Two years ago, Danny’s friend was hanging out on Rockaway Avenue, the commercial strip that runs alongside the projects, when he noticed a girl coming out of a bodega across the street. Danny’s buddy hollered at her. Her boyfriend didn’t like it. They argued. Danny’s friend shot the other kid in the butt. He survived, but by morning, Danny’s friend was dead. The 16-year-old answered a knock on the door and faced a hail of bullets. “It had to be somebody he knew or he would’ve never opened the door, especially after what had happened,” Danny says. “He had his gun on him, but he didn’t even get to pull it out.”
Deanna Rodriguez, the D.A.’s gang-bureau chief, says the academics may be right that this sort of interpersonal beef among armed young men has caused the surge in violence in recent years. But the real concern, she argues, is that the small gangs are becoming entrenched—and starting to fight over drug-dealing turf. Maturing subsets of Latino gangs like the Latin Kings and Dominicans Don’t Play, she says, are particularly worrying—which may explain the city’s sharpest murder spike, in Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct, where a peace between area Latin gangs has fallen part.
“There were several gangs that were operating in one area, and they just coexisted,” says Rodriguez. “Each gang had their area, and they sold their drugs and were just able to exist independent of each other, because there was money to be made.” For some reason, she says, that’s broken down, and the same thing is happening all over the borough. “What appears on the surface to be a fight will have gang overtones. It’s not something you readily see until you investigate it. And then you have to look at the whole area and see what’s going on there.”
Ben Igwe, who runs the Family Services Network of clinics and aid agencies in Bushwick and Brownsville, believes the gang violence is intensifying because the poverty here is getting worse. The volume of food moving through his free pantry has nearly doubled in the last year, and he runs out of supplies every month. “Where are all the people who are priced out of Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy going? They come to Brownsville and Bushwick,” he says. “They move in and you have this higher concentration of poverty and they are stressed—and you are going to have conflict.” In 2006, Bushwick’s population jumped by more than 8,000 people, or about 7 percent, according to the Department of City Planning; 13 percent of the neighborhood’s residents lived in a different home than the year before. “There’s a pulse,” Igwe says. “You can feel it. And that stress ends in people acting out.”
The Police Department has vowed to stop the acting out, and a fresh crop of academy grads started flooding into the area over the holidays. But nobody who spends time in these neighborhoods thinks the gangs will be cowed. On Christmas Eve, a 12-year-old robbery suspect escaped from a police cruiser parked at a Rockaway Avenue corner when someone just walked up and opened the car door. “People are not afraid of police, and they’re not afraid of jail,” says Donaldson. He acknowledges that the cops’ war of attrition against organized crime brought murder rates way down at century’s close, but he argues no policing solution can hold permanently. “You’re not dealing with the root cause,” he says. “Nobody wants to hear about the root-cause thing, because it’s an old story. But nobody ever gave those guys jobs.”