The gray patches in Cornell Lewis’s thick, black beard make him look like an aged version of the NBA superstar James Harden, but without the kicks to the groin.
Lewis’s fighting technique is much more refined. That’s something that the youths he supervised at Connecticut DCF’s Juvenile Training School in Middletown-which he describes as nothing short of a prison for minors-would learn the hard way.
“They used to say, ‘your hands don’t work’,” Lewis recalls.
But “swing on him”-as he refers to it-and the 65-year old black belt will give you a lesson in self defense. Lewis was mixing his martial arts-he’s well versed in Muy Thai and ground grappling-long before Mayweather edged Pacquiao and viewers declared boxing dead. And then there’s the throwing knives-the wooden targets he practiced with are still in his basement.
“The basis of martial arts is blocking,” he says. “My instructions tell me take whatever the enemy gives you-if it’s a hand, take that. If it’s a leg, take that. The adrenaline will get you hurt if you don’t control it. I learned to fight mechanically.”
It’s December 14. Today he’s just one of about 60 people sitting in a giant circle of chairs inside the Yale University Afro-American Cultural Center on Park Street. Just over a week ago, protests-held in the wake of two separate Grand Jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York-shut down three intersections during a dark and rainy rush hour in New Haven.
Now, the group-a mix of Yale students and local activists-are planning the next steps for what they promise to be a sustained movement against police brutality and racial profiling. The New Haven demonstrations were among those that occurred throughout the country, but now its time to look locally, the group says.
There’s “The Surge”, a New Haven Police Department initiative-that it has since expressed intention to back off from, in name at least-that activists see as an enforcement mechanism for an institutional practice of gentrification in the city. It raises the larger issue of how residents ensure that the alleviation of poverty is emphasized over arrest and incarcerate tactics in communities that tend to be targeted by overzealous policing, they say.
Lewis, one of several meeting attendees to offer tentative directions for the group, waits silently for his turn to speak and then takes the floor.
He wants to talk about control, and he puts his perspective bluntly.
“There’s no cure for the condition we’re facing except for direct action,” Lewis tells them. “The people we’re fighting don’t care about God, your tears, or your children-they care about raw power.”
And they need to shift that balance-somehow-Lewis says. He infuses some of that old fighter’s wisdom into his speech.
“It’s like my coach used to tell me: when you got ’em on the ropes, move in and knock ’em out.”
Just a few years ago, Lewis and his Men of Color Initiative-a grassroots version of the “community policing” model that New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman has stressed as his Department’s mission-had the 20 Luv gang of Hartford’s North End on the ropes, and in a move to salvage the fight, they came charging back throwing knockout punches.
Or at least that’s the way Lewis remembers it, but a bounty on your head is bound to leave that impression.
“First they laughed at us,” Lewis said over the phone. “And when they saw we were serious, they got serious.”
One member of the gang tried to jump him, Lewis broke his arm and his elbow.
“They got nervous after that,” he says. “Just watched me. They figured the only way they were gonna take me out was by putting a contract out on me.”
It sounds like something out of a movie, and it almost became one-the project that never came to fruition, Lewis says, sought to enlist Samuel L. Jackson to play him. He still has the framed contract somewhere at home. But he and The Men of Color Initiative-hundreds strong at its peak-had the real thing: the citizen patrols that walked the North End’s most drug-infested streets and provided Hartford law enforcement with on-the-ground intel.
The suburban communities that members followed 20 Luv’s most frequent drug customers back to reached out for advice, and the North Hartford residents whose neighborhoods members of the Initiative surged into rallied behind the effort.
“Other people saw what we did and they emulated it,” Lewis says.
And then there was the notoriety-from the gangs, of course, but also from Lewis’s critics.
“I got a lot of slack from the [drug] legalization people,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to save our neighborhood-this ain’t no theoretical battle.”
But that exchange-perhaps inevitably-would play out like one. In theory, everyone who comes to the table is trying to “save the neighborhood”, but from what? The surface symptoms of gun homicides and drug dealing, or that within a larger framework that includes the trappings of poverty and a prohibitionist justice system driving it?
To the group gathered on Park Street, it’s a battle that’s playing out in New Haven-outside the Afro-American Cultural Center and the de facto boundaries of the Yale-oriented downtown district as a whole, with talks of “hot spot policing” and street patrol “surges” in neighborhoods like Newhallville, where unemployment rates in recent years have exceeded 20 percent and mass incarceration has already left its permanent marks.
Cliff Thornton, a former Green Party candidate for governor and a drug policy reform activist, was not at the Cultural Center for the meeting. His discourse with Lewis took place throughout the length of The Initiative’s anti-drug campaign.
“It’s people like him that don’t realize they cause a lot of the problems by bringing cops into the neighborhood, and it’s playing out today,” Thornton says.”This shit is not rocket science-it’s not objective bullshit.”
I’m sitting across from Lewis at the Dunkin Donuts on Weston Street-just over a mile away from his old neighborhood. All I have to do is mention Thornton and he chuckles-he already knows where I’m going with this.
“I can still hear the words in my ears from years ago,” Lewis tells me. “He’s consistent, if nothing else. He was looking at it systemically. I was more pragmatic-I was looking at what was right in front of me.”
Three minutes away from where we held our meeting is Bellevue Street, where what Lewis was fighting against was literally right in front of him in the streets each day. The giant two-story yellow house with the attic window is still there.
“I stayed on the second floor,” Lewis tells me. “I rented out the rest of the place.”
We’re sitting outside the building in the front of his car. He got rid of his old Toyota pickup because he was “a marked man” driving it around the old gang territories. Before we left the Dunkin Donuts parking lot, Lewis took a bunch of CD’s off of his front dashboard and put them in the backseat of the car.
“That’s the Odyssey,” he told me. “I’ll just listen to it sometimes.”
Odysseus was caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Lewis and his North end neighborhood? 20 Luv and Los Solidos-rival gangs that controlled the local drug trade. But for him, it wasn’t a matter of choice-just of time.
The red brick, boarded up building next door is still there as well. Members of 20 Luv-who resided in the apartments across the street-would hang out on its front porch. Two doors down in the other direction from where Lewis used to live is the former 20 Luv crack house-a tiny storefront with space for apartments above it-so he had a pretty decent view of the drug deals that went on via a process that can only be described as a drive-through service.
“There were three guys, sitting outside in lawn chairs drinking 40 ounces,” Lewis recalls. “You would drive up and tell the first guy what you want. The second guy holds out a bag where you drop your money in, the third guy hands you the drugs, and you drive away.”
But 20 Luv had some competition: the largely Puerto Rican Los Solidos, or “The Solids”, as people call them.
“The Solids were more business-like,” Lewis says. “20 Luv was a little more outrageous. They would beat up a customers on the streets. They would jack their cars if they made ’em mad.”
But it was the rape that put Lewis, a pastor who subscribes to a philosophy that he refers to as “Urban Evangelism”, on the war path.
Go a little further down Bellevue and turn right onto Warren Street and you’ll be in front of a blue house with a fire escape along the side of it. This is where it was happening on a June day in 1993, and it’s our next stop.
Lewis always kept a Doberman-his 65 pound “guard dog”-that he called “Storm” with him, and, to put it in a Biblical sense, he sent the thunder.
“I sicced the dog on the guy,” he says.
Naturally, the perpetrator-a 20 Luv gang member-ran, but he wouldn’t get far. Storm was a rescue dog-only 57 pounds when Lewis took her in. Even when she grew to 65 pounds, he could still see her ribs, but she always punched above her weight.
“If you raised your arms [at me], God couldn’t help you,” Lewis recalls.
Lewis’s car is sitting in the middle of the street. He points out his driver’s side window at a waist-high fence on the sidewalk opposite the house.
“That’s where she caught his ass,” he says.
But that was just the beginning.
“That was the incident that called me to say, ‘something had to be done’,” Lewis says. “I decided to organize against this.”
He pulled about 80 people out to the Willie Ware Community Center. That was enough to stage pickets in front the infamous 20 Luv crack house.
And then there were the patrols. They ran them 24 hours per day, with volunteers taking shifts.
“Some would be there for an hour, two hours,” Lewis says. “All of that demoralized them. It took eight weeks for us to get rid of both gangs.”
That’s not to say that they went quietly. Noelle McGregor was the lone Hartford Police Department officer to attend the Initiative’s first meeting at Willie Ware. He kept an eye on the group-for their own safety, he says.
“Cornell was threatened quite a bit, and [so was] anyone who was out there with him,” says McGregor, who retired from the force in 1998. “There was concern for him and his safety-especially for his and his family’s safety. He wasn’t just somebody coming into the neighborhood to make a statement-he was living there.”
So McGregor, who doubled as a member of the Hartford City Council at the time, was on call constantly.
“No matter where I was, I would respond,” he says.
One time he was at a formal party when his phone rang. It was Lewis. He and others from the Men of Color Initiative were standing on Bellevue Street across from 20 Luv members that had crowded outside the storefront.
“The leader said, ‘we can take you out right now if we wanted to’,” Lewis says. “Then the guys on his right and left pulled back their shirts and showed guns.”
If that’s reminiscent of an old Western, McGregor was out of place making his James Bond style entrance.
“He called me and I showed up in my tuxedo,” McGregor said over the phone.
With a laugh, Lewis elaborates.
“With a .45 stuck between the sash around the belly,” he says. “We called, but I didn’t think he’d come.”
The Men of Color did not carry weapons, and those taking part in the citizen street patrols adhered to an informal policy of nonviolence. That’s according to Andrew Woods, the Hartford Community Cares Executive Director who patrolled with The Men of Color in its hay day.
“You wouldn’t do anything to discredit the group,” Woods says. “You’re representing more than just yourself.”
With another laugh, Lewis tells a slightly different version.
“We were packin,” he says. “Me and two or three other people-nobody else knew.”
Members were also taught many of the self defense techniques that Lewis studied under martial arts Grand Master Wali Islam, who schooled him in everything from Muay Thai to ground grappling. But those were just for assurances-tactically, the Initiative was a cross between the Guardian Angels and Occupy Wall Street, and Lewis sought to take them beyond the confines of Bellevue.
“I saw it worked on my street,” Lewis says. “So I wanted to expand it.”