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In or Out Of the Game?
"These guys are conditioned to have this hard exterior, to lash out at their families, their girlfriends, us at CSOSA," said Atkinson. "Once you strip it bare, you find out these are grown men who've experienced a lot of pain in their lives. They don't know how to process it. All they know is how to act out. It's a sad cycle."
On the week after Thanksgiving, Atkinson held one of his regular rap sessions. The black men sitting around the room had been car thieves, armed robbers, drug dealers and drug users. Atkinson wasted no time. "Why are 75 percent of the people in this room not doing anything to search for valid employment?"
The answers: Employers don't return phone calls, most are biased against job candidates with criminal records, "I'm not going to Wendy's. I got three kids." Atkinson was having none of it. He admonished one guy for his inability to utter a sentence without cursing and another for dressing sloppily for an interview.
One young offender challenged Atkinson with a proposal. Why not try to find them jobs that valued skills they learned on the streets? "People steal cars, they could be an engineer," the young offender said. "People used to rob, they could be an accountant because they know money. A lot of us sold drugs, whatever, we might have potentials being a pharmacist."
The room erupted in laughter, though the young offender saw nothing funny in his logic. Maybe there could be apprenticeships in these fields, he reasoned. Atkinson just shook his head.
James had been in the session, too, sitting in the back, as cantankerous as any offender. The terms of his supervision -- "intensive level" because of his history and the risks authorities thought he posed -- required him to report to Taylor Street almost daily, to undergo drug testing twice a week, to be closely monitored by his community supervision officer, eight contacts a month.
"It's like the homeless," said James. "You are free, but you ain't free."
One afternoon after a group counseling session, he and another seasoned offender, Kenneth Williams, got to talking. They had been eyeing each other and finally discovered that they had attended the District's Garnet-Patterson Middle School together. Reminiscing with Williams seemed to unlock some happiness stored inside of James. A smile replaced his scowl. "You remember Miss Brown? Miss Mack?" James proudly mentioned he had been in the gifted-and-talented program as a seventh-grader, the last shining moment of his schooling. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade and continued his education in the streets, and it wasn't long before the conversation drifted toward more familiar territory.
James pulled up his shirt, displaying some of the scars from taking 10 bullets. Williams said he, too, had been shot, seven times by three men as he sat in a car outside of an after-hours liquor house in South Carolina. In fact, that was the second time he had been a shooting victim. A former drug dealer and fugitive on 10 years' parole, Williams, 36, had served time in Lorton and also at the high-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. "That was a vicious joint," he said. James seemed impressed by Williams's credentials.
He was now back in full hustler mode. "Out here in the street, everything come to you," James explained to an onlooker. Money, women, cars, notoriety. "You get the same publicity as being a movie star. . . . Everything but asking for your autograph." And then he thought for a moment, as if to leave no detail of hustlerdom unglorified. "In fact, I had dudes tell me it's an honor to hang with me."
Williams, though, was not about talk for bluster's sake. He wanted to impart knowledge. He remembered once in prison, a young thug from Southeast had asked him: "What's the Smithsonian?" All the other inmates laughed at him, but they didn't know the answer, either. Here was Williams's knowledge for the day: He told James to be on the look out for police cars outfitted with special radar that can detect a gun inside a car.
"You really think they can do that?" James asked, surprised.
Go see the movie, "Deja Vu," Williams urged, to understand the technological reach of law enforcement. "They can see through your house."
James was worried now. "That's got to be an issue with rights."
Williams shook his head. "Nah, man, that's the Patriot Act. You know what they doing to the Hispanics with that immigration thing? They can do that to us. That's all the Patriot Act is, so the government can do what it wants."
James seemed to be absorbing it all as he left. "I can learn a lot from this dude, man."
* * *
"Addiction" to Hustling
In his aunt's Brentwood apartment there is a room in the back where A.J. keeps mementos. He opens a plastic bag -- a DVD player, a blender, surround-sound speakers. A hustler's swag. "That's what I'm trying to tell you, the doors that open. There are a lot of things that make hustling more appealing than a job." He pulls out a photo album, nothing but fine, skimpily clad women. He pops a videotape into the VCR, , a tame, home version of "Girls Gone Wild," featuring A.J. and friends. There's a knock at the back door, which A.J. opens. He is handed a $20 bill, shuts the door. He returns to the living room. Hustling, he says, "is an addiction."
That addiction has caused a lot of harm. Annually, more than 90 percent of all D.C. homicide victims and suspects are black. In 2005, 67 percent of those slain in the District were black men ages 18 to 34. A.J. contemplates the statistics, briefly. He is asked if he's remorseful for the violence he committed. "Yeah, most definitely. A lot of these dudes were from the same neighborhood, you grew up with them." But his is qualified remorse. "If it was somebody who shot at me or killed somebody I loved, I feel a sense of achievement, to be honest with you. Violence begets violence."
He begins to talk about honor, the code of "the game," as he sees it. "You got some dudes who don't have morals and principles," one of which is: Don't try to be a gangster out in the streets and then go behind the closed doors of an interrogation room and snitch. "I forgave a person who shot me. But I'll never forgive a person who tells on me." That person is trying to put him in jail, as he sees it, intrude on his livelihood, take him from his family. "So that's how I justify killing rats."
During a stint in prison, he drew closer to God, he said, and when he returned home, people said he had gone soft. "I fear God. If I didn't fear God, I would have probably killed 100 men." What would God say about his behavior? "I believe God understands." He did what he had to do, A.J. says, because he was in a game that required it. "To me, it's no difference than the American soldiers fighting over in Iraq. You look up what civil war means. You're in a civil war, it's either you kill him or he kills you."
Someone knocks on the front door. A.J. tells him to come back later. The voice on the other side of the door asks when can he return. A.J. grows more insistent and never opens the door. Just come back later, he shouts from inside the apartment. "Later" means later. It seems clear that a demand for his time is building. Someone in the street is calling for him. He pulls the curtain open, peeks outside the window, sits back down.
"You tell yourself you're going to make $10,000 and get out. You always think you're going to do it differently," he says. But even if you don't repeat the mistakes of others, you have to worry about "some other dumb ass who's going to [expletive] it up."
As evening descends, the apartment grows darker. The ceiling light is broken, and there is just the shadow on the wall from the television picture. A.J. thinks back to prison and the contradictions of his lifestyle. How do you explain wars between rivals who live one street apart, when those animosities dissipated so quickly after everyone got locked up? "In jail, we're all Brentwood. But out in the streets we can't get together. Ain't that crazy? You think about the mindset of that. It's crazy how we divide ourselves." He took it further. You go to prison in another city, say Atlanta, and all the inmates in D.C. stick together. "Why can't we use this blueprint to squash all the beefs in the street?"
A.J.'s prescriptions for society are difficult for him to apply to his own life. Every time his mind inches toward embracing the legitimate world's notion of fairness and justice, something happens that shakes him up. And then his mind is back in the streets.
On Dec. 2, his half brother, 43-year-old Tracy U. Richardson, was stabbed to death in a fight behind a liquor store in the Eastover Shopping Center on Indian Head Highway near the District line. An Oxon Hill man, 50-year-old Eddie D. Roberson, turned himself in and was charged with first-degree murder.
"I would have rather him stayed on the street -- and get some street justice . . . I'm very upset that I can't do nothing about it," A.J. says. "I'm very upset that this dude took the sucker way out and turned himself in. I'm mad and angry."
* * *
Hoping for a New Start
The wake for Tracy Richardson on Dec. 8 was crammed. Gathering at the Dunn & Sons Funeral Services on Eads Street in Northeast, those who knew him celebrated how he had lived -- singing with the Mighty Stroker Band, playing guitar, remaining a loyal Cowboys fan in a Redskins town. His casket was open. Friends and family moved in close, touched his forehead, kissed him goodbye. After the songs and the prayers, the floor was open for testimonials.
Speaking first, Sean Morgan pleaded for reconciliation. He worked at the liquor store near the stabbing. He loved Richardson, and he saw his death as a cautionary tale. "When you do things in excess, black folks, this is what happens," he said, pointing to the casket. "It ain't about no revenge. Leave the knives and guns at home." He was sobbing now. "It ain't nothing about no revenge thing. It's a wake-up call."
A.J. didn't see it that way. Many had mentioned how close Richardson was to his father, who had married A.J.'s mother, who was no longer living. A.J., when he took the floor, spoke of Richardson's character. Richardson was not in the game. He didn't deserve to go out like this. "What I got to say ain't appropriate at this time," he began. He had decided he would not sully the occasion by talking about retribution. "Thank God for the guy who turned himself in, believe that," he told the assembled. What A.J. was struggling with was how did such a good man get killed. A lot of times at funerals, he noted, people tell flattering lies about the dead. "I'm not a good guy," A.J. said, "I'll tell you that. . . . But I can't imagine anybody would want to kill this guy. Worked every day. Ain't out there. Nobody has to lie about this guy."
He was the kind of guy A.J. was still hoping to become.
Staff writer Henri Cauvin and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.