Police cars and yellow caution tape line the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Congress Street SE on a Monday night in August. A young man named Stephon Hooks has been shot in the leg and is on his way to Washington Hospital Center. D.C. police are milling around, a few taking notes or looking for shell casings. The shooting is one of more than 60 that took place in August.
Ronald Moten has already visited the crime scene. He’s now a few blocks away, driving his Yukon Denali and monitoring the situation via BlackBerry. Moten isn’t a police officer; he’s not even a city employee. He’s a co-founder of the nonprofit youth services group Peaceoholics. When someone in D.C. is shot, he’s often the first to hear about it.
Moments after hearing about the shooting, the 39-year-old Moten and two of his employees, ex-felons tasked with violence intervention and youth outreach, have started an investigation. They want to find the shooter, or at least the person who everyone thinks pulled the trigger. Because if there’s one thing Moten knows, it’s that one shooting begets another. Stopping that scenario from playing out is the core of Moten’s mission as leader of Peaceoholics, a name they define as people “addicted to peace.”
If you’re not familiar with Moten and his group, you’re not familiar with crime in the District. When asked who’s in charge of the scene at Alabama and Congress, an officer replies, “Probably that dude from Peaceoholics; he’s the big boss around here.” Standing nearby, a police lieutenant says she has no idea what Moten is doing. “He didn’t speak to me or any of my officers,” she says.
That’s because Moten is wired at the upper echelons of the city bureaucracy. He bypasses mid-level law enforcement and handles his business at street level, where his word is his bond. And with 50 or so ex-felons on his payroll, who he can dispatch at any hour of the day or night to quash a beef between rival crews or stop a school shooting, Moten has tentacles into communities that distrust the government and the police. Founded on the idea that no one can talk to misguided youth like a “returned citizen,” as the group refers to ex-felons, Peaceoholics display an evangelical zeal not commonly found in the grass-roots nonprofit sector. Their mantra is: “It’s not a job; it’s a ministry.”
Moten is one minister who doesn’t wait for permission from above before acting. Asked if the city has abdicated public safety and social services responsibilities to Peaceoholics, he puts it like this: “They don’t abdicate nothing to us. When we first went into the schools [to quell violence] they didn’t ask us to come in; we went in. The police or the mayor, they don’t tell us what to do; God tells us what to do. We don’t work for the government; the government works for us.”
That’s certainly how a Peaceoholics detractor would frame the situation. Since 2005, Peaceoholics has received more than $10 million in grants and loans from the D.C. government and agencies that work closely with the city on youth social services. Most of that money, about $500,000 per month, goes toward salaries, expenses and rent for the group’s office in Southeast D.C.
Proving expert at wringing cash out of the public sector, Moten is getting Peaceoholics into real estate. In May, the group snared a $5 million loan on bargain terms from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. The idea is to renovate three multi-unit buildings in low-income areas into affordable housing for youths transitioning out of detention. If all goes according to plan, public dollars ordinarily spent on individual kids for a variety of social services will end up in Peaceoholics’ coffers as they serve those same kids in a privately owned local setting.
Yet just what Peaceoholics does with its grants has surfaced as a public issue twice in 2009. In March, the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty decided to donate a fire engine and ambulance to the Dominican Republic without the approval of the D.C. Council. A crony of the mayor enlisted Moten to get Peaceoholics to act as a conduit for the donation, which has taken on the look of a mini-scandal involving Caribbean junkets for allies of the Fenty administration. The whole affair is now under investigation by the D.C. Inspector General’s Office. “I know for a fact that nothing was done wrong,” says Moten.
And just last month, Peaceoholics mentor Barry Harrison was convicted of five counts of enticing a minor and sexual assault in connection with his work at Spingarn High School. Harrison, it turns out, had been convicted of murder in the 1980s and was released from prison in 2006. Moten claimed a police background check went back only 10 years. Moten has vowed to push for appeal of the conviction.
There’s a reason, though, why Harrison was roaming Spingarn without supervision and why Peaceoholics is getting sweetheart loan terms from DHCD, why city agencies simply throw money at the group.
It’s because D.C. can’t handle its young. The list of D.C. agencies in charge of ministering to kids—Child and Family Services Agency, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, D.C. Public Schools—is also a list of some of the city’s famously dysfunctional bureaucracies—fumbling, often corrupt entities that have repeatedly failed their “customers.”
Enter Moten, a tireless, charismatic and sometimes aggressive whirlwind of a man who has established a rapport with D.C. youth. This very mismatch—the city’s ineffectiveness and Moten’s skillfulness—has provided a great market opportunity for Peaceoholics. As city agencies avoided street-level intervention, Moten’s 70-employee group soaked up millions of public dollars.
Richard Norman, an advisory board member of the Salvation Army, says, “When there’s something good, Ron goes for it. He doesn’t always do extensive due diligence. But I tell him, when you have good intentions, and you make a mistake, then all is forgiven. I have a lot of admiration for him. He’s got 20 cakes baking in the oven as we speak—and you don’t know about 19 of them.”
Moten puts the matter in simpler terms. “We on the ground with the people,” he says shortly after the Congress Street shooting. “We know what’s going on; we in the trenches. There’s nobody else in the city doing this to the degree we are. No-body.”
And on this night, Moten and his cohorts are looking to back up those words. In fact, they’ve already figured out where to find the prime suspect.
Two decades ago, 20-year-old Ronald Moten was making a good name for himself as a workaday guy. He had a job in the special events department at Georgetown University Hospital. According to his boss at the time, Alanis E. Thomas, Moten showed “honesty, diligence, and job integrity” as he rose from temp worker to full-time events manager.
Moten was making a different kind of name for himself around Petworth, where he lived with his grandmother. Police were following him around on the suspicion that he was supplying large amounts of crack cocaine to various street dealers. Moten had prior arrests as a juvenile and was on probation from a conspiracy conviction in New Jersey.
One day in 1991, after he made a drug sale, agents came onto his grandmother’s porch, where Moten was standing with his brother and father. Moten bolted inside, onto the roof, across the roofs of several row houses and broke into one of them, where he was arrested. In 1992, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison. He was 21.
Though Moten’s path to incarceration was typical for a young black man in D.C., he has long since broken the stereotype of what comes after prison. No slipups, no legal setbacks, no scores to settle. In 2004, an informant who was working with federal agents tried to sell him large quantities of marijuana to distribute. Moten didn’t bite—not because he was suspicious, he says, but because he wasn’t interested. “In my heart I knew I was never gonna sell drugs again,” Moten says. “If I had done or said anything wrong, I’d have gone to jail.”
Peaceoholics formed in 2005, but by then, Moten says, he had spent a decade working in communities for free. After prison, where he educated himself about the civil rights movement and the philosophy of non-violence, Moten worked with Peaceoholics co-founder Jauhar Abraham at a group called Cease Fire: Don’t Smoke the Brothers. He and Abraham also were frequent visitors to the chambers of the D.C. Council, where they spoke out on everything from schools to gun laws.
After they left Cease Fire, their work continued with little pay. “I was heating water in the microwave so I could take a bath,” Moten says of the lean years, before his salary grew to $90,000 a year. “I told Jauhar, ‘I can’t do this for free no more.’”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. His growing reputation as a street-level problem solver was attractive to politicians and civil servants who had no concept of how to deal with youth violence. This set the stage for a unique contractual relationship: The city gives money to Peaceoholics and crosses its fingers that the group does some good.
The first grant came in July 2005 from the D.C. Department of Human Services. The grant was for $9,420 for Peaceoholics to mentor gang members at Oak Hill Youth Center. In September 2005, the group received $99,995 to assist low-income families and at-risk youth in Wards 7 and 8 and to intervene in crises in “hot spot” neighborhoods—an assignment that would net Peaceoholics an additional $246,000 through 2007.
DHS could not produce any contract to spell out the details of Peaceoholics’ work. Robert Warren, an assistant attorney general in charge of FOIA requests for DHS, tells Washington City Paper, “I didn’t know DHS had a contract with Peaceoholics. When I asked around the department, all I got was blank stares.”
Instead, DHS released a two-page, unsigned, undated agreement titled “Expert Consultant in Support of the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services.” The agreement calls for a monthly financial report and a 75 percent reduction in violent events at Oak Hill, plus a 75 percent reduction in violent acts and homicides involving Oak Hill alumni within 60 days of release. No documentation was provided to show these goals were met.
During the same period, Peaceoholics was gaining traction at DYRS. The only D.C. agency to come up with any compliance documentation, DYRS reports that Peaceoholics received a $9,420 grant in 2005 to do the exact same thing the group was doing for DHS at the time: serve as expert consultants and gang interventionists at Oak Hill. By the end of 2006, the group also received $700,000 to counsel youths and families, reduce violent crime and gang activity, and conduct a community re-entry program for youths. Peaceoholics received $988,000 in 2007 and 2008 for its community re-entry work.
Unlike the DHS grants, DYRS executed a contract with Peaceoholics, which called for 75 percent of the community re-entry program’s participants—up to 25 youths at one time—to not get re-arrested. The contract also called for one-on-one and emergency group counseling sessions and attempts to re-enroll youths in school. Modifications to the agreement in 2008 cut down the number of youths required to be served by as much as 50 percent.
Though DYRS specified numerous compliance requirements and goals for Peaceoholics, the only documentation provided consisted of checklists. Peaceoholics largely complied with requirements that they communicate with young men coming out of juvenile detention through group and individual counseling sessions—benchmarks that are fuzzy and resistant to quantification.
However, one area that lent itself to quantification was the requirement that 65 percent of youths in the community re-entry program were to avoid a criminal offense in the first year after release, and 75 percent were to be engaged in work, school, or mentoring. That was marked “Non-compliant.”
DYRS Director Vincent Schiraldi declined repeated interview requests. “We’re going to have to decline comment right now,” says department spokesperson Reginald Sanders, referring questions to the mayor’s office.
“I don’t know why DYRS sent you to me,” replies Fenty’s communications director Mafara Hobson. “We don’t have anyone in our office that works directly with Peaceoholics.”
Other government officials are mum about Peaceoholics. In 2007, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development gave Peaceoholics $15,000 for “community development consulting,” but there’s no contract or work plan, much less a report on what the group did. “We don’t have any reporting documents in our files,” Sean Madigan, communications director for the deputy mayor, wrote in an e-mail in May. In July he added, “Our office has really had limited relationship with this group. They work primarily with the D.C. schools and the police department.”
The D.C. Police Department, however, took six weeks following a FOIA request to produce a two-page purchase order in the amount of $199,433 to Peaceoholics for “youth care services,” in 2007. Police Chief Cathy Lanier declined to answer any questions. “She won’t be doing any interviews about Peaceoholics,” says a spokesperson for Lanier. “We’re gonna let what we disclosed stand on its own.”
The first high-profile mission Peaceoholics undertook was to intervene in a conflict surrounding Ballou High School in early 2004, when a rash of violence was terrorizing the community. Police and school officials did not fully appreciate that neighborhood conflict was being brought into school, and vice versa, Moten says. Someone needed to reach out to local shot callers to stem the violence.
Moten says the Ballou effort came, as always, from the heart. “These are our children, our babies. We had to do something about it.” And no rent-a-cop was going to bar Moten & Co. from the school’s hallways. “No one asked us to come in,” says Moten. “We forced our way in.”
Around the time of the Ballou troubles, several other DCPS outposts also were struggling with schoolhouse violence. And the hot spots just happened to overlap with neighborhoods where Moten and Peaceoholics had contacts and influence.
Yet schools Superintendent Dr. Clifford Janey wasn’t about to throw open the doors for Peaceoholics. There were policies, after all, that had to be followed. According to DCPS documents, the school system had a zero tolerance policy and did not grant waivers to those who have a violent criminal past or history of drug use. Federal mandates also required criminal background checks.
In 2005, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty introduced emergency legislation requiring a stringent background check policy for employees and volunteers of agencies that worked with children. The policy weakened, however, once Fenty became mayor, took over the school system, fired Janey, and tapped former teacher and nonprofit honcho Michelle Rhee to serve as its chancellor.
From her very first days in office, Rhee was hell on red tape. Excessive forms and permissions and procedures, Rhee declared, were part of the reason that the city’s public schools had failed its children.
So the new boss loosened barriers for Peaceoholics operatives. The standard moved from zero tolerance to case-by-case review: DCPS worked with Peaceoholics and other groups to vet intervention workers whose backgrounds contained drug convictions. Access ensued. From September 2007 until April this year, Peaceoholics were able to work in some of the city’s roughest high schools, as Rhee tried to stem violence and advance her reform agenda.
One of the people who made it into the system was Barry Harrison, a Peaceoholic who was detailed to Spingarn High School. Released from prison after 20 years in 2006, convicted of cocaine possession in 2008, Harrison joined Peaceoholics in late February. After a two-week training period in March he was working as a mentor at Spingarn, responsible for keeping the school’s hallways safe. A mere two weeks into his assignment, however, Harrison allegedly took an inappropriate liking to some of the female students he was supposed to be helping. According to court records, Harrison said the following to one: “I want more than a mentor relationship, I want a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship.” Harrison, 50, was accused in April of pursuing sexual relationships with several teenage girls and molesting one in the basement stairwell of Spingarn. The trial pitted four girls who painted Harrison as a predator against a pair of teenagers who said the girls concocted their stories and were out to get Harrison. Aided by surveillance photos, circumstantial witnesses, and Harrison’s admission that he had been alone in the stairwell with a 15-year-old girl, the jury found Harrison guilty on Sept. 4.
Dressed in sharp suits and different designer glasses each day, Moten, Jauhar Abraham, and dozens of Peaceoholics employees made a strong showing of support for Harrison. Moten testified on his behalf, digressing into a lengthy discourse from the witness box about Peaceoholics’ righteous cause. His speechmaking prompted D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael Rankin to protest at one point: “You have every right to be proud of your accomplishments. But this is not United States v. Peaceoholics.”
In the hallway during court breaks, Abraham and Moten claimed there were key discrepancies in the girls’ testimonies. “I know they lyin’,” Moten said. “I know these girls from the street.” The two top Peaceoholics also contended that a detective lied about reviewing a text message from the alleged victim that did not exist. They concluded there is a conspiracy against them and ex-offenders.
“You gotta see the whole picture,” Abraham said. “At some levels the police and the schools don’t want us involved to the extent we are. Some police have a problem with us being in schools and hiring ex-offenders and finding out about what happens before they do. We don’t necessarily tell them what we know. But we lookin’ out for public safety.”
Harrison’s conviction could send him back to prison for 40 years. “It’s a setback for a comeback,” Moten says of the verdict. “It’s not about [Harrison], it’s about me and Jauhar. We know what we gotta do.”
The case forced DCPS to cease turning to Peaceoholics to maintain order in the city’s most troubled high schools, and it also exposed a shortcoming in Peaceoholics’ regimen: as redeemed and well-meaning as they are, Peaceoholics are not formally trained to work with children. “Regardless of whether Peaceoholics are doing God’s work, they do not have adequate policies in place to supervise the people they hire,” argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward O’Connell at trial.
Moten points to voluminous statistics that Peaceoholics keeps that show violence prevented, beefs mediated, grade point averages raised, and school enrollment increased. “We’ve never received money without being held accountable,” he protests. “Some people write pretty proposals and reports and can’t do any work. Some things you can’t put on paper. Only God knows. You don’t know because you not in the street.”
The Harrison ordeal raises a key question about Rhee’s management of DCPS. Did she recklessly cut through established procedures and leave students dangerously exposed to ex-cons?
City records show Peaceoholics working from September 2007 to April 2009 at Ballou, Dunbar, Cardozo, and Anacostia Senior High Schools. A $1 million earmark from Fenty’s 2008 budget went for violence intervention in schools, trips and activities to engage students, tracking down truant youth, and providing classroom and hallway support.
When asked, DCPS provided no evidence of compliance with its own application and background check policy for the workers, despite records of 19 Peaceoholics working unsupervised in the four high schools—many of them ex-offenders.
Rhee declined to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mail, communications director Jennifer Calloway offers, “While Peaceoholics’ relationship with DCPS predates our tenure, the organization is part of a District-wide focus on proactively addressing school climate. We strongly believe that to make a meaningful impact inside a school building it has to be a collective effort.”
No doubt. But an administration initiative appears to reflect a consensus within the Fenty–Rhee regime that they really screwed up with respect to Peaceoholics: Spokesperson Mafara Hobson recently released a written policy and application that would preclude many Peaceoholics from working with youth in an unsupervised setting. Hobson didn’t answer questions about exceptions to the policy or how the case-by-case vetting process worked.
In D.C.’s fractured bureaucracy, Rhee and company are not the only gatekeepers monitoring who can walk the halls of the public schools. The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (CYITC), a public-private entity, oversees government-funded programs inside the schools. CYITC has specific policies in place—but that doesn’t mean they applied to Peaceoholics.
Millicent Williams, president and CEO of CYITC, which provides $3 million in grants to Peaceoholics in addition to the city funding it oversees, says CYITC’s policy is to screen out applicants with felony drug charges within the last seven years. Yet City Paper identified at least three Peaceoholics who had served federal prison time for drug dealing within seven years of working at three of the four high schools where CYITC oversaw funds earmarked by the city.
One of those employees is Eric “Bo-Jack” Butcher. In 2006, Butcher pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute heroin, crack, and PCP, in a case that included federal RICO charges. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Butcher, a confidant of the leader of the conspiracy (who is serving life in prison), admitted to the sale, preparation and transportation of drugs to D.C. from as far away as Phoenix. Butcher is perhaps best known as a conga player in legendary D.C. go-go band Rare Essence.
With time served and a shortened sentence, Butcher was released from federal prison on July 11, 2008. DCPS records obtained by City Paper show that Butcher was employed at Ballou within 30 days of his release to mediate and intervene in youth conflict, facilitate student trips and activities, and provide classroom and hallway support. “He’s one of my best employees,” insists Moten.
CYITC is listed as the monitor of the grant that funded Peaceoholics’ services at Ballou from August 2008 to March of this year. Williams could not explain how Butcher and others slipped through CYITC’s screening policy. Asked about DCPS’ policy on ex-offenders, Williams replies, “I wish I knew.”
Peaceoholics’ brushes with the school system underscore a broader problem for Moten. On any given day Moten must rely on mentors who work without supervision at odd hours. Peaceoholics often go out in the middle of the night to find out about a shooting or stop another one from occurring. Moten insists that all employees undergo FBI background checks to prevent them from running afoul of the law. “We also do street background checks that are better than anything FBI can do,” he boasts.
But Moten can’t be everywhere and know everything. For example, despite Peaceoholics’ zero-tolerance drug policy, his top mentor at Spingarn, Tracy Fells, who was sentenced in 1989 to 20 years for running a $4,000 a week cocaine ring, tested positive for THC in February, then again on May 6, after which he denied drug use, according to federal court records. Fells failed three more drug tests—June 11, June 25, and July 9—before facing possible probation violations.
Moten says Fells has since tested clean, and that he has faith the situation in federal court will be resolved.
Moten’s faith in character extends to his topmost advisors. At that level, he must rely on a different set of attributes than street credibility and instincts. He must rely on the competence and fiscal integrity of lawyers and business people.
According to documents filed with DHCD, Peaceoholics retains the legal services of Maryland attorney Sharon Styles-Anderson. In 2007, Anderson was slapped with a $25,000 judgment for money she owed to the State Department Federal Credit Union, a nonprofit financial cooperative. Anderson also is general counsel, community development coordinator, and minister with Johenning Temple of Praise in Southeast. A year earlier, in 2006, her husband, Willie Charles Anderson Jr., also a minister with Temple of Praise, was hit for a $26,000 judgment related to the same credit union. Styles-Anderson declined to comment for this story.
Willie Anderson, a Peaceoholics employee involved in youth re-entry programs and real estate development, has a colorful past. Arrested for murder in 1972, convicted of manslaughter in 1977 and heroin distribution in 1985, Anderson, at age 61, is hardly a danger to anyone these days. In addition to his ministry at Temple of Faith, he is a worldly alcohol awareness adviser.
Anderson’s vocation is a perfect fit for Peaceoholics. Moten insists the group has had such success in D.C. with its youth programs that it is constantly in demand in cities in California and Washington State and Caribbean islands such as St. Maarten, where Moten recently traveled after a family vacation in Florida.
Anderson has found his services in need abroad as well. In addition to trips to Africa, he has traveled to St. Lucia to do outreach work as a substance abuse counselor and pastor, court records state.
But his portfolio of services also led him astray in 2005, when he was caught taking cash in exchange for court-ordered alcohol abuse education certificates required by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Convicted of accepting bribes as a public official—his company, American Recovery Management Strategies was a state contractor—Anderson received a slap on the wrist: three years unsupervised probation.
Soon thereafter, he joined Peaceoholics. “He’s a smart man, and I’ve learned a great deal from him,” Moten says of his lawyer’s husband. “We all make mistakes. I’m confident he’s put his past behind him.”
It’s a time-honored tradition of big-city politics, an inevitable progression: Local man does good deeds for a troubled community, gets big contracts from the city to expand his operations, and turns his attention to…real estate.
In May, Peaceoholics purchased three multi-unit buildings slated for affordable housing re-development. The buildings are located on Meigs Place NE, in Trinidad, on Oklahoma Avenue NE, across from RFK Stadium, and on Congress Street SE, in Congress Park. The total purchase price for the three properties was $3.1 million.
In buying the properties, Moten didn’t go on the Internet and comparison-shop for mortgages. He received $5 million in loans from DHCD, in connection with the city’s Strategic Housing Intervention Program.
According to Najuma Thorpe, spokeswoman for DHCD, the program will provide up to 50 units of housing for at-risk youths who are either living without parents or coming out of foster care or the judicial system. DHCD is working with DYRS and the D.C Child and Family Services Agency to ensure Peaceoholics provides affordable housing as a means to reduce crime and help youths become more independent. Moten says eventually the youths will have the opportunity to own their first apartment.
The loans come with favorable terms: principle and 3 percent interest payments are deferred for 18 months on $4.4 million of the loans; the remaining $600,000 comes with a .5 percent interest rate that accrues while principle payments are deferred for 12 months. The loans were made in July and December of last year—before Peaceoholics became embroiled in the fire engine scandal. “The city makes these kinds of loans all the time,” Moten insists.
As is the case with most of its grants, Peaceoholics was awarded the loans without bidding competitively. The group is prevented from selling the properties for 40 years and must use them exclusively for youth housing. According to Abraham, that does not prevent the group from borrowing against the properties. To repay the loans, he says the group will tap social services dollars on a per-child basis, on the principle that the District already pays to relocate dozens of wayward youth each year. Peaceoholics keeps any funds in excess of its loan obligations, Abraham says, to expand or run its programs.
The way Moten and Abraham describe it, the two entrepreneurs simply thought up the housing plan, took it to the city, and made it happen: “Some people might be jealous or say that we never done housing before,” Moten says, “but if you have the imagination and passion for helping kids, and if you can get the resources, why not?”
One day in August, Moten calls a young woman into his tiny, glass-enclosed office at 606 Raleigh Place SE, just off Martin Luther King Avenue. Her name is Erica B. (Though Erica is 18, City Paper agreed not to publish her last name.) Erica is due to be sentenced in D.C. Superior Court in connection with a carjacking. Her mother is sick and her father is locked up. She’s part of the Peaceoholics family now.
Erica is tall but does not exude confidence. She looks down as she talks about the carjacking. She was just hanging around the wrong people, she says. She’s never been in trouble before and doesn’t use drugs, she says. “We gonna have five or six people at her sentencing,” Moten says, noting that after Erica gets a GED—through Peaceoholics—she will help kids like herself. “We don’t do that for everybody, but it’s important to give people a chance.”
Erica might be understating her level of involvement in the street life. While Moten is out of the room senior program manager Keith “Wali” Johnson is asked about Erica, and where her life is headed. “That’s a trip right there,” he says. “You might not know it by looking at her, but she can hot-wire a car in five minutes.”
On Aug. 20, before Judge Robert Richter of D.C. Superior Court, Erica’s record is exposed. Turns out she has violated terms of her supervised release numerous times since pleading guilty in June to the carjacking.
“You pleaded guilty to a crime that the city council has said should get you not less than 15 years,” Judge Richter says, noting that Peaceoholics have submitted letters on Erica’s behalf asking for leniency. “The government gave you a good plea bargain. Now you’re gonna ask for a bigger break by asking not to be punished at all. I don’t know why you should get the benefit of the doubt,” the judge says, before continuing Erica’s sentencing to October, so she can “demonstrate an ability to change.”
After the hearing, Maia Shanklin-Roberts, a Stanford University graduate and a program coordinator with Peaceoholics, says to Erica, “We need to keep you in the house girl, have some sleepovers. And we need to find you a full time job.” Erica, who is in the 11th grade at Spingarn and enjoys art, would like to graduate someday. “I wanna walk across that stage,” she says.
For the next few weeks, Peaceoholics will not let Erica out of their sight. Such vigilance has led to 100 kids making it to college, according to Moten, who cites the group’s “Triangle in One Method,” which involves wraparound youth service in communities, schools, and the juvenile and adult justice systems.
A promising display of how youth respond to the Peaceoholics’ system occurs the Sunday before Labor Day, at a graduation ceremony at the group’s headquarters for a dozen or so girls who have come through the “Saving our Sisters” program. Moten presides proudly over what he refers to as “the next generation of Peaceoholics.”
Pink and blue balloons hang from the ceiling and trays of barbecued chicken, desserts, and gift bags are lined up on tables in the meeting room, as the girls take their turns at the microphone. Erica, considered a “high-risk teenager” who has come through the program, which consists of workshops, mentoring and life-skills training, makes her speech short and sweet: “I’m not the same girl I was three months ago,” she says, practically mumbling into the mic. “Now I realize that being a gangster, or whatever, is not who I am.”
After the girls speak, Moten, dressed casually in a T-shirt, chinos, and sandals, gives one of his patented motivational speeches that usually build to a fiery crescendo. “You all look nice, like good looking young ladies,” he says to the girls. “You know I always be telling you, if you dress like a prostitute people gonna treat you like a prostitute.”
He thanks a group of boys who are there for coming to support the girls. Then he touches on the highs and lows of his own story: About how he was heating water in a microwave so he could bathe, back when he was broke but engaged in the community. About how he never used drugs even as he sold drugs. About how it’s a sin to father children out of wedlock—even though he’s fathered four, by four different women.
“I’m not always right. I don’t win every battle. But I operate on principle,” he says. “And it’s important to walk with your head up even through tough times. My purpose is with you children.”
Then Moten offers his favorite jewel of wisdom: “If you don’t stand up for yourself, if you out in the street sellin’ drugs or killin’ your brothers, you ain’t bein’ a gangster. Ain’t no gangsters no more. Real gangsters wear suits. They the ones who decide how much money people get.”
That statement is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for both Moten and Abraham. As he wraps up the speech Moten tells the kids that he and Abraham are planning to resign from Peaceoholics in November. “We going to ground,” he says later, explaining his decision to pursue community activism, business ventures, and consulting opportunities in other cities. (Moten gets $500 an hour when he travels to consult with other cities on their youth gang problems, he says.)
The departure comes at a rough time for Peaceoholics: the group is no longer allowed to work in schools as a result of the Barry Harrison incident; their budget is going from $3.5 million in 2008–09 to a projected $500,000 in 2010; and recently they had to lay off 20 workers. Their ranks now number 47, with more cuts likely if the group can’t tap into some new grants or stimulus dollars.
Moten and Abraham are not worried for the group, which will press on with the housing initiative and other Peaceoholics programs. The two co-founders will be available for advice and counseling, and they believe in the strength of future generations. “You do good work, the right outcomes will produce incomes,” Abraham says.
The night of the Congress Street shooting, Moten and his two employees work quickly to locate 18-year-old Tayvon Williams, a member of the One Deuce crew who is the prime suspect in the shooting of Stephon Hooks, which Hooks survived. The shooting is believed to be tied to a feud between One Deuce and the Congress Park crew. The next 48 hours are crucial to ensure that Williams stays off the street and deals with an inevitable visit from the police.
By the time police locate Williams, Peaceoholics already have arranged to get him out of school so he can’t be targeted. Two days after the shooting Williams turns himself in, after meeting with Peaceoholics while police meet with his mother. He is charged with assault with a deadly weapon—not the first time he has been charged with a violent crime. “He knows we here for him whether he found guilty or not,” Moten says. “Now how you gonna put a value on that?”
But the intervention by Peaceoholics is just beginning, as the beef between One Deuce and Congress Park will roil for months.
Just last week, a younger brother of Williams was jumped and badly beaten. An honor student who attends Ballou and performs in a choir and dance troupe, the brother wants to stand tall with the other boys engaged in the beef with Congress Park, Moten says. But he has more to lose, and he may not be cut out for the street. Last Friday Moten and Peaceoholics intervened and made inroads with One Deuce, he says. Now they are trying to bring Congress Park into the discussion to quash the beef, before anyone else is shot or beaten.
Of Tayvon Williams’ little brother, Moten says, “Now there’s an honor student potentially mixed up in all this mess. This stuff happens every day in our community. Most of the time no one captures it on film or puts it on YouTube, so no one pays attention.”
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis, Mike DeBonis, and Ruth Samuelson
Jeffrey Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org