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Beyond Tru Life’s Arrest: Growing Fears of a Violent Summer

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In the trendy bars and restaurants along Avenue B, last week’s arrest of Lower East Side rapper Roberto Rosado (aka “Tru Life”) was barely noticed if it was noticed at all. The Times and the Daily News ran their obligatory stories– only on account of “Tru Life’s” one-time status as protégé of rap music mogul Jay Z. But a few steps away down 13th Street, inside the Campos Plaza Housing Project, the story was anything but trivial. Street-smart kids, moms and youth counselors all knew the violence that had erupted a few days earlier was a bad omen, at the start of a long, tense summer.

It would be easy to dismiss the events of the past two weeks as an isolated incident, the conclusion of a long-simmering argument between a hot-tempered rapper and some guys from the neighborhood. But it’s become clear that they hint at much larger problems: a pattern of escalating violence, a burgeoning drug trade and the prospect of a full-blown gang war.

Here’s what we know.  “Tru Life,” is being held without bail on Rikers Island, having pled not guilty to charges of second- degree murder and gang assault in connection with a knife fight that ended in the murder of a 20-year old man, Christopher Guerrero.  Tru Life’s brother, Marcus Rosado, and, possibly, two other men are also being held.  Police believe the trouble began hours earlier at a Midtown nightclub, where gunfire erupted and a suspected drug dealer, Michael Slater, was shot in the stomach. There are many conflicting accounts of what happened. But it seems clear the night’s violence was fueled by a bitter feud among rival drug gangs based in New York’s housing projects. The tensions have apparently been escalating since the early spring, perhaps even earlier.

At a recent community meeting the NYPD acknowledged they’ve seen an up tick of violence in the neighborhood.  But they resisted suggestions that they have an “organized gang problem” on their hands. Captain Edward Britton, responsible for policing 23 housing developments and 40-thousand residents, emphasized that violent crime is still quite low, historically speaking. But some mothers in attendance made it clear a series of incidents over several months have them more than a little worried.  These include the pursuit of a teen by men in SUV’s brandishing guns, a shootout on Clinton Street and a murder last year at Campos Plaza.

Reports of increasing violence are not new.  Late last year, residents demanded more police protection after several shootings at the Alfred E. Smith Houses.  Community newspapers and blogs have taken note of several violent episodes at Tompkins Square Park.  Police have been investigating the death of a woman who was reportedly attacked in the park two months ago.  While they’re not convinced she was murdered, some park regulars believe a major gang in the area, the Money Boyz, was responsible.

There have apparently been high-level meetings at Police Headquarters to discuss how to confront the gang issue. In the aftermath of a bloody fight between two teens that ended at a pizza shop on 14th Street, a NYPD mobile command van is now stationed on 1st Avenue. City Councilman Alan Gerson has asked community groups, including the Chinatown YMCA, to plan new activities for kids in the neighborhood this summer.  Captain Britton told residents Police are cracking down, evicting trouble-makers from the projects, stepping up surveillance. There’s a growing sense in the community that the Police may be reverting to a strategy they used successfully in the late 90’s. Over a period of a few months, they arrested hundreds of people, wiping out several notorious drug gangs.  As a result, the crime rate plummeted.

But even as the streets became safer, gentrification swept across “Alphabet City” and the northern section of the LES was re-branded the “East Village,” many of the underlying problems remained.  As one mother put it, “Everything looks pretty on the outside but looks aren’t everything.”  One afternoon last week, two teens told us about their reality, growing up in the shadow of those new million dollar apartments.

After dropping out of school and being busted for dealing drugs, one of these kids is now trying to get his GED. But with no parental supervision and no job, the lure of dealing drugs is powerful: sell three packs of marijuana — pocket 100 bucks.  In comparison, a minimum wage job, if he could get one, isn’t all that appealing. But at the same time he knows plenty of guys from “the hood” who have paid a high price for dealing– in the form of a long prison sentence or even death. When these two talk about going to “the island” or “upstate” they don’t mean a weekend at the beach.  One of the few positive influences in their lives comes from outside the neighborhood.

Jeffry Solomon, a school psychologist in the Bronx, comes to the hood several nights a week. You can usually find him on the basketball court or just hanging out at Campos Plaza.  He’s taken an interest in the lives of dozens of kids– planning recreational activities, helping them find educational programs or simply listening to their problems.  Jeff used to work at the Boys’ Club on 10th Street. In 2003, he helped transition the staff from another Boys’ Club location on Pitt Street, which was shut down. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar story in this neighborhood. One by one, community centers have closed their doors, leaving teens with nowhere to go after school or in the summer. David Soto, the youth director at Campos Plaza, has managed to keep the center there open, but due to severe budget cuts, there’s hardly any money to plan programs and activities.

Moms, youth counselors and teens are all in agreement that the violence many fear will sweep through the LES this summer could be prevented, or at least reduced, if there was a safe place for kids to go, diversions to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. There’s optimism about the initiative from Councilman Gerson’s office, but also frustration that the problem is only being addressed at the margins. Like so many issues in Lower Manhattan, there’s very little coordination among elected officials and social service organizations to come up with unified approaches.   One community organizer said the Police would not allow the violence to spin out of control, “not in this (gentrified) neighborhood.” But longtime LES residents are dismayed at the prospect of throwing another generation of kids in prison. While there is widespread support for the NYPD’s crackdown, there’s also a strong feeling that attacking the core problems: the cycle of poverty, the lack of opportunity, the absence of parental supervision and the dearth of activities is the only real way this neighborhood will ever see long-lasting peace.

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