NonprofitWe’re former gang members and hardened social activists working to rebuild the neighborhoods we once destroyed, AUA
Jun 7th 2016 by licensetooperat • 14 Questions • 4704 Points
Edit: Thank you so much for your time. We have to head out but really appreciate all of the support and questions. You guys have really been amazing. If you're interested in what we're doing, please do check out the film and keep an eye out for the work we're doing every day. Much love.
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We are former Los Angeles gang members and social activists who are now trained community interventionists working in the same neighborhoods we came up in. We work to break the cycle of violence that we once helped to create by developing protocols to restore communities.
A few years ago, we were approached by folks who wanted to make a documentary to tell our story. That documentary, LICENSE TO OPERATE, premiered today on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, and Vudu. The film is also debuting globally in Geneva July 6-8 at the Reviewing the State of Safety in World Cities Conference, organized by the UN. Check out the trailer: *https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIkzA4U7UbE*
Pete Carroll, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks, was instrumental in helping to bring this group together. Here he is speaking about it on 60 Minutes.
Over the last few years, professionals from the public safety, local and regional municipalities, numerous universities and emergency responders have credited our work with aiding in the significant decrease of violent crimes in the neighborhoods we serve. Here’s a little more about each of us:
- Alfred Lomas – Gang interventionist, former gang member from South Central Los Angeles, which he also now covers.
- Aquil Basheer – Founder of the License to Operate movement and the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute which officially trains/certifies interventionists and other professionals to do this work.
- James Lipetzky – Director of LICENSE TO OPERATE
- Reynaldo Reaser – Executive Director of R.A.C.E. (Reclaiming America’s Communities Through Empowerment), Gang interventionist and former Raymond Crip now covering LA’s West Athens Neighborhood
We’re also here with Officer Stinson Brown (LAPD, Gang Intervention Liaison – Criminal Gang/Homicide Division), who has been a change agent in the collaborative mindset between interventionists and law enforcement. We are all proof of what can happen when everyone works together for a greater good.
Are you worried about violent push-back from the gang you were in?
It's always a concern. The whole idea is to provide a uniformed approach to the work that minimizes threats or perceptions to the work.
From what I gather, there is that balance but they treat that world with so much respect. Whether they're currently banging or out of the gangs, what I saw between the guys is the respect level shown between people in the community. People know based on their history and respect they're showing that they're legitimate and people get that.
The whole goal of what we're doing is to bring normality to a dysfunctional situation to people in a state of crisis. We have committed a long time ago and clearly understand there will be sacrifices made in this process but because of the work that's done, we've acquired credibility in these communities that we serve. So those individuals in the community for the most part realize that we're assets as opposed to liabilities. Thank you for your questions.
Do you have any advice or guidance you could offer to teachers working in communities affected by gang violence? How do you feel they can best operate as allies in your cause?
Thank you for doing what you are doing.
School teachers play a pivotal role in the cognitive development but also the emotional intelligence development of youth. And so if they can spend the first 10 minutes of a class, particularly when they first start in the morning, simply listening to the student. "How was your day when you went home last night?" "How was it when you came to school?" What a lot of teachers fail to realize is that in some communities, young people literally leave home in fear, fearing for the very safety of their lives due to the gang violence that exists. So when we talk about the wellness of a youth, don't overlook the trauma that they probably experience outside of that learning environment. Simply by asking them how they feel, perhaps is the very hope that they can rely on and would help them to navigate how they're going to get back home when school's over. May not be a reality in the school they're teaching at, stay tuned because if America keeps going in the direction it's going, it'll soon come visit you.
- Officer Brown
To bounce off what he's saying, I want to separate the skill set between hardcore gang intervention as a specific domain of work. however a school teacher's work is very important, it's important that if they work in areas that are experiencing epidemic levels of violence, it's also important for the community to understand that children have been impacted by violence. It's vital that the child receive the proper type of care including mental health, social engagement pieces but it's really collaboration between everyone in the community who participates in the recovery of that child.
We learned following the stories of some of the young people in LTO that PTSD is a real issue with the youth in these areas. We think it's a problem with children in Syria and Afghanistan but it's also a problem here. Teachers need a lot more resources opened up than in the past to deal with these issues.
One other thing, to piggy back on my colleagues. We clearly need to understand something in these communities. These teachers in many circumstances are the only safety net that these kids have and the most important asset that these teachers have is to understand the normality of the child that they're dealing with. What I mean by that is it's far too often that people step into roles to assist these young adults and they understand their "normal," not realizing that the child's normal is totally different. So being that these teachers spend 8 hours a day with these young adults, they understand what they're going through and they're able to pass that information on to others who want to help in this process. Lastly, the importance of that is those individuals outside of the classroom that want to assist in the process by safeguarding the children and trying to create some normality are able to at least operate with some what of a foundation as to what they are dealing with. This becomes a reference point to start with as they start to build answers and solutions to assist a child.
What kind of response have you got from other people working in this area, like social workers, probation, youth support groups?Do you think they respect the personal experience you bring, and do you find that they trust you and are willing to take advice on how to improve their work (and what is that advice)?
Well everything is based on perception. We have different degrees of intervention workers doing the work. We have the professionals, we have the non-professionals, and we have those who are in the work for their personal benefit. The professionals have real credibility, they're usually trained significantly and they operate from protocols and standards. When the other professionals realize that their interventionists are working with a structured format, they tend to be far more respectful of the work in considerate of a profession. Just as equally important is the credibility of work that's being done by the interventionists, which the community validates. Those two components combined usually dictate if the interventionist is a professional who will be respected as a professional and knows what they're doing.
For law enforcement, the sign of measurable effectiveness at the end of the day is when you see the dialogue, the handshake, and the embracing between the interventionists and the law enforcement officers. Because I trained police officers for 8 years as a drill instructor, I best understand the culture and sometimes the walls that we create in this profession and so to see the evolution and witness the paradigm chance, I know that these young officers will take that experience back to the police car, locker room, roll call room, and the streets. And that gives the intervention organizations, like brother Aquil said "those who have structure," it gives them the credibility that's needed to really allow them to work at their best practices. Many of law enforcement personnel are totally oblivious to the work and the commitment they have to restore normality to a community that has been besieged by this ugly thing we call violence.
- Officer Brown
My observation was that this began working because the city of Los Angeles lost their ego to say "you know what, what we were doing wasn't working" where as most cities have established bureaucracies and power structures by people who are being paid to say there's "not a problem." And if people's egos would allow them to work with people who come at a problem from a completely different perspective more often, I think we could start seeing more results in cities across the United States. People are too often interested in defending their little piece of the pie.
This is the type of stuff I LOVE to see on the front page :)
Keep up the fantastic work!
Do you ever run into old "affiliates" of yours and if so do they ever cause issues. ie: call you weak, or traitor or anything of the sort?
Once again thank you folks for you work!!
Yeah, of course. In the line of work that I do as a former gang member, you still have individuals in the community that still pose a threat to the community and still want to play on the community. I have been threatened, called all types of names, been accused of being a snitch, being accused of working with law enforcement cause people don't want to see change. There are a lot of individuals in the community that are hardcore gang members themselves. I was one myself so I know how that looks and plays in the community. The ones that know what I do, I try to make a better community. I got guys sitting on life in prison, sitting on death row, that respect the work I do and continue to tell me to keep doing what I'm doing. So I'm not going to allow no one on the street to tell me something different or take on rumors, I continue to do the work the best I can and be real for the guys in the neighborhood because I don't cross that line. That means not going to the other side and working with law enforcement in a way that's going to jeopardize my work as an LTO.
We have to be clear on something. Those of us that really do this work and know this work, everyone here does. We don't go into the community to judge what's going on. When I talked earlier about bringing normality back to that community, it's not just for the residents, it's for everyone in the community. If I can transform a banger's thinking process, a community stakeholder, an emergency responder or just average community resident to realize they need to take ownership in restore what's perceived as a dysfunctional community for the betterment of all, that's my job. Now there's going to be degraded negative situations and individuals that if you're really on the ground, you're going to encounter in this work. Let me emphatically say this work is not school work, it's not fun and games. This work is hard. This work is sacrificing. And this work tears you apart. This work creates mental degradation, physical turmoil and times again, just the thinking process of "are we accomplishing anything in terms of where we are in these streets." So understanding the work really becomes imperative that you realize what type of work this is. I guess I can best say that by we all realize we're all at war. In war you're going to have casualties, faced with victories as well as defeats, you're going to triumphs and you're going to have down moments. I respect all my colleagues because they've been through this, understand this, and know this. And lastly, again when we stepped into this role, we signed up to where we realize we're going to have to face adversarial opponents and situations. But we all knew if we were going to truly be successful, we'd have to have the passion and drive to not personalize and to go out there and put our best foot forward to try to make change in these communities and the individuals within them.
How has the gang epidemic in LA evolved over the past 20 years in terms of getting worse, better, or somewhat stagnating?
Compared to back in the 80s when I was out in the streets gang banging, it was at its high. We had more gang homicides. Then until intervention work really started to spawn off, I know I can speak on my area where I come from in West Athens, to where the enemies that we used to oppose on (and they opposed on us) the violence dropped due to cease fires and as our understanding of each other and the communities got better. In other neighborhoods in LA, other intervention workers have been working very hard to resolve issues and that's why you see a decline in gang homicide. It's still bad based upon the murders going on. Are we getting better? I say yeah. But I still believe there's a lot more work to be done. More individuals need to be educated, individuals that want to get into this work that have certain skill sets should get involved in this type of work to help reduce the violence in the communities.
To me, what gets lost in this glorification of violence is that the violence erupting becomes the headline. People don't want to talk about community restoration and providing hope, which is what all of these men and women are about. They need help. The schools need to be improved, economic development needs to be created in these areas. There's only so much these individuals can do until we come up with a better way to reintroduce felons into the communities to give them something productive to do. These men and women are holding back the dam from breaking but a lot more needs to be done to make it healthy again.
To echo James' point, the gang environment has become more sophisticated to be clear. There are tow basic mentalities. You have the average street gang and organized crime. When it happened in the past, these two have been separated. In the last 10 years, you got more criminal gangs being utilized by organized crime. A big part of the rationality is because of the transnational capabilities of these venues to hook up. On the surface, it does seem like violence has decreased because of typically what is seen as street gang engagement has become more sophisticated. So some of what you see out there, like human trafficking and other components of this nature, you have organized crime involved in this. The workers have become way more sophisticated and not limit themselves to just criminal gang engagement. That's also why so many of the gang members have become so blazant because they have that larger support system behind them. another infusion is the girl gangs, they've become much more independent and vicious and for the most part they're not necessarily aligning with the gang members of the past. Lastly, in terms of the old criminal gang structure, you got a lot of these younger bangers/shooters that don't give a damn about the old structure and caste system of the gang environment. The old concept of the OG or OOG or OOOG laying down the law is not as impactful as it used to be in the past. These youngsters are off the hook. They're not apologizing and they don't have no problem doing damage so it's a whole different environment, some things remain. There's been a transition shift in terms of sophistication and thinking process. That's why it's so imperative that the people doing this work have true credibility during the constant state of learning and as it was mentioned earlier, constantly being supported and stabilized because of a constant influx of new dynamics on a daily basis.
What was it like when people tried to be role models for you when you were gang members and does that change your approach when you yourself tries to intervene now?
There was very little positive role models. I was really entrenched in gang culture. Understanding now that for some children, I might be the only positive role model in their lives, but unfortunately LA is one of the biggest gang cities in the world. Being able to know that I can affect and change a child’s perspective is important and leave me with a sense of peace.
I didn’t have any role models. My role model was my “big hommie.” I can remember in my prime gang years passing by a school in my car with the rims and music and a kid saying “What’s up” to me. I stopped and said “whats up hommie.” His friend asked, “Who's that?” and he replied “Thats my big hommie.” When I pulled off I realized that kid idolizes me. I remembered the exact same thing happened to me when I was in Jr high. It made me feel so go good. Over time I knew I had to be that person but for the right reasons.
You need to remember the generational distance. Back then my gangs were very militant. The government was our enemy. I had the individuals that demanded the best of me. The tactics we utilize and what we did, let me be blunt, were very unapologetic for the stance back then. I say that to say this. Whether you have bad leadership or good leadership, when you become the leader you are chosen. You don’t become a leader by chance. Leaders are chosen. Once you are chosen you have a supreme degree of responsibility. You have to hold yourself to an higher standard that you didn’t even expect of yourself. You realize that those you serve are filtering everything you do, watching everything you do, watching your behaviors. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that wins them over or has them distancing them selves from you. So you push yourself a lot harder. You end up and taking more blows so at the end of the day when you realize your role is extremely temporary. What you have to do is make sure those you mentor, those you try to guide, have some type of platform to stand on when you are removed from the picture. So you work a lot harder, you are more serious about what you do, and have a truer sense of integrity, because you realize what is at stake.
Do you think you will ever be able to do enough good to outdo the bad you did?
That's a great question. I don't think I could ever change the bad I did and I need to be careful that I don't work in an environment that is emotionally attached to reversing the wrong. It's important for me to stay centered and balanced in this work so that I can focus on the needs of families and children in the community that are constant. I believe that focusing on the given moment and helping is part of the atonement process but I also have to be careful that I don't get dragged into an emotional workspace. The work can be tremendously challenging emotionally and I don't think that we as workers, as fathers, as husbands, understand the severity of going from crisis to crisis and seeing people that we know in the community killed through the years. It really affects us in a very profound way.
Things that I've done in my past and I know I asked god for forgiveness, all I can do is continue to do good and save lives on these streets. When I was in the streets, I was 100% in and everything I believed was right at the moment by being a gang member and looking at the perception of that lifestyle and what I was going was all wrong. To do this work, it's 100% in and that means 100% in to the day I die. I believed that when I was going the gang and the destruction I played in my community, the work that I do is never going to be enough. But if I can save a life, if I can turn a kid around from being at risk to getting into college and being a better person, that's turning things around. But like I said, I can never undo the things I've done to my community, all I can do is continue to do good to my community.
I'll go one step further. The past does not equal the future. I don't know anybody in life who has walked on water and hasn't gotten wet. With that said, all one can do is take ownership of what they have done and move forward in the process. We have na old saying "let it go so you can grow." People in life are going to be judged by the legacy that they leave. It's the same thing in the street. People don't care about what you've done, they care about what you're ding int the current. Whoever it is, if you stay focused on trying to make people better and not bitter, you stay focused on trying to create a viable constructive and healthy environment, that's what you work with. You do the best you can with what you have to work with in the moment. I don't think any of us would be sitting here if we didn't feel like our efforts in the moment were going to turn out a viable better product and what we've done has not been successful.
In the film, I didn't dwell on the past of what these men and women did because violence robs a person of their sense of self, of their identity. And from what in helping to tell their stories, I felt it was a sense of discovery for themselves and who they were at the core of a person. In this later part of life they were finding their essence of who they are and what they were meant to do, it was something that had kind of been robbed of them.
There was a part in the film where I'm seated in my residence and James is interviewing me. There was a conversation about forgiveness. When I came up on the line between good and evil, I had a choice. I had a choice to carry out retribution for the loss of my own son against a community where there would have been a lot of bloodshed. But when I turned down the volume of life to hear the voice of god, I chose forgiveness, I allowed myself to experience faith and a higher being that I had never experienced before. Aquil has been with me a long time, way before we started this relationship and working with law enforcement. When you have people on the outside of my world from the streets, from the prisons, from the military, from law enforcement who say "how do you want to handle this? Because whatever you decide we got your back" it was scary for me. I didn't realize that many people cared enough or loved me enough to say "in your brokenness, we'll try to help you fix this." That is indeed the common thread of everyone here. We've all been broken, we've all been faced with the challenge of crossing the line or staying behind it. Or do we choose to fulfill our god-given destiny.
- Officer Brown