Still Working the Streets, but Now to Combat a Plague of Gun Violence

Rudy Suggs, 48, has already lived one life, and now he is on his second. The first was as a gun-toting drug dealer in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a few blocks from where he grew up. The second is as an anti-gun-violence activist, working the same streets he used to roam late into the night to prevent gunshots before they happen.

On and around the street corner where one of his friends was once gunned down, Mr. Suggs now breaks up fights before people run home to get their weapons. The neighborhood kids who saw him selling and fighting when they were young are now teenagers whom he counsels not to go down the same path.

Mr. Suggs’s services as a “violence interrupter,’’ one of four who work for Save Our Streets Crown Heights, part of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, are in high demand, with shootings still prevalent in the neighborhood. There were 44 shooting victims in the 77th Precinct, where the mediation center is, through Dec. 10 this year, down from 47 last year, according to the center. The neighborhood’s summer ended with a bloody Labor Day weekend: two men were fatally stabbed and two more people were wounded in shootings around the area after the annual West Indian American Day Parade.

When Mr. Suggs and his family first moved to Crown Heights in the late 1960s, he said, “you didn’t have to worry about nights. But now it’s hard to come out and sit on your stoop with your kids at 2 a.m. Every five minutes now, you hear gunshots.” A colleague’s daughter’s boyfriend was shot on the corner of Utica Avenue and St. John’s Place in mid-August. Several days before that, he saw a man carrying a military-caliber assault rifle.

With other violence interrupters, Mr. Suggs canvasses street corners and parks, residential blocks and commercial strips several nights a week. They cultivate relationships with local residents who know to call them at the first sign of tensions brewing on their block and mediate between would-be antagonists.

They tell people to think of the consequences of firing a bullet, aiming to change community attitudes toward guns as if combating a disease — a public-health approach, as the center’s director, Amy Ellenbogen, puts it. Rarely do they get the police involved, preferring to build trust in the community by handling things themselves. They never carry guns.

Mr. Suggs has stepped in between business owners and unruly customers, or between neighbor and neighbor, earning him smiles and waves as he walks down busy streets in Crown Heights. Occasionally he deals with a much larger conflict: On July 4, a traditional high-water mark for violence, Mr. Suggs and other Save Our Streets staff found more than 150 gang members from three gangs milling around Brower Park, eyeing each other. Tensions were rising. A few violence interrupters were mediating between the gangs’ leaders, while the rest worked the crowd, calming people down.

“When I speak to an individual, I say, you have a problem with this individual over here, you shoot him, he’s dead,” Mr. Suggs said. “You have family; he has family. You shoot him, you go to jail for 25 to life. Your kids without a father. Your wife without a husband. But they have to take care of you. He’s dead. His mother and father has no son. So now you’re both in the same situation. The only difference is, you’re alive. So now.” He spread his hands out, palms up. “We have to change the mind-set. It’s like a disease, like cancer.”

Mr. Suggs says his message works because he is what Save Our Streets calls a “credible messenger”: someone who has been there.

He used to have two guns and access to many more through friends. He dodges the question of whether he ever shot anybody, saying only, “I’m so fortunate a lot of things I did, I never got caught for. Just put it like that: Things happened.” Once, during a drug deal, he was robbed, then dragged behind a car until his left leg was broken in 15 places.

He grew up with four brothers and three sisters in a household in which he always had enough food and clothing, but he was restless. After getting his G.E.D., he worked as a stock clerk and in data entry before realizing that the fast money, as he put it, was better. There was money to be made, first in marijuana, then in crack and cocaine. “Why spend money when we could sell it?” he remembers thinking. “I wasn’t always this honest.”

But he knew his time as a dealer was coming to a close when he was sent to prison for 15 months in 1992 after selling 125 grams of cocaine to an undercover officer, he said. He still remembers his prison ID number, 92R4905. He vowed never to go back. But he continued the same life for several years, until he realized his daughter and her son were making the same sorts of choices he had made as a teenager.

Eventually, he started picking up an honest job here and there. Now he works a day job as a cook in a senior citizens’ center. When the violence interrupter program was founded in December 2010, he was one of the first.

“I did a lot of damage to people, so this is my way of giving back,” he said. “I had to give something back.”

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