Carlos Williams will always remember three bullets. The first one entered his hip on June 3, 1992, landing him in the E.R. on his 18th birthday. The second was 28 years later, on the eve of his 46th birthday, which hit Williams while he retrieved his mail at home in Garfield Heights, Ohio—a supposed stray shot. The third one, in June of 2015, took the life of his 16-year-old son Michael.
“That’s the one that hurt the most,” he says.
Williams, 48, is a veteran violence interrupter with the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, a nonprofit violence prevention program born in 2009 to combat the city’s rising homicides, specifically among Black male teens. Localizing a community involvement philosophy rooted in anti-gun advocate Aquil Basheer’s 'Peace In The Hood,' Peacemakers’ 16 case managers, staff and outreach workers like Williams spend as many as seven days a week attempting to stymie the city’s staggering homicide rates. The Covid pandemic has made this nearly impossible: Cleveland’s murder count is set to reach its highest rate since 1972 (when there were 333 killed) at a time when the Peacemakers are at their lowest staffing level: A decade ago, two dozen Peacemakers interrupters patrolled the city’s 72 square miles; today, when there’s nearly 10 shootings per week, they only have six.
Cleveland’s not alone. Columbus, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—pretty much every major American city—all surpassed 2019’s homicide rate numbers in 2020, and are set to do it again in 2021. Spikes are so bad in some cities that activists are pushing for emergency orders. Public safety has become the No. 1 issue for many Cleveland mayoral candidates. On June 15, a week before 11 people were shot in a single day in Cleveland, 28 U.S. mayors wrote to President Biden in a plea for a multifaceted approach to get illegal guns off the streets. A week later, Biden echoed the alarm: $350 million of American Rescue Plan funds, he said, would be given to cities to hire back desensitized police officers and refund violence interrupters, “to help resolve these issues before they escalate into crime.”
But interrupters face a murder epidemic that may not be solved by “positive” loitering, participant house calls or after school visits. Myesha Crowe, the Peacemakers’ executive director, believes that a mixture of Zoom schooling, stimulus check spending, high-stakes unemployment and social media overuse has amplified conflict in low-income Black neighborhoods. Conflicts, essentially, they can’t reach.
“It goes right from social media to the blocks,” she said. “It’s cliques that say, ‘Oh you said this on Facebook, so when I see you in the streets, you’re gonna get shot.’”
For Williams, the current national 16 percent rise in firearm homicides isn’t an excuse to brandish fear. The son of a G&L steelman originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Williams escaped the gang life of his teen years after a string of breaking and entering offenses. His youth was a sort of contradiction: “I was a church boy on Sunday, a gangster on Monday,” he says. In 2010, he was hired by the Peacemakers in his mid-thirties, a decade his teenage self never thought he’d live to see. With his shaved head, wide aviators, silver earrings, and graying beard, Williams has the grizzled veteran of Cleveland down to a T. “You have to keep one foot in the street, and one foot in your work,” Williams says. “That’s how I keep kids listening. It’s not, ‘OK man, you been through, get out the way.’ I need some leeway to get to them—or they don’t listen.”
But the Catch-22 has tested both Crowe’s leadership and the outreach workers like Williams she’s attempting to run on a shoestring budget, compared to a decade ago: How can we get through to kids, and their guns, when we can’t even get to them in the first place?
Ibe Cobbs and Tasha Miles were doing usual outreach rounds in June, hanging up fliers at an American Food Mart on West 80th and Detroit Ave. when they heard a man shouting. Cobbs, a two-year veteran of the Peacemakers and single mother of two, was showing Miles the ropes. Both had sons at home that were always at the forefront in their minds.
“My son cried to me the other day. 'You work so much, all you do is work. And when you come home, you're tired,’” Cobbs says, sitting on a leather couch inside the locked-in lobby of the Peacemakers’ headquarters on Broadway Avenue. “And I tell him, I'm not physically tired, I'm mentally tired.”
At the American Food Mart on Detroit Ave., the two women launched into protocol. They confronted the shouting man who was resisting orders to calm down by Cleveland Police already on the scene. “We were letting him know that we’re not trying to arrest him,” Miles recalled. But the man, who was complaining about the arrest of his girlfriend, wouldn’t stop hollering, Cobbs says, and his unrestrained escalation worried her: Did he have a firearm? Would he be willing to use it? And most importantly, Why did it seem that they were more effective than the police?
Fortunately, their training, which has thumbs-up approval from Aquil Basheer himself, proved to be a boon during the CPD’s own year of difficulty. (Cleveland.com reported that detectives had only solved 42 percent of homicides in 2020.)
“They do their business, and we do ours,” Cobbs says. “Our goal is to not have anyone go to jail.”
“Or get shot,” Miles says.
Still, fewer patrol officers and Peacemakers on the streets signals the possibility of immunity for criminals. “They know that certain crimes, they're not going to get punished for. They're going to get a slap on the wrist,” Cobbs says, smacking her open forearm. “I feel as though they kinda work the system.”
For Myron Phillips, a violence interrupter since 2016, the concern about growing gun ownership among Facebook cliques is a pendulum swing between Gen Z masculinity and social media stiff-arming. (The latter, he says, “is a brain of its own, we can’t stop it.”) The social isolation and low school attendance of 2020, to him, was a ticking bomb for boys tempted by the precarious purpose of ganghood. As he made his rounds checking backpacks or backseats in the past 15 months, Phillips noticed a more intense need for high schoolers or twenty-somethings to out-do others in the realm of firepower. The result is a mutually-assured arming: If he’s strapped, I have to be strapped, too. “Man, I’ve seen AK-47s, I've seen AR-15s, I’ve seen .40 cals with 30-round clips on it,” he says. “They got them to have them. All because they saying they got beef, that a lot of blood’s been shed.”
Formerly-incarcerated like Williams, Phillips had a similar come-to-Jesus moment in recent years. He made the mistake early on in his Peacemakers career of “wearing his heart on his sleeve,” allowing himself to get too emotionally protective of teens he mentored, what the Peacemakers call “participants.” (Today, they have about 85 open cases, sourced mostly from juvenile or adult court.) In July of 2019, Phillips began mentoring a 16-year-old named Ta’Zhon Greenwood, a baseball and basketball wiz who’d been placed on the Glenville Recreation Center’s banned list after he was caught showing off a handgun to a friend. Phillips was unflappable; he told Glenville Rec employees if he turned Greenwood around, they should allow him to use the facilities. “They said, ‘You have six months.’ I said okay.”
Phillips went through the usual Y.M.C.A.-like protocol of Peacemaker outreach: He led Ta’Zhon through de-escalation training and even driver’s ed after Greenwood had been taunted by newly formed neighborhood gang, and had been sent to live with his mom Janetta Burkes and brother Ta’Vhon. “I’d take him home with me, introduce him to my wife, my two-year-old daughter, and show him my jail pictures,” Phillips says. “Show him what life could be.” After a year-and-a-half, Phillips’ mentorship proved worthwhile: Not only did Greenwood’s GPA at the Ginn Academy rise to a 4.5, but he had been accepted into a two-year internship at Lincoln Electric, and had been promised a full-time job after his graduation, despite the test of the pandemic’s virtual obstacles.
On June 2, 2020, a week before his graduation from Ginn, Greenwood attended a party near East 108th and Elk Ave., a neighborhood his father, Erby Greenwood, said he never permitted Ta’Zhon to go. His curfew was 10 o’clock, Erby said, and Ta’Zhon, being the reformed academic, was used to sticking to it. Instead, at 11:07 that night, Greenwood was found by two Cleveland Police officers unresponsive on the pavement, with three gunshot wounds in his chest and arms. EMS tried to resuscitate him, but to no luck. Twenty-five minutes after officers found him, Greenwood was pronounced dead from an “aggravated murder.” He was one week shy of graduating.
Erby, who immediately offered a $8,000 reward for his son’s killer, believes his son’s death is undeniably resemblant of the times. In the past 13 months, he has not received any responses to his reward, nor any leads “or any suitable reply” from Det. Raymond Diaz, the homicide detective assigned to Greenwood’s case. “I get that they’re busy,” he told me, “but at least tell me something.” Though he commends Phillips for his invaluable mentorship through trying times, he’s still uncertain as to what exactly could have prevented his son’s needless death.
“Was it over money? Drugs? A girl?” Erby speculates. “Yet, it doesn’t matter: I don’t blame the pandemic, I blame whoever killed my son.”
Soon after his 48th birthday, Williams invited me to ride along with him on a weekday drive, a four-hour trip around purported high crime areas of Cleveland, what he calls the heat, as in “wherever we go is the heat.” As we drive down Imperial Ave., near the site of the infamous murders of Anthony Sowell that’s now been turned into greenspace, Williams opens up about the challenges of Covid violence interruption. He stopped watching the news because it’s too depressing; he’s logged about 106,000 miles on his Chevy Equinox, which bumper jumps in disrepair every time he hits a bump in the road.
As we enter Luke Easter Park at East 110th and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, Williams relays the story of his son Michael’s murder. It was 2015, and he’d saved enough money to relocate from his home on Imperial Ave. to the safer Garfield Heights, wanting “to be in a neighborhood where there wasn’t shooting all night long.” After all, he had seven kids, and wanted to provide them some more semblance of safety than he had growing up. Regardless, a bullet from a drive-by shooting found its way to Michael. Although Carlos is still hesitant to talk about it, I ask him how he’s handling the anniversary of his son’s death. He keeps his eyes on the road, and says, “You know how they say crying is taking the clothes to the laundromat? Well, I took out the laundry last night.”
As we drive through Luke Easter, which is lime-green and spacious as any park in Cleveland, Williams points out the usual spots he pulls up on to say hello to loitering teens, hand out business cards, or catch up with friends barbecuing. For a moment or two, the distraught reality of the pandemic-type gun spike melts away to the picture of a clean summer day in the Midwest. I ask Williams if he’s ever scared, pulling up on unsuspecting teenagers, and he says, “All the time.”
“Even in the park?”
“Really?” I say, and ask how many of the park goers around us are carrying.
“About 80 percent,” he says, driving past a baseball diamond. After a moment of silence, Williams explains:
“It’s cause they scared,” he says. “No one knows who is strapped and who is not.”