Seeking Peace in Providence
In the aftermath of a gang-related murder, a community grapples with how to prevent the next shooting.
The ties that bind the Burney family and the Institute are stronger, still. Juan Carter, director of the streetworker program, was best friends with Burney-Speaks’s late brother. They all grew up in the same neighborhood, and he looks at Burney-Speaks like an older sister. Carter’s work at the Institute is informed by BJ’s murder, as well as the shooting deaths of two other good friends. He says the night Devin died felt like déjà vu.
“I know it’s not realistic to think I can save everybody, but Devin being so close…. There was some guilt there, some self-blame,” he says.
Carter says Devin’s life on the street was short-lived, due to his time on Long Island.
“After he came back to Providence, people were being killed. One of his best friends was killed, Kevin Mann. Douglas Cooper was also killed,” he says.
Eighteen-year-old Cooper was killed by police during a gang shootout in 2014 in Providence’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Mann, twenty-two, was murdered in 2015 outside of a hookah bar on Allens Avenue in Washington Park. Both were affiliated with Triple C, an alliance of neighborhood gangs that includes Comstock and Clown Town in upper South Providence and Chad Brown in the Wanskuck neighborhood on the North End.
“I think it was just bad timing for Devin,” says Carter. “If you put yourself around negative energy, it’s going to consume you. And I think that’s what happened.”
When Devin returned to Providence in 2014, he enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island, then transferred to Johnson and Wales for business administration. But Burney-Speaks caught him smoking pot in the house, and she kicked him out. He stayed with friends, and his studies suffered. He failed out of college.
“When he wasn’t able to do those things, I think it just took him off this path of what he really wanted to do,” Carter says.
Carter took some time off from the Institute after Devin’s death. But the streetworker program is leaner than ever; it needed him back. The Institute is supported by private donations, grants, state funds and contributions from Pawtucket and Providence. In 2009, when Carter was first hired, the nonprofit staffed seventeen streetworkers in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, which all have persistent gang problems. But in 2010, the federal government deemed Rhode Island a safe state and funding for the program was cut. Carter now functions with eight streetworkers between three cities.
The work has changed over Carter’s tenure, too. Social media keeps feuds alive longer than ever before.
“We call the phones ‘the block,’ ” he says. “That’s where you find the young men involved. You won’t find them on the street anymore.”
It makes nonviolence work difficult. You can sit two rivals down for a face-to-face conversation, but there’s another conversation happening in the comments section of Facebook Live or in rap videos on YouTube.
“I wish it was the days when guys were hanging out on the street corners,” Carter says. “But would we have more shootings? In the case of our work, it would be easier to find them.”
Streetworkers still prioritize facetime with young men in gangs, and they have plenty to offer them. The Institute hosts an internship program and has connections to apprenticeships and job opportunities across the state.
If a young man is connected with a job and decides he wants to leave gang life behind, the Institute’s streetworkers can pass the message along to his rivals. But if he’s still hanging out with the same crew, it sends a mixed message.
“What happens when you’re with those friends and you see these guys? This is Providence, so it’s going to happen. Are you gonna break tough? Are you going to try to stop it? It can become complicated,” Carter says. “We’ve had people tell us, specifically, that this nonviolence stuff is going to get us killed.”
Devin got off his path, and he was murdered. His death also spurred the resignation of a young streetworker at the Institute. Fox says the streetworker was friends with Devin, and he found it difficult to balance intervention work with his own grief.
That streetworker’s best friend, who asked to be identified as F., is still involved in the Comstock gang in upper South Providence.
At a Wendy’s on Eddy Street near Rhode Island Hospital, F. asks: “Remember when the whole South Side was cool?”
He’s talking about the rivalry between the Comstock/Clown Town gangs — which collectively go by Zone 6 — in upper South Providence versus C-Block in lower South Providence.
F. says the 2009 murder of Angelo Camarena, a Clown Town gang member, instigated the South Side feud. Camarena, who was seventeen, was shot and killed during a backyard barbecue. The following week, another seventeen-year-old — this time a member of rival C-Block — was shot and survived.
Both neighborhoods have taken sides in the decades-long war between crews in the Chad Brown public housing complex in the North End and in the Mount Hope neighborhood on the East Side. Zone 6 aligns with Chad Brown; C-Block stands with the East Side, which, according to one advocate, is an “us against the world” cluster of gangs crushed by gentrification in the city’s richest zip code. They’re not alone; gangs proliferate in the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
F., a father of two in his mid-twenties who says he’s the reason Central High School started its day care program, has been shot himself, and spent much of his teen years and early twenties in and out of prison. His most recent stint, for gun possession, fell on the anniversary of Kevin Mann’s death. He talks about his friends winning the championship in the city’s Midnight Basketball League while he was sitting in jail “on that James Patterson,” he says of the mystery books he read to pass time.
Recently, the Institute connected F. with Building Futures, an apprenticeship program that trains participants for careers in the commercial construction industry. He started a job at a warehouse and he’s saving money to pay off his court fines so he can get a driver’s license. F. says he’s beginning to feel like he’s too old for the game. And it’s changed.
“Kids now, they got guns and no money,” he says. “Their moms are hurt; who gonna pay for a lawyer? A public defender is going to get you smoked — going to get you football numbers.”
But the smallness of Providence makes it difficult to walk away.
“You gotta choose a side,” he says, rubbing arms tattooed with the names of his dead friends. “I played the middle but when people start dying, it’s hard.”