This is the first of a series of conversations with individuals I have met, and filmed, over the last 8 years in Los Angeles. They risk their lives, and livelihoods, trying to repair the damage they helped start in the neighborhoods they come from. They are former gang members that have committed their lives to peace and to negotiating and maintaining Cease Fires. They are almost wholly unfunded, and unknown. They are often met with suspicion and mistrust even from those closest to them, largely because they are not economically successful, which is ever the measure of legitimacy in both black and white communities. The first, Skipp Townsend, charismatic, proud and very well known in his field is Founder and Executive Director of 2nd Call and an Executive Board Member of the Southern California Cease Fire Committee.
Nick: I know you, and Connie Rice, and Jim Brown all worked with the late Bo Taylor. How did you meet Bo Taylor?
Skipp: In 2005 I knew I wanted to make a change and I was asking God to help me make this change. I felt like I was at my lowest like, I didn't know where my life was going. My friend Kenny he was home on bail and he said let's go listen to the guys from Amer-I-Can and Unity One speak. So we was there and I saw Looney speak and Looney kinda blew me away and I wanted to know where was he learning how to talk like that. And he was like from the Amer-I-can curriculum. He said go to Bo Taylor he'll walk you through it. So that changed my life. I have to say, Looney's dead now. Few years back Looney was trying to get a guy to stop spray painting, taggin', a wall and the guy turned around and shot him in the heart, and shot him in the head. Looney was a peacemaker, and he captured my attention with his words.
Nick: What was the structure of gang intervention then?
Skipp: It was the beginning of a fight over who pulls the strings. People who could write, the MSWs the PhDs would get all the funding. And guys like Bo Taylor couldn't write proposals or grants. He just say "F** you" and bring 20 or 25 people to a meeting and say, "These guys right here used to shoot at those guys right there and now they're together in peace, here with me." He would show the proof but he would get peanuts. So I came in the middle of that fight.
Nick: Theodore Rozak wrote a book about the counter culture movement where he said the real enemy was not Nixon it was what he called the Technocracy. Which was this idea that America was over-professionalizing itself and the only authority was the degreed professionals and they were going to validate each other based on degrees---
Skipp: Yeah. That's what happened...
Nick: Practical knowledge, human knowledge relationships between human beings was gonna get less and less important and he said that was the real enemy. So I don't want to put words in your mouth...
Skipp: Well, for me I like the grass roots approach. Grass roots we are not dealing with the "At Risk Youth" we're dealing with the Proven Risk Youth. We're dealing with One Punch, Big Monster; these are the guys who are shooting our children. We can learn what it is that these MSWs is trying to teach us. But then at the same time we have to reach it to the individuals that we're dealing with. All the theory or whatever -- how do you apply it to an individual that doesn't even wanna talk to you? Because I could study a elephant for 12 years and I can tell you what they eat, what they drink. But I'm not a elephant. So an individual who studies the human behavior of another human being but has never been that type of human being has no real authority with that human being he's studying.
Nick: I understand. Here's one thing though. Earlier you talked about a situation where certain gang conflicts started because people defend territory after somebody is killed there, that they are protecting something.
Skipp: And they are dealing with emotions too, over the death of the individual.
Nick: Okay. But emotions over the death of "their" individual -- So now some funder sitting with a pot of money and people come and ask them for money, what are they protecting? How did they get that money?
Skipp: How...? How did... who get the money?
Nick: The funders with the pot of money how did they get it? Degrees right?
Skipp: (pause) Right... (He smiles)
Nick: They're protecting their way of life... That's their community. Degrees.
Skipp: ...right. (laughs)
Nick: That's why -
Skipp: They wanna teach the system the way they know it.
Nick: To protect how they got what they got.
(Skipp smiles and nods)
Nick: I'm not gonna--
(Skip waving his hands at Nick)
Nick: I'm not -
Skipp: So then they'll --!!
Skipp: So then they'll give the money to individuals who talk and walk like them. And therefore it doesn't have a direct impact. In other words, there's a lady who has an organization called "No More Crime" on Vernon Ave. I said well you must work with the Rolling 40 Crips? She said no I don't. I said well, the 54VNGs, the Bloods? Blackstones? 30s? She said, "I don't know any of them." How can you have an organization called "No More Crime" and say that you are successful if you don't even know any criminals? I have to impact or modify the behavior of the criminals in the community that I work in. So the individual who sits with the pot of money, and protects his way of life if they don't impact the criminal mindset on Vernon, Adams, or Hoover, then it doesn't impact the right individuals.
Nick: Tell me the difference between being an interventionist for GRYD (Gang Reduction Youth Development) and being an LAPD officer.
Skipp: It's like the word "gang" and the word "community." LAPD has to have a gang member or they don't need a gang unit. Intervention wants to deal with the community problem. Because these are our children that are going to jail and put in the gang files and the gang injunction. Say an LAPD officer or Sheriff or Inglewood Police and me -- we're both looking at the corner and they say well Skipp you see them, you see those gang members hanging out? I may look at 'em and say "That's Miss Johnson's son. That's Kenny's boy, that's Jackie. Come here!" A major difference is I'm a peacemaker. I think the (African American) community peace movement is an extension of the Civil Rights movement of the 60's. Instead of us looking at others violating our Civil Rights we are looking at us violating our own rights. So I think its very important that there is a movement of individuals working to create peace in the black community. Not just in LA communities, but like in Memphis, Tennesse with the 901 Bloc Squad, Columbus Ohio with the CAP City Nights and the programs they have. Cease Fire in Chicago and also in Boston, so I think pretty much what we have to do is continue the movement of peace and continue to be effective.
Nick: What's the one thing, if you could only have one thing in the next month that would help the cause of intervention, what would that one thing be?
Skipp: ...one thing that would help the cause... Funding. We need funding. Society has a negative outlook on African American children and we find it with child sentencing laws. In child sentencing laws and they get tried as an adult, young boys, young girls 14, 15. And the State of California taught me that at 14 my frontal lobe and my brain don't even fully connect and I can't make right decisions until after the age of 24. How can I be tried as an adult saying I knew what I was doing at 17? These are decisions of finance. I think right now, LAPD and LA Sherriffs each have over a billion dollar budget. I think that it's a war really on our people and our children. So what I'm talking about, asking for, is really investing in the community.