The Gang War That Wasn't
The bullet hit the young man in the chest. He staggered down the building's dim hallway, stumbling through an apartment door. He collapsed on the floor.
Two residents, already roused by the crack of a gunshot in the small hours of the morning, rushed to him. One called 911. The other crouched to hold the young man, pleading with him to keep his eyes open.
They knew this kid. Most everybody at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway knew Ramel Gittens.
His friends called him "Rowdy." The square-jawed 19-year-old had a life-of-the-party way about him. Gittens had been a star running back and point guard at Far Rockaway High School. He carried himself with the confidence of a prom king.
It was a good bet he was with some of his folks earlier that Saturday night, July 16, 2011. He'd reached his building at the front of the Redfern complex around 1:25 a.m. But he'd barely made it into the hallway when the shot fired.
Now he fought for every breath while summoning a final surge of strength.
"Jigga shot me," he said.
The residents knew this man, too; Redfern, after all, is an intimate setting.
The housing project is nestled between Motts Basin and a construction company's storage lot at the eastern edge of Queens County. It's a 10-minute walk to the A train's last stop. "If you don't have a car, you can't get far," says Doris Jacobs, a 30-year resident. "We're the forgotten borough."
So people stay. Generation upon generation grows roots in these nine six- and seven-story brick structures. "There's this mindset that people who are born here, stay here," says Denean Ferguson, vice president of the New York Police Department's 101st Precinct Community Council and a 20-year Far Rockaway local. "And a lot of the times, kids grow up not exposed to the world outside the peninsula."
The residents had known Jigga for years. When the police arrived, they told the officers his government name: Shawn Jones. The name should have been familiar.
In 2007, the 24-year-old Jones was arrested in a sweep of 34 suspected gang members in Far Rockaway. He spent two years in prison for illegal possession of loaded handguns.
Jones had been on the other side of the barrel as well. At 17, he and two friends were shot while standing outside a house party. He reached the hospital in critical condition, but managed to survive. The two friends died at the scene.
Jones also survived the most serious criminal accusations against him. In 2006, he was charged with shooting a man at Redfern. A month later, while out on bail, he was arrested again after seven men jumped and pistol-whipped a guy at the back of the complex. He beat both cases.
The back of Redfern was Jigga's turf. And as long as he'd been alive, the boys from the back of the project had feuded with those from the front. The back flew the flag of the Bloods; the front repped the Crips. The animosity between them laced Redfern's air like a gas leak, forever on the verge of combustion.
"It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys," says Manny Fiallo, an outreach coordinator for the Police Athletic League. Others said it was more "like the Civil War."
Jones knew this war well. Just the night before, he was walking through the front, the shortest path to the bus stop, the bodega, the grocery store, and the Mott Avenue fast-food joints. He passed a group of guys. They said something. He said something back. Someone threw a punch. Next thing he knew, the whole group was pounding him.
But he wasn't the type to cower in his own neighborhood. Barely 24 hours after the beating, Jones was across the street from Gittens's building. It was 1:45 a.m., 20 minutes after the shooting. A cop spotted him. He didn't run. The officer asked him where he'd been. Jones said he'd been out the entire night. Police would arrest him the following evening.
Around the corner, red and blue emergency lights flashed. Some residents peeked out windows. Others gathered in the courtyard to speculate. They shook their heads. It had been so quiet here for so long. Now they wondered if this single bullet had sparked a fuse that had lain unlit for years.
Oh, Lord, sighed one older woman. Don't let it happen again.
The cops lined the back of the church, not wanting to disrupt the funeral. Others sat in squad cars outside Macedonia Baptist. The 101st Precinct understood the implications of Ramel Gittens's murder.
Two hundred or so people packed the pews. Many were comforted by the police presence.
Rumors had spread about the shooting. As far as anyone knew, Gittens wasn't there when Jones got jumped. One theory was that Jones targeted him to settle a decades-old score. The story went that Gittens's father had snitched out Jones's uncle when the pair worked together as drug dealers 20 or so years ago.
But others claimed the killing was random. Gittens associated with the Hassocc Boys, a set named for the street at the entrance of the complex. Jones ran with the "1270 Gangbangers," named for the address of a building at the back. Speculation was that Jones entered Hassocc territory in a rage over the beating he took, vowing to shoot the next person who walked through the door.
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.
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.
The men slapped hands and hugged. Then Marcus unleashed a tirade. He cursed those responsible for the near hit-and-run, arms slicing the air to punctuate his fury.
Greer nodded silently. He believed in letting a man vent.
It would be fair to call Greer an expert on project life. For nearly a decade, he'd overseen summer- and after-school programs at projects around Queens. But each neighborhood has its own politics. Neither Greer nor Lance and Todd Feurtado, the brothers who ran Snug, were from Redfern.
They'd arrived not long after Gittens's body was cold. Before they could defuse the bomb, though, they first had to understand its wiring. So they hit the streets nightly, learning the conflicts, the teams, who was prone to play the hothead, who was likely to become the peacemaker. So far, there had been a few minor confrontations, but no serious violence.
It seemed a scab formed over the wound of Gittens's death. But something about Jones's court appearance that day had ripped it off.
Marcus knew all about Greer and his bosses, the Feurtados. Oldest brother Tony Feurtado had been the top dog of the Seven Crowns gang. Lance and Todd were his capos, with Greer as their right-hand man. He was the enforcer. He collected the bills. He moved the shipments in his trunk.
For much of the '80s, the Feurtados controlled South Jamaica, Queens. They supplied the community with narcotics and Thanksgiving turkeys. By the early '90s, their conglomerate spanned 23 states. The Times called Seven Crowns "a sophisticated, million-dollar-a-week drug enterprise that operated ruthlessly and flagrantly."
Then came the law. After a 1995 bust, Tony got a 22-year sentence. Lance and Todd each spent a decade locked up. Greer did nine years. It was plenty of time to reflect on the poison they had injected into their communities. They committed to repairing the damage they helped cause.
Greer knew he couldn't change Marcus's mind with some "do the right thing" lecture. When somebody tries to run over a five-year-old boy, murder might feel like the right thing to do. Instead, Greer played the self-interest card.
He asked Marcus whether he liked women, because you can't get with women in the joint. You spread your cheeks and cough. Live in a cramped cell. Shower with other men. Eat the same shitty food and wear the same shitty jumpsuit for years on end.
He pressed Marcus about his infant daughter. Was it OK to miss her birthdays? Her graduation? Her wedding?
But Greer's most valuable tool was patience. He just had to keep Marcus talking. He knew that you couldn't talk a man out of his anger. You could only let him burn until his furnace began to cool. And he wouldn't leave until he was sure Marcus would keep the peace.
Marcus's rage would temper. Then reheat. The pattern continued deep into the night. One minute he was gushing about his baby girl. The next, he was promising to make those boys from the front pay.
It wasn't until a little past 2 a.m. that Greer heard what he needed to hear: Marcus told him that everything would be all right. The men hugged and parted ways.
A few weeks later, a car nearly hit the same woman and her five-year-old son as they crossed the street in front of Redfern.
"Yo, it's about to go down," the middle-aged woman told Greer.
It was November, and Greer was making his rounds. The woman had flagged him down. Tensions had been particularly high since the second car incident. She led Greer to the front of Redfern.
Two groups of teenagers squared off. They stood several yards apart, trading smack talk. A couple of guys on each side held baseball bats. Greer knew most of these boys. At least four carried pistols.
Greer stepped between the boys and put his hands up. He pulled aside the leader of each group and walked them to a nearby rec center. The other boys dispersed.
The trio sat at a conference table, where Greer offered a proposal: They would deal with this like men, one on one, face to face.
The boys mugged at each other. One lived in the front. The other lived in the back. Their sides had been feuding as long as they could remember. Neither knew when, how, or why the sections first started beefing. Nobody did.
"It's passed down from generation to generation," says Lance Feurtado. A kid's loyalties came down to where he was raised, a war inherited before he was born. The roots were untraceable. But over the years they had snarled into a thicket of blame. Each side felt slighted by an act of aggression from the other. A guy on one side got jumped. A guy on the other side got shot. And on and on.
"These feuds go back probably as old as I am," says Donovan Richards, the 30-year-old city councilman representing southeast Queens.
Most of the fights Snug encountered started small. Someone flirted with somebody else's girl. Someone talked shit on Facebook. Someone looked the wrong way at somebody else.
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.
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."
Snug mediated about 70 conflicts. Lance Feurtado estimates that at least a third of those directly or indirectly stemmed from the murder. Without the mediation "it woulda been ugly," says Hill. "It would have been outrageous."
"Just from that killing, might have been 20, 30 bodies out there," says Todd Feurtado. "And the killing might still be going on today."
Snug's funding dried up in June of last year. The Feurtados were forced to leave.
On July 14, 2012, three days before the first anniversary of Ramel Gittens's death, a 22-year-old was shot near the front of Redfern. He survived. The incident stemmed from a personal beef unrelated to the murder. The streak of no shooting victims was broken.
But the truce between front and back was sturdier than that. In the year since, there has been peace at Redfern.
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