D.C. crew uses fashion runway as first step toward redemption

January 15, 2012

The masked fashion models marched onto the stage with fists pumping and feet stomping in unison, music blaring, before all 15 crouched in silence. One by one, to the sounds of explosions, they leaped up to share their experiences with rough city life as gang members.

One started stealing cars when she was 13, then lived on the streets and sold drugs before getting locked up for armed robbery at 17. Another had been sexually abused and raped. One was neglected by parents who were addicted to crack cocaine.

Over the auditorium’s loudspeakers came a booming voice: “We were being bullied and we had enough, so we united and fought back. Sometimes we would even be the aggressor.”

The young men and women are members of Check It, a gay crew that started in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast, and its sister gang, Unexpected. Including as many as 100 members and associates from across the city and Prince George’s County, the crews have gained reputations for menacing the Gallery Place neighborhood by engaging in melees, robberies, purse snatchings and shoplifting, according to police.

But on Saturday night, Check It and Unexpected members tried to show a different side to their personalities by hosting “Fashion Transformation,” a fashion show at the D.C police department’s Boys and Girls Club on Shepherd Street NW, where they unveiled their own T-shirt designs and showed off their modeling talents and dance moves.

The 90-minute show was a first effort toward reformation and redemption for the two crews.

Since forming a decade ago, Check It has become a surrogate family for many, much like other crews and gangs. Members share similar identities, and the group gives the homeless a place to lay their heads, the hungry a place to eat, sometimes loans money and simply provides a community to which they can belong.

The family also will throw hands to defend its members. “If one fights, we all fight,” Tayron Bennett, 21, said.

Three months ago, Bennett returned to Trinidad after six months in jail for assault and robbery. While looking for a job, he spent his free time working on the fashion show and designs.

Travon Warren moved to the Trinidad neighborhood because Check It has become his life. He acknowledges that the group has been involved in many dangerous scrapes, but he said the gang’s actions have been primarily in self-defense.

“We don’t depend on the police, period,” he said.

Saturday, Warren took the microphone to tell the audience of more than 200 that Check It has other, perhaps hidden, talents.

“They say we fight all the time,” Warren told the crowd. “We know we can get along with people. We want to do something better. We want people to look at us in positive ways.”

D.C. police are trying to help them do just that.

Assistant Chief Diane Groomes said she met with about 10 leaders of the crew two months ago during a youth summit. She later took them out to eat and asked for a solution to simmering problems. They talked about hopes for long-term employment, and for a starting point, they suggested the fashion show.

“They are regular teenagers with dreams and aspirations, if given the opportunity to do so,” Groomes said.

Groomes offered the space on Shepherd Street for the show, and volunteers, including Peaceaholics founder Ron Moten and activist Patrice Lancaster, met with crew members almost daily. Organizations such as the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and the East of the River Clergy, Police, Community Partnership offered resources and financial support.

The results are the first designs of TurnItUp apparel, a business launched to offer incentives for the crew to stay out of trouble while members work toward lasting success.

Lancaster, who co-produced the show, said she witnessed many of the challenges these youth face. She said they they would show up for practice after eight hours of working at fast-food jobs. Some would have barely eaten all day. One had a court appearance.

Groomes said police haven’t seen any major problems with the crew in the past two months.

The opening skit played on Check It’s violent past. Members, dressed in black leather jackets in an homage to Michael Jackson’s song and video “Beat It,” pretended to throw punches and scuffle on stage. Bennett and his friend Dominic Smith, 20, of Southwest were at the center of the fake combat before proudly strutting down the runway.

Off the stage, the young men know they have real fights ahead — to get GEDs, find jobs, make homes. They have no illusions that one night could completely change them or Check It as a whole.

“I ain’t changing for nobody. I’m still going to be who I am,” Bennett said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to fight, especially if you’re a gay, black male.”

Clarence Williams is the night police reporter for The Washington Post and has spent the better part of 13 years standing next to crime scene tape, riding in police cars or waking officials in the middle of night to gather information about breaking news in and around Washington.
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