Can a truce between Baltimore's gangs help make the city safer?
By By Baynard Woods
May 05, 2015 | 2:09 PM
Flex, a member of the Bloods street gang, is sitting on the hood of a taxi in front of Central Booking at the Baltimore City Detention Center, waiting for his brother, who goes by Tragedy, to get out. Both were arrested inside a home the previous night for curfew violation. “Same day as the Mayweather fight we was being honored,” Flex says of the gangs. “They had a little party for us and everything, everybody knew. While we were on our way in the house there was a lot of individuals outside. Most of them that was across the street were Caucasian. They [the police] didn’t say nothing about that. It was after curfew. They never said nothing. All of us went in the house and got comfortable. Me, I took my clothes off and got comfortable to lay down, in friends’ house, my family. And then we heard a big boom. They kicked the door down. They took me out in my long johns.”
Now, the next evening, Flex, who considers himself an activist and has lived all around the country, including Los Angeles, where the Bloods began, is sitting outside amid the street medics and legal observers also arrested for violating curfew. "We made history," he says. But he is not talking about the curfew violation—even if it is the only instance of someone inside their home being charged with curfew violation that City Paper has been able to uncover.
He is, instead, talking about the historic effort of Baltimore's gangs to unite to stop the violence and bring issues of police brutality to light, an effort which found Flex and members of other gangs meeting with community leaders and appearing on "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" on Comedy Central.
News of the gang truce was not originally seen in such a positive light. On Wednesday, April 22, just days after Gray's death, City Paper was filming the demonstration at the barricades police had set up in front of the Western District precinct, when a young man Robert "Meech" Tucker, who claimed to be a member of the Black Guerrilla Family stood on the barricades and said "All that gang shit, all that red and that blue shit, that shit out the window right now, you feel me? . . . We going at them," he continued, gesturing toward the officers behind his back. "We going at them. That's our target, yo. We not each other's targets no more."
We don't know if that was the source of the "credible threat" that the Baltimore Police Department announced on Monday, shortly before the riots broke out at Mondawmin Mall and later at Penn North, but in the days between Wednesday, April 22 and Monday, April 27 when the announcement was made, two different people who claimed to be affiliated with gangs told us there was a truce but that they were not targeting police.
By the time a police car and van were engulfed in flames at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues last Monday afternoon, a lot had changed. As people came flowing from the CVS, which would soon be on fire, with toilet paper and detergent, and the Baltimore Police Department stood in a massive line two blocks away or circled overhead with helicopters, it looked like the gangs might be the only ones to help take control of the situation.
As we were out there, one photographer got jumped. As kids approached another, threateningly, a man wearing red and white stopped them. "Don't be messing with the press," he said. The kids moved on. A few moments later, as City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano and I were leaving the scene a bald man approached another group of reporters who were talking to us. "I'm your hood ambassador and I'm going to make sure you get where you need to go," he says. He was a Crip.
"We protected so many reporters," Flex says. "We surrounded so many reporters to make sure they get from this place to their group and we walk them there, four or five blocks to be exact. Because nobody deserves to be hurt, regardless of your nationality. Nobody deserves to be mistreated. . . We was protecting stores from looting and stuff like that and had cops throw smoke bombs at us and had cops throwing rocks back at us. Now we wasn't doing anything but protecting the businesses and making sure no one going into those stores. A lot of products taken out of those stores, we actually took back. And we put them behind us and we formed a line around the stores and the property and stuff."
On television appearances and at meetings with clergy, representatives from various gangs tried to spread the message of their truce. "This isn't just for now, this is from now on," a Blood with a red bandana and a black T-shirt said to City Paper. On Tuesday, a large group of gang members wearing various colors posed together at the Cloverdale basketball courts, where rappers, athletes, and community groups came together to give the kids an opportunity to speak and vent their anger and frustration. The Bloods also stressed, more quietly, a series of rules, which included not harming reporters and not burning black businesses.
But according to Flex, the truce wasn't quite so sudden as it appeared in the media.
"Our connection with each other, it's been building up over years," he says. "It didn't just start with Freddie Gray, it's been in place, it's been started having different sit-downs, going out to eat, having fun with the kids, have a little fundraiser. We've been in tune with each other, some of us actually work with each other and things like that but far as us doing what we're supposed to do, and that's protect and serve the community and police our own."
Flex—who will be releasing a nonfiction novel called "Gangster Statistics: The Untold Story" under his real name, Eric Bowman, later this month—says that protecting the community is the essential function of the gang. "Our actual laws and bylaws are laws that are set for us by the Black Panthers, which is to protect and serve and to help out the community and make sure it's equal rights between everybody and it's always justice served. It's our duty to actually do the things we are doing. We don't want to be praised for it. We aren't looking to be praised or glorified. No, because we're doing what we like to do."
When Derek Bowden, a cabdriver, photographer, and community member who is acting as media relations for the groups, saw the police announcement on Facebook, he approached Flex and started the PR campaign.
"What I saw was that the powers that be were using quote-unquote gangs, or these families, as an excuse to have open hunting season on African-Americans and the rest of the poor population of Baltimore City and I was damned if I was going to sit back and let that happen. So I got off my butt after seeing that thread on my Facebook feed, I went right to [Flex]. Didn't know him from Adam or Eve or Steve and said 'Hey man, can you trust me?' Said 'Man, can you fucking trust me?' and he said 'yeah,' said I want you to come with me.We met with various organizations, church leaders, met [City Council President Bernard C.] 'Jack' Young in church, made him basically apologize for calling our youth thugs and stuff like that."
Bowden, who is older than most gang members, tries to see the big picture. "What's happening is a call to action is taking place and whether you realize it or not those children who did wrong things by rioting and looting in my eyesight did what they had to be done. In my eyesight what they did was the lived out the Christ. In other words they had nothing else to live for but they truth, and the truth is generations and generations will benefit from this so they gave their life just like Jesus did so all people can be free. Even when it comes to the gang families and stuff it's bringing them back together to live the true essence of what the gangs were set up for and that was to be a social hub for resources and economics to a community that has been castrated since the beginning of time."
And though the gangs helped keep peace during the rallies the remainder of the week, there were eight unrelated homicides in the city, more than an average week. So there is still a lot of work to be done. Bowden says that the gangs "have to look at some stuff their self and restructure their organization because they have to clean up too."
Flex acknowledges that there is some internal debate within their organizations about the truce. "There's a lot of people that's in the organizations as far as the Bloods and the Crips that disagree with certain things we doing that's because they young-minded and haven't been in things," he says. "But they have no choice so everybody is together, everybody is for the people. Our next generation, our generation after that, and so forth and so forth could progress like that."
“The same past don’t get nobody nowhere but what it has for so many years now, either dead or in prison,” says Mugga, a Crip who is hanging on a stoop with Flex the next day. “Now look at us, everybody getting along, everybody chilling, everybody having fun, nobody worrying about what kind of flag you wearing. I mean you still got to worry in certain places but other than that, what we got going on right now is priceless, ain’t nobody can change that.”
Flex says that most problems on the ground from so-called gang members this week actually came from infiltrators and poseurs, trying to act like gang members. "A lot of people that's coming from out of town, from different neighborhoods, they want to go to a different store and get, what I would say with them, a handkerchief," he says. "But with us, these colors, not just the flag, the colors that we wear, the stuff that we represent, this is our livelihood. This is what we know. We sentimental about this. A lot of people coming in and acting like they us, it's not right. That been taking place as far as people tryna infiltrate."
Others, he says, have tried to take credit for the truce. "Praise be to you the Nation of Islam but the Nation of Islam did not structure us," he stresses. "They did not bring us together, you feel me? At times they came together with us but they did not come together with us at all."
On Sunday night, Flex says that police have looked at them and smirked or jeered at them this week, but says he is not targeted because of the colors that he wears but for the color of his skin.
But by the next day that feeling has changed. As first reported by Amy K. Nelson in Matter (who also published profiles of Flex and other local gang members), the gangs were feeling targeted by police when the indoor curfew arrest was compounded by a confusing series of events on Monday at North Avenue, near Pennsylvania, where several of the gang members were staying. At first there were reports that Meech Tucker, the BGF member who announced the truce early after the death of Freddie Gray, had been shot by police in the back. FoxNews claimed to have witnessed the shooting and even the police scanner said a FIT team, which investigates officer-involved shootings, would be on the scene. Other gang members in the area report that officers walked up and pepper-sprayed them, but video shows numerous people without gang colors being sprayed by police officers.
Meech had been all over the scene this week, photographed dancing in the street with a rabbi after word of the indictment came out and marching in the streets, and some believe he had been specifically targeted by members of the Baltimore Police Department. Neither the department nor the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3, for Baltimore City, replied to our requests for comment on this or the curfew violation by press time.
It is still not entirely clear what went down on the stoop on North Avenue, but we were able to confirm that Meech had not been shot. "He's doing fine. He was physically checked and had no bullet wounds," said state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who visited Meech and enabled him to see his mother before being taken to Central Booking, according to the Sun's Colin Campbell.
"They mad because we doing their job better than they do," says Flex.
"They keep on tempting us and tempting us to keep on pushing," Mugga adds. "When we out here gang-banging and banging on each other then we're a threat to society cause we killin' each other. But when we're trying to do good and help and be part of stuff . . . y'all still set up society so we can't win."