Shawn always wanted to be in a gang, but when he got shot at sixteen — the bullet careening up his wrist, tearing the tendons and exploding through his elbow — he thought seriously about abandoning the life.
He remembers a part of himself urging, "Go ahead. Leave everything." But, he sighs today, "there was this other part of me, which was like, 'Man this is fun.'"
Now twenty, Shawn sits at a diner booth eating a Caesar salad. He's wearing a red T-shirt with the word "Truth" in large white letters across the chest. Earlier, when he traced the dull pink scar up the inside of his right arm, he noted the areas where the bullet tore through muscle, leaving the flesh lumpy and hard. That bullet could have killed him. He still has nerve damage in his elbow.
Yet instead of leaving the gang, sixteen-year-old Shawn just upped his protection. He started carrying two guns instead of one.
Shawn had been initiated before his freshman year in high school. They called their gang "Mad," after the Madison apartment complex in Berkeley. Street shootings became a regular occurrence, with Shawn both perpetrator and target. At McCluer High School, he could get away carrying a handgun to class, and he dealt weed and dabbled in crack. The money was good and fast. By sophomore year, he'd been expelled from several schools over fights and drug dealing.
St. Louis is home to 122 street gangs, with 2,916 members, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. But the image of West Coast Crips and Bloods calling the shots is about as accurate today as one of Al Capone's mobsters wielding Tommy guns. In 2018 St. Louis, gangs are rarely organized by rank or formal hierarchy, and individual sets — even those associated with Crips or Bloods — build cooperation and feuds on their own hyper-local terms. In many cases, the members are still in middle school.
Several adults in Shawn's life begged him to consider a different path. His grandmother, for one. There was also Sultan Muhammad, a former Crip who had prowled a section of Vandeventer alongside Shawn's uncle during the mid-1980s.Muhammad and Shawn's uncle had started their gang careers early, at eleven. By seventeen, Muhammad was serving a prison sentence for first-degree robbery, but from there he managed to stabilize his life. In 2008, he founded a youth outreach program called Real Talk, with the stated aim to help kids "sort through the confusion and contradictions of their lives" and "achieve self-actualization by teaching them how to think in contrast to what to think."
From experience, Muhammad knew the sort of decisions Shawn was facing, and what was at stake. Shawn's uncle did too. In 1994, when he was eighteen, a rival gang member ran him down a speeding car, then backed over him and drove off, leaving him paralyzed. Today he lives in Shawn's grandmother's house, unable to speak or walk. Shawn has never heard his uncle's voice, and yet he still grew up idolizing him, hanging on the details of every story of his uncle's exploits as a Crip.
"I had it right in my eyes," Shawn says now. "I got to look up at my uncle every day, he's in a wheelchair. I chose the same route he did."
Nothing seemed to shake Shawn from his path. It didn't matter that his mother moved him to the town of Winfield, 40 minutes away. Neither did his uncle's silence or his mentor Muhammad's words.
"Sultan, he would tell me to chill out. 'This is not what you want,'" Shawn recalls. "He would say, 'You better look at your uncle as an example.'"
In 2013, Shawn attended several Real Talk sessions, and at one point even spoke to an audience of middle school kids about getting shot, using his recent run-in as a real-life cautionary tale. But it would be another five years before he attended another session.
This time, in February, he returned marked with a new trauma — inflicted not by a bullet, but by more than a year inside a jail cell.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Real Talk was founded as a gang-prevention program. It counted 159 University City students as participants in 2017.
Since 2009, when Real Talk signed its first contract with the University City School District, hundreds of middle and high school students have faced the stern and patient expression that Sultan Muhammad wears when he's waiting for a room to settle down. In 2017, 129 students attended Real Talk programs across four different schools, and another 30 elementary-age students attended weekly after-school sessions.
On a Thursday afternoon in early February, Muhammad's deep voice cuts through the background din in Meshuggah, a coffeehouse on the bustling part of Delmar Boulevard — that's the segment with the bars, restaurants and music venues. Muhammad grew up in the other part, closer to Midtown — in other words, he says, "the hood."
He's now 42, and 25 years have passed since Muhammad's days with the Crip-affiliated 41 Delmar Mob. But he says the hood is as dangerous as it ever was.
"It's 2018, and as much as people choose to be in denial about the gang dilemma in the city of St. Louis, it's more prevalent, and it's more insidious now than it was in the late '80s and the '90s," he says. "It's still here."
As an eleven-year-old, Muhammad's joined his fellow Crips in staking out turf in the Vandeventer neighborhood by Turner Park. They called it "The 4," and it was bounded by Delmar to the south, Whittier Street to the west, Sarah Street to the east and West Belle to the north.
Today, just a few blocks south, the Central West End is a revitalized engine of economic activity, awash in private investment and tax incentives from the city. North city is still full of kids who are hustling.
"I tell young people all the time," Muhammad's warns, "gangs operate like a one-stop shop, whatever you want is available. Whether you want money, whether you want girls, popularity, whether you want a place to live, some clothes, your homeboy got you."
As a teenage gangbanger, Muhammad's ran into some early gang-abatement programs, and he remembers being impressed by the professional-looking men in suits who would occasionally make the rounds on the streets. He'd go to a few of the classes they offered, but a month later he'd be back to robbing and shooting and smoking.
It was the same story when he became the mentor in the equation. After serving seven years in prison, Muhammad threw himself into getting an education, and by the early 2000s he co-founded a gang-prevention outreach group with a former cop.
At the time, he found himself running into a recurring problem. He was reaching gang members in their teens, but they were like him at their age — stubborn, suspicious and fully convinced they were invulnerable.
Muhammad recalls a request for assistance from a mom in his neighborhood.
"She wanted me to talk to her son and a few of his homeboys," he says. "They were all sixteen, fifteen. When I went to approach them, they looked at me and smiled, and I'm street savvy enough to read people. I knew that the likelihood of me making a breakthrough with them and helping them was real low."
When he went back to the mom, all he could say was, "They know what they doing." (In his retelling, Muhammad adds, "It wasn't three years later, and all of them young men that I'm talking about were in prison for murder, robbery and some other offenses.")
The breakthroughs, Muhammad realized, had to come sooner. The greatest hope lay not in reaching teenagers strapped with guns, but young kids in elementary school, long before they were faced with the opportunity to pick up their first revolver or sell their first gram. The University City School District agreed, and almost ten years ago, it signed its first $25,000 annual contract with Muhammad and Real Talk.
In its current form, Real Talk is more than a gang-prevention group; Muhammad touts it as a generalized "youth empowerment program" that can reach kids whose struggles aren't necessarily tied to gang violence.
And when it comes to Real Talk's impact on gang prevention, Muhammad doesn't portray himself as a savior. He's proud, but he doesn't boast. He talks of "a handful of success stories."
That's because it's difficult to define what such a "success story" should look like. Some of his students in University City benefit from a stable home life that looks nothing like his own childhood. Students are referred to Real Talk for a range of issues, from academic struggles to repeated disciplinary infractions and suspensions.
And some former Real Talk participants go on to join gangs and go to jail, like Shawn. In these cases, the success comes when they resist the temptation to go back — just like he himself did.
The life is tempting, and, yes, it can be fun. It's like Muhammad says — gangs are a one-stop shop, a shortcut, a wish-fulfillment device for people short on support, love or loyalty. The trick, then, isn't always stopping the inevitable once it's already in motion. It's revealing a way out and the tools to reach it. It's letting kids know that they may make the wrong choices, but they can still find their way back.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- At a recent after-school Real Talk session, Muhammad asks his audience, "How many of you have been to a funeral for somebody that died at an early age due to violence?"
Each Wednesday night, the gymnasium at Pershing Elementary School echoes with the sound of about 30 pairs of feet, a half-dozen basketballs and the frenetic mixture of shrieks and laughter produced by students at play. Around 6 p.m., Muhammad starts the long process of calming them down.
"If I have to deal with you continuing to talk, guess what, that's no pizza — hey, put your cell phone up — remove the hoods — no basketballs — put away the chips. Put them away. Thank you."
Several minutes later, the students arrange themselves in three rows of semi-circles facing Muhammad. He wears a long-sleeved dark sweater crisscrossed with a pattern of white lines and small squares of blue, gold and white. Hanging from beads around his neck is a set of crystals lashed together with copper wire; the pendant looks very much like a heart.
Before he begins the day's session, he warns his audience once again to behave lest they lose pizza privileges. "I mean business," he says, sounding like a substitute math teacher before a lesson. "Mr. Muhammad got to keep it real."
Unlike Real Talk's in-school programs in the district — in those cases, students are formally referred by school staffers concerned about discipline or academic issues — the Wednesday night sessions are voluntary. These are elementary and middle school kids, some who've been getting into trouble at school, others who just need support and a watchful eye.Muhammad welcomes the students once more, and points out that they'd have a guest helping out today — Shawn.
In 2015, Shawn was charged with three counts of first-degree assault. The charges stemmed from a messy fight that, while not gang-related, ended with Shawn firing a single shot at a fleeing vehicle. The bullet missed the car's occupants, but it still resulted in Shawn's arrest and a bevy of felony charges, as well as a $50,000 bond. After more than a year in county jail awaiting adjudication, he was ultimately sentenced to five years of probation and released.
"This is Lil' Shawn," Muhammad tells his suddenly curious audience. "He's going to be with us for a bit, he's doing some community service. I'm sure he don't mind me telling you this, he made some wrong moves in his life, and he's getting back on track."Muhammad nods at Shawn and adds, "Welcome back."
After leading the kids in a recitation of the serenity prayer, Muhammad runs through a kind of stream-consciousness lesson plan. He tells the kids about a former student, one of the first Real Talk members. The kid had been bored by the meetings, Muhammad says, but he eventually graduated University City High School and enlisted in the military.
From there, Muhammad mind jumps to the next subject. (He doesn't plan each session note by note, he explains later. Whatever is rattling around his head on the drive to Pershing becomes the day's lesson.)
It's February 14, Valentine's Day, and the news is dominated by a school shooting in Florida that left seventeen dead. School violence is a frequent subject in Muhammad's talks, and the national tragedy carries familiar echoes for the former gang member.
"Unfortunately," he tells the Real Talk kids, "many of our schools in urban America got so much violence going on in them. We don't have enough counselors, educators and mentors who can relate to issues that you all deal with every day growing up in the hood. The stuff happening in the community basically spills over into the school, and not only does it jeopardize the individuals, but they jeopardize everybody else's life too. How do you feel about that?"
The response is the sound of several kids fidgeting in their seats. He tries again.
"How many of y'all experienced something like that? How many of y'all know somebody that lost somebody to violence?"
A dozen hands immediately go up. An uncle shot by accident. An uncle who killed somebody. An older brother who loved racing and wrapped his car around a tree. A best friend shot dead.Muhammad has a name for this particular dynamic, that shared experience of death's impact — he calls it "the dead homie factor." When he talks to older students, he brings stacks of funeral programs of kids their age, and when he talks about those funerals, his voice carries more than rote sympathy. He's angry; angry that the eulogies are short, angry the remembrances lack substance, angry that a young person's life is distilled down to fluff, things like, "She had a loving and caring smile" or "He attended St. Louis public schools." Angry at legacies lost — and for what?
"I just did a eulogy a few weeks ago," he tells the Real Talk group. "I have been to funeral after funeral after funeral after funeral — and I could keep on going. I've been to so many funerals. I'm tired of going to funerals."
Three weeks later, on March 9, Muhammad stands behind a podium in the same gym to deliver the keynote speech at a banquet celebrating Real Talk's tenth anniversary. Though the gym has been set end to end with tables, around a quarter of the seats stand empty.
Seven minutes into the speech, Muhammad pauses to mention a Real Talk graduate who wasn't able to make it to the banquet. In this case it's not prison or death; the graduate was diagnosed with cancer and confined to a hospital, and his condition isn't good. Muhammad asks the audience for a moment of silence for those who should be there but aren't. Heavy tears run down his cheeks.
After the banquet, when Muhammad checks his phone, he finds a text message waiting. The news is familiar: Earlier that week, two of his former gang members, fellow Crips in the late 1980s, had been shot and killed. He starts preparing a eulogy.Muhammad is tired of death and funerals. But he's certainly used to them.
- COURTESY OF SULTAN MUHAMMAD
- A 1992 photo of Sultan Muhammad (center) from his days as a Crip in the 41 Delmar Mob.
For all his talk of death, the real legacy of Real Talk lies in the kids who lived. And despite the chaos in their respective communities, some recent graduates insist Muhammad made all the difference.
Take Xavier Hill. He grew up in Wellston, a poor north-county suburb that encompasses stretches of crumbling houses that wouldn't look out of place in the aftermath of an airborne bombing campaign. Even in middle school, Hill says he was aware that the people around him were surviving any way they knew how.
"I paid attention to the street gangs. To see someone sell dope or to see a shooting, that was normal to me," says Hill, talking on the phone from a Navy base in Florida. "I saw that growing up all through my life."
When he was in sixth grade, his mother took him to an after-school Real Talk session. Hill didn't want to be there. He wanted to be playing basketball.
"All this stuff Sultan was talking about, I thought, 'This is a waste of time,'" he remembers. Not only that, but the burly ex-Crip wasn't letting him doze off. "He demanded I pay attention, he demanded respect back from me. I thought he was just extra."
But street life didn't remain a backdrop for long. By the time Hill entered University City High School, he realized that everything Muhammad had warned him about was actually happening.
It was the difference, he says, between watching basketball on TV and playing it yourself. He got into fights. A friend offered him weed. (Hill says he turned down the offer.) Starting in ninth grade, he began losing friends and classmates to gang violence.
But he resisted the call of the street life, even as his old friends went to jail.
"That could have been me," says Hill. Instead, he had what his friends apparently lacked: a part of him that was listening to those Real Talk meetings. "I knew that [Muhammad] tried this and this is where it led him. I wasn't quick to do it myself."
Death on the streets doesn't only claim gang members. In high school, one of Bri Bulley's friends started dating a boy in a gang. When rivals came to kill him, they shot his girlfriend too. Another friend was killed when he tried to buy a phone from a fifteen-year-old; the teen stabbed him to death.
"I hope people understand that, to these kids, there's way more to life than the gang language and drugs," Bulley says. "There are kids experiencing it, but there are kids who are coming from it and making something from their life."
To an observer of the after-school Real Talk sessions, the kids may look bored, slouching in their chairs as Muhammad lectures them about funerals and prison. But the words are finding their targets.
"Kids are like sponges, we soak up everything, even if we don't know it," Bulley notes.
Now a correctional officer at the St. Louis Workhouse, Bulley remembers listening as Muhammad warned about the possibility of running into bad cops. His words stuck with her.
"I decided to be a good cop," she says.
These days, she's surrounded by inmates, some barely seventeen. She often wonders what would have happened had they attended Real Talk — maybe they could have avoided St. Louis' infamous medium security facility, awaiting court hearings for months on end.
Bulley says she tries to transmit the wisdom she gained from Muhammad. "Y'all don't have to come back here no more," she says she tells the inmates. "Y'all gotta do something, go to a job, go to school. There's way more to life than getting fast money out there, doing dumb stuff and coming here."
Some kids, though, aren't ready to hear that message until they're already behind bars. Brandon Walker and his sister Erianna Henderson had grown up in separate houses, she in University City, he in various spots throughout north county. They both were referred to Real Talk.
She was just starting high school, and he was in eighth grade. On the weekends, they'd get together with Muhammad at Saint Louis Bread Co. to talk and play chess. Henderson's grades improved, and soon she was attending after-school Real Talk sessions not out of obligation, but from a sense of belonging.
For a time, that was Walker's story, too. "When I met Sultan, he helped me change my life, he helped open my eyes to see something better," he says.
But it didn't stick. Today, Walker's voice sounds distant over the prison phone line. He's spent two years behind bars, the result of multiple convictions for gang-related felonies — burglary, theft and unlawful use of a weapon.
To Walker, those meetings with Muhammad at Bread Co. represented rare, treasured moments. Unlike virtually every other adult in his young life, Muhammad believed in him.
"He was like a father figure," Walker says. "I ain't never have anybody listen to me or listen to me how I feel. He said that I'm not like my friends, that I'm different, that he saw it in my eyes."
But outside of those meetings, Walker's immediate environment had only one source of stability, and that was the gang. They looked out for each other, and his gang brothers did what his family never could. They didn't just buy him shoes and clothes (although they did that); they showed him love.
Walker says he's been approved for release this December, and he wants to return to the Real Talk sessions — which his little sisters still attend — to talk about the "path of destruction" that led him to prison.
Compared to his former brothers in the gang, though, Walker still counts himself lucky. Four have died on the streets since his incarceration. He's alive, and he's only 22. If he can avoid the draw of the streets, he'll have the time he needs to make amends and, somehow, start again.
"As a young man, a teenager, we never know who's really there for us until the last minute," he reflects. He's too ashamed to reach out to Muhammad, but he thinks of those weekends with painful longing.
"I feel like I failed him, but I'll always be thankful to Sultan for being in my corner."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- At Real Talk's tenth anniversary banquet, program participants and alumni gathered to recognize the non-profit's accomplishments.
There's a recurring story told by gang-prevention mentors, and it's not about gun violence or drug overdoses. Lay those details on too thickly, they know, and you only titillate kids. Instead, the story they tell is about the capacity for change.
Years before he changed his name to Sultan Muhammad, Ronald Goodman was just another youth with a gun, a bad attitude and a blue bandana. It was the late '80s, and Muhammad — who went by Lil' Daddy Raw — was messing around a supermarket with three other kids. Running through the store, he bumped someone's cart.
The cart belonged to Carey Cunningham, then a young St. Louis public school teacher and mentor with an outreach program called the Association of African American Role Models. The program targeted young men living near then-Harris-Stowe State College's midtown campus. At the time he ran into Muhammad, Cunningham was buying snacks for the group's weekly meeting.
"He gave me a strange look," Cunningham remembers. "I said, 'Why don't you meet us outside and have a conversation.'"
Cunningham was then 26. He hadn't grown up like Muhammad had, and certainly not during the period that would later be considered the worst years of St. Louis' crack epidemic. Distinctive street gangs like the Crips and Bloods were still a burgeoning enterprise.
They talked outside the supermarket, and Cunningham made the invitation. But the young gangbanger skipped that night's meeting.
The next week, he showed up.
"I can recall him crying after the meeting," Cunningham says today. He soon got to know the young Crip, and says it wasn't long before he started to see some changes. (Asked about it now, Muhammad relates that his time with Cunningham temporarily brought down his gang barriers — he even started wearing red, a mortal sin for a Crip.)
Cunningham says he learned a lot from the teenager. The realities of gang violence were foreign to him, and he hadn't realized the danger that young men faced just crossing between neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Muhammad was "raised by a gang," having been kicked out of his grandparents' home after nearly getting his family killed in a gunfight — a shootout that had been sparked simply by a rival Blood wandering in the wrong territory.
Looking back, Cunningham remembers Muhammad as a bright kid with a willingness to learn and read about black history. But after a few of those weekly meetings, Muhammad went back to the streets. After a while, Cunningham stopped seeing his face at the meetings.
In 1992, Cunningham was watching TV when he heard the name Ronald Goodman. There was the teen's face on the screen. He'd been arrested for armed robbery.
Cunningham was shocked — and betrayed. He'd put so much time into the young gangbanger, only to have him squander his life on street crime. He figured the kid was lost for good.
"I was really hurt at that," Cunningham admits. "I never communicated with him when he was locked up. I was so hurt, being a mentor and seeing your mentee going astray."
It was a reaction Cunningham now regrets.
"I had to learn, that's what happens," he says now. "I learned that people aren't going to change right away. I had to understand there are bigger forces involved in young people's lives that we couldn't see."
That brightness he'd seen in Muhammad survived prison, and the ex-Crip came out with a new name, a GED and a mission. Post-release, it was Muhammad who reached out to his mentor, and the two men reconciled. Cunningham, who'd gone on to become a public school principal and administrator, eventually supplied a key recommendation to convince the St. Louis Public Schools to hire Muhammad as a community liaison.
Today, Muhammad does the work that Cunningham began, and the cycle continues — moments of heartbreak, moments of hope. Teens like Shawn and Brandon Walker lift their heads out of the water, if only for a moment, only to be consumed by the sea of violence around them. Sometimes they leave prison. Sometimes they go back.
Ask Muhammad about that cycle today, and he doesn't mince words. Change, he explains, rarely happens in an instant.
"That's where people go wrong," he says. "They think they can make people change, but that just causes them to be more resistant and rebellious. All you can do is give them the message, and when you use your own life as an example, that message is, 'If I can change, you can change.'"Muhammad pauses, considering that message. He adds one more thing:
"And don't follow in my footsteps."