Sunday, June 5, 2011

Street Fighter

In a blighted urban landscape of broken families living in unsparing poverty, with streets infested with drug dealers and small-time crooks, what were you expecting?
An Ivy League graduate with a billion bucks who would come out of nowhere and try to make things right?
Probably not.
In truth, who would be better to do it than a product of those same streets -- someone like Darnell Jackson?
Jackson is glad to share his vision for an inner city -- his city -- as a place vanquished of crime and unemployment, a place where young people can flourish.
Listening to him in his cubbyhole of an office at a former Wonder Bread plant on Buffalo's East Side, it isn't only Jackson speaking, but also the walls, where the blueprints for his plan are joined by photos and awards -- one calls him "unbought and unbossed" -- that tell the story of the 53-year-old community activist, a wiry, perpetual-motion contradiction.
Noticeably missing is any recognition for Jackson's role last summer in orchestrating the peaceful surrender of City Grill shooter Riccardo M. McCray, now convicted in the rampage that killed four and wounded four others.
Jackson, arrested multiple times over the years himself, should not hold his breath waiting for the Buffalo Police Department to honor him for handing over McCray. The best he can hope for is to be left alone.
But you just never know with the volatile Jackson.
Though he long ago gave up street crime, he has never stopped getting into dustups with police. Now, it's usually over something he believes is an injustice.
But, as with McCray, he sometimes makes the police work a little easier. This spring he assisted in the arrest of a suspected teenage bank robber.
"If every street in Buffalo had a guy like me on it, we'd have a new city," Jackson says, taking a little bow for his efforts.
The short fuseInstead, too many streets have on them guys who are like Jackson used to be: A man who was head of a violent gang; who would point a gun at his enemies -- and shoot; who sold drugs on the street and served a "bid" in state prison.
And now? The bullying braggart has transformed himself. The man who now walks those streets says he dreams of converting a five-story former bread factory into an oasis for teenagers, to steer them away from the same dangerous path he once trod. It has space where the unemployed might one day build solar panels, and the hungry and ragged find succor.
If it all sounds far-reaching and messianic, that's because it is. But that is the vision described by Jackson -- who claims an angel appeared to him in a prison cell to change his life.
An angel may have changed his life, but he needs real money to change the lives of other people.
His East Side Redevelopment Task Force leases part of the building with an option to buy all of it.
"I envision a one-stop shop center, from educational to recreational. A business incubator putting people to work, office space, storage space. There's 180,000 square feet here. We want to open a Wonder Bread museum, have food and clothing giveaways," said Jackson.
Rebuffed by government, he has turned to the private sector, churches and foundations.
The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation last year contributed $100,000 to fund his program to hire 50 young people to clean up 50 vacant lots on the East Side.
This year, Amherst businessman Douglas "Rob" Robinson, the East Side Redevelopment Task Force's volunteer director of development, is seeking donations from Buffalo Niagara businesses and individuals to fund the program.
For Robinson, Jackson is a breath of fresh air.
"He knows exactly what these kids need, and that gives him credibility. He's not a politician in Albany. Too many people today go through the motions and lack passion," Robinson said. "What you see with Darnell is what you get. His life is an open book."
This is the Jackson his supporters know and love. They say when he does get upset -- and vocal about it -- it should be construed as a big heart erupting with passion.
"He has never been afraid to speak his mind, and I admire him for that," said Jim Turner, a retired Orchard Park salesman. Turner, one of Jackson's supporters from outside the neighborhood, provides children's Bibles for Jackson to distribute, along with some financial support.
Still, Turner says, Jackson sometimes has a "big mouth" and needs to tone it down.
Former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins would agree. He recounts a telephone conversation with Jackson, after Higgins resigned from the city's Joint Commission to Examine Police Reorganization.
"I'm telling you, I just don't recall anybody in my life talking to me the way he spoke to me on the phone," said Higgins, 81. "It was screaming and violent. It shook me up. ... I am convinced that if it was a personal confrontation he would have assaulted me.
Jackson, a commission member, said he had called Higgins to challenge him on whether Higgins was calling him a criminal behind his back following the arrest of the group's chairman, Ricky M. Allen Sr., who was arrested in March on drug-related charges.
Higgins said he quit because of Allen and, in part, because of Jackson's background.
That irritates Jackson, who contends his debt to society has been paid.
And people who work with him believe him, and see his anger in a different context, coming from a painful place.
"I do think he is misunderstood because he flies off the handle and has a temper," said Teresa Evans. "If you spend any time with him, you'll see he does care and that he does have a good relationship with youth. The youth can relate. He listens to them."
Evans is president of P.E.A.C.E., a Buffalo organization that provides support to families and friends who have lost loved ones to homicide -- people like Darnell Jackson. Three members of his family have been killed by gunfire, and he has been shot twice himself.
Jackson says a bullet remains lodged in his right thigh from a 1974 shootout with an opposing gang at the Ellicott Mall towers: "Doctors were afraid to take it out."
Twelve years later, Jackson says, he was dealing drugs when a crackhead robbed him on Genesee Street. "I took the gun from him and got shot in the right hand. He got away with my money, but police did arrest him."
Jackson says he has never killed anyone, but he knows the agony of losing a loved one to violence.
His older brother, Robert Lee Jackson Sr. was shot 13 times in broad daylight on April 28, 1998; Robert's son, Robert Lee Jackson Jr., was fatally shot in the head during an early morning shootout April 25, 2009, three months after the frozen and bullet-riddled body of nephew Clarence E. Jackson III was found in an abandoned Koons Avenue house.
The killers were never caught.
Uniquely qualifiedJackson knows his past life as a gang banger and drug dealer is not easily forgotten. But he is the first to tell you exactly how he went wrong.
And he is also the first to tell you exactly how he went right.
As a teenager, he says he could not live under his father's roof. The rules were too strict. At his mother's home in the Talbert Mall projects on the lower East Side, he says he signed on to gang life.
Clarence Jackson, 79, agrees with his son's account.
"That's when he really got in trouble. Darnell became the leader of the Pythons," the father said.
Clarence Jackson recalled how he and Theodore Kirkland, a now-retired Buffalo police officer and spokesman in the black community, held several meetings with gang members.
He recalled being petrified when leaving one of the meetings where they tried to broker peace. "It was one of the most intense moments of my life. We'd asked the gangs to come unarmed, but I'm pretty sure they brought guns."
"We were trying to stop the gangs from hurting each other, but they kept right on doing it," said the older Jackson, who had made good in his own life, retiring as the area's first black postmaster in Lancaster.
Jackson's late mother, Marie, also set an example of hard work. "We had separated," her former husband said, "but she worked for years at Bethlehem Steel."
The youngest of their six children, however, was a rebel. Darnell quit high school and discovered he had a knack for leadership.
"As a gang leader, you had to be tough or they'd walk all over you."
Darnell, the youngest of six children, quit high school, rose up in the gang and, after numerous run-ins with the law, was sent to state prison in 1991 for attempted criminal possession of a weapon.
While there, he says, he had a spiritual rebirth.
Starting anew"I was lying in my cell one night and it was like a bright light came in through the window. I believe it was an angel. God had a plan for me."
The message, though unspoken, he says was placed on his heart: "Go back to where you came from, use your experiences to try and stop the violence."
After his release from prison in 1993, he took a job at a fast-food restaurant, but says the calling persisted to work with hard-core street kids. By the mid-1990s, he had opened Brothers and Sisters Alternatives to Violence in a former nightclub on the 1200 block of Genesee Street, where he had once sold drugs.
Jackson and former rival gang member Clayton Williams Sr. ended up collaborating at the teen center, but the center couldn't escape its environment.
At one point Williams grabbed a gun from an armed teenager and was shot in the hand. In 1996, police who arrived to break up a brawl at a private party there were pelted with beer bottles. Eventually, the center closed.
More than 15 years later, events of recent months look too similar for comfort.
At an evening dance last December, Jackson scuffled with police who were investigating a report of "gangs of kids fighting" at the center.
It turned out Jackson lacked the proper occupancy permits and future dances were canceled.
This is a real setback for the center's future.
The gatherings, Jackson said, served a two-fold purpose -- to give young people a place to go and to raise a few hundred dollars to defray costs at the Center of Hope, which on dance nights morphed into "Klub Essential."
A flurry of Facebook messages among Jackson and supporters after the suspension put Ferry-Fillmore District police on high alert. The messages, they said, read like veiled threats against officers.
"Why would I do that?" asked Jackson, who insists he has no intention of encouraging harm against the police -- even though he believes they have no interest in seeing him succeed.

The go-between

One of the people willing to give Jackson a second chance is Common Council President David A. Franczyk, who appointed Jackson to the police reorganization commission to represent the Fillmore District.
"He got Riccardo McCray off the street and I think that was huge," Franczyk said of the surrender of the City Grill shooter.
McCray agreed to surrender to police if Jackson went with him. But instead of taking McCray directly to the homicide bureau at Buffalo Police Headquarters, Jackson took a detour to Channel 4's television studios in North Buffalo.
That infuriated law enforcement.
Jackson, they said, sought to showboat in front of the TV cameras.
Jackson said he needed the cameras -- and the publicity -- to get McCray to come in: McCray, who had fled south before returning to Buffalo, feared police might harm him.
Jackson keeps a picture of himself that he says proves police brutality exists. The 1998 photo shows his battered face, the left eye swollen shut.
"That's me after I got released from police custody," he says. "The police beat me up." He was arrested that time, he said, for coming to the aid of the frantic mother of a young man who was being arrested.
Moving forwardJackson has won some battles. When drug dealers were working on Barthel Street, where he and his wife live, he said he took them to task. They moved out, but years later moved back and were evicted in 2009. Two weeks later, a rental property Jackson owns on Barthel was firebombed.
"The drug dealers were trying to send me a message."
Instead of pulling up stakes, Jackson dug in even deeper. He bought vacant lots and other homes on the street.
He does it all with the full support of his wife. Dierdre Jackson "gets" her husband.
She says the reason the local political power structure -- including Mayor Byron Brown -- has refused to embrace Jackson is that he speaks the unvarnished truth, unwilling to dress up the often dire circumstances of life on the East Side, especially for young people.
"They don't want anyone to keep it real. They want it sugar-coated," she said.
And when they feel threatened, she says, they go on the attack.
"The first thing they want to bring back is 'ex-gang member,' and that's not his name. It's 'Darnell Jackson.'"
Married three years ago after a 10-year relationship, they have six grown children between them and still live in the modest home on Barthel with their bull dog puppy, Boss.
Recently standing in his backyard as Boss slobbered over his suit, Jackson said, "It's so quiet at night here that you would think you're in Cheektowaga."
But, more than most, Jackson knows that not far from his quiet block, a war continues for the hearts and minds of Buffalo's young people -- and he will never leave the fight.