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Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006 | During the day, Conrad Harris works as a carpenter, building forms to shape concrete. But it’s after work, during his free time, that the 40-year-old Southcrest native pursues his true passion: molding young people.
Harris is a board member of Overcoming Gangs, a youth outreach program based out of the Gladiators School of Boxing and Martial Arts, where he’s a regular presence. He also coaches Pop Warner football and serves as an informal counselor to the gang members in his community, helping them obtain career training, land jobs and find a better path in life.
Earlier this year, Harris was named to the city’s newly established Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, which is tasked with advising the mayor and City Council on related policy matters. Harris said he hopes to bridge the gap between “the powers that be” at City Hall and gang members.
While bringing such diverse groups to common ground may seem like a daunting task, Harris, an ex-member of the Bloods street gang, is in a unique position to make it happen. His former lifestyle earned him more than 14 years in prison and he has first-hand understanding of the reasons kids join gangs, the toll of gang life and what it will take to solve the problem.
How old were you when you first joined a gang?
I’ve been involved with gangs since about the age of 13 or 14 years old.
What attracted you to gangs?
I went to Gompers Junior High School in a Crip neighborhood. At the time I wasn’t gang banging but every morning me and my friends from the Southcrest neighborhood, we would be walking to school and the older gang members would be hanging out. … On the way to school we would get harassed and some days we would have to run home from school. … Eventually, some of my older homeboys, who I knew from this neighborhood, they was gang members and they didn’t run from school. They had pistols and everything.
So me and some of my friends started going to school with them because we didn’t have to run, we didn’t have to hide, we didn’t have to do none of that.
How did you go from walking to school with gang members to serving time in prison?
As you become entangled in this web with the gangs, you start not going to school because your homeboys aren’t going to school. … Eventually, when you’re hanging out and you’re not in school, you get into other things. For instance, I started getting into selling drugs. It started off with just a little light marijuana here and there for the extra few dollars in your pockets and as time go on you start smoking weed and you start doing other drugs. It’s a snowball effect. … Before you know it, your friends and everybody around you is in a gang and … like I said, you start selling drugs and might even commit a homicide.
I was fortunate enough not to ever go that far. I was fortunate enough not to even have to shoot no one. I never had to pull a gun on anyone.
Eventually, I started selling rock cocaine when it came out in the 1980s. We were trying to get as much money as possible. That’s what eventually led to my prison terms. I’ve been to prison twice, for selling drugs both times. … The first time I went to prison I was 21. I went for four years.
Who or what changed your outlook on gang life?
Honestly, I faded away from the gang life when I went to prison for four years because I became really close with some Crips. I got along better with them than some of the Bloods that I ran with. … And then I started looking at it like “Wow man, these dudes ain’t all that bad. They people just like me. They got problems just like me.” … But then when I came home it was no better because … I continued to sell drugs and, just like it always happens, when you’re doing wrong, wrong catches up with you – that bad karma. And that’s when I got my 10-year prison term.
So why aren’t you still selling drugs today?
When I got sent away the second time … I moved into a cell with a guy by the name of Percy Jenkins who had life and had been incarcerated since 1972. Percy was what you would look at as, of all the blacks in the institution, as the patriarch, the monarch. Nobody messed with Percy, nobody. Not because he was a bad guy but because he was educated. He had got his master’s degree and all this stuff when he was in jail. He had some older partners, one by the name of Malik and another one by the name of Mr. Green.
I moved into the cell with Percy and … I used to watch this man every day. He would come, he would go to work, he would study his books and we would talk. … He asked me this one day, … “If I ask you what two plus two is right now, what’s the answer going to be?” I said, “Four.” He said, “Ten years from now, if I ask you what two plus two is, what’s it going to be?” I said, “Four.” He said, “If you leave out these walls the same person you was when you came in, you going to come back to the same situation. It don’t change.” He said, “You got to change yourself if you expect to do any changing in your life. If not, you’re going to be up in here with a life sentence like me.”
The other two gentlemen I told you about, Malik and Mr. Green, they would come around. … When I was with them, they would educate me about the Black Panther movement, agriculture or how the moon and the stars worked, everything. It was really amazing to see how much knowledge these brothers had. … The whole time they’re telling me, “Don’t go out there and destroy our communities.” They pushed this harder than anything. … Percy said, “Just because you came in here and you done this 10 years, that don’t pay for all of the people you hurt selling that dope.” … He said, “You have got to go out of here, man, and you have got to make amends.”
Is that why you started helping kids stay out of gangs?
When I came home four years ago, me and my wife sat down and I said, “Yeah babe, I need to do something good. I need to be involved with the community.” … The first step I took towards that was I started coaching baseball. … So I slowly started getting involved with the community through that. Eventually, some of my peers come to me and say, “Hey Conrad man, we got this organization called Overcoming Gangs. You interested in it? We get rallies together, we try to keep kids off of gangs and get out of gangs.” I said, “Yeah, this is exactly what I’m looking for.” … It went from that, to where I’m at right now.
You’re now on the city’s newly established gang commission. What do you hope to accomplish there?
What I’m looking for from the commission is for the mayor and the chief of police and the City Council members … to really focus in on these youth because they are not lost causes. They told me I was a lost cause. … These kids have been told this for so long that they believe it. So I want to be the voice for them to say “No, don’t give up on them. Don’t just lock them up and throw away the key.”
What do you think the commission needs to do to be a success?
To be a success is to communicate with the communities. That’s all we have to do. What I mean by communicate is show the community that you have a genuine interest in them. Don’t just come to the community when somebody gets their head blown off or when it’s election time. Come to the community all the time. … Come in here and be genuinely interested in their problems and you will get a reaction and it will be positive.
What one change in the community do you think would have the single greatest impact on preventing kids from joining gangs?
I’m not stepping on any teachers. I know that teachers have a hard job. Their classrooms are over-packed and they can’t deal with every individual. But when I was going to school every one of my teachers I had growing up … my mother knew personally because they would come to my house when I would mess up. Teachers need to take a more active role in these kids’ lives.
Education is more than teaching a child how to read and write. If a child feels you genuinely care for that individual they will respond better. It comes with caring. The reason why gang members flock to me they way they do is ’cause I genuinely care.
I think that the education in our community is lacking a great deal. What I’m saying is, the gang members in this community … they must have knowledge first so they can think and not follow. … Once they are educated, they can do for themselves. If you are giving them a lackluster education, passing them through school just to get them out of your classroom, you are part of the problem.
It seems like gangs are an accepted part of the culture in many communities. Do you think that can change?
There are always going to be gangs. There is all of the time going to be people who is doing wrong. There is always going to be people who is trying to wrong someone else. That’s a fact and we can’t never stop that. But to the extent that it’s at, it can be prevented better. We can decrease the numbers.
So where does that start?
My opinion to the commission is you can’t really just target one age group. Because you have got the kids in the household who are 7, 8, 9 years old, whose mommas and daddies are telling them “Blood get in the house,” or “Blood, you trippin’.” So that child is already programmed that he is going to be a Blood at 7 or 8 years old because the only thing his daddy called him is Blood.
You have to get to these kids as early as 8 all the way up through 19, 20, 21. You have got good parents and bad parents. … But once that child walks out of that house you can still have some type of positive effect on them no matter how the home is. … It’s just a little effort on all of our behalves to help combat the problem. I think that giving my time is a small price to pay for all of the wrong that I created in this community.