I was a 25-year-old documentary filmmaker from New York working on a show for MTV. He was a 21-year-old dancer in East Oakland trying to move on with his life after the recent murder of his little brother. I spent a year embedded in his life, and got a front row seat to an American epidemic.
When I first met Darrell "D-Real" Armstead, he was having trouble sleeping. For good reason: his friends and family are, literally, here one minute and gone the next. In his world, deaths are the rule, not the exception. When small children are murdered in his neighborhood, the incidents barely get local media attention, much less make the national news. These are killings committed by young men caught in an endless cycle of violence and retaliation. If you're not in a gang or a crew at an early age, then you have nothing. You sign-up and put your life on the line, or you take your chances as an outcast, and possibly lose your life anyway. Around here, I was told, "people carry guns like cell phones."
Most days we'd stop by the tattoo parlor. D-Real and his buddies get them all over their bodies, not giving much thought to the design of the tattoo or where it would go. "Sketching all over my skin don't matter -- we don't expect to live that long," said one young man casually. While D-Real finished up his latest tat, we heard about a stray bullet that killed Najon Jackson, 16 years old. The funeral would be held in a few days.
When you see death this often, you have to find creative ways to cope with it. The people in D-Real's neighborhood cope by turning funerals into social occasions. When a friend or family member dies, one local told me, "it's time to party." Kids make and wear t-shirts brandishing pictures of the latest casualty. They create special tribute songs and videos for Twitter or Facebook. The best videos, like D-Real's "Dancing in the Rain," which garnered more than 5.3 million views on YouTube, get 'likes' or 'retweets,' sometimes without the viewer having any idea that they're watching a tribute to a life tragically lost.
When D-Real's younger brother Dominic Carter was murdered at the age of 19, D-Real was expected to move on. No crying. No confiding in a close friend. No counseling to help the grieving process. This is life. Time to "party," and one more RIP tattoo.
A year after his brother's death, I went with D-Real to a small grassy area on a street corner in Oakland where white crosses are planted in the ground for each person killed. D-Real quietly pointed: "that's my cousin," "that's my boy from school," "my neighbor." We stood silent for a while, before he got tense and began shaking his head.
"You turn your little brother into a gangster and get him killed," D-Real said. "I'll never forgive myself for that -- never."
For the first time since his brother's murder, he cried.
"I always hear knocking on the door. I run down and open it up, expecting it to be my brother. It's not. Nobody is there. So I go back upstairs and wait until I hear another knock."
Like so many in his neighborhood, D-Real was caught up in a war with no objective and no end in sight. Surrounded by guns and hopelessness, caught in a cycle without opportunity, structure, decent education or any easy path to escape. The night his brother died, D-Real went to his apartment and grabbed his gun. Time to retaliate.
But instead of starting the cycle all over again, D-Real walked home alone that night and put the gun down. In fact, he took all of his guns -- and threw them out. The first positive thing he did after his brother was killed was go to the street corner and dance with his friends. Why? He wasn't completely sure, but he knew it worked for him. And, maybe it could work for others too. So D-Real started a new kind of inner city battle -- dance battles -- to promote peace. Since Oakland is filled with talented, innovative, and dedicated dancers, he thought of something fairly simple. Whether it took place on a small corner with friends or at the most dangerous park in the city with hundreds of locals, D-Real promoted peace by giving people his age a time, a place and an action to do something other than kill. That simple.
Now it's up to us to support them. We know the problem. D-Real is showing us an answer. If we spread his message, through volunteering in a rough neighborhood, getting involved in public service, or even something small like documenting it for television, at least he knows he's not the only one fighting -- fighting for all the right reasons.
The World of Jenks season finale airs tonight, Monday May 20, at 11 p.m. ET/PT (10 p.m. central)