The Streets Had Eyes: Civilian Policing in Hartford’s North End (Part 2 of 2)

Photo Courtesy of Cornell Lewis

Photo Courtesy of Cornell Lewis

Lewis wasn’t at the scene of the 2003 shootout that served as another rallying cry for community members who began patrolling under The Men of Color name from that point forward.

But as we sit parked at the corner of Westland Street-just past where it intersects with Martin Street-he describes it as if he saw it play out firsthand.

He points to a blue pick up truck parked across Westland and off the left curb of Martin. It can’t be more than 50 yards away.

“The gunman was where that blue truck is,” Lewis says. “Shooting at somebody over here.”

And we’re right where the school bus was dropping off children. Students and their parents had to duck for their lives as bullets whizzed past them.

“I said, ‘let’s get some people together and make sure these kids can get on the bus’,” Lewis says.

If it was 8 blocks to a bus stop or school, for instance, a volunteer from the Men of Color-marked with the yellow jackets members of the Initiative patrolled in-would be on each one, he says.

The patrols-crews with as many as 20 volunteers-moved to Brooke Street and the “gauntlet of drug dealers” on Oakland Avenue. Then, they turned to Vine Street and Albany.

The identical beige three-story apartment buildings lined up along Vine Street going toward Albany Avenue had just been renovated when Lewis took The New Haven Beat around the neighborhood. Twenty-five of the 40 tenants that lived there before have been moved back in. During the Men of Color days, you could walk down the alleyways between the buildings and find drug deals going on in the back, according to Lewis.

Hattie Harrison-or “Ms. Hattie”, as those in the Initiative would call her-can attest to that and more. She’s lived in the complex for 20 years.

“As the years went on, it got worse and worse,” she says. “You had drug dealers in the hallways selling. It was really bad over here. We had a lot of children, so it made it very dangerous.”

Dealers weren’t affiliated with any organized gangs, but that didn’t mean that violence did not break out. Horace Bushnell Apartments-renamed The 440 Complex after the renovation-saw its fair share of shootings, Harrison says.

“You were afraid to come out of your house,” she says. “You don’t know when you’re going to hear bullets go by.”

Lewis has parked the car just across the street from the complex. He points to the front of Building 40.

“We held a hunger strike [there],” he tells me.

His finger darts around to different spots throughout the length of the property.

“We had a tent there, a tent there,” Lewis says. “We camped out in the front yard.”

That was to let dealers know that they were being watched, and the Initiative had other ways of conveying that message-Lewis remembers the night they hit the area right before it was raided by police.

“Men of Color on patrol!” Lewis shouts, recalling the words that boomed through a megaphone he was carrying and out over the complex.

He drums his hands rapidly on the steering wheel.

“You could hear the drug dealers runnin.”

Lewis still calls it “a war of attrition” against what he refers to as “oppressors”. He elaborates, citing obscure colonial history such as King Leopold in the Belgium-occupied Congo and the French in Haiti.

“Oppressors are people who come into a country or region and starts taking out the resources,” Lewis says. “I have found that that is consistent throughout history. They always came in, took out, and left it worse.”

By that logic, it was more of a guerrilla insurgency. They had the patrols, but it was the covert tactics that would prove to be the cause of any “attrition” in Lewis’s war. There were the older and/or less able-bodied community members that watched the streets with binoculars from the windows of their homes, scribbling details-descriptions of dealers and customers, license plate numbers, and even where drug and money stashes were hidden-onto note pads to report to police, as well as The Men of Color. Neighborhood kids on bicycles dispatched print outs containing the information onto car windshields, in mailboxes, and into front yards.

Then came the arrests-Lewis can’t recall how many, but he says there were “quite a few” that resulted from the “intel” members of the Initiative gathered.

“I had a better network than the KGB,” he says with a laugh.

He took inspiration in the infamous Ho Chi Minh, and the environment he constructed-one that watched, calculated, and conspired against those it was fighting-shows that.

But there’s only one inconsistency with Lewis’s characterization of the “oppressors”: unlike Leopold and the French, the gang members and drug dealers of Hartford’s North end came from the community that was trying to drive them out, and if you ask Thornton, they are products of an environment that has always conspired against them.

“It’s a cluster fuck, my man,” Thornton tells me over the phone. “They’re not connecting the dots.”

Bring up the issue of United States drug policy and Thornton’s own inner historian will come out. He’ll take you through a speech that recounts everything from the Nixon presidency and CIA-funded drug traffickers from Latin America to three strikes laws and the prison industrial complex. And somewhere in that web of dots, he says, is the one that has been put on the heads of those most likely to be targeted by racial profiling and mass incarceration.

And the resulting criminal record-often a precursor to indefinite unemployment and an exacerbated version of the poverty conditions that might prompt someone to seek illicit means to earn in the first place-pushes the cycle onward, Thornton says.

“[We’re] releasing people back into society with no skills,” Thornton says. “They’re gonna end up back in prison in five years, and we give the drug cartels limitless power. If you want to get rid of these drugs and the crime involved, the only answer is to legalize, decriminalize, and medicalize.”

Thornton and Lewis agree on the impact drug laws have had on racial minorities, but what to do about it is where they part ways. The Men of Color gave Hartford police their intel, and the Department returned the favor.

At the Dunkin Donuts, Lewis hands me a stack of papers listing names and addresses-arrest records obtained from the Department and reproduced by the Initiative. These are some of the people arrested for criminal attempt to possess narcotics. In other words, buying drugs in Hartford.

There are a few names from Middletown. Glastonbury, Newington, Enfield, West Hartford, New Britain, and Meriden are also among the slew of municipalities that come up. The dealers may have come from the communities the Initiative was trying to protect, but many of their customers didn’t.

So the Men of Color would show up-in groups of “15 to 20 strong”-at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the communities surrounding Hartford.

“You can’t hide from the freedom rides!” Lewis chants, recalling the words that would echo throughout the often-suburban blocks they protested on.

That’s what they called it. His use of the term “freedom ride”-reminiscent of the civil rights era bus pilgrimages activists made in their campaign against segregation-might spark more disagreement between Lewis and critics like Thornton. But if there is one thing that is consistent with that objective and the Initiative’s-a more colorblind application of mandatory minimums-it’s equality under the law.

“They have people from Greenwich purchasing $800 worth of crack,” Lewis says. “They were professionals. If you’re gonna sentence a brother selling $10 worth of crack, how are you not gonna sentence a white person buying $800 worth? People from the suburbs have more money, and they’re actually enforcing a criminal empire, and they get to go home at night.”

For the Men of Color and anyone that might take their lead, perhaps the the larger Scylla or Charybdis conundrum is figuring out how to steer a community clear of any immediate threats of violence as a self-policing entity without drifting too close to becoming enforcers of what is seen by some as a systemic status quo-one that will not be changed fast enough to stop the next bullet on Bellevue or Vine.

If Lewis and his crew were trying to find that route, the search for it began during the countless hours they spent on the street corners-on top of the dealers and their transactions-where they would gather en mass in lawn chairs.  Through the inevitable animosity there was dialogue, and beneath the struggle for the North end communities, an understanding.

“Part of it was to obstruct the business, and part of it was to engage in civil conversation,” says Andrew Woods, a former Men of Color volunteer who is now the Executive Director of Hartford Communities that Care. “They knew we were about protecting the community and their own children. They had brothers and sisters. Even they, themselves, knew they were caught up in a lifestyle that wasn’t what they had planned.”

So the dialogue turned to finding them a way out that wasn’t prison. Some asked if those taking part in the Initiative could help them find other work. A few would eventually trade their gang colors for the yellow jackets that had become trademark for the Men of Color patrols.

“That was the purpose,” Woods says. “We understand the  challenges [they faced], but at the same time, we have an obligation.”

The challenges they faced were probably reflected in the statistics coming out of the city as a whole. Unemployment rates in Hartford floated around 10 or 11 percent in 2003 and 2004-around the time the Men of Color were responding to the bus stop shooting and beginning their work in the surrounding neighborhoods. It would climb, reaching a 16.6 percent average for 2010, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor.

Back at the Dunkin Donuts, Lewis hands me an old photo of a group of young teenagers-participants in the Men of Color’s youth employment program. He points to a kid standing in the back and to the left. Eddie-Lewis can’t remember his last name-looked more like an NFL lineman than the 15-year old he supposedly was when that picture was taken.

“He looked like he could of played on the Baltimore Ravens-alongside Suggs,” Lewis tells me.

Right behind the group is one of the 440 Complex apartment buildings. Eddie’s family lived there when the Initiative was working to rid it of drug dealers.

In the program, kids like Eddie were paid $10-$11 an hour to rake leaves, shovel snow, or perform other jobs around the neighborhood. The perks included help with resume and interview preparation. Lewis wanted to expand the program’s scope, but couldn’t get the funding to do it.

“One of the things drug dealers used to say when we ran them out was, ‘Cornell, I can’t support my family now. I can’t support my girlfriend’,” he says. “It was supposed to be for the drug dealers.”

The gun shots and drug deals that had 440 Complex residents on edge are a thing of the past-thanks to a combined effort by the Men of Color and the property’s tenants-but looking into the future, Harrison is skeptical as to whether or not the peace will last.

She’ll be getting new neighbors, and wonders if the Complex’s old problems will start up all over again.

“I don’t know what kind of people they’re going to have living here,” Harrison says.

And she still thinks about some of the old tenants, some of whom used to call her “Mom”.

“I watched them grow up,” Harrison says. “I watched them become young ladies and men. Some turned out okay. Some didn’t. I saw one the other day-they’re still doing what they do. That’s their way of making money. It’s the same thing going on-it just hasn’t gotten back here yet.”

That’s the nature of it, McGregor says. You can push drug dealing out of a neighborhood, but it will appear someplace else.

“It’s mobile,” he says. “A lot of times we don’t eradicate it-we just displace it. That’s the problem. If one neighborhood steps up, they just move to another. We need a comprehensive effort.”

But the blocks where Lewis and his men walked their nightly patrols and staged their “direct actions” are notably safer than they were in the pre-Initiative days, both Lewis and McGregor say.

“There are still drug sales, but it’s nowhere near as bad,” Lewis says.

And violent crime statistics back up that claim-a January 12 article in The Hartford Courant reported that the number of homicides in the North End last year was 42 percent less than in 2013. A year after the bus stop shootout, the citywide murder count hit 15, according to CTData.org. By 2009 it had more than doubled to 33, before dropping to 24 in 2010.

In 2006 there were 29 shooting victims under the age of 18 in the city of Hartford, according to numbers provided by Hartford Communities that Care, which focuses on anti-violence initiatives. The next year that number dropped to 17, but jumped up to 31 in 2008. But by 2012, it had been reduced to 10.

“It was like Old Dodge City, where the cowboys used to shoot up,” Lewis says. “The drug dealers did whatever they wanted. Those days are gone-people aren’t gonna stand for it.”

The Men of Color’s days are gone as well. There were a number of factors-including internal disagreements-but Lewis chalks it up mostly to the fatigue that the countless hours on patrol make inevitable.

“You can only volunteer for so long,” Woods adds. “These are men that in some cases were employed elsewhere. Overtime, because of the demands of it, we just couldn’t sustain.”

The Men of Color Initiative was not launched as a response to police brutality, but seizing control of the law enforcement process, Lewis tells the activists back in New Haven, puts communities in the driver’s seat when it comes to dealing with cops.

“We told the police what we wanted them to do,” he says. “If you won’t, we will.”

Woods saw it a bit differently-more of a symbiotic relationship than the shotgun marriage that Lewis describes-but he agrees with the empowering dynamic it provided to the North End neighborhoods.

“You don’t want law enforcement to be the ones always patrolling the communities and being the arbiters of what the norms are,” Woods says. “At the same time, you have to have a partnership with the police. It’s about making the police’s footprint smaller.”

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