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The last 10 miles of the Imperial Highway lead west from the blighted thirst of the Watts neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles to the glistening sea at El Segundo, where they are crisscrossed by the shadow of planes leaving LAX. For the 35,000 residents of Watts, that stretch of road might as well be a 14,000-foot pass through the Himalayas, so remote are the pleasures of travel and plush beaches from that hope-starved patch of ground.
Aqeela Sherrills has seen the worst Watts has to offer and made the best of it. His work to end gang violence started in 1989, when at 19 he joined former football and movie star Jim Brown on the road for three years, forging truces between gangs in cities across the country. In 1992, he returned home to Watts to help broker, with his brother Daude, a peace treaty between the Crips and the Bloods.
After a few years, the treaty began to fray. In response, in 1999 Aqeela and Daude started the Community Self-Determination Institute (CSDI) for gang prevention and conflict mediation. CSDI won street credibility as well as the confidence of city officials and became a city-wide program. With that came the challenges of running a non-profit: cajoling donors, securing city grants, paying the bills, hiring people. Siblings, cousins, friends, casual acquaintances all wanted jobs. There was trouble with the IRS. The work itself was hard enough, but managing the work was exhausting. Then, two years ago, his wife died of breast cancer. And the worst was yet to come.
It arrived just before midnight on Jan. 10, 2004, with a ring of Sherrills' cell phone. His son Terrell, 18 and home on break after his first semester studying theater arts at Humboldt State University, was being rushed to UCLA Medical Center bleeding profusely from a close-range gunshot wound to the back. A 16-year-old Crips member had mistaken the red Mickey Mouse sweater slung over Terrell's shoulders (in self-deprecating homage to his big ears) for a sign of membership in the Bloods, who wear red. Forty-five minutes later, Terrell was dead.
The cry for retribution went up immediately.
"The neighborhood mounted up, they were ready to roll, and I went and talked to folks and told folks, 'That's not what we're gonna do, and that's not Terrell's legacy,'" Sherrills recalls 14 months later, sitting in a room at CSDI painted sky blue and redolent of incense from a shrine in the corner. "'That's exactly the reaction that society wants from us. And what we're gonna do is this right here: We're gonna forgive that kid, you know? Because we're gonna hold space for the highest possibility of good to show up in him.'"
Sherrills was already something of a community hero. He was an inspiration to thousands of people who had heard him speak about personal and cultural healing and peacemaking. This act of forgiveness launched him to near-guru status. The organizer on the ground in Watts was becoming a man of the spirit: The activist was turning into a mystic.
Sherrills began to step back from the running of CSDI. He started turning over administrative responsibilities to other people and assuming an advisory role, formulating the vision and raising money. He wasn't interested in addressing the symptoms anymore. He wanted to tackle the root of the problem, the broken spirits around him.
As passionately as he speaks about his continuing work, for the last year and a half he has yearned to break free of its physical confines. On March 15, he took a definitive step in that direction when he boarded a plane to Mexico to begin a four-month tour of the world's sacred sites. After Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu and the rest, he plans to come back, but not to stay.
Within three years he hopes to move to Ghana. He says he is drawn to its ease of life, burgeoning African-American community and rich spiritual culture. There, away from frenetic America, he says he hopes to find the peace to live the ideas he has been mulling, ideas about how to shift ways of thinking and cherish human life and start a global outbreak of peace--the linchpins of what he calls "the reverence for human life movement."
Sherrills' hope of sparking a renewed reverence-for-life movement here anchors him to Watts. Talking about it animates him and intensifies the light in his hazel eyes. Tall and normally languorous, he leans forward and gestures excitedly, speaking with a preacher's deliberate enunciation. Now and then his ideas stray into the realm of the fanciful, but he has an undeniable gift for inspired speech.
"Reverence is a beholding--not a judging--of the challenges facing our culture," he says. "It's about the quality of attention you give something, and the practice of love and compassion and talking about your truth.
"The reverence movement is where all the movements of the past intersect, whether it's human rights or civil rights, because all of them are really about restoring vitality to the human spirit. If we as human beings don't have the ability to intuit a positive future, with our so-called enemies playing a different role, then we're almost foolin' ourselves about what is, and where we're going."
Listening to Sherrills in this rapt state, it's hard to reconcile his vegetarian, esoteric text-reading side with certain facts of his life. Sherrills has fathered seven children by six mothers, none of whom he lives with, and at 35 he is a grandfather; Terrell's girlfriend was pregnant when he died.
Sherrills appears to relish his role as a man of the world. In a turtleneck and rich wool peacoat, with his driver's cap, sculpted soul patch and sandalwood scent, taking calls on his cell phone at the wheel of his white BMW and scheduling lunches with donors in Santa Monica, Sherrills cuts a glamorous figure. Having traveled the country and to Russia and Croatia as a speaker and peace facilitator, he laments with a seasoned traveler's dismay about how few Americans travel and how even fewer people in Watts have been on an airplane--or even make the drive to the beach.
It's similarly difficult to determine CSDI's position. Several years ago it had 80 employees and a million-dollar budget; now it has 12 staffers and a swirl of volunteers. Several key individuals stand out as islands of discipline and efficiency in an otherwise chaotic environment--understandable, perhaps, given funding cuts and the monumental task the organization is trying to accomplish.
Three years ago, CSDI launched a 10-year initiative called the Passage to Peace that aims to transform the gangs in Watts from criminal to community organizations by 2012. The CSDI building, a bright, mural-covered ramshackle box on a street less drab than most in Watts, seems an unlikely birthplace for the world's next major peace movement. Nevertheless, that's what Sherrills envisions, and his charisma and willpower have already proven considerable catalysts for action.
Watts, he says, is a nexus for two uncontrollable elements spreading across the country: hip-hop culture and gang violence. Changes in Watts will ripple across the nation. The trick is to work with what already exists.
"The gang is a surrogate family when the nuclear family has been broken," Sherrills reminds us. "We'll never get rid of gangs, in a sense, but we can instill morals and values in that structure and shift their purpose. Let's shift this thing! This is not the ghetto. That's our perception of what it is because we've been told that. We're not gang members. That's something somebody else put on us."
One way to make the shift is through music, specifically through "conscious hip-hop" with a positive message. CSDI has put what Sherrills calls the theme music of the movement on a CD titled "Peace Warriors."
"There's no model for what peace is," he says. "And the image of peace is weak. It's this flimsy thing, like: Peace!" He makes a feckless face and throws a peace sign. "And war is like, powerful, sexy. So we can assign the virtues that have been stolen from peace and given to war back to peace. We can make peace strong and hard: peace warriors."
That's the broad cultural mission. The other, more immediate, task is to transform the purpose of the gangs on the ground in Watts. The way Sherrills plans to do this is by creating "community covenants" and an alternative economy for a neighborhood where annual per capita income is under $7,000--one-third of that for the city of Los Angeles.
The process is laid out in a 27-page document Sherrills has been showing potential funders. It calls for a series of meetings to gather the young people from the neighborhood's four housing projects, who are grouped loosely in cliques professing loyalty to Crips or Bloods. The meetings are to be facilitated by trusted members of the community--Sherrills says there are people in Watts who are respected by members of all of the cliques.
Attendees will draw up and sign a covenant, swearing off violence and laying out principles of community life. These principles will embody his "reverence for life" ideas. The document is to be distributed throughout the neighborhood, with signatures for everyone to see.
Commissioners will then be elected from within the cliques, paid a small stipend and issued business cards. They will hold weekly meetings. The alternative-economy element of the plan involves an unusual idea: A fund is to be established through $10 monthly donations from everyone in the community, and life insurance policies will be taken out on the young men.
If it sounds pie in the sky, well, desperate times call for desperate measures. No one thought it possible to broker a cease-fire between the Crips and the Bloods in 1992, either.
Sherrills believes this will work because CSDI has already brought together the clique leaders and received their endorsement.
"We brought 'em here and we laid it out," he says. "And they were all with it. Totally. So the thing is this: We just don't have the resources to move it forward. We need a million dollars a year for three years. And this is what I'm telling these potential funders: I guarantee we will shift this neighborhood forever."
Sherrills is frustrated by a reluctance of donors to fund his plan. "The progressive-liberal community doesn't take risks," he laments. "There's a lack of real strategic investment taking place from those who actually have the resources to do it, and it has a lot to do with the wounds around money. The thing that keeps a rich person from giving is the same thing that keeps a poor person from making."
There's something else at play, he says: a pernicious culture-wide mindset that Sherrills blames for the death of his son. "How can they talk about seven murders on the news, and there is no uproar, no response?" he asks in disbelief. "Because it's not our child, or our people or our community? That's the killer--our lack of compassion. That's why this movement, this reverence movement, is a movement of the heart. It's the final frontier. I'm like, we done hid behind everything else."
"That's it right there," Sherrills says, not slowing down as he points at the bottom center unit of a bleached two-story building with six apartments. "Number 440. That's where I lived from sixth grade until I graduated high school."
Not a soul is in sight except for a teenage boy sauntering across a parking lot. If not for the trash cartwheeling in the breeze and the immense garbage cans in the street, one might think the Jordan Downs housing projects had been deserted long ago.
Living here with his mother and the youngest of his nine siblings, Sherrills learned to keep a secret that built up enormous energy. A family member had begun sexually abusing him several years earlier. The molestation eventually stopped, but the repercussions echoed through his life for years. When he finally told a girlfriend in college about it, the power of his revelation fueled a radical shift in consciousness.
"I now see it as a gift as opposed to it being a burden in my life," he says. "I've been able to forgive myself and the perpetrator and reconcile all the relationships around me. All these things can be used as a fulcrum to change patterns in life."
Sherrills is breaking another pattern with his gradual withdrawal from CSDI. He is adamant about not wanting to manage the daily operations anymore. He is just as adamant in his desire for the imagined paradise of Ghana, the living compound he sees for himself and his extended family, the garden, the library, the good dinners and wine and conversation, and the business opportunities. And he is equally adamant when asked if he has any misgivings about leaving his work here, despite his recent purchase of a building in Watts intended to serve as a family compound and community center featuring coffee, conversation and a lending library.
"Hm-mmm," he says with a decisive shake of his head. "There's an umbilical cord that needs to be cut. I had to do it not only with my family, the individualization I had to go through with them, but also with the community. People depend on me in a way that's unhealthy. I enable people. Folks need an opportunity to take the movement to the next level without me as a crutch."
Sherrills then tells a startling story he would be well-advised not to share with potential funders: He believes he has been to this crossroads before, in a previous life. He was a priest in Atlantis, he says, who was so committed to his order that he forwent the opportunity to flee the rising tide with his beloved and drowned.
You don't have to believe in the legend of Atlantis to see that Sherrills' tale is a parable about his current life: Duty is wearing him down and a part of him knows it. The clear blue sky at the other end of Imperial Highway is sending its siren song.
"I've been a martyr in many of my lives, and to stay here would be kind of like a martyrdom," Sherrills says. "I feel like I'm learning my lesson."
Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Northern California.