The Gang War That Wasn't

A Far Rockaway murder lit the fuse of a longstanding conflict, but a remarkable peace arrived instead

Yet, at this moment, motive didn't matter. All that mattered was the boiling anger inside the church. Young men lined pews wearing "Hassocc in Peace Rowdy G" T-shirts and "R.I.P. Rowdy" buttons. Some held their heads high and balled their fists, clenched jaws fortifying steely expressions. Some allowed themselves tears, and wept. Some shouted curses on the sidewalk and pledged to make those behind Gittens's death feel the same pain.

Gittens's father stepped to the front. He demanded that the violence end with his son. There was sorrow in his voice. We're not gon' do this, he said. I'll be damned if I'm gon' have this nonsense. He recognized the powder keg Redfern had become. Everyone in the room remembered the last time Redfern exploded.

It began with the most infamous murder in the project's history. Around 5 a.m. on July 11, 2007, Raquan Elliott entered his building at the front of the complex. The 24-year-old rapper was better known as Stack Bundles. He'd recently signed with Dipset, the nationally acclaimed hip-hop crew. He was sure to be the first Far Rock rapper to go big.

Mediator Ralph Greer Jr. knew that you couldn’t talk a man out of his anger. You could only let him burn until his furnace began to cool.
Willie Davis
Mediator Ralph Greer Jr. knew that you couldn’t talk a man out of his anger. You could only let him burn until his furnace began to cool.

Elliott was shot dead before he reached his apartment door. His family suspected someone from his inner circle. Someone jealous. No one was ever charged with the killing.

Six months later, 18-year-old Neville Ward was gunned down in front of Redfern. Two boys, ages 13 and 15, were charged with the slaying.

Yet the powder keg wasn't fully lit until May 2008. More than two dozen people had gathered near the back of Redfern for a graduation party. At 11:10 p.m., two men opened fire, unloading nearly 30 rounds. A 15-year-old girl named Brandon Bethea was killed.

Two days later, 16-year-old Tyrese Johnson walked into Last Stop Deli, four blocks south of Redfern. He was fatally shot at the doorway. Police said it was a case of mistaken identity.

The burst of violence was enough to draw the New York Times. At Redfern, the paper reported, "mourning the murdered has become a familiar routine."

The usual response, wrote Marc Santora, was "vengeance." Most of the dead "are victims of a private war that has been playing out at this housing project for years. A war over money, turf, and drugs."

This wasn't quite true. The beefs ran deeper than business. They were personal, minor conflicts that escalated to tragedy. All it took was a spark.

Bethea's murder brought public outrage. A shuttered community center was re-opened. Police increased patrols. Politicians secured funding for security cameras. Community leaders promoted neighborhood events like "Family Day" and the "Celebrate Rockaway" parade.

For three years, there was relative peace. Residents allowed their children to play outdoors more often. Elderly folks left their rooms to socialize on the benches. Teens played basketball at 3 a.m. Redfern had reached some measure of tranquility. "You almost don't wanna say anything because you don't wanna jinx it," says Jonathan Gaska, district manager of the local community board.

But now that peace felt fragile. Many in the church closed their eyes and prayed. A menace had been unleashed.

"People knew that it might pop off," Ferguson says.

"Uh oh, here we go again," Gaska says he thought. "There are times when it's super-quiet, and then something happens and there's retaliations back and forth and it's just horrible."

"Everybody was thinking it was going to be retaliation," says Janay Hill, a 23-year-old Redfern native. "Everybody wanted retaliation."

Reverend Earl Gray took the lectern. He preached to the young men before him, asking how high the body count would rise before they stopped killing each other.

But as Gray spoke, six young men stood up and defiantly marched out the door.

"Marcus" was heated. He stood outside his building and contemplated his next move, his anger building by the moment.

It had been three months since Gittens's slaying. Jones had had an arraignment that day. With it had come the first sign of revenge.

One of Jones's relatives was crossing a street with her five-year-old son. A car accelerated toward them. Mother and child leaped from harm. The woman swore the driver was a Gittens.

Marcus was cool with Jones. He lived in the middle of the complex but affiliated with the back. And he had the power to back up his outrage.

Just 22, he'd risen to become a shot-caller at Redfern as the older guys moved away or went to jail. He was charismatic and handsome, flashing designer labels like Burberry and YSL. Friends dubbed his style "hood-preppy" and joked that he looked like he should be hosting 106 & Park.

His climb wasn't a product of chance. He built a network of allies. When anything happened at Redfern, he was among the first to hear about it.

And so he fumed. He believed that targeting a mother and child was spitting on the unwritten rules of the game. He would prepare for payback.

But the sight of Ralph Greer Jr. interrupted his thoughts. Marcus wasn't surprised to see the man headed his way. Greer was an outreach worker for Snug, an anti-violence initiative modeled after Chicago's CeaseFire program. Greer's job was to defuse conflict before it erupted.

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