They know him as "Black," a convicted felon and longtime member of the Bloods street gang. He is leaning far back in a chair, under the only working light in a nondescript rowhouse in East Baltimore. He is talking about street life and hustling. And this group of more than 25 gang members and young men recently sprung from prison are hanging on his every word.
"Bloods. Crips. BGF. Purple City," he says, rattling off the gang affiliations of the men in the room.
He pauses. The room is still.
"That don't mean nothing!" he thunders.
Black, a 28-year-old with cornrows whose real name is Tony Wilson, meets with this group four days a week as a youth coordinator for the Rose Street Community Center, operating in a netherworld between street gangs and official Baltimore. Even as his efforts are praised by the mayor, he must keep a measured distance from police and City Hall for fear of losing his credibility on the streets.
On this day, he chides the young men for choosing drug-dealing as the easy way out. He ridicules those who want to spend $100,000 on a car but can't pay their rent or a cell phone bill and don't bother to get insurance or even a driver's license.
"Go ahead. Dig a hole. Bury yourself. You can't talk about that junkie; you can't talk about that homeless guy. Because you are becoming him. If you don't get your life together and get your things in the right perspective, distinguishing your wants from your needs, that will be you."
"Now," he says, clasping his hands on his lap and leaning back in his chair again, "how many of you are willing to save a life?"
Wilson means this not only in a literal sense. His group helps people earn GEDs, establish bank accounts, get driver's licenses and start businesses. So far, he's gotten more than 100 young men to pledge to aid others in changing their lives. He peels off bills from a wad of fives after each meeting to keep his proteges motivated.
The center has the support and encouragement of civic leaders and government. The group, which receives money from the Abell Foundation, recently secured more than $220,000 in federal grants to fund, among other things, the opening of a youth homeless shelter, which would be the only one of its kind in Baltimore. Last week, in her "State of the City" speech, Mayor Sheila Dixon singled out Rose Street and a similar West Baltimore group, saying that "countless lives have been stabilized; countless lives have been saved" through their work.
But Wilson doesn't operate in the same way or by the same rules as the police or City Hall. As a respected street figure, he has intervened in countless disputes in an attempt to avoid deadly violence, all very much off the radar of police. He has organized pickup basketball games and sit-down meals between Bloods and Crips. Last year, he issued a challenge that he would take them on trips to Six Flags if they went 45 days without killing one another.
Like the much-heralded Safe Streets program operating in a nearby neighborhood, it is both the distance from law enforcement and the real-life experiences of key staff members that give these programs the street credibility crucial to their effectiveness.
But that is also what makes them potential powder kegs, their success a high-wire act that, like much of the city's violence, could take a turn for the worse with the slightest misstep.
"There's an ongoing tension," said Jean Lewis, a deputy director in the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice who works with Rose Street. "These are really good guys who might not pass everyone's litmus test, but you take a certain amount of it on faith. They can reach some of the most disconnected youth, because they're there day in and day out."
Two weeks ago, with the mayor's office conducting a census of the city's homeless, Rose Street was asked to locate 45 juveniles who were not in stable housing. But a resident saw the large gathering and called police, who showed up looking to serve a warrant. The teens scattered.
It was not an isolated incident. Wilson said he has had to move his daily youth meetings five blocks away to a transitional house for ex-offenders on Madison Street because the large congregations of known gang members raised red flags for patrolling officers.
For all its work over the years, Rose Street and its mission should be well known. The center was established 17 years ago on a notorious drug corner a half-mile from Johns Hopkins Hospital by activists Clayton Guyton and Elroy Christopher. They sought to usher in a new era in which the laws would be respected, trash would be picked up and drugs would not be sold.
Drug dealers pushed back, setting the building on fire in a stunning act of defiance. Guyton and Christopher refused to back down, tearing the boards off the vacant house next door and resuming their work. Despite ensuing months rife with tension, they persevered and earned newfound respect.
Staff members must be available round the clock to deal with the needs of the neighborhood. Much of their work has focused on helping ex-offenders assimilate back into society, but it reaches across a wide spectrum of the city's challenges.
"If we decide we gonna leave this place," youth counselor Nickey Buchanan, 28, says matter-of-factly about what keeps her motivated, "the crime rate will go back up."
Wilson has been involved with Rose Street for about six years, after serving prison time for handgun and conspiracy convictions. He made the Project Exile list of dangerous gun offenders, a program that intensified scrutiny of his behavior and gave him little room for error. And he was picked up as recently as last month on a second-degree assault charge.
But the East Baltimore native was not motivated to change as much by police pressure as by the murder three years ago of one of his closest friends, a fellow Blood member.
Bloods killing Bloods, people fighting over gang colors, recruiting children as young as 11 - it wasn't supposed to be this way, he said. Wilson, who said he was a "general" with the Bloods, one of the highest-ranking members in the area, traveled to California to negotiate his exit from the gang with top leaders.
His ascension to youth coordinator for Rose Street and the intervention work he performs represent a shift in the center's mission, Guyton said.
"We have to meet the needs of the neighborhood, and if something is outdated, you have to change it," Guyton said. "Black is a part of that creative method, if you will, to reach more youth in our community."
At a recent meeting, Wilson asks the young men what saving a life means to them. Devon Scarborough, a quiet man in a hooded sweat shirt cautiously raises his hand.
"Saving a life is trying to encourage another brother to turn away from not caring about nothing, to positive encouragement," he says.
Scarborough is holding a composition notebook stuffed with papers, including a business plan he drafted and has asked Wilson to review. The 25-year-old, who has sold drugs in the past, says that for years he has sought out community groups that would help him get his plans off the ground, but he often found himself stymied.
"I have goals, but not too many people are open to listening to them," he says. "There's something about Baltimore - people don't encourage you."
Scarborough wants to open a one-stop shop where people can go for just about anything. Catering, landscaping, art projects, music, carpentry. All he needs is a storefront to serve as the nerve center, he says.
"When people come in, we'll say, 'How do you do today? How can we help?' "
Across the neighborhood at the Rose Street Center, 26-year-old Amon Boles is taking a smoke break from a GED class where students are learning about fractions and common denominators. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade to sell drugs after his first child was born - he now has six - and says he is trying to make up for the lost time.
"I have a felony, and it's hard for me to get a job," Boles says. "But I'm getting a chance."
Their success is tenuous. At a meeting on Wednesday, Wilson is frustrated. He starts off by berating the members and their commitment. He's exasperated that some who don't have high school diplomas are attending his youth meeting while free GED courses are taking place at the Rose Street center. He senses that some attendees are stuck in their old ways.
"Get. Yo. Mind. Right," he demands.
Later he will offer that he recently found out about a Rose Street success story who was drawn back in to the drug trade and got locked up four days earlier. Wilson is nervously awaiting the outcome of his own assault charge, which records show stems from a dispute after a party last month.
"Police can only do but so much," he says. "We are the ones who make the final decision on the community perception."
See a video about the program at baltimoresun.com/maryland