The Gang War That Wasn't

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

The disputes mirrored those of any teenage population. Except these kids had guns in their waistbands, anger in their hearts, and the nothing-to-lose attitude of those who can't see a viable path around poverty and incarceration.

Then there was the fear. The fear that the other guy would shoot first.

The boys explained to Greer that a group from the front was hanging out in the courtyard as a group from the back walked past, mean mugging. That set it off. People shouted and ran to grab bats.

“Everybody was thinking it was going to be retaliation,” says Janay Hill.
Willie Davis
“Everybody was thinking it was going to be retaliation,” says Janay Hill.
Lance and Todd Feurtado had street cred: they helped run a drug empire in Jamaica, Queens, in the ’80s and ’90s.
Willie Davis
Lance and Todd Feurtado had street cred: they helped run a drug empire in Jamaica, Queens, in the ’80s and ’90s.

Greer had them trace back the standoff.

"You're gonna tell me you're gonna let a look, a stare on a face, get to you?" he said to one of the boys. "Why would you let another person dictate your character?"

He pointed out that the guy accused of the murder was sitting in jail. He told them that there was no need for somebody else to get killed, somebody else to get locked up.

Then he turned to the other leader. He reminded him that people were still upset. He asked him to be sensitive to that. Because gunplay can happen with the snap of a finger.

The teens nodded. The three of them talked for more than three hours until they were calm.

Janay Hill saw the group of guys huddled at the front of Redfern. She sensed trouble.

"When you grow up with somebody, you already just know," she says.

It was February. Nerves had begun to settle, but the ongoing tension lingered. "After the second car-crash incident, almost all the confrontations were related to the murder," says Greer.

Earlier in the day, Hill noticed a Facebook post that would raise tempers. "Jennifer," a prim 26-year-old with the demeanor of a reality show diva, posted a status that read, "at the end of the day, 1 down, 4 to go."

It seemed a taunt about the Gittens murder, with the threat of more to come. "Becky," a 25-year-old who carried herself like a back-of-the-classroom spitballer, took her outrage over the post to the boys from the front. Now they were plotting retribution for Jennifer's offense.

Hill had never taken sides in the front-versus-back divide. That didn't mean she wore a halo. She had a reputation as a hothead, and she didn't shy away from a fight. Greer had mediated at least one of her squabbles.

After a couple months of seeing Greer around the complex, Hill told him that she appreciated his efforts to stop the violence. But what she really needed was a job. The Feurtados hired her at Snug.

This wasn't a charity hire. Hill was ideal for the position. She knew the dynamics of the neighborhood. She wasn't just some square preaching anti-violence. She was one of them.

Now she was on the other side of the mediation process. She knew that girls at Redfern had a gift for setting the boys to boil. "Girls have a lot of influence on what these guys do."

And just as a woman can push a man to violence, a woman can pull him back from the edge. Pretty and amiable, Hill lightly flirted with them. Their aggression soothed. Their guards dropped. Let her handle the two girls, she added.

Hill understands the nature of gang violence—the obligation to protect reputations and send a message that any attack may come with a lethal cost. If you and your people get punked and don't do anything about it, word quickly spreads that you're the gazelles of the savanna. As one Far Rock teen puts it, "Sometimes it's just like better for people to think you're the predator than the prey, you know?"

Hill was giving the guys an out: It wasn't their call to back down. They were only doing her a favor.

"That'll be her first pass," one of the guys told her. "But we ain't gon' give her another."

A dozen teens from the front saw the guy they were looking for. They marched toward him. It was May 2012.

They hadn't forgotten about Ramel Gittens. They still wore T-shirts with his name and buttons with his face. They still posted messages on the "R.i.P Ramel GittENS AKA Rowdy" memorial Facebook page. A couple of guys recorded a rap about him. Scores of people came out for the video shoot.

But this beef wasn't about Gittens. This time someone from the back allegedly spit in the face of someone's sister. Greer arrived in time to defuse it.

In the 362 days following Gittens's murder, not a single person was shot at Redfern. The combustible ingredients for gang warfare were all there. There was rage. Pledges of revenge. Standoffs. But there was no gun violence. The anger vented and the furnace cooled.

"Quite frankly, I was very pleasantly shocked that it just didn't go back and forth," says Gaska, the community board director.

The Feurtados' team arrived at the height of the tension. They stayed more than 11 months, watching that tension fall and rise before finally settling down.

"They came and did a lot for the young adults," says Joyce Turner, who's lived in Redfern lived for 35 years. "They went in hard."

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5 comments
rugeirn
rugeirn

Terrific piece. An exemplary demonstration of what leadership can accomplish. And of course the effort lost its funding. Hey, this is America; that's how we do things.

 
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