‘The Holly’ digs deep into one man’s complicated efforts to end gang violence

“The Holly” shows how, faced with a system stacked against him, Terrance Roberts tried to stop gang violence in Denver.  

Macmillan Publishers
“The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood” by Julian Rubinstein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp.

On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 2013, a crowd assembled in Holly Square – a hub of Denver’s African American community – for a peace rally organized by local activist Terrance Roberts. For years, conflict between local Crips and Bloods gang members had harmed the Holly, as the surrounding historically Black area was known. Violence had escalated sharply during the first half of 2013. Many believed that if anyone could do something about it, it was Roberts; in 2008, he had brokered a 40-day cease-fire between Crips and Bloods. A former Blood himself, Roberts had founded Prodigal Son, a nonprofit that gave children and teens a safe place to stay after school. A few years earlier, Holly Square had essentially functioned as an open-air drug market. Now, thanks in large part to Roberts, it was the site of a new Boys and Girls Club and a job search center for adults.

Shortly before the rally was scheduled to begin, several Bloods, including local enforcer Hasan Jones, approached Roberts. Roberts fired a gun, hitting Jones, who survived. But now, Roberts was facing life in prison for attempted murder and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.

Julian Rubinstein’s “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood” is the story of the events and circumstances that led an activist to shoot a man. It’s also the story of a community fighting to save itself from the converging forces of gang violence, predatory policing, and gentrification.

But above all, it’s the story of a man struggling to redeem himself in a system designed to ensure his failure. Roberts was born in 1976, when the Holly, like many urban neighborhoods across the country, witnessed an increase in poverty and violent crime. His community faced excessively forceful policing, his father was usually out of the picture, and gangs governed the neighborhood. 

By the time Roberts was 11, Crips and Bloods had gained a solid footing in Denver. Roberts’ Holly neighborhood, Northeast Park Hill, was Blood territory, and he began working for the gang as a runner when he was 14. He was also 14 when he was arrested for the first time. By 15, he was officially a Blood. He spent most of his 20s in prison.

Rubinstein makes it clear that Roberts faced a nearly impossible situation: The only way for an inmate to reduce his sentence was good behavior, which meant staying out of fights. And Roberts had been sent to a penitentiary full of Crips.

But prison proved to be transformative for Roberts. He read “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which convinced him to change his life. He told other incarcerated Bloods he was no longer a member. When he was finally released on probation in his late 20s, he was determined to save as many kids as possible from making the same mistakes. His nonprofit, Prodigal Son, began as an after-school program he started in the bagel shop where he had landed his first job out of prison.

Roberts soon attracted media attention and the notice of local politicians and philanthropists, and Rubinstein skillfully explains how relationships with Denver’s white elite proved as problematic as they were helpful. The city government wanted Roberts to establish a cooperative relationship with local police, but Roberts knew he would lose his community’s trust – and thus his ability to accomplish anything – if he was publicly friendly with law enforcement. Plans to renew the Holly brought more conflict. Roberts wanted a community center that was an integral part of the neighborhood. Donors wanted a building that would showcase their names. Real estate developers – plus the politicians they donated to – wanted fresh territory for expensive condos.

And Roberts’ relationship with the local Bloods was fraught, to put it mildly. They considered his departure from the gang a betrayal, and his work in the community a threat to their authority.

“The Holly” is a powerful, up-close look at the criminal, political, and economic forces that can erode a community. But Rubinstein makes it clear this story isn’t just about Denver. It’s about the nationwide spread of the Crips and Bloods from their birthplace in southern California. It’s about the distribution of crack cocaine and the creation of new opportunities for dealers in impoverished neighborhoods. It’s about laws that disproportionately target Black Americans, including “three strikes” laws, under which trivial third offenses like shoplifting can result in life sentences. It’s a complicated history, but Rubinstein makes it compellingly readable.

If you want to understand the origins of the violence ravaging many urban areas and the challenges faced by one man trying to stop it, read “The Holly.”

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