Former rival gang members put bygones behind them at a Bronx Documentary Center film screening on June 30.
Former rival gang members put bygones behind them at a Bronx Documentary Center film screening on June 30.

Former gang rivals join up for Bronx Doc Center screening

In Rubble Kings, director Shan Nicholson tells the story of the Bronx of the 1970s and the harsh reality of gang existence in a deteriorating city where walking on the wrong block could get you killed.

Several former and present gang members, including some who were profiled in the film, came to view the screening at the Bronx Documentary Center on June 30. The film will be shown again on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, July 1 and 2.

The film seemed to strike a chord with the largely Bronx audience. As it was showing, audience members regularly shouted out, “I remember that!” or “I was there for that!”

“It’s such an interesting topic, I couldn’t miss it,” said community activist Mychal Johnson, who co-founded the grassroots coalition South Bronx Unite. Much of today’s gang activity in Mott Haven now takes place inside the area’s many public housing complexes, he said. “You have people in their 70s who are still a part of a gang.”

But although the Bronx is rapidly changing, the population is still predominantly Latino, and Latinos should speak up to separate stereotypes from reality, said one attendee.

“It’s important to be mindful of the knife-wielding Latino narrative,” said Marcela Morales. “The whole West Side Story idea.” Rubble Kings highlights the historical context of those narratives, helping to explain how oversimplified perceptions were formed.

The film begins in the 1960s, when the beginnings of a cultural revolution clashed with endemic racism and poverty. Then in the ‘70s, when attempts at urban renewal failed to improve deplorable living conditions, an angry new generation turned to violence and drugs. Footage of children with guns, mountains of debris, bodies scattered in the streets and long lines of people waiting to buy drugs, offer an unfiltered view of how far the Bronx had fallen.

“It was as if people wanted to die, because they had no dream,” said Felipe Luciano, a community activist. In response to those stark realities, gang membership reached the tens of thousands, with more than 101 different gang organizations in the borough.

“Whatever gang was on your block, you had to be in, or else you were a victim,” said Topaz, a member of the Ebony Dukes. Topaz joined his first gang when he was nine.

But violence was not the only factor that defined the gangs. In the 1970s, many members came to realize that their neighborhoods needed to change. Karate Charlie, president of the Ghetto Brothers, told his friends at the time, “We’re in the ghetto because we created the ghetto.” He and others began to understand that they were fighting the wrong people.

A major turning point came when a member of Ghetto Brothers, Cornell Benjamin, made a peace offering in Longwood to another gang member one night. The rival gang responded by ruthlessly murdering Benjamin. Karate Charlie says he reached out to Ghetto Brothers members across the country to avenge the killing of his friend, with a full-blown counterattack. But when he went to deliver the news to Benjamin’s mother, she told him, “Charlie, my son died for peace.”

Instead of attacking each other, the gangs convened at 914 Hoe Ave. and signed a peace treaty in December 1971, at what came to be known as the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting. Although gangs continued to sell drugs and commit crimes, many shifted their efforts to politics, music and art, as well as advocating for the introduction of health services and after school programs.

When a woman asked after the screening why the film focuses entirely on male gang members, a woman who said she had been in a gang responded, “We were there.” Another woman said that not only did she and other women fight alongside the men, they sometimes fought one another in front of the men.

Although the Bronx has become less dangerous over the decades, some argued that substance abuse and sexism persist, in part because of hip-hop’s glorification of money and consumerism. Blackie, president of Savage Skulls, blamed displacement of the poor by gentrification and the criminal justice system, for perpetuating violence.

“Wake up!” he said. “The same things that are going on then are going on now. They’re just more sophisticated gangs, but it’s still a form of genocide.”

The Center’s 1,000 square foot space were packed for the screening.While the local subject matter may have had much to do with the large draw, a growing interest in the documentary format was another.

“We often watch documentaries in our free time,” said Bronx resident, Haydee Morales.

“I’ve been without cable for more than 14 years. I got sick of all that junk,” said another Bronx resident, Jaime Emeric. “Now all I watch is documentaries.”

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