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The Story Of A Denver Neighborhood In 'The Holly'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Why would a well-known Denver anti-gang activist, a man who vowed to and by all accounts did change his life after a decade in prison, shoot a gang leader in front of everybody just a few minutes before the peace rally he'd organized was supposed to start? Journalist Julian Rubinstein wondered that, too, as well as what was actually being done with all the money flowing into the neighborhood to try to uproot or at least neutralize the gangs? And what did it mean that the neighborhood was changing day by day, another place where historic Black residents, many whose forebears had fled the Jim Crow South, were being pushed out? He decided to move back to his hometown of Denver to find out.

Seven years later, he's gathered what he's learned into his latest book. It's called "The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun And The Struggle To Save an American Neighborhood." And Julian Rubinstein is with us now to tell us more about it. Julian, thanks so much for joining us.

JULIAN RUBINSTEIN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So what exactly got your spider sense tingling? I mean, I know that you grew up in Denver, but you didn't know Terrance Roberts. He's the anti-gang activist kind of at the heart of the book. What made you think, something just doesn't sound right about what I'm hearing here?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, first, when I decided to come out and look into the story, one of the things that was clear from the beginning was that even some of my initial reporting wasn't matching up with what some of the central figures in the story were saying about it. And, of course, that did include Terrance. I wasn't really sure exactly what I thought about some of the things he said, which included his idea that he was actually targeted and pushed out from the community. But it was enough to make me kind of wonder what really did happen.

MARTIN: Tell me more about Terrance. He certainly sounds like somebody who deserves a book.

RUBINSTEIN: He is someone who really just sort of emanates this history just straight from him. You talk to him, and he's just sort of beating with that history coming from everything he says, what he went through from his life originally in this neighborhood as a third-generation resident of this neighborhood. He ended up becoming a gang member as a teen, having a whole life, so to speak, as a gang member before he ended up in prison for about a decade, coming out of prison and deciding to go back to his community because he wanted to sort of right some of the wrongs that he did and had this real desire to help fight the gang violence that had torn apart the community. And then, sure enough, he finds himself in the middle of a really powerful effort to redevelop the very community he was part of and, in fact, Holly Square. He became part of that effort and then felt that it was his connection to that effort that ended up pushing him out.

MARTIN: Well, you followed the legal proceedings against Terrance. But in the course of it, you kind of describe the history of gangs in the neighborhood and, you know, how they operate. But you also come to question the way anti-gang efforts are actually conducted. And what are some of the things that came up?

RUBINSTEIN: What is going on, and I saw for sure right now, is that often these so-called community-based efforts to fight gang violence and community violence are actually not community-based. The lion's share of this funding, even for these social services type efforts in these communities, actually is under the umbrella of law enforcement and ends up becoming, like, a big constellation of organizations that gather and get their money together around that funding. And some of this effort is actually being done in a way that is really inappropriate for what should be done. For example, active gang members are being used as anti-gang activists, and the results have been disastrous.

MARTIN: And to that end, though, I'm just so - trying to figure out if you have like a theory of everything here. I mean, you spent many years reporting on this, and you describe a lot of funky dynamics that just don't seem right. But - and I'm just wondering, do you have some overriding theory of intention here? Or is it possible that it's just really hard and that a lot of people just don't really know what to do and are just kind of - everybody's just feeling their way blind here? I mean, Terrance - you present Terrance. You're obviously sympathetic to him. He seems like a person who's really struggled to do the right thing, hard things, and yet he doesn't always do the right thing.

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? And yet other people seem like they're - you know, everybody's kind of trapped in their point of view. And I just wonder, do you have some overriding theory here? Like, you think there's a - like a - I don't want to say conspiracy, but some sort of overriding intention here?

RUBINSTEIN: I could only say that, you know, I didn't go into this, you know, story with any agenda. But I did come out of it thinking that if there's any story that seems to suggest a significant structural racism problem, I think this is it. And I would just hope that it can be learned from. I think that organizations that are trying to do good, many of them probably think they are trying to do good but maybe need to work harder to do so.

The other thing is - that I saw very clearly and problematically is that a lot of these organizations that are involved in the redevelopment of these communities are also funding law enforcement efforts. And law enforcement has a very powerful hand in actually what's going on. Even in redevelopment, they're working alongside the cities and these powerful entities that may not share the same interests. But if they all want to be happy and work together and think that they're going to continue to get funding to do the things they do and reporting on them that is suggesting that they are, then they just can continue. I think that what we need is real significant pushback against this. And it is surprising that the media reporting, unfortunately, has not done that.

MARTIN: Well, to that - I was going to say that. OK. So let me set it up here.

RUBINSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: So Terrance...

RUBINSTEIN: Go ahead.

MARTIN: ...Has been arrested again. He was involved in protests against the killing in police custody of Elijah McClain. And I know many people will have remembered this story. This is a terrible story out of Aurora. Young man - the police stopped him because they thought he was acting weird. He is this slight, slender young man who they wound up injecting. They - at his - at the police's request or - was injected with ketamine, of this powerful anesthesia. He later died - significant protests around this.

I mean, this is one of those stories in a series of stories that just got tremendous attention. In the context of that, Terrance Roberts became an important figure, and he was arrested for inciting a riot. You say he wasn't even there when this all occurred - right? - when these actions occurred. So tell me more about - what do you think all that means?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, so he was there earlier in the night. But the night - but the part of it that they say was a riot, he had left. And then other people were also charged with kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of police officers because they had, like, tried to barricade the entrance. It was at that later time of the evening that Terrance had left.

But I was left with, you know, almost a feeling - a state of shock but then also realizing, you know what? This has just kind of underlined all of the findings that I'd had in the book coming up to that point. I feel like in many ways, this book is actually a story of the history of activism and thwarted activism.

You know, activism and gangs have been actually more connected than people realize in a lot of ways. And a lot of gang members join gangs because they want to protect their community, and they see themselves in this way. Terrance Roberts really, I think, came under the serious scrutiny of law enforcement around 2010 when his Colorado Camo movement, which was a gang unity movement, started trying to turn gang members into activists. And it was becoming successful.

So I think that the events, including in 2020, left me wondering, like - thinking everything is just totally upside down. And the people who are the actual peacekeepers are being followed and arrested, and the people who are the active criminals are being elevated into positions of influence.

MARTIN: That is Julian Rubinstein. His latest book, "The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun And The Struggle To Save An American Neighborhood," is out now. Julian Rubinstein, thanks so much for talking to us.

RUBINSTEIN: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "ALL FOR U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.