"Peace is not a field of flowers. It's hard work"

Despite personal tragedy, Aqeela Sherrills seeks peace on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

Tijn Touber | June 2005 issue

There are seals swimming in the bay in front of the hotel where Aqeela Sherrills is staying. The sun is struggling to chase away threads of mist hanging over the San Francisco hills in the distance. The hotel lobby smells of fresh coffee and pancakes. The sense of serenity that dominates this morning in Tiburon, an upscale town across the bay from San Francisco, in no way resembles the place where Sherrills comes from: a rough gang-dominated district of Los Angeles. In that place, you’re asking for trouble if you hit the street without packing some means of self-defence. It’s estimated that over the past 20 years, at least 10,000 murders have been committed in these Los Angeles neighbourhoods. That’s far more than all the victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
But Sherrills has managed to accomplish what has eluded negotiators in many international conflicts: getting two rival, violent groups to the negotiating table and then making sure that the terms of the ceasefire agreement stick. Ultimately, the Crips and the Bloods signed an honest-to-God peace treaty. Sherrills then created an entire structure involving 80 people dedicated to safeguarding the terms of the treaty and teaching the gang members self-respect and “life skills.” The treaty, signed in 1992, continues for the most part to be upheld and has become an example to other cities. But this is just the beginning for Sherrills. “I expect that the next major peace movement will come from these neighbourhoods,” he says.
The baggy sweater Sherrills wears this morning cannot hide his muscles, important for self-protection as a young man. He doesn’t need to fight today, but his eyes remain watchful. Sherrills is no longer fighting with others, or with himself. He is fighting deeply-ingrained patterns and prejudices: poverty, racism and feelings of inferiority. They are so deeply-rooted that most people don’t see them and even fewer dare to name them. “Black folks hate themselves,” Sherrills says plainly. “And they feel inferior. White folks have been conditioned to feel superior. It’s so deeply rooted that it’s subtle; people don’t even see it most of the time. But it’s there, and it really needs to be addressed.” The problems of violence aren’t limited to American ghettos, they’re everywhere. And if there’s someone who can point out these problems and has found a solution to them, it is Sherrills.
Watts was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Los Angeles when Aqeela Sherrills was born there 35 years ago. The area was split in two by railroad tracks. One side was the territory of the Bloods and the other belonged to the Crips. Conflicts over territory and drugs were fought out on the street using state-of-the-art weapons. Executions and drive-by shootings were daily occurrences. In the early 1980s, Sherrills was just a kid at the time gang violence in American ghettos started to escalate.
Sherrills grew up as the youngest of 10 children surrounded by this horrific backdrop of violence. But in Watts, children never stay young for long. Sherrills had his first son when he was 14. That same year, his best friend, also 14, was shot to death. Sherrills looks back, “I went completely crazy. We wanted revenge and we hit the streets. Fighting. Shooting. Robbing.” By the time he was 16, 13 of his friends had already died in gunfire between the Bloods and the Crips.
The subculture of American gang life is dominated by violence and drugs. But it’s more than that. It is also where fantastic music, dance and clothing styles are created, which have a major impact on global pop culture. Just watching MTV for a half-hour makes it clear that gang culture has become hip. This makes Sherrills laugh. “It’s cool now to say you come from a ghetto. When I was young it wasn’t so cool; most of us wanted to get out as quickly as possible.”
But Sherrills eventually pulled back from the gang life. Fantasy is what saved him. “Together with my brothers and sisters I fantasized a lot about a better world,” he remembers. “My parents weren’t home much and we would tell each other never ending stories. It usually started with a Chinese master who gave us supernatural powers. We used those super powers to make the world a better place. Those stories made me trust, at a young age, that another world was possible and that I could do something about it. I knew I was destined to do something big. I just didn’t know what.”
Sherrills’ oldest sister was the first to get out of the neighbourhood. She was accepted to college and moved on campus. This sister had always been a major inspiration to Sherrills—albeit because she was the one who always told the best stories. With her help, Sherrills also got into college when he was 18, where he studied electrical engineering. It appeared to be his ticket out of the violence in his neighbourhood.
Initially, Sherrills didn’t want to return home, even on weekends. Although he didn’t show too much interest in his studies, he hung around campus. His first year was mostly spent partying and dating lots of girls. But that summer, something happened that changed Sherrills’ life. He read a book entitled The Evidence of Things Not Seen by eminent African American writer James Baldwin. The book describes what Baldwin saw as a plot against black people, involving the shipment of drugs and guns into poor neighbourhoods—with drugs and weapons. “The idea was, Baldwin wrote: let the black people kill each other off. I was furious and wanted to warn my brothers,” Sherrills recalls.
Sherrills joined the Nation of Islam, an American spiritual black separatist movement. When he rejoined his fellow students after the summer, some didn’t recognize him. He had lost 35 pounds (15 kilos) and had given up alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and sex. As befits a devout Muslim, he prayed five times a day. Meanwhile, he began acting as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing money from drug dealers and giving it to the neighbourhood’s poor.
The big task for which Sherrill was destined, started to take shape. He continued to pay little attention to his studies; he wanted instead to go back to the ‘hood” and help his brothers break out of the vicious circle of drugs and violence. Sherrills organized gatherings for fellow students around the theme of defending black rights. He reminded his fellow black students of their roots-–“People died so you could go to college!”—but he didn’t get many to the point of returning to the ghetto they came from. They simply didn’t want to be associated with their old neighbourhood, Sherrills discovered, and he slowly turned bitter.
Sherrills continued to have run-ins with the law and even landed in jail once for physically resisting a police officer who was beating on him. But what transformed Sherrill into a peace activist was not being arrested, joining Islam, or reading Baldwin, but by the love of a woman. “Before my celibacy stint,” he explains, “I had a girlfriend: Lisa. I was crazy about her, but very insecure about myself. I thought I was ugly and couldn’t believe that she really wanted me. I couldn’t handle her love and cheated on her—to break up the relationship and to prove that I was right. But I regretted it so much that for the first time in my life I did something noble: I confessed everything.”
That confession had a miraculous effect. He suddenly saw the world through different eyes. “Before that I didn’t trust anyone,” Sherrills explains. “If things weren’t going well for me there was always someone I could blame. Now I was looking at myself for the first time in my life. It was as if spirit came into me, as if I had become a new person.”
This rebirth gave Sherrills the wings and courage he needed to go into his neighbourhood with a few friends with the aim of making peace. He talked, discussed and listened on every street corner to members of the Crips and the Bloods. That was in 1989. A short time later, Sherrills got help from an American football legend, Jim Brown, who made his house in the Hollywood hills available as a neutral place where members of various gangs could meet. Sherrills looks back on those early days: “We held six meetings involving hundreds of cats from different neighbourhoods. We couldn’t bring off a ceasefire, but relations got better and better.”
Brown was generous enough to donate a monthly sum so that Sherrills and his buddies could rent a retail space and take their activities to the next level. The cooperation with Brown led to the founding of the Amer-I-Can project, which offers a program for “life skills.” Sherrills explains, “Jim had been offering this program to prisoners for awhile. It teaches you to develop self-respect, solve conflicts, create a life vision, make decisions—that kind of thing.” Sherrills followed the program himself and started giving lessons, something he would do for the next 11 years.
Brown’s fame, combined with Sherrills’ street credibility, turned out to be a golden formula for getting the unique peace process off the ground. But it remained a tall order; after all, how do you get young men who consistently confuse the concepts of “forgiveness” and “revenge” to take a seat around a negotiation table? Sherrills: “It’s not magic. It’s a step-by-step process. It’s about communication. I appeal to their deepest feelings. I try to touch their heart, so that each of them can get back in touch with their humanity. This process is based on relationships and cannot be motivated by anything but love. We simply talk about the important things in life: what makes people happy or sad, what are we afraid of, what can we do better? That kind of thing. Again and again it becomes clear that we ultimately believe in the same things.”
In 1992, Sherrills finally sees a breakthrough: the Crips and the Bloods sign a historic treaty. Sherrills describes that amazing day this way: “Everyone was happy, grandmothers were crying, everyone was calling each other, for the first time fathers were able to visit their children on the other side of the railroad tracks… Everyone was so excited. It totally changed the quality of our lives.”
After this success in Los Angeles, there was no stopping the initiative. What started out locally, expanded into an international organization active in 15 cities. At the highpoint of his peace activities, Sherrills’ Community Self-Determination Institute had 80 employees and its budget included $ 3 million U.S. (2.3 million euros) in government subsidies. For three and a half years, he lived like an urban nomad travelling from ghetto to ghetto to initiate peace negotiations and exact a ceasefire. The success of Sherrills’ approach is partly due to the fact that he does more than just treat the symptoms of gang violence. He wants to tackle the problem at its roots. “Violence on the streets is a symptom of a deeper problem,” he notes. “As long as there is poverty, we will never have peace. Poverty destroys families, neighbourhoods, countries.”
Sherrills doesn’t see the problems of violence and despair as confined to gang areas. “In fact there is no difference between what goes on in Watts or in Beverly Hills. The emotional pain that people experience is expressed in Watts by murder and in Beverly Hills by suicide.” Sherrills then reveals a staggering statistic: “Last year there were more suicides than murders in greater Los Angeles.”
Sherrills shifts effortlessly between street slang and clearly formulated spiritual and political statements. His charismatic energy is both tough and loving. You can just as easily imagine him both on a street corner in the ghetto and in a meeting with top level government officials.
Sherrills’ approach works, in part because he speaks the language of the street. “I honestly love my neighbourhood and my brothers,” he remarks. “There is so much beauty, so much talent. Sometimes in the roughest places, you find the most beauty. Aside from the violence, there are few other places in California where you find so much sense of community. That gang feeling is a part of it; it was always there, even before the violence escalated. A gang is like a kind of surrogate family. For young men, fighting is a way to be initiated. You can’t give up a gang without replacing it with something else. You have to keep them intact and help the members start living according to new values.”
The problem Sherrills runs into time and time again is the marginalization and criminalization of gang members. “The word ”gang member” is a way of dehumanizing someone. When someone gets killed people say: “Oh well, it was a gang member.” But that gang member was someone’s son, friend or loved one. The perception is that people in these neighbourhoods are hardened against this type of grief. That’s not true. They are deeply wounded and use this way to express it.”
Nearly everyone in South Central Los Angeles is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress, Sherrills believes. “We have got to address our own illnesses. How? You have to take a step back and look at the issue from a more fundamental perspective. In order to be able to do that, the heart has to be bust open. We try to do everything in life to keep our hearts from being broken. But there is so much beauty in having a broken heart –-there’s pain, but you discover things in yourself that you never thought about before.”
And then in 2004 came the horrible test of Sherrills’ beliefs. His oldest son, 18-year-old Terrell Sherrills, is shot while on vacation visiting his father in Watts. Terrell had gone out to a party with a friend, and around midnight a few gang members arrive. Terrell is shot in the back and dies a short time later in the hospital.
“Terrell led a peaceful life,” says Sherrills. “He didn’t have anything to do with gang violence. He was in college and was very popular—and not only with the girls. He came with me sometimes when I did my work. It was a huge blow.”
He falls silent for a moment, showing that none of us can ever defend ourselves against this pain. No one gets used to murder.
Sherrills says he had no choice but to choose love over revenge. “It’s not about who killed my son, but what killed him: a culture with no respect for life. I am not surrendering his life to death, but reclaiming it and giving it new meaning.”
The man who killed Terrell has not yet been caught. When that happens, Sherrills wants to talk with him and his parents. “I want to ask them what kind of pain drove the guy to commit this act. When did he become disillusioned? Where did it go wrong? Of course, my son’s killer deserves to be punished, but mainly I want to keep him alive. I want to invest in him towards a better future for us all. My dream is still that children can grow up in Watts safely and without fear.”
The main problem the United States is struggling with is that it is a country built around violence, according to Sherrill. “We can be angry with George Bush, but he’s doing just what his predecessors did. We have to wake up to our culture. We have killed millions of indigenous people. Our foreign policy still means death for millions around the world. We can say Bush is evil, but we are evil. We are trapped in a culture based on revenge.”
Sherrills sees the same thing in his neighbourhood of Watts. The treaty continues to be upheld, but not without problems and obstacles. Sherrill says, “When two brothers have problems with each other, everyone joins forces to take revenge. The treaty is broken!, they shout. But I say: ”Wait a minute: a certain person has a problem with someone else. That’s their problem, not all of ours.” I believe that conflicts are healthy, but you have to learn to deal with them in a constructive way.”
“Peace is a process, not a destination,” Sherrills continues. “Peace is not a utopian field of flowers you parade through together. It’s hard work. Sometimes the peacemakers lose their lives. The point is that we continually return to the peace talks and solve the problems. And we’re getting one step closer all the time.”
Sherrills’ work in various U.S. cities has made him an authority. Not only in the eyes of government officials and peace organizations, but gang members as well. It’s becoming increasingly easy to go into problem areas and start peace negotiations. Sherrills: “We’ve been given a kind of carte blanche to go into the neighbourhoods. Within a few days we have an idea of who is playing what role in the community and what’s going on. Then we make contact with the key figures to reach a ceasefire.”
When the peace treaty in Watts had been in place, and mostly followed, for 10 years, Sherrills launched a 10-year plan entitled The Passage to Peace to completely put an end to gang violence. “We appointed key figures in neighbourhoods to keep the peace in their community. We make people responsible for their own neighbourhood, for their own problems. I say: ‘I don’t want to move to a better neighbourhood. This is a better neighbourhood.’ Instead of seeing it as a ghetto, we have to see the beauty and the potential. We have to get together; then we have a chance.”
Sherrills conveys that same message at conferences and seminars where he is invited to speak. “Whether it’s environment movements, peace movements or cultural creative movements, they all want the same thing: respect for life. My suggestion would be to get together and create one big movement I would call Reverence Movement. After all, the violence we inflict on ourselves and one another is the same violence we are using to destroy the planet. If every movement continues to treat the symptoms, we won’t get anywhere. We’re only wasting time and energy.”
“We have to create a culture where authentic emotions are allowed to be expressed. That would create a real release. If the head of the Los Angeles police department would apologize for the injustice we have suffered under the guise of justice, it would create a landslide. If George Bush would apologize for the slavery in this country, it would give so much release. You can only conquer hate with love.”
The hotel lobby has now filled up with people coming to attend the conference in which Sherrills is participating. Every few minutes someone gives him a hug. The conference is set to begin. We’ve only spent one morning together, but it feels like a couple of days. For Sherrills, this intense solidarity has become a way of life. He has learned that every meeting can be the last and that every strong connection between people can set something major in motion. The meetings he has are seldom informal. There is usually a lot at stake. The intensity of his presence can mean the difference between forgiveness and revenge, between war and peace.
Outside, the seals are still swimming happily. The wisps of fog hanging over San Francisco in the distance have cleared. The impressive Golden Gate bridge sparkles in the sun, a symbol of American accomplishment. This is a country where newcomers founded a culture that became an example to the world—a model of freedom, democracy and limitless possibilities. Aqeela Sherrills stands squarely in that American tradition. He, too, is working to establish a new culture—a culture promoting reverence for life.
 

Solution News Source

"Peace is not a field of flowers. It's hard work"

Despite personal tragedy, Aqeela Sherrills seeks peace on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

Tijn Touber | June 2005 issue

There are seals swimming in the bay in front of the hotel where Aqeela Sherrills is staying. The sun is struggling to chase away threads of mist hanging over the San Francisco hills in the distance. The hotel lobby smells of fresh coffee and pancakes. The sense of serenity that dominates this morning in Tiburon, an upscale town across the bay from San Francisco, in no way resembles the place where Sherrills comes from: a rough gang-dominated district of Los Angeles. In that place, you’re asking for trouble if you hit the street without packing some means of self-defence. It’s estimated that over the past 20 years, at least 10,000 murders have been committed in these Los Angeles neighbourhoods. That’s far more than all the victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
But Sherrills has managed to accomplish what has eluded negotiators in many international conflicts: getting two rival, violent groups to the negotiating table and then making sure that the terms of the ceasefire agreement stick. Ultimately, the Crips and the Bloods signed an honest-to-God peace treaty. Sherrills then created an entire structure involving 80 people dedicated to safeguarding the terms of the treaty and teaching the gang members self-respect and “life skills.” The treaty, signed in 1992, continues for the most part to be upheld and has become an example to other cities. But this is just the beginning for Sherrills. “I expect that the next major peace movement will come from these neighbourhoods,” he says.
The baggy sweater Sherrills wears this morning cannot hide his muscles, important for self-protection as a young man. He doesn’t need to fight today, but his eyes remain watchful. Sherrills is no longer fighting with others, or with himself. He is fighting deeply-ingrained patterns and prejudices: poverty, racism and feelings of inferiority. They are so deeply-rooted that most people don’t see them and even fewer dare to name them. “Black folks hate themselves,” Sherrills says plainly. “And they feel inferior. White folks have been conditioned to feel superior. It’s so deeply rooted that it’s subtle; people don’t even see it most of the time. But it’s there, and it really needs to be addressed.” The problems of violence aren’t limited to American ghettos, they’re everywhere. And if there’s someone who can point out these problems and has found a solution to them, it is Sherrills.
Watts was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Los Angeles when Aqeela Sherrills was born there 35 years ago. The area was split in two by railroad tracks. One side was the territory of the Bloods and the other belonged to the Crips. Conflicts over territory and drugs were fought out on the street using state-of-the-art weapons. Executions and drive-by shootings were daily occurrences. In the early 1980s, Sherrills was just a kid at the time gang violence in American ghettos started to escalate.
Sherrills grew up as the youngest of 10 children surrounded by this horrific backdrop of violence. But in Watts, children never stay young for long. Sherrills had his first son when he was 14. That same year, his best friend, also 14, was shot to death. Sherrills looks back, “I went completely crazy. We wanted revenge and we hit the streets. Fighting. Shooting. Robbing.” By the time he was 16, 13 of his friends had already died in gunfire between the Bloods and the Crips.
The subculture of American gang life is dominated by violence and drugs. But it’s more than that. It is also where fantastic music, dance and clothing styles are created, which have a major impact on global pop culture. Just watching MTV for a half-hour makes it clear that gang culture has become hip. This makes Sherrills laugh. “It’s cool now to say you come from a ghetto. When I was young it wasn’t so cool; most of us wanted to get out as quickly as possible.”
But Sherrills eventually pulled back from the gang life. Fantasy is what saved him. “Together with my brothers and sisters I fantasized a lot about a better world,” he remembers. “My parents weren’t home much and we would tell each other never ending stories. It usually started with a Chinese master who gave us supernatural powers. We used those super powers to make the world a better place. Those stories made me trust, at a young age, that another world was possible and that I could do something about it. I knew I was destined to do something big. I just didn’t know what.”
Sherrills’ oldest sister was the first to get out of the neighbourhood. She was accepted to college and moved on campus. This sister had always been a major inspiration to Sherrills—albeit because she was the one who always told the best stories. With her help, Sherrills also got into college when he was 18, where he studied electrical engineering. It appeared to be his ticket out of the violence in his neighbourhood.
Initially, Sherrills didn’t want to return home, even on weekends. Although he didn’t show too much interest in his studies, he hung around campus. His first year was mostly spent partying and dating lots of girls. But that summer, something happened that changed Sherrills’ life. He read a book entitled The Evidence of Things Not Seen by eminent African American writer James Baldwin. The book describes what Baldwin saw as a plot against black people, involving the shipment of drugs and guns into poor neighbourhoods—with drugs and weapons. “The idea was, Baldwin wrote: let the black people kill each other off. I was furious and wanted to warn my brothers,” Sherrills recalls.
Sherrills joined the Nation of Islam, an American spiritual black separatist movement. When he rejoined his fellow students after the summer, some didn’t recognize him. He had lost 35 pounds (15 kilos) and had given up alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and sex. As befits a devout Muslim, he prayed five times a day. Meanwhile, he began acting as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing money from drug dealers and giving it to the neighbourhood’s poor.
The big task for which Sherrill was destined, started to take shape. He continued to pay little attention to his studies; he wanted instead to go back to the ‘hood” and help his brothers break out of the vicious circle of drugs and violence. Sherrills organized gatherings for fellow students around the theme of defending black rights. He reminded his fellow black students of their roots-–“People died so you could go to college!”—but he didn’t get many to the point of returning to the ghetto they came from. They simply didn’t want to be associated with their old neighbourhood, Sherrills discovered, and he slowly turned bitter.
Sherrills continued to have run-ins with the law and even landed in jail once for physically resisting a police officer who was beating on him. But what transformed Sherrill into a peace activist was not being arrested, joining Islam, or reading Baldwin, but by the love of a woman. “Before my celibacy stint,” he explains, “I had a girlfriend: Lisa. I was crazy about her, but very insecure about myself. I thought I was ugly and couldn’t believe that she really wanted me. I couldn’t handle her love and cheated on her—to break up the relationship and to prove that I was right. But I regretted it so much that for the first time in my life I did something noble: I confessed everything.”
That confession had a miraculous effect. He suddenly saw the world through different eyes. “Before that I didn’t trust anyone,” Sherrills explains. “If things weren’t going well for me there was always someone I could blame. Now I was looking at myself for the first time in my life. It was as if spirit came into me, as if I had become a new person.”
This rebirth gave Sherrills the wings and courage he needed to go into his neighbourhood with a few friends with the aim of making peace. He talked, discussed and listened on every street corner to members of the Crips and the Bloods. That was in 1989. A short time later, Sherrills got help from an American football legend, Jim Brown, who made his house in the Hollywood hills available as a neutral place where members of various gangs could meet. Sherrills looks back on those early days: “We held six meetings involving hundreds of cats from different neighbourhoods. We couldn’t bring off a ceasefire, but relations got better and better.”
Brown was generous enough to donate a monthly sum so that Sherrills and his buddies could rent a retail space and take their activities to the next level. The cooperation with Brown led to the founding of the Amer-I-Can project, which offers a program for “life skills.” Sherrills explains, “Jim had been offering this program to prisoners for awhile. It teaches you to develop self-respect, solve conflicts, create a life vision, make decisions—that kind of thing.” Sherrills followed the program himself and started giving lessons, something he would do for the next 11 years.
Brown’s fame, combined with Sherrills’ street credibility, turned out to be a golden formula for getting the unique peace process off the ground. But it remained a tall order; after all, how do you get young men who consistently confuse the concepts of “forgiveness” and “revenge” to take a seat around a negotiation table? Sherrills: “It’s not magic. It’s a step-by-step process. It’s about communication. I appeal to their deepest feelings. I try to touch their heart, so that each of them can get back in touch with their humanity. This process is based on relationships and cannot be motivated by anything but love. We simply talk about the important things in life: what makes people happy or sad, what are we afraid of, what can we do better? That kind of thing. Again and again it becomes clear that we ultimately believe in the same things.”
In 1992, Sherrills finally sees a breakthrough: the Crips and the Bloods sign a historic treaty. Sherrills describes that amazing day this way: “Everyone was happy, grandmothers were crying, everyone was calling each other, for the first time fathers were able to visit their children on the other side of the railroad tracks… Everyone was so excited. It totally changed the quality of our lives.”
After this success in Los Angeles, there was no stopping the initiative. What started out locally, expanded into an international organization active in 15 cities. At the highpoint of his peace activities, Sherrills’ Community Self-Determination Institute had 80 employees and its budget included $ 3 million U.S. (2.3 million euros) in government subsidies. For three and a half years, he lived like an urban nomad travelling from ghetto to ghetto to initiate peace negotiations and exact a ceasefire. The success of Sherrills’ approach is partly due to the fact that he does more than just treat the symptoms of gang violence. He wants to tackle the problem at its roots. “Violence on the streets is a symptom of a deeper problem,” he notes. “As long as there is poverty, we will never have peace. Poverty destroys families, neighbourhoods, countries.”
Sherrills doesn’t see the problems of violence and despair as confined to gang areas. “In fact there is no difference between what goes on in Watts or in Beverly Hills. The emotional pain that people experience is expressed in Watts by murder and in Beverly Hills by suicide.” Sherrills then reveals a staggering statistic: “Last year there were more suicides than murders in greater Los Angeles.”
Sherrills shifts effortlessly between street slang and clearly formulated spiritual and political statements. His charismatic energy is both tough and loving. You can just as easily imagine him both on a street corner in the ghetto and in a meeting with top level government officials.
Sherrills’ approach works, in part because he speaks the language of the street. “I honestly love my neighbourhood and my brothers,” he remarks. “There is so much beauty, so much talent. Sometimes in the roughest places, you find the most beauty. Aside from the violence, there are few other places in California where you find so much sense of community. That gang feeling is a part of it; it was always there, even before the violence escalated. A gang is like a kind of surrogate family. For young men, fighting is a way to be initiated. You can’t give up a gang without replacing it with something else. You have to keep them intact and help the members start living according to new values.”
The problem Sherrills runs into time and time again is the marginalization and criminalization of gang members. “The word ”gang member” is a way of dehumanizing someone. When someone gets killed people say: “Oh well, it was a gang member.” But that gang member was someone’s son, friend or loved one. The perception is that people in these neighbourhoods are hardened against this type of grief. That’s not true. They are deeply wounded and use this way to express it.”
Nearly everyone in South Central Los Angeles is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress, Sherrills believes. “We have got to address our own illnesses. How? You have to take a step back and look at the issue from a more fundamental perspective. In order to be able to do that, the heart has to be bust open. We try to do everything in life to keep our hearts from being broken. But there is so much beauty in having a broken heart –-there’s pain, but you discover things in yourself that you never thought about before.”
And then in 2004 came the horrible test of Sherrills’ beliefs. His oldest son, 18-year-old Terrell Sherrills, is shot while on vacation visiting his father in Watts. Terrell had gone out to a party with a friend, and around midnight a few gang members arrive. Terrell is shot in the back and dies a short time later in the hospital.
“Terrell led a peaceful life,” says Sherrills. “He didn’t have anything to do with gang violence. He was in college and was very popular—and not only with the girls. He came with me sometimes when I did my work. It was a huge blow.”
He falls silent for a moment, showing that none of us can ever defend ourselves against this pain. No one gets used to murder.
Sherrills says he had no choice but to choose love over revenge. “It’s not about who killed my son, but what killed him: a culture with no respect for life. I am not surrendering his life to death, but reclaiming it and giving it new meaning.”
The man who killed Terrell has not yet been caught. When that happens, Sherrills wants to talk with him and his parents. “I want to ask them what kind of pain drove the guy to commit this act. When did he become disillusioned? Where did it go wrong? Of course, my son’s killer deserves to be punished, but mainly I want to keep him alive. I want to invest in him towards a better future for us all. My dream is still that children can grow up in Watts safely and without fear.”
The main problem the United States is struggling with is that it is a country built around violence, according to Sherrill. “We can be angry with George Bush, but he’s doing just what his predecessors did. We have to wake up to our culture. We have killed millions of indigenous people. Our foreign policy still means death for millions around the world. We can say Bush is evil, but we are evil. We are trapped in a culture based on revenge.”
Sherrills sees the same thing in his neighbourhood of Watts. The treaty continues to be upheld, but not without problems and obstacles. Sherrill says, “When two brothers have problems with each other, everyone joins forces to take revenge. The treaty is broken!, they shout. But I say: ”Wait a minute: a certain person has a problem with someone else. That’s their problem, not all of ours.” I believe that conflicts are healthy, but you have to learn to deal with them in a constructive way.”
“Peace is a process, not a destination,” Sherrills continues. “Peace is not a utopian field of flowers you parade through together. It’s hard work. Sometimes the peacemakers lose their lives. The point is that we continually return to the peace talks and solve the problems. And we’re getting one step closer all the time.”
Sherrills’ work in various U.S. cities has made him an authority. Not only in the eyes of government officials and peace organizations, but gang members as well. It’s becoming increasingly easy to go into problem areas and start peace negotiations. Sherrills: “We’ve been given a kind of carte blanche to go into the neighbourhoods. Within a few days we have an idea of who is playing what role in the community and what’s going on. Then we make contact with the key figures to reach a ceasefire.”
When the peace treaty in Watts had been in place, and mostly followed, for 10 years, Sherrills launched a 10-year plan entitled The Passage to Peace to completely put an end to gang violence. “We appointed key figures in neighbourhoods to keep the peace in their community. We make people responsible for their own neighbourhood, for their own problems. I say: ‘I don’t want to move to a better neighbourhood. This is a better neighbourhood.’ Instead of seeing it as a ghetto, we have to see the beauty and the potential. We have to get together; then we have a chance.”
Sherrills conveys that same message at conferences and seminars where he is invited to speak. “Whether it’s environment movements, peace movements or cultural creative movements, they all want the same thing: respect for life. My suggestion would be to get together and create one big movement I would call Reverence Movement. After all, the violence we inflict on ourselves and one another is the same violence we are using to destroy the planet. If every movement continues to treat the symptoms, we won’t get anywhere. We’re only wasting time and energy.”
“We have to create a culture where authentic emotions are allowed to be expressed. That would create a real release. If the head of the Los Angeles police department would apologize for the injustice we have suffered under the guise of justice, it would create a landslide. If George Bush would apologize for the slavery in this country, it would give so much release. You can only conquer hate with love.”
The hotel lobby has now filled up with people coming to attend the conference in which Sherrills is participating. Every few minutes someone gives him a hug. The conference is set to begin. We’ve only spent one morning together, but it feels like a couple of days. For Sherrills, this intense solidarity has become a way of life. He has learned that every meeting can be the last and that every strong connection between people can set something major in motion. The meetings he has are seldom informal. There is usually a lot at stake. The intensity of his presence can mean the difference between forgiveness and revenge, between war and peace.
Outside, the seals are still swimming happily. The wisps of fog hanging over San Francisco in the distance have cleared. The impressive Golden Gate bridge sparkles in the sun, a symbol of American accomplishment. This is a country where newcomers founded a culture that became an example to the world—a model of freedom, democracy and limitless possibilities. Aqeela Sherrills stands squarely in that American tradition. He, too, is working to establish a new culture—a culture promoting reverence for life.
 

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