By Kristy Jansen
Aqeela Sherrills grew up in Watts, California in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects. In his own words, he is a spirit-centered activist, organizer, advocate. In 1992, he was instrumental in organizing the peace treaty between the Crips and Bloods which launched his career in helping promote business development and reducing violence in underserved communities.
After helping start numerous programs related to restorative justice and community healing, including Californians for Safety and Justice, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, he moved to Newark, New Jersey where he helped start the influential Newark Community Street Team and promote community-based safety in collaboration with Mayor Ras Baraka, the Newark police, and other community activists.
Aqeela is also a father and a grandfather, who has spent his adult life working for restorative peace and community wellness. He understands from lived experience the insidious nature of growing up in a community plagued by violence, trauma, and a lack of opportunities, and how these factors combined with an unreasonably punitive justice system can destroy a person, a family, and a town for generations.
I’ve known Aqeela for close to 20 years, since we worked together on a project celebrating the psychosocial healing journeys of certain young people coming out of Watts, CA. In light of the tremendous numbers of protesters in the streets and the vociferous calls for police reform sparked by the scenes of George Floyd’s killing in May, I wanted to hear from an expert in this area, so I called Aqeela up to hear his thoughts on the situation. I’m thrilled to share this excerpt from our conversation with the Optimist Daily community.
If you would like to listen to an extended version of the interview, check out our Optimist Daily Update podcast featuring their entire conversation and a more detailed history of Aqeela’s life and career. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
“Putting the ‘public’ back into public safety”
Kristy: First of all, Aqeela, will you do a two minute “who you are, where you came from, and why you think I may be talking to you today?”
Aqeela Sherrills: [Laughter] Okay. My name is Aqeela Sherrills. I am a spirit-centered activist, organizer, advocate. I grew up in Watts, California in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects there. Me and my brother and a group of friends in 1992 was instrumental in organizing the peace treaty between the Crips and Bloods. That changed the quality of life in our community and dominoed to multiple cities across the country. Resulting in a decrease in violence and juvenile violence nationally.
I co-founded an organization with Hall of Fame football great Jim Brown called Amer-I-Can, which essentially exported our work to some 15 cities across the country. And this was before the advent of social media. And then I lived on the road for many years doing that work. I am a serial entrepreneur as well. And in terms of doing business development … Well, I look at business and organizing as very similar. So I do a lot of OD, and strategic planning, and fund development, and systems design, and re-engineering.
Kristy: I know [back when we first started working together], you were very involved in trying to get Watts into a new era of prosperity through business development in the community. I thought that was such an innovative, productive use of capital.
Aqeela Sherrills: Well, in addition to that, about six years ago now, I opened up a restaurant. A healthy fast-food chain with Chef Roy Choi, who’s a celebrity chef, called LocoL. And it was a great conceptual idea. We had 10,000 customers on our first day. We employed 40 people. Paid them all livable wages. And then three years into the business, we ran out of money because of some bad decisions that were made by one of our partners.
But there’s now a LocoL 2.0 toolbox that is operating out of the business, providing food to local schools. We have 3 Worlds Cafe in Watts. We have the Ambassadors store. Both of those businesses actually grew out of local development. And then I’ve been advising and consulting with Primestor, which is one of the largest commercial developers in Southern California on their rebuilding of Jordan Downs.
So Jordan Downs Housing Projects is being torn down. It’s the first development in Watts since 1947 that’s being razed. And so they’re expanding it from 700 low-income housing units to 1400 units. 700 low income, another 700 mixed rate, two to three hundred at market rate. And then Primestor has built a 160,000 square foot retail space. And that’s up and running now, actually.
Kristy: So it’s a mixed-use development that brings residential and retail together?
Aqeela Sherrills: Yep. I was consulting with local businesses to prepare them to go into the new development. It’s extremely challenging work. It’s not my core competency. Rather that’s the work that I’m doing in Newark now, that we’ll talk about.
Kristy: Still, I love getting all the broader background. But I know you’ve been really, really active lately in restorative justice and community crime reduction programs. And I don’t know if you feel like sharing a little bit of how you got into that particular model. Because I just think your personal story is really an interesting one. Painful, but also inspirational.
Aqeela Sherrills: So as I said, I grew up in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts and I participated in what many social justice activists have called the longest-running war in the history of this country, which is urban street gang wars. In LA County alone, city and county, between 1983 and 2003, there were over 30,000 gang-related deaths. And [that number] didn’t include those who have been permanently maimed or incarcerated for the rest of their life behind [bars for] their participation.
Now, the thing is, is that most of those conflicts that happened had nothing to do with gangs. But we live in a system that utilizes labels as a way of scapegoating people and making them responsible. Blaming the victim, literally. Because gangs aren’t inherently negative. Less than 3 to 5% of so-called gang members are actually committing violent crime and murder. So the label in itself, “gang”, was made to dehumanize the person behind it in and desensitize the public. To the point that people were crying out for help in their own way and they didn’t speak the common language of the system.
For example, the first three stories on most news channels are some violent stories [crafted] to keep people connected. And so News can say, “On Central and 103rd, three 14-year-old boys were shot and killed.” And people will be like, “Oh my God, those babies.” But that same news story you can say, “On 103rd and Central, three gang members were shot and killed.” And people would be like, “Yeah, they deserve it. They need to go to jail. They’re a scourge to society.” It will be those same 14-year-old kids. You know what I’m saying?
But that label in itself can actually shift people’s perception because people have an embedded idea about what gangs are, which is just absolutely untrue. And so my work for almost 30 years now has been about, one, shifting those types of perceptions. But also building what we call community-based public safety initiatives. When we organized a peace treaty in Watts, in the first two years, gang homicides dropped 44%. And we realized that we are the solutions to our own problems. It’s impacting people who engage the public state process that has the greatest ability to be able to reduce violence and crime.
And so as a result of our work, as a direct result of our work, the city adopted our strategy. They created this program called … it was a high-risk intervention program. But today, it’s called GRYD. It’s called the Gang Reduction Youth Development program. And GRYD has now recorded 10 consecutive years on how community-based intervention has been responsible for saving the city $100 million and preventing something like 58% of gang-related murders in the city.
Kristy: So investing in the pro-social aspects of community building is a much better investment than adding more cops or adding more incarceration. The punitive justice system is actually far more expensive and destructive than a community-based restorative type of system, where you’re actually investing in the people. Because these are people.
Aqeela Sherrills: That’s right.
Kristy: And the reason that these conflicts are erupting isn’t about being bad guys, or good guys, or ingrates, or incorrigibles.
Aqeela Sherrills: Right, right.
Kristy: These are human beings who are dealing with real socioeconomic issues, dealing with family breakdown. I know there’s a lot. You and I have worked together in the psychological aspects of that, and the emotional healing that has to happen, and the emotional growth that has to happen for people to get to a healthier human place.
Aqeela Sherrills: Absolutely. It’s the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that people suffer from.
The thing is, is that this trauma has been allowed to fester without any type of real investment in people’s healing. Right?
And so, a few years ago, about seven, eight years ago, I was instrumental in helping to launch this organization called Californians for Safety and Justice, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. And these are self-identified victims who don’t necessarily consider themselves “victim”. There’s always been a strong victims’ rights movement in the country, and especially in the state of California.
However, the victims’ rights movement is comprised of upper middle class, white women who are probably our most vocal survivors … I mean victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. And unfortunately, their voices have been co-opted by the law enforcement lobby, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country.
And they’ve been used to pass draconian laws, like three strikes and you’re out. And trying our children, 14-years-old, as adults. And saying that, “Oh, if you do an adult crime, you’re doing adult time.” It’s just absolutely ridiculous. These are children and they’re redeemable. 10 years later, they’re just not the same people. And the science actually proves it.
So we empathize with them because some of them also have been victims of heinous acts. But even though black folks are only 8% of the population in the state of California, we lead in every single category of victims of crime. But in our community, we don’t see ourselves as victims. Because “victim” has a negative connotation in our community.
It means that you’re weak. And so we put that term on its head and we call ourselves survivors. Because “survivors” speaks to a person who has had an experience who conceivably doesn’t want it to happen with anybody else and they’re engaged in their respective healing journey.
Kristy: As a “Survivor” you’re connecting with your resilience as opposed to the weakness. But rather the strength that comes out of that experience and the character that emerges when you overcome obstacles.
Aqeela Sherrills: Yes, that’s right. We built a movement in the state that was instrumental in changing two laws and we did it by referendum. But we passed two of the most progressive pieces of criminal justice reform legislation in the history of the country, Prop 47, which took six low-level felonies and turned them into misdemeanors. 5500 people who shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place were released from jail immediately because these individuals had substance abuse issues. And we were addressing those substance abuse issues with a criminal justice solution, which is just ridiculous.
Kristy: And it’s so much more expensive than putting those people into real treatment where they can get the help they need to heal. But instead, incarcerating them? I agree that doesn’t help…
Aqeela Sherrills: And then, in the state of California, if you have a felony conviction, there are over 4800 restrictions that prevent you from accessing resources and services. It’s something like 73% of them are lifetime (disqualifications). And so to date, we’ve had over 300,000 people who have had their records expunged.
Because if you had a felony conviction for petty crime, like forgery or you’re on welfare for two weeks longer than you were supposed to be, you get disqualified from getting public housing, student loans, being able to access AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), GR (General Relief). All types of things.
And so we were able to move those barriers out of people’s way. Some people who were suffering through these things for 30, 40 years in order to now be able to access services. Because if you are a survivor, and you have some type of justice involvement, you are automatically disqualified from actually being able to receive services, human services.
Kristy: And so, why did you go to Newark? I know you’re doing much of the same work now in New Jersey, and that’s tremendous. And then I’d love to hear what you think about the moment right now. Because the last time that this kind of unrest was really happening around the country, 2014, after Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and that moment there … That summer in 2014, when this Black Lives Matter movement really started. But I know that the Watts riots were instrumental in you becoming the Peace Warrior that you’ve become, was that period of time with Rodney King. And that also was sparked by a video of unconscionable police violence against a black man.
The history is echoing. But I’m wondering if you are sensing a movement, a change in today’s moment? And I want to hear your thoughts on that in addition to learning a little bit more about what you’re doing in Newark right now.
Aqeela Sherrills: Well, I would say that it’s a moment that is yet to become a movement. But it has the potential. And so I’m in Newark, New Jersey working for that very reason. We started this work in 1992. I mean we started before ’92 with the Rodney King beating by LAPD because this is just a similar type of situation.
But I’ve been knowing Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, for close to 25 years. And we were both activists in the community doing this work. In 2004, he invited me to Newark to help them to organize a peace treaty between two warring gangs in the city. Newark actually happens to be the home to Grape street, which is one of the biggest Crip organizations in the city and in the state. And Grape street is my neighborhood. That’s where I grew up at. That’s where I’m from in Jordan Downs.
And so the mayor, this genius, was like, “Hey, I need you to bring your brothers from LA to Newark so that they can see the peace treaty that you guys created there and how you guys sustain the movement.” And so we bought guys here. We in turn then bought some of the brothers from Newark to LA. And we stayed in contact of all of those years.
In 2014, when Baraka was elected mayor, he invited me to come to the city and to build out his community-based public safety initiative. And some people call it gang intervention. Some people call it interrupters. But it’s beyond that. We call it community-based public safety because it’s a complementary strategy to law enforcement.
So the organization that was birthed was called the Newark Community Street Team. We’re the city of Newark’s community-based public safety initiative. We have a three-pronged strategy that we implement in order to address violence. We work through the public health lens that violence is a public health issue. And we understand that there’s two parts of the city, the South Ward, and the West Ward that experience a tremendous amount of violence.
And our take on it is that the reason why has been because these communities have been literally neglected since the 1967 rebellion. Because Watts kicked it off in ’65. In ’67, Newark was the second place that the rebellion happened. There has been no investment in these neighborhoods since ’67. No investment in people. No investment in infrastructure. There are houses that are still burnt out from ’67 here.
And so we understand trauma and we understand trauma informed approaches. So we built this three-pronged strategy. One leg of it is about high-risk intervention. So we employ credible messengers from the neighborhood. These are ex-gang members, ex-convicts, ex-drug dealers. Folks who are everybody and their mom in the neighborhood. And we train them as public safety professionals to intervene in individual and group conflicts.
We also meet on a consistent basis with law enforcement. Law enforcement shares intelligence with us. There’s a very high bar in terms of police being able to arrest and prosecute someone in terms of what has to be in place. And so in most cases, they can’t always arrest and prosecute. And nor can they forbid shootings from happening. But what we can do is work on preventing the next one, the retaliation.
And so our people are much more uniquely positioned to be able to do that because of relationships. So we utilize a relationship-based approach to do this work. We also utilize data through our partnership with Rutgers University to inform our strategy as well. Because one of the things that we discovered in 2016 was that 62% of the homicides that happened in the city started as domestic disputes.
So our belief is that if we could stand in the gap, if our folks are trained in conflict resolution, and mediation, and in trauma informed practices and approaches; and then also have wraparound services, and legal services, and support services; then we can prevent some of these things from happening. And also, we can connect people to services so that they can be engaged in a respective healing journey.
Our second prong, which is like our forward facing piece is our safe passage program. Through our research, we discovered that most of the violence that happens in the communities happens in and around schools. Things happen on campus that spills out in the community on Friday. Things happen in the community on Saturday and Sunday, they spill onto the campus on Monday morning. So we make sure that our kids go to school safely and come home. So every morning, at all of the key exit and entries, at 12 schools in the South Ward, we have a team that’s out there from 7:30 to 9:00 and then from 2:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon making sure that our kids go and come to school safely.
Kristy: These are trained adults who are respected in the community who can actually prevent petty disagreements from erupting into serious violence?
Aqeela Sherrills: And sometimes serious disagreements as well. Because of the trauma that exists. You know? All situations can escalate to life-threatening situations from 0 to 100 immediately.
Kristy: Has that dropped those events from happening?
Aqeela Sherrills: Absolutely. So we launched the work in 2014, right? In 2016, we had double-digit reductions in homicides in the city. We took Newark off the most violent city list after being there for 50 consecutive years.
Every year, since 2016, we’ve had reductions in homicides, and violence, and overall violence in the city. In 2019, we had a 30-year low. And in the South Ward where our work is targeted, we had a 48% reduction in homicides. We cut the murder rate in half in five years.
And this is because of our strategic relationship with law enforcement, with community-based organization, with faith-based community, with our health department. And so we coordinate and we host a conversation, a policy conversation, in which we hold our electors accountable, called the Public Safety Round Table, twice a month. So that’s a part of our overall strategy, right?
Because we have to engage more people in the public safety process. For far too long, you say, “Public safety,” and people say, “Police.” But we understand that police are only one aspect of the public safety process and that public safety is not crime stats. It’s not the absence of violence and crime only. It’s the presence of well-being and the infrastructure to support victims and survivors in their respective healing journey.
Kristy: I love that. It’s the presence of well-being. Public safety is not the absence of violence. It’s the presence of well-being. That’s deep. That’s a deep, deep statement.
Aqeela Sherrills: Absolutely. Safety is critical in terms of this work. So our third prong is our victim services work. We have a full-time victims’ advocate in which we connect people with therapists, with alternative healing technologies. We help folks complete their victims of crime application.
Aqeela Sherrills: In every state, there is a victim compensation organization and it’s usually flush with money. However, because of structural violence and institutional racism, black folks in the city of Newark were getting disqualified 90% of the time when they would apply for victim comp.
Kristy: On what reason? On what grounds are they disqualified?
Aqeela Sherrills: Contributing behavior. That’s what the causes are. So if you’re Raheem, and you’re hustling in the street, and say you get shot. They’ll say that, “Hey, he was hustling. It contributed to him being murdered. That’s a contributing factor that disqualifies him.” And so they punish the family from receiving resources to bury the victim.
Kristy: So his mother and his sisters can’t get any help? Even just to deal with their own grief?
Aqeela Sherrills: That’s right.
Kristy: Who is considered an upstanding member of the community? Who deserves to receive help? I’m a middle-aged, middle class, educated white woman. I assume I’d be a sympathetic recipient if I had been the victim of a crime. But then I have many other resources to tap.
Aqeela Sherrills: They’re like pure victims. But we need to smash that whole false narrative that there are pure victims. Because in our community, it’s not uncommon for a black mother to have one child buried in prison and one buried in the graveyard. So this idea that there are pure victims out here is just absolutely ridiculous.
The number one preemptive cause for murder in most urban communities is self-defense. Because we have a criminal justice system that is unresponsive to our needs. When we go to the police department and say, “Hey, Hooky-man is messing with me, man. You all need to come and do something about this.” They be like, “Where your gun at?”
And then other contributing piece is that when the police, when the detective shows up to the hospital and Raheem is shot, laying in the bed, and he’s going to survive, when they fill out the police report, that has to then go to the prosecutor’s office to qualify them for victim comp, they put “suspect-victim”, which automatically disqualifies them from receiving victims comp.
And so these folks are not getting any services. And so rightfully so, they hate the police. Not only because they brutalize them, and there are excessive force issues, and there’s a history of abuse. But also, they disconnect them from being able to receive services to support them in their respective healing journey.
We’ve been able to really turn that on its head in the city of Newark and it’s because of the leadership here. The mayor is the most progressive mayor in the country. This cat is brilliant. He understands the work. This is his community. He’s not a regular type of politician.
We’re fortunate that our Public Safety Director, Anthony Ambrose, as well as Chief Darnell Henry, they both grew up in this city. They’re from the city. And even though one is white and one is black, they all believe in the same thing. And so seeing NCST, the Newark Community Street Team, as a complementary strategy to law enforcement …
Because we’re going to have more intelligence than they’re ever going to have. So we’re like, “We need you to help us to gain greater access so that we can provide services for our people. And instead of them calling you sometimes, they need to just call us.”
Kristy: Right. And so then creating those community-based, relationship-based supportive services as a part of the public safety and then it takes some of the pressure off the policing. So we have two minutes before you have to get off. But I would love to get just what you think might happen in the current moment with what happened in Minneapolis.
Aqeela Sherrills: Minneapolis is actually one of the cities that I have been working in for three years before this situation happened. Trying our best to advise leadership in the city. And they have great leadership. Chief Randall is an ally, Deputy Chief Knight, my man, Glenn Burke, who runs the Navigator’s program in the city that’s connected through MPD (Minneapolis Police Department).
The thing is, is that the system is just so convoluted. And so then what happens is that our brother, George Floyd, is murdered. You know what I’m saying? By cops who were insensitive and who are ill trained.
And so we’re at an inflection point in terms of policing in this country. We’re never going to go back to the way things were. And so my belief is that like, “What’s the solution? The thing that people are protesting every day out in the street for?” The solution is community-based public safety.
Some of these cops, they don’t even live in the city. They live in other states and all of this stuff was about to come out. So they’re parachuting in, working three 12 hour shifts. They come in totally desensitized and discombobulated. And then they go out to their other two or three jobs that they’re working in order to make ends meet.
And so we have to invest in community-based public safety initiatives. So that instead of the liquor store owners having to call the police when something goes awry, they can reach out and call one of their neighbors who are trained in public safety policy, in conflict resolution, and mediation, and restorative justice, and trauma informed practices to be able to peacefully mediate these conflicts to a successful outcome. Because our cops are not always the best messengers, the most credible messengers, in terms of responding to these types of things.
Kristy: Especially when the cops aren’t the neighbors. You need to have a neighbor kind of mentality. A community mentality.
Aqeela Sherrills: That’s right. So our officers, man, my heart goes out to those folks. And at the same time, we don’t need to be spending $300 million a year on a police department and then closing down youth clubs, and programs, and social services, and libraries. It’s absolutely insane that we created this police culture that has nothing to do with safety. It’s about policing, and policing and safety are two totally different things…
For more on Aqeela and to learn more about his works, here is a partial list of projects dedicated to peace and healing that he has helped launch: