As a child, I lived with my mother under a staircase for almost a year while she was unemployed and unable to afford rent. We had no support system, nowhere to go.
Survival is something I learned early. By age 9, I hung out with people who sold drugs; by age 14, I joined the gang life, which afforded me the only resources and protection available in my Harlem neighborhood. But it also impacted choices I was too young to understand.
At 16, I was in Rikers Island, and at 19 I was sentenced to 5 years in an upstate prison. At 22, while in prison, I left the gang life. I’ve been home since 2014, and with community support and better choices, I have dedicated myself to ensure young people have more resources and possibilities than I once did.
As I grew up, gang members were my most visible role models, with the most visible resources. And that’s why NYC’s war on gangs has failed. What we have needed is a war on poverty and racialized oppression. Instead, we got stop-and-frisk, which fed Rikers, making it easier for gangs to recruit young people who joined to survive in neighborhoods like Harlem. Over time, gangs grew and the NYPD’s raids indiscriminately ripped families apart, inflicting more trauma.
Even though many New Yorkers struggle to make ends meet, our neighbors and families have the solutions to keep kids from joining gangs. We are the best experts on what we need to build communities where young people can thrive.
Going back to the 1960s, the Black Panthers and Young Lords defined basic needs such as employment, a living wage and decent housing. In this context, NYC mayors have not met those needs for decades. The #closerikers campaign and our #buildcommunities assemblies are the only way forward. Rikers will close, and the jailed population will continue to diminish. NYC must reinvest in our safety, well-being and healing so our communities can flourish.
NYC has invested in Cure Violence models, and while the programs are important, solutions that get at root causes of gang violence also must be funded and they must include involvement of former gang members. This means funding basic needs like transportation, housing, mental health and job programs, but also free tutoring, sports, and arts and culture. It’s time to end the war on gangs and build communities.
Vidal Guzmán is a New York City-based community organizer at JustLeadershipUSA.