RODNEY DAILEY spoke abruptly on the phone, as young men scurried through his office. The gang interventionist was trying to settle a dispute between two youths without someone having to die - over a gold chain.
"A kid got his chain taken away at gunpoint," he explains. "He went to the police - like any rational citizen would do, right? The police arrested the kid who took the chain. Now, two or three of his friends are threatening to kill the kid who told the police. I'm trying to settle this without them having to blow each other away."
Mr. Dailey runs a program called Gang Peace in the Roxbury section of Boston, an area that has seen a wave of gang-related murders. It offers alternatives such as education, training, and jobs to young people as well as crisis intervention.
"These kids need different strategies, problem-solving techniques rather than solving problems through violence as they've been taught," says Dailey.
Dailey is also concerned about the environment the community provides for young people. "The subculture in the community breeds delinquent youth. If what you see is trash, drug dealing, prostitution - then that is what you become," he says.
The building Gang Peace occupies was a former crack house on a corner known for drug dealing and prostitution. The drug dealers and prostitutes have been pushed out with the help of the police. Gang Peace activists also cleaned up an adjacent vacant lot and installed a playground for toddlers. They cleaned up another lot across the street, which the city made available, and painted a large mural on a stage to serve as a backdrop for the Concert on the Corner series they intend to hold weekly this summer.
The Gang Peace program, which started in 1989, has five full-time staff, 1,000 volunteers, and 2,000 members.
Sudara Herndon is a 17-year-old member of Gang Peace and has been with the Heath Street gang since age 13, when she started selling crack. She says she joined the gang for protection because she had been shot at, stabbed, and arrested.
Sudara says that Dailey talked to her when she was selling drugs on the corner. He found Sudara a job last summer and she's been a member of Gang Peace since. She says she is trying to leave the Heath Street gang, because "there's three ways to end up: jail, dead, or using the drugs," but adds that it's not that easy.
The gang doesn't want you to leave because "you are family; they figure you either rat or trade on them," says Sudara. "But gangs won't mess with Rodney [Dailey]. They respect him. Like we say in gangs, if you get respect, you give respect, and Rodney gives us respect. And I feel a lot safer knowing that Rodney is helping me."
Dailey understands what these kids have been through. He was a gang member during his adolescence, involved with both drugs and guns. He says, "I hit rock bottom 11 1/2 years ago and entered F.I.R.S.T., a drug treatment program, and got clean from drugs." He then attended Roxbury Community College and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1990. "I tell kids that you don't have to go through what I went through, but you can learn from it."
"Since I drugged and tore up this community, I wanted to give something back," he says. After completing drug treatment, he began working for the program, and later founded Gang Peace. He paid for the rent himself on the storefront in the building they now occupy. The program has thrived.
Last summer Dailey located 80 jobs for kids, and this summer will provide at least that many. They have about 40 youths working now who have stopped selling drugs he says.
He says that gangs survive because "these kids are addicted to cash. They want money and there's not a lot of jobs available. They turn to selling drugs, and violence helps rule the drug game. You've got to have more strength, more firepower or other groups will take what you have. New gangs have to make a rep [reputation] for themselves, so what do they do? They kill somebody or beat up others over turf," says Dailey.
"Their customers are parents, adults, people dressed up like you," he says. "Kids are smart. They learn from them [that there is a double standard], and they don't respect these people."
Nor do they respect the police. "Kids feel like this: Police can do anything they want with me," he says. "Police come in here when there's a problem; smack kids around - they can always tell them they're resisting arrest."
Dailey believes that community policing may be part of the solution. He says the police "patrol" this area while they "protect" people in other areas, but says he is working with the police to improve understanding. "It's a problem that is everyone's," he says. "There is a way this can be resolved; let's see if we can do it together."
Capt. Pervis Ryans, commander of District B which covers Roxbury, Mattapan, and parts of Dorchester in Boston, says, "A small percent of our youth are in gangs, which normally revolve around drugs. We are partly successful in dealing with some of the violence related to gangs. We can manage gang violence, but we can't get rid of the drug problem. It's too big for us."
The critical group police deal with is ages 12 to 20. Captain Ryans says that over the past 10 years he has seen a proliferation of drugs and guns, which have caused much more violence. These young offenders operate within their own community, he says, and there often is no remorse. "You go to someone's home to arrest him for shooting somebody, and you'll find him sleeping in bed like a baby - like nothing has happened," he says.
Ryans is also an advocate for neighborhood policing. He says, "We need to do a lot more of it. It's hard to free our officers up from responding to 911 calls, but it works well when it can be done. It provides a perception of safety."
He is participating in a citywide task force with the community to develop a plan of action. He says, "At some point in time, we will have a form of neighborhood policing in the city of Boston."