Buy-in unclear for gang peace agreement presented by pastors

by Jordan Green

A group of black Greensboro pastors unveiled a gang peace agreement on Sunday that was initiated by a Latino gang that until this summer was little known in North Carolina. The document states that members of five different gangs had committed to peace during a meeting in late July, but notes that they do not speak for all members of their respective organizations.

The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, or Latin Kings, launched the initiative in June when its North Carolina leader, Jorge Cornell, began meeting with the Rev. Nelson Johnson, 1st vice president of the Pulpit Forum. At least a dozen affiliates of the Latin Kings identified by their yellow and black colors filled a section of the sanctuary at St. James Baptist Church in Greensboro on Sunday. Two uniformed members of the Nation of Islam, another group named in the agreement, were also present. The agreement was handed out to audience members, and the pastors presented a DVD featuring members of the Pulpit Forum and members of the Latin Kings speaking to the camera. The DVD focused mainly on allegations of police harassment against the Latin Kings, and did not show members of any of the other gangs speaking about the peace agreement. Johnson took affront when asked if any members of the Almighty Black Peace Stone Nation, the Crips, the Five Percenters or the Piru Bloods — the other gangs named — could confirm that the agreement had been reached. “People sometimes don’t want to be identified,” he said. “People have not always been angels. This is why we didn’t want to go down this road [of having dialogue framed by the press]. We say there is an agreement. It’s problematic when it comes out that it may not be true.” Johnson added that members of some of the other gangs might be present. In a subsequent interview on Monday, Johnson said that members of other gangs have not come forward for reasons that would become public later. A draft of the agreement entitled “A Beginning: Towards Peace Among US (‘Gangs’)” dated July 28. The Pulpit Forum has taken a low key approach to publicizing the agreement; a press conference held shortly after the agreement was concluded instead focused on Cornell’s expression of forgiveness towards an unknown assailant who shot him. The motivation for pursuing the peace agreement has also been somewhat curious. Cornell told YES! Weekly in July that there was minimal preexisting conflict between the city’s gangs. If that was the case, why was a peace agreement needed? In an interview on Monday Johnson presented the initiative as a preemptive maneuver to respond to pledges by elected officials to crack down on gangs, which could have the effect of “leading to more violence.” The Latin Kings have been subjected to relentless scrutiny and speculation that the peace initiative is merely a ploy to coopt the pastors and to use them as cover for further criminal activities. That conjecture is based partly on the group’s history in New York City in the 1990s when leader Antonio Fernandez, AKA King Tone, went to prison after being convicted for serving as a lookout during a drug deal after pledging to organize the gang into a social justice organization that would register people to vote and create educational opportunities for its membership. Cornell told YES! Weekly in July: “All my knowledge is passed down from Tone.” The Rev. Greg Headen, president of the Pulpit Forum and pastor at Genesis Baptist Church, said in an interview on Monday that his observations of Cornell’s actions have convinced him that the gang leader is genuine. “I would base it on the many meetings that I have been in with them,” he said. “I would base it on the actions that I have seen Jorge take to show to demonstrate that he is sincere and he is not playing games. When someone has been shot because of a stand that they have taken and they continue to stand there, that says a lot. “He went to Asheboro one day because there were two gang groups fixing to fight and members of his gang were part of it,” Headen continued. “He told all the members of his gang to leave out and he talked to the leader of the other group that this fight did not need to take place and convinced him to be a part of the peace process. I don’t think there is a reason he would do that unless he was sincere and he was acting for a higher purpose. I don’t thinkhe’s doing that just to take the Pulpit Forum for a ride and then comeback later with some kind of resurgence of violence. That doesn’tcompute.” Headen expressed praise for Cornell at the communitymeeting on Sunday. “Jorge and his group have experienced some tryingthings, thing that we don’t consider very just and equitable,” he said,adding, “We stand with them.” The pastors and members of the LatinKings outlined numerous alleged incidents of police harassment thatthey suggested might be motivated by a desire to derail the peaceprocess. The non-binding agreement calls upon all personsassociated with the Latin Kings, Almighty Black Peace Stone Nation,Crips, Five Percenters, Piru Bloods, Nation of Islam and the PulpitForum “to lay down violence and join us in working together for peaceamong us and within our community.” The unsigned document also cites anagreement to work on “positive community projects” such as cleaning upgraffiti; educating people about “the history and original intent of…‘gangs’”; and working to bring about greater unity and mutualunderstanding between blacks and Latinos. Johnson indicated that plans to remove graffiti have so far stalled.

“We’vebeen looking for the graffiti, but we couldn’t find it,” he said. “TheAlmighty Latin King and Queen Nation said they wanted to do it withchurch groups.” He added that police harassment “has to some degreeshut it down. It is hard to get out and do this work if the communityis afraid of you.” The final clause of the nonbinding peace agreementmay turn out to be its most salient feature. The pastorsannounced that a “Black/Brown Conference” will take place at GenesisBaptist Church on Oct. 3-4, featuring singing, dance, drumming andpoetry, along with the preaching of the Rev. Baldemar Velasquez,president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee union, and the Rev.John Mendez of Emanuel Baptist Church in Winston- Salem. “Latinosand blacks are like two freight trains on the same track headed towardseach other,” a flier for the conference states. “We must act now to getto know each other, appreciating each other’s fears, concerns and joysas we work through myths and misunderstandings. It is also urgent thatwe better understand global forces and racism as we establishpriorities and agree on specific policies and practices that willimprove the quality of life for each group.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at