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Gang-intervention worker turns grief into motivation

After prison, two former shot-callers got a second chance in life and used it to show at-risk teens a better way. When Looney was killed in the streets, the students helped T-Top mourn, and move on.

August 12, 2010|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

The old friends were in their best suits, Ronald "Looney" Barron's the color of caramel and Tommie "T-Top" Rivers' ribbed with pinstripes, a paisley pocket square peeking out just so.

It was uncanny how their lives had mirrored each other's. They were born months apart, raised in the West Adams area. Both were good athletes, charismatic and bright, and both had squandered it all — rising to the level of "shot caller" in their respective gangs, turning their backs on their childhood friendship, then spending most of their 20s in prison.

Behind bars, they became voracious readers. They were 27 when they got out. Each had one son and one daughter. They both had a second chance, and together, dedicated themselves to forging peace on the streets.

Now here they were, together, one last time.

The mourners were packed around Looney's body; one had left her tears running down Looney's cheek. T-Top cleared his throat.

"I'm sorry," he said. "We need to close the casket."

::

When Looney and T-Top got home from prison in 1997, it felt as if their old neighborhood was cracking open a window for the first time after a terrible storm.

Drugs and gangs had seized the impoverished interior of Los Angeles, creating a wave of violence that climaxed with the riots of 1992. Five years later, murder rates were still high but falling markedly. It was a critical moment for the city.

Soon, Darren "Bo" Taylor came calling for Looney and T-Top. Taylor was a former gangbanger too, who had helped quell the riots and become a leading practitioner of gang "intervention," using street smarts to interrupt cycles of violence. Taylor enrolled Looney and T-Top in a program called Amer-I-Can.

Amer-I-Can came with an imposing, bound curriculum labeled with the words "The Responsibility of Self-Determination" — an owner's manual of sorts that had been written by educators, psychologists and football legend Jim Brown, the nonprofit's founder. It was equal parts self-help book, philosophy text, career counseling and bible of practical knowledge, from staying sober to balancing your checkbook.

"It changed everything," said T-Top. "It changed the way we thought."

::

By 2003, Looney and T-Top had helped forge one of the most significant peace agreements the inner city had ever seen, said leaders of the city's effort to combat gangs. A dozen traditionally warring gangs came to the table, gangs that claimed neighborhoods stretching from USC to Venice.

Amer-I-Can began sending Looney and T-Top into schools across the city to preach their message; they put scores of at-risk students through the semester-long curriculum. In the classroom, their point of view was unusual and potent.

On one hand, they understood the allure of gangs.

"The lifestyle is addictive," said T-Top, a former Geer Gang Crip. "It's the power, the cars, the girls. It's the respect you get."

It's also, he said, "crap."

African Americans shoot at each other on the street, he said, then band together in prison, then shoot at each other again when they get home. Gang members think they live under their own code of honor, he said, but turn on each other in an instant.

"There's no morals, no values, no guidance, no structure," T-Top said. "You get all the way to the top, and there's nothing there."

It was a message that resonated with school administrators and students alike. Looney and T-Top were in high demand, Brown said.

"Looney was all about the kids," T-Top said. "I wish I'd had somebody like him when I was coming up."

In the schools, Looney and T-Top were a team. If Looney criticized a student's grades, T-Top would talk about a path toward improvement. If T-Top assailed a student for fighting, Looney would offer reassuring lessons about forgiveness and respect.

"We were best friends. … I knew how to counter what he was saying, and vice versa," T-Top said. "If I was on 'em, he'd lift 'em up. It was a tight operation."

::

In December, Amer-I-Can was contracted to counsel students at Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School and gave the job to Looney and T-Top.

The school was on Adams Boulevard, not far from where they grew up. Of the 300 students, 96% were African American and 73% were classified as "socioeconomically disadvantaged." The school routed students who were "at the greatest risk" into the program, said Karen Anderson, the school's principal and director.

Looney and T-Top started working with a dozen kids in Room 9, a history classroom whose walls reflected the school's rigorous academics. Most kids came from broken homes; some of them, even the sixth-graders, could describe the smell of crack cocaine.

Each session began with "feeling words," an exercise meant to encourage introspection among students raised in emotionally muted homes. The kids picked words that reflected the ups and downs of middle school — optimistic, determined, afraid. Looney and T-Top always picked the same word: Blessed.

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