Photography by Brian Moody
Aqeela Sherrills and Calvin Hodges grew up on opposite sides of the tracks during the bloody gang conflicts of the Watts neighborhood in south LA. Aqeela wore blue and belonged to the Crip gang, while Calvin wore red and was a member of the Bloods. Aqeela Sherrills is the co-founder of The Reverence Project.
We didn’t call ourselves gangs – society did. We were a bunch of kids who had been wounded. Gangs were our surrogate families because so many of us had lost our nuclear families.
As a young person I lived life on the edge and made a lot of bad decisions; robbing, stealing and beating people. Our enemy lived on the other side of the tracks, and Markham Junior High School stood in the middle: a gladiator school dividing the two communities. When I was in ninth grade a close friend was shot at school and I knew then that I had to get out. So I started selling candy door-to-door. This got me away from the crazy stuff back in Watts. Eventually I made it to college. I was the only one out of all my friends who didn’t go to jail.
Then came a pivotal moment. I was crazy about the girl I was with. She was beautiful and looked after me, but I was jealous and thought I’d better cheat on her before she cheated on me. In the process I caught gonorrhea and gave it to her, but instead of admitting it, I blamed her. Things were getting bad; I was drinking and about to be kicked out of college. But then I read James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen and something shifted inside me. I started digging deep and did the first noble thing I’ve ever done in my life, and that was to tell Lisa the truth about what I’d done, and to say sorry.
I also told her about being molested as a kid. It was the first time I’d shared this secret, and doing so set me on fire. At last I had something to blame. All my anger was aimed at the government and white people, and I became a total black national revolutionary. It took many years to come round 360 degrees and take responsibility for what had happened to me as a kid; many years before I could stop blaming and start forgiving – not only myself, but my mother and the perpetrator too.
In 1989 I marched with the African Brothers Collective onto neutral ground in Watts, and tried to reach out to our African brothers from the Bloods. Our message was that we all had the same problems, no matter which side of the tracks we were from. Finally, in 1992, community leaders signed a peace treaty and joy exploded across the neighborhood. Kids played in the park again and gang homicide dropped by 44%. Unfortunately things started to flip after a while, because people began to use the peace process to line their pockets. It made me realize that you have to view peace as a journey, not as a destination.
For the past 15 years I’ve been working for peace. I’ve come to believe in the concept that where the wounds are, the gift lies. But in January 2004 this belief was seriously tested, when my 18-year-old son, Terrell, was murdered. He was an unbelievable kid, and after rushing to the hospital to be told that he hadn’t made it, I thought, “What is the gift in this?” Since then I’ve thought about a lot of things, in a lot of different ways.
The young man who killed my son hasn’t been caught yet, but we know who he is through the street network. I had the opportunity to retaliate, but I decided that revenge shouldn’t be Terrell’s legacy. Instead I chose to have valuable conversations with the community about why revenge doesn’t work. I tell people that Terrell’s killer is a victim too – a victim of a culture that lacks compassion. You can only kill someone if you have a callous heart, so I want to know why this young man had such a callous heart. It’s not enough simply to catch him and throw him away.
Aqeela and I have transcended gang culture, but when I was young it would have been war. As kids we had to prove something because of the neighborhood we lived in. For me joining the Bloods was part of growing up, but I walked in those shoes without choice. Like many of my friends I had no father, and joined the gang in order to belong. I’ve been shot, stabbed, slammed on the sidewalk and have served time in jail, too.
We were taught to be divided. Markham Junior High School created our culture and shaped our perspective: there was no communication between the Bloods and the Crips, even though we were the same. On the campus grounds I realized that the next generation would keep this hatred going if things didn’t change. I went through trials and tribulations in prison, but came out realizing I wanted to put my community right. I questioned everything. Why were we against those wearing blue?
The 1992 peace treaty changed things. I was doing security when all the gangs came together. That’s when I first met Aqeela. He was one of the lights committed to change. The peace treaty gave me hope because I never thought peace was possible. For the first time you could go off limits and cross the tracks; there was even crossbreeding between the Reds and the Blues.
Healing comes when you can sit down and laugh with someone. The more you communicate the more difficult it is to commit violence, because you’re no longer isolated or wearing a mask. In working for CSDI I’ve realized that peace is way more difficult than war. It’s easy to kill, but it’s not easy to stop a war, or to go in and deal with the damaged emotions which are its legacy.