipline for careers in business, medicine, law, teaching and other professional fields.

Working with schools and resolving another strategy for Man Up. Moore is a member of the conflict resolution mediation program where students with leadership skills are trained to become mediators at the school, in whichresolving conflicts before they spur.

Moore thinks it’s important for the students to have a figure to look up to within their own community. “I’ve even had the opportunity to see a couple of them get into junior college to play basketballl, and they’re doing quite well for themselves now,” he says.

The Not Top Cop

Jumaane Williams, a city councilman whose district includes parts of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, and Canarsie, is co-chair of the Gun Violence Task Force. He said groups like Man Up play an important role in fighting violence crime at the community level.

Williams is “cautiously optimistic” about Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s incoming police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who held that post from 1994 to 1996, under Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani. While he said he’s glad de Blasio plans to reform policies like Stop and Frisk and step up community policing efforts, Williams said he remains concerned about things like police quotas. Those emerged, he said, with the introduction of the CompStat system, which was introduced by Bratton; Williams said that program encourages more police stops, which tend to focus on minority communities.

“By many accounts, Commissioner-Designate Bratton had a mixed tenure during his previous role as commissioner,” Williams said. “While violent crime dropped, many communities of more color felt that Commissioner-Designate Bratton was not responsive to their needs.”

Andre Mitchell and Ron Moore in the offices of Man Up in East New York. Photo: Renny Grinshpan.
Andre Mitchell and Ron Moore in the offices of Man Up in East New York. Photo: Renny Grinshpan.

Andre Mitchell of Man Up is also skeptical of New York’s new top cop. “That was the worst thing I think that Mr. DeBlasio could have done,” he says. “Bratton has already proven to not be the type of commissioner that we really want and need,” though Mitchell added that he will keep an open mind for Bratton’s new term.

Funded mainly by the mayor’s office, the Young Men’s Initiative, and the Open Society Foundation, Man Up’s annual budget totals around $1.7 million. However, Mitchell believes they need more money. “This is a matter of will [on the part of the state],” he says. “If they wanted to devote the resources to help a troubled area, they could do it like that!”

Mitchell thinks the ultimate solution to violence is more education and more jobs. Ron Moore, the former NBA player, believes high-risk kids need to consider their options in a personal way. “We just want them to see colleges and see a college campus and also take them to the jailhouse and say ‘You want incarceration or education?’” Moore says. “The choice is yours.”

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