A friend of mine from New York City publishing days, Julian Rubinstein, has written a book about “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” tracing the details leading up to the shooting in a Denver neighborhood by anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts just prior to the peace rally he organized.
Similar to what Minneapolis has experienced this past year, gang violence was increasing in the low-income neighborhood of The Holly, where Bloods and Crips battled for territory. Several high-profile nonprofit and benefactor donations funded a Boys & Girls Club in The Holly — something Roberts had envisioned and worked toward for years after he left the gang life.
Roberts was made a spokesperson for the city’s anti-gang work, but his outspoken and unrelenting nature scared or angered official leaders. For example, he was left off a speaking program at a press conference introducing the key players for a long-term project he had envisioned.
He refused to take part in a program about gang activity that he felt was run by law enforcement and built to serve policing goals such as making arrests and collection of information.
Informants from rival gangs seemingly tried to incriminate him in illegal activity. Others thought, incorrectly, that he pocketed big sums of money from the city deals. Eventually gang members claimed him to be a “snitch.” They threatened him, leading up to the day of the shooting.
Rubinstein is an award-winning reporter, and catalogs the details and city records from a multi-year investigative process, as well as interviewing as many gang-related and community-based activists as would talk to him.
There are many details that remind me of the North Minneapolis neighborhood where Minnesota Women’s Press has its office, reactions to protests after the murder of George Floyd by police, and to the roots of systemic racism in our state, including by law enforcement.
Roots of Violence and Incarceration
By the late 1970s, there were a few dozen street gangs in Denver — Latino, Asian, and Black. In the 1980s, unknown to most Americans at the time, drug sale profits were backing the CIA-backed Contras fighting to overthrow Nicaragua’s Soviet-backed Sandinista government. Related cocaine sales were being made to gang neighborhoods in mass quantities, fueling gang wars. After new drugs laws were signed into law by President Reagan in 1986, tens of thousands of mostly Black people were incarcerated at disproportionate rates.
In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was the largest crime legislation in U.S. history. A Reagan era bill that made sentencing for crack — disproportionately impacting Black people — much higher than powder cocaine was extended. Colorado began building new federal and state prisons. By 1995, the U.S. prison population had surpassed 1.5 million, and six in 1,000 people were incarcerated.
Simultaneously, David Kennedy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government noticed a pattern that all shootings in Boston of youth tended to be committed in only a few neighborhoods He learned that there were “impact players” involved in carrying out violence — people who pulled the trigger or older gang members who asked them to. A project began in Boston in 1996 to try to reach out directly to gang members to let them know how much their own community wanted the violence to stop, offering them services, and disrupting the illegal firearms market. Youth homicides dropped by 63 percent in the first 2.5 years of the program.
This was when Terrance Roberts was a teenager in Denver, seeking to move up in the drug game, which required money for drugs, guns, ammunition, and a cell phone.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Rubinstein writes, gangs had begun to unify around decreasing violence, offering a proposal to the city to repair damage from riots. The appeal to “give us the hammer and the nails, we will rebuild the city” was rejected. Instead, at peace meetings, police were arresting participants because of an injunction prohibiting gang members to meet with each other. A leader in the anti-gang movement was arrested after police received a call that he had stolen ten dollars at an event. Congresswoman Maxine Waters spoke on his behalf, but he was sentenced to seven years in prison because of previous felonies.
Seeking Authentic Community Development
In Denver, gang murders had reached 95 in one year, 74 for the next. A $7.6 million bill for ten years of steering youth away from street gangs was approved. Anti-gang activist Rev Kelly was brought in to raise money at corporations and fundraisers for youth programs. Rubinstein writes, however, of how Kelly’s intentions seemed to be led by law enforcement interests.
By this time, Roberts had been imprisoned many times. A former gang rival gave him a Bible. He watched a story about Martin Luther King’s life for the first time and heard his “Mountaintop” speech. He reflected on how much King had done before he was killed at age 39. Terrance was 24 and determined in that moment to do something good with his life. He stopped using his gang name. After he was released from prison, he told his father he wanted to start a gang prevention program called Prodigal Son.
Eventually, Roberts wanted to create after-school programs for youth and fund community development, to offer jobs and honor without gang life.
Roberts led an anti-gang march, “Heal the Hood.” People were reminded that Bloods was an acronym for Brotherly Love Overpower Oppressive Destruction, and that Crips stood for Community Revolution in Progress. Roberts said: “We gotta stop killing each other. Just for them to us the word violence — that gives them the right to bring law enforcement into our community like an army.”
He encouraged gang members present to remember that the power is in owning the land. [See more on this in Part 2.]
By 2010, gang homicides in Denver had dropped to ten, largely because of Roberts’s Camo Movement, led by community members, without law enforcement or systemic funding — the only approach they felt they could trust. Nationally, in comparison, gang membership in the post-2009 recession era had soared by 40 percent.
The Ethics of Informants
Rubinstein writes that Denver police had a low rate in solving homicides, especially in gang neighborhoods. “Some believed that at least a portion of those murders were unsolved because they were committed by people who had police protection, presumably because they were working for law enforcement as informants.”
The practice heightens suspicions for “snitching” and increases the numbers of shootings. In Roberts’s case, he believes as a Black activist he was implicated, including by police, as an informants, putting his life in danger.
Roberts also believes informants are used at politically charged events “to undermine and intimate activists.” Others believed the police used informants “to strategically undermine opposition to initiatives sought by city hall,” such as making trouble for activists like Roberts who wanted to save a community that the city wanted to gentrify.
Rubinstein quotes Los Angeles-based Aqeela Sherrills as seeing “the gang war as a critical piece of the multibillion-dollar-a-year criminal justice industrial complex.” In Denver, one-third of the city’s nearly $1.5 billion budget went to the Department of Safety, including the police and other law enforcement programs.
As Rubinstein writes: “Theoretically, in a world without gang violence, law enforcement stood to face severe budget cuts. Whatever the truth of such views, in northeast Denver, many people believed that Terrance had become a target not because of his inefficacy, but because of his success.”
The book chronicles the killings and imprisonment of several other Black activists connected in other cities with protests after police brutality cases.
Police also have claimed to hear credible threats to “take out” police that require action. In the case of Baltimore, after Freddie Gray Jr. died in police custody, local gang members refused to take the blame for making such a threat; the police retracted the claim.
In 2014, there was a spike in gang shootings. By this time Roberts had long been shut out of funded anti-gang work. Yet a magazine touted Denver as successfully creating a “Safe Summer, Safe Holly” program where children could learn, grow, and play, with more plans for redevelopment and a sense of pride among residents.”
A colleague told a TV reporter, “Since Terrance has been removed, we have an all-time high for gang-related shootings and violence. When you don’t have any kind of accountability over informants, that creates more immunity for individuals, it promotes crime – it’s the same kind of thing that we’ve seen law enforcement engage in in this community for decades.”
Others in the community noted that the district attorney has not indicted cops for brutality, but initially sought a lifetime sentence for Roberts.
At a eulogy for a former Black activist, Roberts’ father talked about the need to educate and mentor Black youth. “They can shut down the Black Panthers,” he said, “but the government can’t shut down the Ku Klux Klan. Can’t shut down the Bloods and the Crips.”
A few days later, Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was stopped near his house in nearby Aurora by police as he was walking home from the grocery store. As Rubinstein writes, he was an animal lover and vegetarian who taught himself to pay the violin. A 911 call reported him as looking sketchy. Four police forced him to the ground and beat him. Paramedics administered a large dose of ketamine, he went into a coma, and died less than a week later. When body cam footage was eventually released, it showed one of the cops telling the others to turn off their cameras.
In September 2020, Roberts was arrested for protesting, and now faces a potential three-year sentence.
Roberts also was one of the people involved in drafting a police reform bill. Black state representative Leslie Herod said she would never be able to get the bill passed. Six months later, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. After that, Herod was able to effectively sponsor a bill that succeeded in banning chokeholds, mandating body cam footage by public prohibiting law enforcement from shooting at fleeing suspects, and holding them accountable for their actions.
The bill passed. Colorado became the first state in the country to pass police reform legislation after Floyd’s murder.
Read Part 2 about community development as a solution to violence
Minnesota Women’s Press is developing this into a series about community-based development, local violence, police reform legislation, and more. We have asked several community leaders to respond.