Fort Greene

Volunteer Violence Interrupters in Fort Greene Go It Alone

The members of Switching Lifestylez didn’t wait for a city contract to do the work.

June 28, 2023 Gwynne Hogan, The City
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A group of six violence interrupters in Fort Greene have been responding to shootings, holding vigils, and de-escalating conflicts between youth in the neighborhood’s two public housing complexes for over a year.

The work is similar to what other interrupter groups do in gun violence hotspots, from The Bronx to Coney Island to Far Rockaway. But in Fort Greene, there’s one major difference: They’re not getting paid.

Carlos Jones, 55, and his crew of volunteers with the nonprofit Switching Lifestylez used to work as employees of another violence interrupter group: Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, Inc. (G-MACC) run by Shanduke McPhatter, who was arrested in 2020 after allegedly threatening to have the Bloods gang attack his neighbor.

A subsequent city audit found McPhatter had been paying himself a $282,000 salary, which he was later ordered to reduce. McPhatter’s city contract expired in June of 2021, records show, and an office the group opened for neighborhood youth on Myrtle Avenue has sat empty and closed off to the community ever since.

The Myrtle Avenue storefront for violence interrupter group Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, Inc. has bee shuttered since 2021.
The Myrtle Avenue storefront for violence interrupter group Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, Inc. has been shuttered for several years, June 20, 2023. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

While his anti-violence efforts stalled, McPhatter ran an unsuccessful campaign for Brooklyn borough president.

As G-MACC folded, a core group of its former employees with roots in the neighborhood kept doing the work.

“When everybody left, we stepped up,” said Jones. “We on the front line with no salary. We put our life on the line every day to keep this neighborhood safe.”

Inez Wilson, 52, the former office manager at G-MACC’s operation, co-founded Switching Lifestylez with Jones. While Jones handles the street outreach, Wilson handles the paperwork — and the group officially received nonprofit status last summer, IRS records show.

Switching Lifestylez founders Inez Wilson and Carlos Jones walk by a fenced-off basketball hoop beneath a fire-damaged window at the Ingersoll Houses.
Wilson and Jones walk by a fenced-off basketball hoop beneath a fire-damaged window at the Ingersoll Houses. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It definitely was a learning curve just dealing with the process,” Wilson said of going from being employees to running their own nonprofit organization.

She said they also struggled to distance themselves from their scandal-plagued former boss.

“There was no real open-arms type of conversations with other organizations. We had to try to prove ourselves separate,” she said. “We’re still doing the work. The fact that we’re out here not getting paid shows the difference.”

Switching Lifestylez formally submitted a request for a city contract in November 2022, proposing an annual budget of $1 million, records show. They’re still waiting to hear back. The funds would go toward salaries for the current crew of volunteers plus new hires, and renting a space to turn into a safe clubhouse for neighborhood youth.

A recreation area was fenced off at the Walt Whitman Houses.
A recreation area was fenced off at the Walt Whitman Houses. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mark Zustovich, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, which recently was tasked with oversight of the city’s violence interrupters, said the contract review process is ongoing.

“Violence interrupters are a key part of the administration’s public safety strategy,” Zustovich said. “We’re thrilled to partner with grassroots organizations across the city to help protect our communities and deliver a safer New York City for everyone.”

Bridging the Gap

While they wait, Jones and his Switching Lifestylez team continue to roam the Walt Whitman and Ingersoll houses in Fort Greene and Farragut Houses near the Navy Yard, three public housing complexes with a combined 4,878 apartments.

Walt Whitman — where Jones grew up — and Ingersoll sit just north of verdant Fort Greene Park. While the south and east edges of the park are lined with multimillion dollar brownstones, the public housing and the hulking Auburn Family Residence shelter on the north end of the park are a world away.

A shaved-ice seller pushed her cart with a rainbow umbrella amid scaffolding at the Walt Whitman Houses.
A shaved-ice seller pushed her cart with a rainbow umbrella amid the scaffolding at Whitman Houses. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Scaffolding and sidewalk sheds darken the passageways between buildings, while the basketball and handball courts have been closed off for as long as anyone can remember. The groundbreaking on a renovation of basketball courts — a plan that began in 2018 — finally took place earlier this month. Michael Horgan, a spokesperson for NYCHA, said work had been delayed due to roofing and facade work that had to be finished first, as well as funding shortfalls.

Switching Lifestylez member Anthony “ATL” Nabry leans between scaffolding poles outside the Walt Whitman Houses.
Anthony “ATL” Mabry leans on scaffolding outside the Walt Whitman Houses. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“You know what the result of not having things to do, not having no playgrounds, not having no centers, not having no basketball courts,” said Anthony Mabry, 29, another of the volunteer violence interrupters. “Death and violence. That’s the result.”

Last year there were 13 shootings in and around the three complexes, NYPD data shows. Two people have been killed so far this year, including most recently, 21-year-old Rmeek Lucas in April.

“I walked his little brother home Wednesday,” Jones said of Lucas. The group is trying to link the boy with a summer program and has been in communication with his mother. “I’m tired of seeing people’s families in pain.”

While Jones grew up at Walt Whitman, he currently commutes nearly four hours every day from the home in Middletown, about 80 miles north of Brooklyn, that he shares with his wife, a retired corrections officer. Most days Jones and his other volunteers are traversing the three public housing complexes, chatting kids up as they walk home from school, and intervening if arguments arise.

Carlos Jones carries a duffle bag down an escalator at Port Authority.
Port Authority is part of Carlos Jones’ daily commute two hours each way from Middletown to Fort Greene, June 6, 2023. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

They’re in communication with the local police and schools in the area, Jones said, and are regularly called in to help de-escalate conflicts.

“I never called him and he hasn’t answered, even in the middle of the night,” said NYPD Neighborhood Coordination Officer Christopher Francis.

Francis described an instance last summer when the police received 311 complaints for a late night party with dozens of teenagers outside. He called in Jones, who helped calm the situation. “They grew up with him. They know him from the neighborhood. I’m just a guy in a uniform. He bridges the gap.”

Carlos Jones walks with seniors from the Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts as they stroll through the Walt Whitman Houses on the way to getting food after dismissal.
Jones accompanies students from the Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts as they stroll through the Walt Whitman Houses on the way to getting food after dismissal. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Jones and the volunteers accompany kids to court dates and try to connect kids with after-school programs, or get them gift cards to buy groceries. Jones runs free weekly boxing classes. Last summer he helped connect a group of teens to a summer training and mentorship program with One Community, according to Jed Marcus, the group’s president.

When a shooting happens, the volunteers gather at the area and try to piece together what happened. They get in touch with members of the victim’s family, try to soothe them, and provide what support they can.

An Ingersoll Houses community member wrote “Miss you so much” on a votive candle at an Ingersoll Houses memorial for for 21-year-old Rmeek Lucas.
Ingersoll Houses community members created a memorial for 21-year-old Rmeek Lucas, who was fatally shot in April outside his building. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“People want revenge,” Jones said. He and his volunteers have the difficult task of walking them back from that ledge. “It be so much tension going on.”

On the campaign trail, Mayor Eric Adams promised to “fully fund” the Crisis Management System that he said was “proven to reduce crime.” The money to fund that system, which “deploys teams of credible messengers who mediate conflicts on the street and connect high-risk individuals to services that can reduce the long-term risk of violence,” was supposed to come from the $500 million Adams said could be cut from the NYPD budget by bringing in civilians to do some jobs in place of uniformed officers.

According to the Blueprint to End Gun Violence the Adams administration released in January 2022, the Crisis Management System has been “extremely effective in reducing gun violence, but they have been hobbled by inefficient government bureaucracy. We will build on the already-successful work of CMS violence interrupters and ensure they have the resources needed to do their work.”

‘Ready to Hurt Somebody’

Crystal Hudson, the local City Council member, called Jones a role model and mentor.

“Watching him work is incredible,” said Hudson, a Democrat. “We have yet to see a system that gives these trusted providers the full tools and resources they need to do this work long-term. Carlos has been unbelievably successful, but a labor of love can only last so long.”

For Jones the work is personal. He lost a nephew to gun violence. At 55 years old, he’s spent almost half of his life behind bars, with stints in juvenile detention, on Rikers Island, in state prison and federal lockup. Jones said he understands what it’s like to grow up angry. His brother was killed at a young age, after getting pushed out of the family’s apartment window by another child.

Carlos Jones poses for a portrait in Fort Greene Park wearing a Switching Lifestylez shirt.
Carlos Jones has been self-funding his Fort Greene-base violence intervention group. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“You walk around with a chip on your shoulder, you walk around ready to hurt somebody,” he said.

While Jones’ juvenile arrest record is sealed, he said he was involved in someone’s death at age 11. He was involved in another person’s death again at age 16, state corrections records show.

“Thinking about it, I…” he said, trailing off.

For years he was a member of the Gangster Killer Bloods gang. At this stage in his life, five years out of federal prison, Jones said he’s committed to using that influence as a force for good.

“A lot of people look up to me,” he said. “I just turned it around to the positive side.”

And a lot of young people in the area do look up to the man they call Uncle C. On a recent afternoon, walking the pathways around Ingersoll, Jones bumps into 23-year-old Domincio Howington. They shake hands and embrace.

23-year-old Domincio Howington embraces Carlos Jones at the Ingersoll Houses.
Domincio Howington, 23, embraces Carlos Jones at the Ingersoll Houses. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Howington said he was released from state prison in 2020 for an assault that took place when he was 16. Since then, he’s gotten training to work as a medical assistant, working at Sweetgreen, and eager to study further to become a phlebotomist.

Having Jones’ support has meant everything, he said.

“Cause having a father figure in your life is different. So when one doesn’t have, and then when someone step in,” he said. “He definitely somebody I look up to.”

Jones smiles. He said he’s constantly telling the youth he works with he wants them to win.

“Cause I don’t want them to fail, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s easy to fail.”

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