Facing that grim statistic, around 150 people gathered at the Urban League in North Minneapolis Thursday night to not only keep the death toll down, but to let the youth know the immense consequences of a murder. So, they enlisted the help of four unusual experts: convicted murderers serving sentences at the Stillwater prison.
The four men, Adoniyah Israel, Joseph Spann, Leon Perry, and Vava Kuaddafi, all young and black, appeared with City Council member Don Samuels and Urban League president Clarence Hightower via video satellite uplink, and shared sometimes chilling, sometimes moving stories about their crimes, prison life, and the conditions that led to their incarceration.
While common threads emerged—all four were raised by single parents, all four were involved with gangs—the individual stories had the most power.
Kuaddafi, 38, says that of his 23 years in Minnesota, he spent 21 years in prison. He said that he’d been molested as a boy and that he merely wanted to “inflict pain, like it was done to me. I knew it was wrong, but someone had to pay for my pain…Gang life, that was my religion, and that’s how I lived,” he said.
Others recounted long idle periods and lack of supervision that led to an urge to do something, which often turned a crime.
Perry, 34, recalls endless hours he spent as a youth at North Commons’ Hospitality House. He said, “No one asked why we hung out there all day.”
Spann,30, said he was “a follower… a people pleaser.” His older brother was his role model. But when the brother stopped crimes, “I kept on going…. that led me to here.”
“Being poor, not having much, you want things: excitement, to be known, a reputation, to be popular.”
And Israel, 35, who lamented “ a lot of times these kids are out there raising themselves,” said that he was “carried away with the hype and glamour of things.”
All four men, who were repeatedly commended for coming out, said that they are in a better position to warn the youth of the menaces in the street.
Israel: “Parents: listen to young people about how they want to spend time. Figure out what’s important to these kids—ask them—and work from there. “
Kuaddafi: “Interrupt isolation. Don’t be angry. I was angry and arrogant person.”
Spann: “Know you’ve a purpose in life. Learn how to listen.”
Perry: Focus. Come up with a vision. Know God.”
That last statement drew a round of applause and “hallelujahs!”
The men said they often think—and express remorse—about their victims. Israel stabbed his girlfriend to death. Spann and Kuaddafi killed grocery clerks during separate robberies. Perry murdered an acquaintance in a parked car.
”Mending the nest”
The program was labeled “Mending the Nest,” a monthly discussion hosted by the Urban League. It was started by Urban League president Clarence Hightower after 16-year-old Courtney Brown was murdered over a sports jersey he was wearing.
The aim is to cut the homicide rate in half in 2007, reduce the number of African Americans going to prison by 20 percent, and increase the number of African American youth enrolled in both summer employment programs and post-secondary education.
Boise Jones, project manager at Pillsbury United Communities entrepreneur training program, said that 35 percent of those released from prison end up back in jail, not because they re-offend, but because they can’t meet the basic conditions of parole—to find stable work and housing within 30 to 60 days of release. His formula—“Increase opportunity, decrease crime”—would focus on these “institutional barriers” that prevent smooth reintegration for former prisoners.
Todd Barnes, a consultant with the Urban League, said that the purpose of the discussion was “high drama.”
“It’s how do you stop people from pulling the trigger.”
The message, he said, is a sense of hope: “Listen, process, come to the table when you’ve issues.”
Looking around the room, the mostly African American crowd was filled with familiar faces: Al Flowers, Spike Moss, Rev. Jerry McAfee, councilmember Betsy Hodges and MAD DADs founder VJ Smith, organizer James Everett, and Kim Ellison.
[This story was cowritten with Abdi Aynte for Minnesota Monitor. Image: Joseph Spann addresses the audience as MAD DADS members look on.]