Residents Concerned About 'Collateral Damage' to Harlem Youth in Gang Sweep
HARLEM — While many of her neighbors were relieved by the roundup of more than 100 suspected gang members who police and prosecutors say terrorized the Grant and Manhattanville Houses with back-and-forth shootings for years, Katherine Fort was furious.
Police had entered her apartment early Wednesday morning looking for her 20-year-old son, Isaac Waterman, who was charged with conspiracy for his alleged involvement with the Make it Happen Boys, a gang from Manhattanville Houses.
According to the indictment, Waterman used Facebook to try to buy a gun and acquire bullets, posted messages about the Make it Happen Boys, and, in November 2012, possessed a loaded .357 Magnum revolver in the lobby of a building. If found guilty, he faces several years in prison.
As far as Fort knew, her son's troubles were behind him after a previous scrape with the law. He was participating in a mentoring program with the city's probation department and didn't hang out with his old friends anymore.
"He wasn't in a gang," said Fort, a postal worker. "Why should my son go to jail for years because he posted some messages on Facebook?"
Fort isn't the only one concerned the gang bust — which Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called the largest in the city's history — might sweep up teens and young men on the periphery of the gang world.
The Stop Mass Incarceration Network, an advocacy group, has criticized the bust as a continuation of policies that disproportionately imprison young black and Latino men instead of providing resources to help them overcome the temptation to get involved with gangs.
Iesha Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources, who works with kids at risk of gang activity, praised the arrests for getting guns and the most violent actors off the streets.
But she worries about "overzealousness" in prosecuting those cases.
"There are a good number of young people caught up in this that I've heard police refer to as 'collateral damage,'" Sekou said. "We applaud the takedown and want to see an end to the violence and the guns being sold, but we also have to be careful to make sure young people are not unnecessarily thrown into the criminal justice system."
Prosecutors say the takedown involved two murders, 19 shootings and another 50 attempted shootings over a 4 1/2 year period, including the murder of basketball star Tayshana "Chicken" Murphy in 2011 and the slaying of Walter "Reck" Sumter, whose murder was believed to be in retaliation for Murphy's.
Vance has used complex conspiracy indictments 14 times to take down 16 gangs, including a recent case in East Harlem where all 62 defendants pleaded guilty.
Many of the men who are now in their late teens and early 20s, are being charged for activities when they were younger. Twenty-five people charged are under the age of 18. The youngest is 15.
"If you are watching a kid go bad at 15 and you wait until they are 18 to arrest them and charge them with a conspiracy that could put them in jail for 25 years, we have to ask where was the intervention?" Sekou said.
Darlene Laster, 50, a resident therapist who has lived all her life in Manhattanville Houses, has a son, Jordan Laster, 20, who is charged with conspiracy to commit murder. He was accused of shooting at rivals from the 3Staccs crew in 2011 and of participating in a 2013 gang assault and stabbing.
Laster did not deny her son's troubled past, but said he has told her over the past year that he no longer wanted to participate in the violence.
"We've been asking for help, crying for help," Laster said. "We parents out here are tired of the violence, too."
Police and prosecutors said the case involves more than just posting gang messages on Facebook.
"We use social media as information and relevant evidence, but certainly no one is indicted because they have made a statement on Facebook or Twitter regarding a crime," Vance said at a press conference. "We are looking for more evidence certainly than just a statement on social media about participation in crime."
Instead, social media is used to corroborate other evidence such as surveillance videos and testimony from witnesses and victims.
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the violence stemming from the rivalry between the two public housing complexes is the most difficult type to deal with.
"Make no mistake about it, the motivation here oftentimes is not about drugs. It's just violence for violence's sake — feuds over nothing. It is not organized crime in the sense that we think of gangs controlling drug territory," said Bratton. "The violence is mindless in many respects."
Akil Rose of the Harlem Transformation Project, a mentoring program that has worked with kids from both Grant Houses and Manhattanville Houses, said while he understands the concern about the large number of young people caught up in the indictment, it shows the need for a community focus to deal with the problem.
"Police officers are not social workers," Rose said. "They are not religious leaders or case managers. The moral fiber of our community should be our concern."
But for Rev. Vernon Williams of Perfect Peace Ministry, who has spent years interacting with kids in Harlem, including some of those indicted, steering them away from gangs and violence has been an uphill battle.
"I've been talking to them for 8 years and they didn't get it," Williams said.
Now, after reading the indictment and seeing the gangs were recruiting and using kids as young as 10 to plot shootings and stabbings and to transport guns, Williams plans to spend the summer working with 10 to 12-year-olds so there won't be a repeat roundup five years from now.
"We need to focus on them before they start shooting," Williams said.
Ben Fractenberg contributed reporting