ROGERS PARK — When Brandon Murray was released from jail after serving a three-year sentence for felony possession of cocaine, he knew it was time to change his life.
"Coming home was not easy," said the 30-year-old. But "with a little prayer, I was given the opportunity to change — and show people it can happen."
Now Murray works with the Howard Area Community Center to keep young men and women employed and off the streets. And this fall, he took over a group called the Peace Angels, which aims to raise awareness of the unseen effects of the neighborhood's gun violence.
He said he strives to find "a solution to the biggest problem that plagues this community, and that's gun violence."
Murray grew up in Rogers Park. His family moved here in 1990. He said his mom kept him "on a tight leash."
He graduated from Gale Math and Science Academy, then attended Lake View High School. But he said he got tied up in dealing drugs on the streets and ended up a fifth-year senior at the now-closed Howard Area Alternative High School.
In 2010, he was arrested and charged with cocaine possession and was locked up for three years.
Eventually, he said, "Everybody gets caught."
Murray said he can easily relate to those involved in the gang conflict in Rogers Park that fuels so many of the neighborhood's shootings and homicides. Police have said friction between two factions of the Gangster Disciples, one with turf in the Howard Street area and the other with turf near Morse and Farwell avenues, is to blame.
"These guys, they don't see themselves as a gang; they see themselves as a family," Murray said. "Right now, it's revenge. Everyone's set on revenge. There's a back-and-forth thing going on. ... It's been going on for almost five years. I'm pretty sure a lot of guys have been locked up since then and got out, too."
But, Murray said, "Some of these guys are tired. They're scared and tired."
And they're ready to change, he said, just as he was when he got out of jail on Jan. 23, 2013.
"Now that you've seen what happens, are you going to go back to that same lifestyle?" he said, referring to a common question he asks the young people he works with.
Chris Patterson, who runs Rogers Park CeaseFire and works with ONE Northside, created the Peace Angels three years ago.
"It was an initiative to offset some of the negativity in the community," he said. But this fall he decided to pass the torch to Murray.
"He’s passionate, energetic," Patterson said. "He’s got the mind and energy to do it. He understands the ramifications of that lifestyle."
Murray and his supporters took to the streets Oct. 24 to host a mock funeral procession to raise awareness. They carried a red-painted coffin with them on the walk down Howard Street.
Murray said he also plans to organize a poetry jam somewhere in the neighborhood, where the youths he works with can express the realities of their lives in Rogers Park. He plans to name the event "Louder Than a Gun."
The young people of Rogers Park "are the future" of the community, he said, but they're also the victims of gun violence.
"When you look at the news headlines, these are the main ones losing their lives," he said. "So I want to give them something to do. To show them that I care, we care.
"I'm not going to be someone who sits around and does nothing."
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