A prisoner’s inside view of Jackson Sq. violence
“The whole idea is this: A lot of kids don’t understand what they’re beefing about,” said Mac Hudson, explaining Jackson Square’s youth violence, pausing as the phone call was interrupted by automated warnings that the conversation might be monitored or recorded.
That’s the natural rhythm of conversation at the Old Colony Correctional Center, where Hudson is 20 years into a life sentence for murder.
Lots of people have offered opinions about the gun violence that has plagued the neighborhood, leaving two dead and at least six wounded this year alone. But few of them know it the way Hudson does.
Hudson grew up in the Academy Homes housing development in the 1980s. In 1990, at age 18, he was convicted of gunning down a drug dealer on a Roxbury street. While maintaining he is innocent in that case, Hudson acknowledges he grew up in the street life.
In a recent series of telephone conversations with the Gazette, Hudson discussed the youth violence that, he said, is wrongly dismissed as “gang” warfare, with its deeper economic roots ignored.
“A lot of them kids ain’t gang-banging. They’re carrying guns out of fear,” said Hudson. “People are starting to blame the victim for being the victim.”
“I’m not a gang member. I have never been,” Hudson said. The violence is more complicated than that, misunderstood both by outsiders and the shooters themselves, he said. “I was a living product of this,” he said.
Hudson’s knowledge is not just historical. In 2006, during a court appeal of his case, Hudson served as a paralegal counselor for at-risk youths at Bromley-Heath’s Judge Richard L. Banks Community Justice Program. His work earned praised from local officials and judges.
At the Banks Program, Hudson said, he learned that kids are sharply aware that adults often misunderstand them and offer empty promises of help.
“I have never met a dumb kid,” Hudson said.
Often choosing his words carefully, Hudson noted that he was not providing “justification” for street violence, just explanation and criticism.
‘No such thing as a gang’
Violence between youths from Academy Homes/New Academy Estates and Bromley-Heath has been a regular problem in Jackson Square for decades. Last year, two New Academy residents were charged with murder in the 2007 shooting death of a 13-year-old Mission Hill boy who was walking through Bromley-Heath—a crime prosecutors called an attempt to target Bromley-Heath youths that went wrong.
Police, prosecutors and residents frequently refer to the crime as “gang” violence. But pressed for details after recent incidents, officials have backpedaled, unable to name any gangs and saying they meant something more like a feud than a gang war. That matches descriptions of the street atmosphere local youths have given to the Gazette this year.
Hudson said that gangs not only are not behind most of the youth violence, but are largely figments of officials’ imaginations.
He defined a “gang” as a military-structured criminal business, possibly with some civil rights or self-protection aspects, something like the Mafia. Gang violence is about business decisions, not killing someone for living on the wrong street, he noted.
Hudson acknowledged only a small number of gangs in Boston, such as the Latin Kings, who are known to have a Mission Hill presence. Bromley-Heath is known for a reputed drug organization called H-Block.
Until 1988, Hudson said, “There was no such thing as a gang” in Boston. Instead, there were “crews”—groups of street kids who hung out together rather than organizing for some criminal purpose. In this area, a single crew predominated.
But in 1988 came the release of the popular movie “Colors,” a bloody depiction of the Crips and Bloods gangs in Los Angeles.
“The gang concept in Massachusetts came from ‘Colors,’ the movie,” Hudson said. “Our idea of a gang is borrowed. It’s something that’s been given to us through a screen.”
Crews began thinking of themselves as “gangs,” and the media picked up the term, creating what Hudson called a cycle of altered perceptions. Reporters began asking street kids, “‘What gang are you from?’” he said. “The media was reporting on it, and at the same time encouraging it.”
In early days, Hudson said, kids would answer, “‘We’re not a gang. We’re just a group of dudes who grew up together.’ You’ll see the usage of the word ‘family.’”
But then some kids began imitating the violence and the color-coded uniforms show in the movie. Groups began calling themselves Crips and Bloods without any real connection to the LA gangs.
But they were not actual criminal gangs, Hudson said. At the same time, some criminals were engaged in “drug wars” for business territory. But even that mostly involved outsiders from other towns or states attempting to move into the area, he said. Youth turf wars and drug-dealer battles easily blended into “gang violence” in news reports.
Inside the violence
Today’s youth violence is no different, Hudson said—just even farther removed from its historical roots. It isn’t gang or drug-dealer territorial combat, he said. It is the fallout from feuds whose origins are largely forgotten by today’s youths.
Today, the rationale for combat has faded into generic turf battling, Hudson said. “‘You’re from here and I’m from there’—that’s what I think it is [now].”
Hudson declined to describe the exact origins of the Jackson Square feuds. “It’s not something I really want to get into…because it could be promoting it in a way,” he said, but indicated the causes are small in comparison to the violence that has resulted.
Local youths often don’t know the origins themselves—and find out only when they wind up in prison, talking with someone like Hudson.
“They’re resuming something [when] they don’t even know how it began,” Hudson said. “We talk about it a lot up here,” he said, in what he called “hood-to-hood” conversations.
That is when new convicts “find out what it is and say, ‘Damn! That’s what it is?!’” he said.
“No one is telling [local youths] these very same dudes [from Academy and Bromley-Heath] are up here on the football team together, playing on basketball teams together, going to chow hall together,” Hudson said. “We’re not beefing with each other no more.”
“You got a bunch of kids living and dying representing something that the old dudes don’t even represent anymore,” he said.
When veterans of the turf wars get out of prison and inform local youths of the history, Hudson said, they can be “misunderstood as…no longer in the game”—taken as ignorant or do-gooders.
Likewise, Hudson said, the ex-cons may assume that the kids won’t listen anyway and will learn the truth as a “rite of passage.” And “if somebody happens to not survive, it’s all in the game,” he said.
Hudson said that someone in his own position is, ironically, one of the most likely to be listened to.
“Because of who I am, it gave [me] instantly credibility,” Hudson said of his reception among Banks Program youths. “They understand, ‘He’s from among us…Our people did time with him.’”
That authority gives him hope that he can help break the cycle of violence, he said. “Truth disrupts everything,” he said.
The problems of youth violence and street crime are obvious. Solutions are not.
“Everybody’s looking at the problem differently,” Hudson said.
What outsiders may not notice, Hudson said, is a cycle of crime that he described as dictated by economics and fear.
Few job opportunities draw youths into street crime and turf wars. The criminal justice system does little to reform those who are caught. Ex-cons then find it even harder to get a job due to their criminal records.
Hudson complained that large corporations “fund rock ’n’ roll concerts” but few youth jobs programs in poor neighborhoods. He criticized the state government for quickly approving tax breaks for Hollywood film companies, but not reform of criminal record reporting to employers.
“It almost lures them into this situation” of committing crime, he said of youths stuck with few opportunities.
Prison frequently makes convicts better criminals rather than reforming them, “releasing mini-terrorists into the neighborhood,” Hudson said. He noted that the modern system of prisons operated by private corporations actively profits from increasing numbers of convicts.
“We’re becoming someone else’s cattle,” Hudson said. “They’re playing us, economically playing us.”
In that environment, Hudson said, even youths who want to improve their situation can feel trapped. Describing some of the things he heard from Banks Programs youths, Hudson said, “‘The reality is, I may change, but my circumstances don’t change.’” Becoming a “changed or renewed person” doesn’t change “those who have a beef with me,” he said.
Attempts to end the violence without changing the economic factors are likely futile, Hudson said. Describing the perspective of a street criminal, he said, “‘Let’s say we all put those guns down. How am I going to take care of my kids?’”
Even for the majority of youths who are not criminals, carrying a gun is “an unwritten rule,” Hudson said. “Most people who carry guns do it out of fear, and if they don’t have [one], the end result can be death,” he said. He noted that in many of the recent shooting cases, the victim was unarmed.
The wider tragedy, Hudson said, is the virtual loss of a generation to death or prison, especially in Boston’s communities of color. Referring to last year’s shooting death of Luis Gerena in Bromley-Heath, Hudson said, “When I hear a 13-year-old kid has been killed in that manner—he was supposed to grow up and be somebody that could advance us.”
While Hudson painted a grim picture, he framed it with hope. As the Gazette previously reported, Hudson is among the prisoners involved in The Strongest Link, a program intended to connect prisoners with the community in general and youths in particular.
The program was organized by Darrell Jones, a prisoner doing life for murder, after his own son was killed on a Boston street. It is supported by Boston ministers, City Councilors Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey, and others.
Earlier this year, The Strongest Link and Teen Empowerment released the youth-focused documentary video “Voices From Behind the Wall,” featuring Hudson and other prisoners demystifying prison life and the street-cred lifestyle. The state Department of Corrections cooperated with the production.
Hudson said the group is working on a second documentary intended to teach high-school students how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Hudson said he would like to make another documentary for youth fathers about responsible parenting—what he called “manning up.”
Hudson also advocates for prison reform, including filing lawsuits to restore the state’s furlough program. Of course, that can benefit him directly. But, he said, such reforms can better rehabilitate prisoners by giving them more community connections and responsibilities—ways to reduce the number of “impact players getting back out there causing community horror.”
For more information about The Strongest Link, see www.strongestlinkboston.com. To contact the Banks Program, call 522-7870.