By TAMI LE, Maryland Newsline/CNS
Students gather around Jamal Spratley to watch a short video they made during a session with Spratley, Johnson (top left), and social worker Korey Brady (top right). (Photo: Tami Le)
OXON HILL, Md. (December 14, 2010) Sitting inside the walls of a prison cell six years ago, Henry "Hank" Johnson would have seemed an unlikely candidate to mentor students or work alongside police to reduce gang violence.
"Being partners with police...doing anti-violent rallies, working in schools...none of that would have been in my plans," said Johnson, 38.
But in 2004, after being released from prison after serving five years for
attempted first-degree murder, Johnson got involved in a fatal gang fight that
led to a role he now treasures: Helping at-risk elementary school children stay
out of trouble.
Six years ago, Johnson led the Birchwood City crew from Oxon Hill in a fight against the Shadow High crew of Fort Washington to avenge a friend's death. "Five people on the other side got shot, one got paralyzed; he's dead now," Johnson said. One of those shot was Dominic Taylor, a leader of the rival gang.
Taylor's father, Dominic Henry, while serving a sentence at a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., heard about what happened with his son. He reached out to Tyrone Parker, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance of Concerned Men, to intervene between the two gangs.
When Parker finally tracked down Johnson, he said he hugged him and said, "All the information we get, all roads lead back to you, Hank. ...
"We killing ourselves, man. We can't keep going."
Parker offered Johnson a way out and stability through facilities work at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington.
"It's never hard to negotiate the truce, never," said Parker. "The challenge is to be able to get the right resources to support the transformation."
Johnson found Parker persuasive and agreed to a truce. He told Parker that the gang violence had gotten to a point where he was scared to drive his young daughters in his car with him because of the shooting.
"You know, enough was enough," said Johnson. "So if this was a way out of it, then I was with it."
On Oct. 31, 2004, Johnson signed a peace treaty with former rival gang leader Taylor. On March 17, 2005, Johnson and Taylor received a Community Peace-Building Award from the Washington-based Search for Common Ground.
That same year Johnson and friend Jamal Spratley started a group called Circle of H.O.P.E. (Healing Our Personal Environment) to do mediation, mentoring and gang prevention with police and local schools.
As part of that effort, in 2007, Johnson called the principal at Forest Heights Elementary School and told her he wanted to give back to the community, to steer students away from the path he took. Principal Theresa Merrifield began selecting a group of seven to 10 students each year to join Johnson and Spratley's mentoring group.
"A lot of those young men were coming from single-parent homes, some of them have parents who were actively on drugs at that time," Merrifield said. ***
Johnson and Spratley provide the students with positive male role models and alternatives to drugs, gangs and crimes, Merrifield said.
One of the students in the program, Terrance Kirksey, 12, said he likes the Circle of H.O.P.E. because it teaches him "how to be a real man and how to show respect."
Darien Arnold, 11, said it has taught him "how not to bully."
Eighty-three percent of the students at Forest Heights Elementary School receive free or reduced meals, and Merrifield said it is common for students to join gangs.
"You're talking about students who are coming from a lower to middle-low social economic environment," she said. "My school is sitting only two blocks from Southeast, so I get a lot of ... individuals coming from the District."
Johnson knows what it's like to be drawn to the wrong crowds.
Although he said he grew up in a loving home with working parents in Birchwood City, a subdivision of Oxon Hill, he started hanging out at the local basketball courts with the older guys when he was 7.
"I looked up to the people in the streets," Johnson said. "They were getting money, they were looking good."
By age 10, he said, he smoked his first marijuana joint. And right before middle school, he said he became part of the Birchwood City crew, a gang that Johnson viewed as "a community. To us, it was our neighborhood."
He said he started selling drugs and fighting. He said he was arrested so many times, "I couldn't even keep count." But as he continued to run afoul of the law, he began to move up the ladder in the crew.
"It was real serious," said Johnson. "It was things I had to do to be accepted, be loved."
He said he hopes his Circle of H.O.P.E. encourages children to find acceptance in much more positive ways—and to express their creativity through documentaries, music videos or short movies.
Some students who may not be performing up to par in their classes, "have creativity they really don't know how to express," said Merrifield. "So Jamal and Hank take it from the avenue of technology."
In 2009, they made a music video to motivate students to prepare for the Maryland State Assessment, which assesses students in math, reading and science. This year they're working on a video on peer pressure. Johnson said he and Spratley bought cameras in 2004 and have been teaching themselves how to use them to make and edit videos since.
Johnson also works with county police to diffuse conflicts.
"None of the kids I know wants to talk to the police. They don't respect the police. The police feel like they don't respect them, they don't wanna talk to them," he said.
Prince George's County Police Maj. James Harper of the Oxon Hill Station said police often contact Johnson and Spratley when there is an issue of violence or crime or when they need to have a discussion with a youth. Johnson and Spratley "can really get in, and speak to the folks, and they can bring us in, almost like vouching for us," Harper said.
"We're just gonna take over the community," said Johnson. "The same way we used to do back in the days when we did wrong in the community."
Johnson, who still lives in Oxon Hill, said he still gets tempted to go back to his former ways, but he doesn't want to go back to prison.
"I can't do no more jail time. I can't even do 20 seconds," said Johnson, whose two daughters are now 13 and 19.
He still loves the streets and continues to spend a lot of time there. A few weeks ago, he started a ministry with Ebenezer AME Church where he goes out and talks to people on the streets about God.
Johnson said he can't be involved in gang violence any more.
"I just remember all the kids that I stirred in the wrong direction, all the kids that are either locked up, all the kids that are not here, these kids fathers' that are not here, and you know, I look back on that, and I was a major cause in that," he said.
"And you know, that's it. It's done."