By Guest Contributor Daryl Khan, cross-posted from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
NEW YORK — Whenever LaQuint Singleton found himself about to get into a fight out in the courtyards or in the small playground in front of his building at the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, he would run and find his mom, Venus. He’d scamper up the stairs and go up to her looking for protection. Back then, Singleton was a good student who regularly attended school and attended church service every Sunday. One day, in an attempt to impress the older teenagers and men, he carried a gun to give to another resident. He was arrested, and spent six months in Rikers Island waiting for his case to wend its way through the criminal justice system — and then another year after he was sentenced.
“They sent him to the Island, and he came back a monster,” Venus Singleton said, sobbing on the steps of an apartment building on Old Broadway, referred to as the DMZ by people on both sides of the blood feud between the Grant and Manhattanville Houses. “That boy they sent back is not the same boy I sent them. The department of corrections turned my son into a monster. I love my monster, but that’s what he is. That’s what the Island did for me.”
Now, Singleton said, more monsters are about to be made.
Wednesday morning, police officers came knocking on Singleton’s door looking for her son. She scrambled to get some clothes. She wasn’t dressed yet. She didn’t know it at the time but those raps on her door were part of the largest gang raid in the history of the city.
At 6 a.m., hundreds of officers in flak jackets swept through both the Manhattanville and Grant Houses in West Harlem as helicopters swooped overhead as part of what law enforcement officials said was the largest gang raid conducted by the NYPD. Some members of the New York press corps were tipped off about the raid and were there as well, waiting for the sweeps to commence.
Police arrested 40 suspects as part of a massive 145-count indictment of 103 people in a range of crimes, including the murder of 18-year-old basketball star Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, 19 shootings, gang assaults, beatings and conspiracy. Of the remaining suspects, 39 were already in custody, including Murphy’s brother, while the others remain at large.
In a press conference later Tuesday afternoon, NYPD Police Chief William J. Bratton and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said the teens and men rounded up at the two housing projects are members of 3Staacs gang and their rivals, the Make It Happen Boys and Money Avenue. Residents said the suspects grew up together and are friends with affinities to their houses, and are not part of anything resembling a formal gang.
“The terror that the many thousands of people who live there must have felt over these last several years,” Bratton said explaining his presence at the early-morning raid during a press conference at 1 Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan Wednesday afternoon. “They’re not fighting over drug turf, it’s just mindless, senseless violence.”
Vance agreed, and said the violence was not fueled by money or drugs, but by bad blood that dates back decades.
“These three gangs were not sophisticated drug trafficking organizations, far from it. They were young people protecting their territories from imaginary threats and avenging the murders of fellow gang members,” he said. “For at least four years, these gangs waged a campaign of violence simply for the sake of violence.”
Over the course of four and a half years investigators from the NYPD’s Gang Division and the Manhattan district attorney’s Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit reviewed hundreds of hours of cell phone videos and surveillance footage, phone calls from Rikers island and more than a million Facebook and other social media posts to build their case.
The indictment lists some of those posts:
On or about September 13, 2011, defendant Davon Goulbourns, a/k/a “Hef,” caused or permitted to be posted on Facebook messages to rival gang member Brian Cabrera in part and in substance bragging about the killing of Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy and stating, “THASS WHY NIGGAS FRIED THE CHICKEN,” to which Cabrera in part and substance responded, “NOW IMAAA KILL YUHH.” On or about September 14, 2011, defendant Jordan Laster a/k/a “Wop,” caused or permitted to be posted on Facebook a status update in part and substance stating, “MY NIGGAS BODIED A GRANT BITCH.” On or about September 14, 2011, defendant Ty-Kwan Allen, a/k/a “Ty,” caused or permitted to be posted on Facebook a status update in part and substance mocking the murder of Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy and stating, “I LIKE MY CHICKEN DEEP FRIED.”
“No one in this city should hear gunshots or be afraid to have their child go to school or their parents go to the grocery store,” Vance added.
Vance’s comments about the young people arrested in the historical raid came a day after he said in remarks at a conference on public health and incarceration at Columbia University that his office’s business model is failing young people in the criminal justice system.
“Parents are losing their children — multiple children potentially — to prison and perhaps to an early grave,” Vance said at the press conference Wednesday.
Taylonn Murphy and Derrick Haynes know all about the pain of early graves. Murphy and Haynes both have lost family in the blood feud between the two housing projects. Haynes’s brother was the first homicide in the feud, and in September 2011 Murphy’s daughter, a promising basketball star, was gunned down just feet from her apartment in the Grant Houses.
They had spent the last year telling anyone who would listen — local politicians, police officers, Columbia University bureaucrats, nonprofits — that they needed help to defuse the tension among young people at the houses. They pointed down 125th Street and said that there is nowhere for the children and teenagers in the Manhattanville and Grant houses — just corners. They had dedicated recent years to trying to change the culture of violence to avoid the kind of massive show of police force that unfolded earlier that morning. They said the violence isn’t so mindless and senseless as the commissioner described when you look at it from their point of view.
“These kids don’t have nothing to do,” Tayshana’s father, Taylonn, said, making a disgusted, frustrated sound as he finished each sentence. “We’re just going to keep trying to do what we’re doing. We asked the city for help and we got a raid.”
The two men along with Arnita Brockington, the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, one of the two men, along with Robert Cartagena, convicted in the killing of Murphy, began reaching out to children and teens on both sides of the feud, imploring them to find another way to handle their project-fueled animosity. The three, by going on patrols of the houses, making themselves available to the young people in both Manhattanville and Grant, and encouraging dialogue were able to broker an uneasy peace for months. They brought the older teenagers and young adults to workshops with job counselors to try to get them work, or at least on lists where they could get work.
In that time, Haynes and Murphy acted like tireless salesman with a single-minded pitch: to convert Old Broadway, a short avenue separating the two projects that acts as a neutral zone, into a permanent play street with basketball courts, street volleyball and other games for children to play; and to convert the shuttered beauty salon into a community center. They continued to make the pitch to a local television news camera man, but they appeared haggard and dispirited.
Later in the afternoon the day of the raid, the two men stood on Old Broadway near the still shuttered storefronts. They were visibly crestfallen and weary. They talked about how the chaos of that morning’s police raid was what they had been working so hard to avoid. But, they said they are not going to give up on their mission.
“They arrested this generation of kids, a whole generation, but there’s another generation behind them,” he said. “That’s who we have to look out for now. We can’t just do the same thing and arrest them when they get old enough.”
Singleton came over and exchanged a hug with both men. She knows them well. Singleton operates her own impromptu Neighborhood Watch with other mothers in the Grant Houses. They had reached out to her son over the years, and they came to offer their support when LaQuint was nearly killed in a shooting earlier this year.
She watched a little boy, no older than 7, walking past with his mother and father to the corner store. When the little boy came out clutching a bag of Cheetos, she watched as her parents led him into the Manhattanville Houses.
“Aw, look at him, ain’t he cute,” she said.
Seeing the boy reminded her of her son LaQuint’s transformation from innocent, average kid to what she called a “monster.” She remembers how quick he was to fight when he came back. She said he turned into a “drifter kid” because sometimes he would just sit and stare at the wall. When she tried to inquire what was wrong he would just rock back and forth saying, “Nah, nah, nah,” over and over until his voice drifted into an imperceptible whisper.
“A little kid like that,” referring to the boy with the Cheetos, “he could get caught up in this. He looks so innocent now. If things don’t change, he’ll get infected, too. In four or five years he’ll be the one running through the courtyard with a gun.”
Her son learned to fight in Rikers Island, she said. He would be put in there with rival houses and he had no choice.
“If he didn’t fight he’d get hurt,” she said. “He would tell me, ‘I got to ma, I got to. If I don’t they’re going to hurt me.’ He wasn’t no fighter. When he came back he’d throw his hands up for anything.”
She said she guessed that’s what would happen the night of the raid, after all the suspects were processed.
“All these kids they took away today are going to be at war tonight,” she said. “If they put them on the Island, they’re fighting. “
Singleton motioned to the Manhattanville Houses and said she hasn’t been there in years. She has a cousin who she loves but joked she can’t even remember what she looks like because she lives there. She said she can’t risk going in because the young men have a “beef” with her son. Feeling unsafe, she left the Old Broadway and headed back to the Grant Houses. She hadn’t spent that much time that close to Manhattanville — a few minutes walk away — in years.
When she returned to her side of 125th Street she encountered some teenage neighbors. They started talking about what had transpired that morning. The teens said the police had ransacked their apartments but no one had been arrested. One boy, a developmentally challenged 16-year-old from Grant Houses named Jeffery, had a fresh knot on the left side of his head. He said it was from one of the police officers who had slammed him on the ground and driven his knee into his head.
He took Singleton aside and asked for advice. He wanted to get some plastic beads, colorful religious trinkets, from the Botanica store across the street, but he didn’t know which ones to buy.
“I’m looking for something to keep me safe,” he said.
Without hesitation she responded: “Go over there and ask for St. Michael and Santa Clara. They’ll give you protection.”
As he turned to leave she reminded him to make sure he got them blessed. He nodded in affirmation.
When asked what he needed protection from, Singleton paused.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He didn’t say.”
Jeffery was out of luck. There was no one at the shop to provide blessings on Wednesday, so he left without them.