Behind the Cheyenne campus of the Community College of Southern Nevada is an area known as the Hood. It's hardscrabble, not-working- to working-class—a 'tweener community that, depending on a person's resolve, can be a way station on the road to middle class-dom or a permanent stop on the stagnancy express. Since Bloods run things around here, it's probably the last place you'd expect to find a rival Crip. Unarmed, at that.
It's a Thursday night and 45-year-old former local Crip godfather Ramont Williams is in the Hood—no weapons, no blue bandana-ed thugs backing him. Here to talk to some kids about gangs, the main arrow in his quiver is his history: gang leader; the first Crip incarcerated in the state of Nevada; an ex-felon turned budding social reformer. It's a history not unlike that of another Williams, recently executed Los Angeles Crips progenitor Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Both men lived for gang life, promoted it, spread it, then suddenly abandoned it, denounced it, sought to quash it. And both men inspire a range of emotions in people, from anger (Do you deserve plaudits for fighting a plague you helped start?) to ambivalence (Tookie was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for children's books but LA had 750 gang murders in 2004; Ramont does well and means well but his abrasiveness has alienated would-be supporters), even awe (Tookie's support from celebrities; Williams' support from gang intervention specialists and gangsters themselves).
"This wasn't Blood territory when I grew up here in the '70s," Ramont Williams says on the way to the impromptu meeting.
Las Vegas police didn't officially begin tracking gangs until 1980. A few years later, Crips infiltrated Donna Street, an underclass area in North Las Vegas that resembled Compton, the gritty Southern California 'burb where Williams lived after moving from his native Oakland. It was on Donna Street that he organized a group, the GQs, to defend the neighborhood from the Ace of Spades, a West Las Vegas outfit who'd cross the Interstate 15 overpass, and come on Donna to fight and steal. Before long, LA's genocidal, color-coded (Crips in blue, Bloods in red) gang culture migrated here. Donna Street became Cripsville; the Hood belonged to the red team.
"When I was on the streets, I had a good rapport with some Bloods. The homies would warn me about 'em: 'P, don't go to that party, you're going to get killed,'" Williams says. "I had good relationship with the PBs (Playboy Bloods in West Las Vegas). That's partly why I work with Bloods today on gang intervention. Because if I make things happen on Donna Street, they might say, 'You're a former Crip, that's why they listen to you.' I want to show people that I can make a difference with people I'm not supposed to get along with."
Today, the Hood is a recruiting ground.
"Who here bangs?" Williams asks 10 youth, mostly teenage boys, assembled near the campus.
Their eyes dart every which way, none meeting his. Two boys decked out in red garb—one with an over-large red T-shirt, the other in red Dickies pants and red Jordans—chuckle, shoot cockeyed looks at each other and mumble imperceptibly.
"Be honest now. I'm not here to hurt you or talk down to you."
Finally, a 15-year-old in baggy aqua blue basketball shorts chirps: "I'ma be real with you. I'ma Blood."
"Well," Williams says, "I'm a Crip."
Baggy-pants boy frowns ...
To be precise, Williams is a former Crip: "I'll always be a Crip, but I'm not in that lifestyle anymore."
These days, Williams' life is still about gangs—keeping young people away from them; helping those in them get out and transition to a better life; trying to convince incorrigible OGs (original gangsters) to steer YGs (young gangsters, typically high-schoolers) and BGs (baby gangsters, middle school) to do something positive. He handles gang intervention programs for the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club on Washington Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard (territory of the West Coast Bloods) and runs his own youth mentoring program, Hope Two Thousand. Williams works in a small office in the southwest corner of the club, accessible via the teen center. The door is usually cracked open slightly or closed because he's almost always talking to someone. This afternoon, his work and cell phones ring with telemarketer frequency. Usually it's a kid needing help, or a parent calling because their kid needs help, or a gang prevention specialist phoning because a parent called because their kid needs help, or ...
Williams has a forceful, muscular, pull-no-punches voice. Soon as he's off the phone, he's got a visitor—a middle-aged father. Dad is at wit's end with his son. The boy's hardheaded, doesn't listen. If he keeps up like this, Pops fears, he's bound for the type of trouble that can't be rectified with a detention or a parent-teacher conference. Williams offers closed-door counsel. Dad looks rejuvenated when he leaves. An hour later, the son arrives. The boy looks worried. He knows his dad got to Williams first. The door closes.
The kid listens, Williams says later, because he's getting advice from someone qualified to preach about bad life choices, someone who's shot at people, sold drugs and spent 21 of his 45 years on Earth behind bars, someone who's convinced that young people can be saved and who's willing to risk life to prove it.
"With everything, good or bad," Williams says, "there's a beginning."
Born in Oakland, Williams moved with his family to Compton in the late '60s after the death of his father, a member of the controversial Black Panthers. The despair that hung over Watts like a mushroom cloud worsened after the 1967 Watts riots (34 dead, 1,000 wounded and $200 million in damaged property), eventually seeping into Compton (generally recognized as the birthplace of the Bloods).
"There was really nothing to do in Compton. People were just hanging out," Williams says. "This was when Raymond Washington, Tookie, Kenny Thorton and all them came up and started the Crips. What history doesn't tell you is that you had people coming over to their neighborhoods messing with them, which made them create the gangs. The same that happened out here."
When he moved to the Hood in the mid '70s, it was no different than any other low- to middle-income neighborhood, filled with folks dreaming of movin' on up. Kids had to be in when the streetlights came on. Williams used to ride his bike over to Donna Street. It wasn't yet notorious or dangerous. People hung out, shot dice, smoked bud. The affection was mutual.
"I'm looking at these dudes and they're looking at me, like, 'Why are you dressing like that?' I had on blue khakis, a baseball cap turned backward, blue rag hanging out my pocket. I said, 'I'm from California.' When I tried to explain to them why I dressed like that, they couldn't even comprehend it because gangs didn't really exist out here."
The Ace of Spades were exceptions.
"The Ace of Spades, who eventually became Gersons (Gerson Park Kingsmen), were coming over the hill (Interstate 15), up Lake Mead, and up Carey, beating people up and taking their bikes," Williams says.
Williams was into girls, football and being the center of attention. He and a couple of buddies earned money dancing around town. Their group, Northtown Poplockin, wore black and white and sported canes. Every week, the Ace of Spades would come to Donna and disrupt dance practice.
"I was like, 'They can't keep doing this. Isn't this North Las Vegas? Where I'm from, people don't come from other neighborhoods, especially from way across the tracks, and take your personal stuff,'" Williams says. "They wanted to know what should we do. I really had no true desire to start a gang."
The turning point came at a dance contest at Doolittle Park, in Ace of Spades territory. Like a gossipy version of the avian flu, rumor spread that his crew was going to take over the park.
"We're up there standing around in our zoot suits and stuff. The girls are digging us," Williams says. "Then these dudes come up to us. 'Who is y'all?' I said, my name is P [short for Paps, his nickname], they call me Sir Macaroni, we are a dance group. They said, 'That's not what I heard.'
"Y'all can't come up here."
"I'm going to go where I want to go, plain and simple."
"We catch you up here again, we're going to whip your ass."
A rumble ensued. An Ace of Spades member slashed Williams' cousin, Ronnie, in the face with a razor—he needed hundreds of stitches, then bolted with his outnumbered homies. The contingent from Donna Street had faced down their rivals. Emboldened, Williams banded a group together, the GQs, named after the quartet famous for the breezy song, "Sitting in the Park." Jackets make the gang official. The design is a "GQ" in big letters, a bull and their names above the phrase, "GQs Don't Bullshit."
Instead of the Ace of Spades pillaging on Donna, the GQs began plundering on the west side.
"Had not the Ace of Spades came over and did what they did," Williams says, "in my honest opinion, I don't think gangs would be where they're at today."
Where are gangs at today? According to law enforcement, everywhere. No place is untouched: Summerlin, Green Valley, Aliante, Henderson. As Robert Gratton, a former leader of the Nuestra Familia prison gang, told 600 law enforcement officials at the Know Gangs conference two weeks ago: "Just because there isn't graffiti on your walls doesn't mean there aren't gangs in your neighborhood."
A county gang intelligence official, who declined to be identified because it could compromise investigations, says the 311 Boyz, the suburban knuckleheads whose violent, videotaped antics drew the kind of media attention tourism officials hate, are up to their old high jinks. Suburban high schools have become recruiting grounds for skinheads, the source says, racially tinged gang beefs threaten to engulf schools like Western and Desert Pines (a shooting at Desert Pines two weeks ago involved a black assailant and Hispanic victim) and the gang problem continues to grow. The source estimates it's nearly double the 9,500 or so gang members cited in recent stats.
One similarity between the thugs of old and new is the willingness to put aside beefs and team for a greater criminal cause. Back then, the GQs partnered with Bloods and the 28th Street gang. Today's inter-gang coalitions, outfits like the Wood and Squad Up, are actively trying to spread their names.
"We had become so big, we were the hot commodity," Williams says of the GQs. "We had the jackets. No other gang had jackets. We had the blue bomber jackets that the police use to wear with the fur on them. So everybody wanted a jacket. That's what kind of promoted the GQs. We had West Coast, Piru, 40 Block, Vegas Heights, Valley View, Delmonico, Berkeley Square, everything on the west side. We started GQs on Cindy Sue (near Rancho and Vegas). We were so broad, we didn't even know who everybody was."
If expanding the GQs' reach was the mission statement, then protecting GQs' neighborhoods was priority number one. There were to be no burglaries. You were to help the elderly and couldn't pick fights just to pick fights. Selling drugs was forbidden.
The chivalry didn't last.
"You remember, Clark and Al from the Gerson?" Williams asks rhetorically. "They were the biggest dope dealers out here. They had everyone getting on angel dust. They came over and started selling angel dust on Donna Street. I didn't know about it."
Williams made them a business proposition: You can sell in our neighborhood and my guys will protect you and keep lookout for the cops, but we gotta get a cut of profits.
The GQs started selling weed. Williams liked the money. But it was nothing compared to the loot the Playboy Bloods were bringing in. Every time he saw one of the flashy, West Las Vegas gangsters, they had stacks—wads—of bundled hundreds. Because he went to Matt Kelly Elementary with some of the gang's honchos, he felt safe trying to form a bond.
"My set didn't want to hook up with them, they didn't trust them," he says. "But I was the type of person, I would go out and socialize because I knew in order to grow, you had to have allies."
The PBs' money came from robberies. Williams went on a few runs, bragging each time he returned to Donna Street. "'Get with that, cuzz. You guys out here selling dope, taking penitentiary chances and I'm making real fetty (money).' They'd ask where I got it from, I'd tell 'em, 'Runnin' with PBs.'"
The run stopped in 1980. He was riding with a few PBs, smoking what he thought was weed. It was sherm—weed soaked in embalming fluid. He knew the stuff made people crazy, fearless. That's why the Gersons were so hard to get along with. All those fights in the circular park (built in a roundabout) in Vegas Heights, just off Martin Luther King and Carey? Fueled by sherm.
In the summer of 1979, he and some Bloods cruised the city, getting high and shooting the shit. They pulled up to a casino-bar in North Las Vegas. Williams' cohorts got of the car and headed in the bar. He stayed back, stoned off sherm. "Zombied out and paranoid," he says.
Whatever they were doing was taking too long.
He clutched his gun.
Was it a set-up? Bloods finally turning on a Crip?
He headed in.
Robbery in progress.
Seemed like North Las Vegas cops knew what was going down—they were there in a flash.
Williams said cops pestered him to snitch, promising he'd get off scot-free. He kept mum.
On August 14, 1980, Williams is sentenced to prison. He's 17.
The sentence: 61 years; three and a half times as long as he's been alive.
"I couldn't understand why this judge would give me so much time when I had such a promising future," Williams says. "I mean, I had a big rep in the town, but not a reputation of killing people. I can honestly say I have never taken a life out here in Las Vegas. I was a social bug. I would go to the parties and people would say, 'Yeah, we're going to get that dude, kill that dude.' They were talking about me. And I would ask what he looked like. They said he was a real big dude. I was like 5'6 and weighed 150 pounds. I was one of the littlest guys on the set."
Williams is still muscled from his days lifting weights in the prison yard.
He continues. "I'd be like, 'Why do you want to kill this dude?' They'd say, 'He came over here and shot up my homie.' They would make up stories to justify them coming down to Northtown to shoot at people and to fight people. I'd tell 'em, 'I know the dude, he's cool.' People knew me by reputation but they didn't know me by face."
Williams is sent to the maximum security Nevada State Prison in Carson City—the state's first incarcerated Crip. He wasn't alone for long. The prison had a pipeline to Donna Street. In months, the whole neighborhood was there.
"So when you're among Romans," Williams says of prison life, "you do as the Romans do."
Goodbye GQs, hello Northtown Posse, a group led by Williams and comprised of thugs from the 89030. Enemies changed, too. Racist whites became targets. "We were outnumbered nine to one, whites to blacks. The black inmates put up with a lot of shit. They called us everything in the book—spear-chucker, jungle bunny, nigger. We were crackin' at them white boys. The older blacks said we were going to get everyone killed. But I'd rather die with my pride than die without it. Older black inmates let it slide and told me to chill out."
At breakfast one morning, white inmates got revenge. Williams says his roommate purposely left the cell door open. Assailants barged in, leaving him in a heap: broken jaw and shoulder, fractured ribs. Hospitalized for nearly a year. Williams happily reports that he got revenge over the years on all but one person—he died.
All the while, older black inmates kept needling him to use his talent, his ability to lead people for good. People like you, they'd say.
"I couldn't tell. Everywhere I go, people are talking about killing me," he says.
The vets kept chipping at him.
Teach the youngsters there's a better way.
Chip, chip ...
Encourage them to be better.
Chip, chip ...
Show them education is important.
Chip, chip ...
An old con, Big Money Ben, continually bent his ear: Prison incarcerates your body but not your mind.
Chip, chip ...
"We were still a gang, but you had to work to get to improve yourself."
In 1985, he started a group, Hope Two Thousand, whose mission was educating inmates. Young Donna Street Crips who didn't conform or mouthed off about this self-help, black pride mumbo got dropped.
"I was sleepin' fools left and right (knocking them out)," he says. "They'd tell me I couldn't come back to the set. Yeah, whatever. Soon as I got out, I went straight to Donna.
Noble as Hope Two Thousand's goal was, Williams still couldn't give up the gang life.
After a brief stint in San Quentin (transferred in 1988), Williams was sent to Ely State Prison in 1989. He found that Crips and Bloods had united. A no-no in his book.
"So I busted that up."
The wall hadn't fallen completely.
I'm supposed to meet Williams at Emerald Breeze apartments, a Blood neighborhood that made news last year after 29-year-old security guard Brian Wilcox was fatally shot by loiterers.
Williams is there, but I don't see him. Nor he, me. We miss each other. On my way out, a few young guys emerge from a nearby apartment and glare at me. Judging by their garb—red baseball caps, red basketball shorts, ripped jeans with red bandanas tied into the holes—Bloods. They walk toward "H" and Washington, home of the West Coast Bloods. It's also Melvin Ennis' old neighborhood.
Ennis has a handful of nicknames, including Mayor of the West Side. His official title is program coordinator of the Clark County Gang Intervention Team. Since the late-'90s, Ennis has worked tirelessly keeping kids away from and getting them out of gangs. Ennis, 41, grew up here and had a front-row seat to the birth of local gangs.
"Growing up here, there really wasn't nothing to do," he says. "It wasn't about gang-banging, but about looking out for people. It was a protection thing. Then one low-income neighborhood started trippin' with another neighborhood, people thinking one was better than the other. People wanted to be the only ones selling dope in their neighborhoods. So they said, 'You can't live in the Coast and come over here to sell weed in the Gerson.' When I grew up, the Coast had a rivalry with Donna Street. If you were from the Coast, you didn't go to Donna and you didn't kick it too much in Northtown."
Ennis' thing was throwing parties, which he did in nearly every gang-affiliated neighborhood. He was from the Coast, but didn't bang for the Coast. Though Ennis officially met Williams through the county gang task force in 1999, he'd long known about his reputation: "They didn't call him Ramont, they called him Paps." Williams knew that Ennis had fashioned himself into a go-to-guy on gangs. Now, they talk constantly.
Ennis wishes there were more ex-gang members, particularly the OGs, who'd follow Williams' path. You need someone like that, he says, to show people that a failed past isn't necessarily a prelude to a doomed future. You need someone with credibility. "He's not telling troubled youth anything that parents, teachers, parents, mentors and parole officers haven't already said," Ennis says.
"There are a whole bunch of cats that are unsung heroes who are making a difference and Ramont is one of them. All the parents working hard at home are helping me. Not only are they saving their kids, they are saving my kids, because their kids might hurt my kids. And it's not like we don't know who these kids are. (In many cases) they're our nieces, nephews and cousins."
State Sen. Harvey Munford's District 5 encompasses much of West Las Vegas, where Williams works: "From what I can see, it seems like he's making accomplishments and progress. But it's hard to measure that, unless you measure it in the schools."
Most gang organizing and recruiting begins in schools, says Munford, himself recently retired after 36 years in the Clark County School District. He taught at Bonanza High and recalls confrontations, bullying and a gang-related shooting in apartments across the street in the early-'90s. "I used to notice people in class throwing gang signs or saying they are being pressured to join gangs," Munford says.
Using Munford as his liaison, Williams sought state funding for his mentoring programs during the 2005 legislative session. No dice. "I was very disappointed," Munford says.
Williams continued pressing Munford, who got area businessmen to fund a summer party for kids and opened his house for the event. Forty to 50 kids and parents came. Everyone had high praise for Williams. Munford dropped by the Agassi Boys & Girls club a few times to see Williams in action, leaving impressed. The duo made two trips to High Desert State Prison last summer to talk with inmates.
"There's people still in prison that know him," Munford says. "I talked to the inmates. He knows death-row inmates. He is very good with the ability to persuade people. The public is so concerned about protections and safeguards. They don't want their communities and children at risk. They want people locked up and the keys thrown away. Some people think that prisoners can never pay their debt to society. Ramont is proof that people change. Ramont has paid his debt to society and he has the ability to show others the way out."
Before getting out of prison, Williams had to get out of gang life.
April 1991: He calls it quits. Says God gave him a vision to be a better person. What he should've prayed for was protection.
" I called a meeting on the yard at Ely State Prison," Williams says. "I called the Gersons, PBs, Rolling Sixties, the Skinheads ... every gang that was on the yard. They (corrections officers) thought it was about to be a riot. I told them that I'm done. I can't do this anymore. Where my mind was locked into small-mindedness, education had opened up so many horizons. I couldn't allow my emotions to control my actions anymore. I gave it up. At that time, everybody in the penitentiary who was my homie put me on a hit list. Everybody wanted me dead."
Two months later: D-Day. The plan: stab Williams as he walked to his cell. Ironically, white inmates tipped him off, gave him a knife.
"I couldn't run."
He prays. Asks God not to let him die in prison.
The door to the inmate congregation area opened. Everyone was sitting around, quiet. A former associate tried to make small talk and put his arm around him.
Williams flung it off: "Don't touch me, homie!"
Any moment, he was sure, the knives would come flying. He felt like a dead man walking.
Everyone looked at him, but no one moved. A few more steps and the guard would open the door to his unit and he'd be closer to his cell and to safety.
He thought they were going to stab him in the back.
The door opened. Here come the knives—only they don't. Seconds later, he's in his cell. Alive. Safe. Scared shitless. Heart racing. He's gonna die all right—of a heart attack.
When folks see him the next day, they're surprised.
"You're supposed to dead."
He is, in a sense. No longer a gangster, no longer respected, but a snitch (Williams says he's never ratted on anyone; "not how I get down")—a punk, a coward. Scorn he grudgingly accepts. At least he's still breathing. "I was all right as long as nobody touched me." How long would that last?
Flying straight earned him the support of Muslim and Cuban inmates and the Black Guerilla Family. They instituted a hands-off policy: Touch him and its on.
"Guys finally started getting off my back when they saw I had people backing me," Williams says. "They'd tell me they we were supposed to kill me and they don't know why they didn't. From then on, gangs weren't for me."
In 1994, Williams transferred down to Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, 45 minutes outside of Vegas.
Talk-show host Montel Williams was going to do a show there. Williams' first wife—he got married in prison—finagled an interview with the show's executive director. They liked Williams' story of change, creating Hope Two Thousand, preaching education, corresponding with high-school students about the dangers of gang life.
One day, he's in bed reading a Donald Goines book. The door opens. Last time that happened, he spent a year in the hospital.
The data is somewhat confusing. On the 12th floor of the Fitzgerald's Downtown, a lady from Reno-based Corporate Solutions is telling the crowd at a Southern Nevada Gang Task Force meeting that the number of gangs and gang membership are on the decline, despite explosive population growth. Pulled to the side, Metro gang unit Det. Tony Morales says cops are switching data collection methods to improve accuracy.
Williams has brought along two teenagers in his youth mentoring program. The young man, who works for United Parcel Service, grew up on a gang neighborhood and credits Williams' fatherly input with helping him avoid detention. Williams listens, makes comments here and there about stats. He attends these functions for them, the youngsters, he says, "to access the politicians and decision-makers to get money to help these kids."
Part of the problem with gang intervention, Williams says, is that few decision-makers, prominent people and folks whose names adorn the mastheads of anti-gang initiatives actually go into the 'hood and see the problems firsthand.
If they did, he says, they'd find a gang problem that's bigger than what the data reports; maybe 15,000 to 20,000 members, as opposed to half that. Keeping a pulse on what's going on in the streets, he says, is as important as knowing how to work the bureaucracy to get things done.
"You can count the number of people on one hand who are actually going into the communities on a regular basis and doing outreach with the gang members and drug dealers," says a married father of four boys who admits he's not home much, spending much of his time talking to kids in bad neighborhoods, working on Hope Two Thousand, meeting with gang specialists and law enforcement on intelligence. "You can easily count the number of people who are working with these kids, in their neighborhoods and trying to make a difference."
Williams says more and better-directed resources could drastically reduce the gang problem. A handful of thugs cause most of the havoc. We can get rid of them. "But you can't ask the federal government for a billion dollars or $500 million for the feds to come in and combat a major gang problem if you have no gangs."
These types of comments have hindered Williams as much as his straight-up-no-chaser personality. Scuttlebutt has it that all his wounds—abrasive, hard to get along with, alienating would-be supporters—are self-inflicted.
"I don't kiss ass," Williams says.
But he seems to be learning (finally, some say) to move within the system, to play nice.
One sign of progress is the Youth Bus, donated to Williams for Hope Two Thousand and being refurbished and modernized to transport youth in his programs to educational and recreational appointments.
Helping modernize the bus is Nevada Hand, a nonprofit that operates 1,900 affordable housing units throughout the Valley. Mic Cochran, executive vice president of the nonprofit's affiliates management company, Hand Property Management, is among Williams' biggest backers. The duo met via the gang task force. Impressed, Cochran recruited him to put on a 12-week life skills program in Apache Pines, a Nevada Hand community near Tropicana and Interstate 215 that was having problems with neighborhood youth.
"Ramont evaluated the situation and engaged families and some of the kids," Cochran says. "He told us what steps needed to be taken to mitigate potential gang problems ... He speaks the language and understands what's happening on a gang and troubled-youth level. He was able to get more done than we could have done as landlords."
Cochran says Williams can be intimidating. "But he's been very composed and focused with us, a valuable resource. I feel real strong about this guy. He's delivered for us and it's not just lip service."
"It's a learning process. I don't know what people expect," Williams says. Add up all his years of prison—15-year stint, three-year bid, a combined three years for various parole violations (the last one in 2001) and he's been behind bars 21 years, almost half his life. "Look at my background. I come out of prison and you expect me to be all suave? No. But I'm getting there. I have a lot of supports, prominent businessmen who believe in what I'm doing."
Even his detractors acknowledge a gift for reaching and reforming gang members, that he's a vital cog in the gang intervention system. But is it too late? He doesn't think so.
Right now, he's focused on producing a documentary that will do many things: validate his claims that gangs are a bigger problem than we may think—in terms of membership, breadth and influence—offer solutions and highlight successes.
"Instead of getting a bunch of youngsters that's talking in front of the camera with their colors on talking about, 'Yeah, I killed this person or killed that person,' it needs to be more educational than that. It needs to tell a story, from beginning to ending, where it's at now and where it's likely to go," Williams says. "If it's done right, you can expose a lot of people indirectly without pointing fingers."
The cell door opens. No attackers, just Montel Williams.
He wants to do a piece on Williams, about his correspondence with students at Horizon, a last-resort high school for troubled students. The show's producers tell him they're trying to get another parole hearing.
"I told them it wasn't going to work. I'd tried."
One day, the warden calls and tells him to pack his stuff because he's headed to Carson City to meet with the pardon board. He didn't even apply.
Things don't look good. Fellow inmates who'd been denied six or seven times tell him not to get his hopes up.
"I've always been a very religious person despite my choices in life," he says. "I knew I was going to get out of prison because I'd given my heart to society in a positive way."
D-Day: In front of the pardon.
"When I went in there, man, they chewed my ass."
The worst came from Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. "Tore me a new asshole. My heart sunk."
The whole time the judge sat there, silent, just rubbing his chin.
He asked a question about a poem he wrote.
Williams retrieved a folder from his desk in the Boys & Girls club.
The judge was curious about a few lines in the poem:
"My faith in God says stay strong and everything will be OK ... "
No problems there.
"But searching for freedom with great haste, pondering my inevitable release,
Wondering if I'll remain a man or evolve into a beast."
Prison is violent, Williams told the judge, and inmates often become a product of the environment. The judge worried about him turning his rage on society upon being released. After all, he became a man in prison. The judge was stalling.
The board reviewed more than 500 letters from students asking for his release.
A year later, Williams was on the streets.
An Old New Testament
"Look at her!" Williams is referring to the woman in the folding chair seated on a dead patch of grass inside the Vera Johnson apartment complex near Bruce and Washington, his former criminal stomping grounds.
"She's doing something."
By "something," he means something illicit—selling drugs.
Williams knows about selling drugs here. After getting out of prison in 1994, he got back into gang-banging—he was triggerman for the set and ended up getting shot several times—back to a life of crime, helping turn this complex near Cashman Field into a U.N. for drug-dealing gangs.
That apartment over there—he's pointing eastward, 50 or so feet from a Dumpster—that's where the Grape Streets (Crips from Watts, California) sold. Over there, he says, pointing northward, Bloods had that apartment. Donnas over here. Gersons—yes, Gersons, his hated rivals—over there.
"It was all about making money," he says, certainly more than what he made on the graveyard shift detailing cars for a limo company.
Williams knocks on Doc Broadus' door. At 89, Broadus is lucid. He moves slow but well and looks fit enough to go a few rounds like the former boxer he is. The walls of his apartment showcase decades' worth of commendations, the most visible featuring a guy who made a fortune knocking people out, then a bigger fortune selling cooking grills—George Foreman. Broadus used to train the smiling giant.
Himself a young hellion in San Francisco—Mom booted him across the country during the Great Depression; he passed through Vegas on the way—Broadus recognized Williams' type. Knew what the youngster was up to. He'd ask him:
"You totin' a pistol?"
"You selling drugs?"
Broadus had him figured. Now he had to transform him.
"I liked the kid, but not what he did," he says.
Partly to appease the old man but mostly to shake the cops, Williams moved drug-dealing inside. Broadus then goaded him into using his ill-gotten gains to help people with utility bills and groceries.
"When I was on the run (for violating parole by selling drugs, using weapons), the cops probably knew I was with Doc but they never kicked in his door because they respected him so much," Williams says. "Doc kept chipping away at me. He was the father I didn't have."
When Williams went back to prison in 1995 on charges of assault and battery with a deadly weapon—says his son's grandmother attacked him with a knife, so he broke her jaw and knocked her husband out—Doc watched after his son (the first of four boys). Broadus took Williams when he got out in 1999.
He had to repay the old man somehow. Why not help him rid the neighborhood of the plague he brought? Doing otherwise, he says, was "like spittin' in Doc's face."
Together, they worked on battling gangs and drugs. Broadus was the sugar, his protégé the spice. Feared for his fighting prowess, Williams was also known to bust caps without much provocation. He'd been shot before. Four times, to be exact. (He can't remember the dates, but he knows the assailants—Gersons). Plus he'd been stabbed twice in prison, once by a Northtown Gangsta (rival Crips), once by a white supremacist.
So dying didn't scare him. If someone tried to get grimy with Broadus, it was on.
"I used fear and intimidation," Williams says. "If you didn't listen, you had to go, even if by force. The quality of life improved dramatically."
In the interim, Broadus, who runs a nonprofit organization that promotes sports, introduced Williams to people in social services and juvenile services, connections he'd use after he stopped going to jail and started on the straight and narrow.
Though not as problematic as the scourges in Houston, San Antonio, LA, Chicago, Florida and New Orleans, Ennis says our gang problem could get that way if unchecked. Right now it's fixable if more parents get involved, the community gets educated, cops step up suppression and more folks like Ramont Williams help out. Fat chance on the last part. When Williams chats up local gang forefathers on helping out, they balk. "They want their past left there," he says.
So he focuses on the youth.
Swift is a Playboy Blood (he declines to give his name). He looks older than his 17 years, probably because he's lived enough for someone twice his age. He was on parole for assault with the attempt to commit murder when Williams was brought in to speak to a group of juvenile parolees.
"I didn't like him," Swift says. "I heard he was from Donna. A Crip. So I really didn't like him."
"He was teaching a class about gang violence," Swift says. "I noticed he had a big-ass head."
They both laugh.
"I talked to him after class. I learned a lot from him. He was cool. Spoke some straight-up shit. Ramont has a knack for this."
Off parole and looking for a job, Swift sought out Williams, landing in his program and getting a job doing janitorial work. Not glamorous, but certainly better than living on the edge.
"I started banging at 10 because I got tired of getting my ass whooped," Swift says. "If you wasn't with it, you'd just keep getting' whooped. But (once I joined) the shit started getting torturous. Drama. Scrappin', shootin' at niggas, getting' shot at. Gotta stay strapped because I'm worrying about folks creepin' on me."
Living "right" is just as difficult. "Basically I act like a little white boy. I'm polite. I try to make friends. I see folks I used to beef with and let them know I'm bangin'. It's the G-code (gangsta). They respect it. I'm still from PBs, still represent it, but I don't bang it."
Over in the Hood, Williams' Crip ties aren't going over so well.
"Donna Street Crips."
The boy in the blue shorts frowns, grimaces, shakes his head. "Man ..."
"Don't trip," says Williams, his voice rising a little. "Look, your beef ain't with me. It ain't with GQs. None of y'all were even around when I was bangin. Your beef is with DSC. I'm always going to be a Crip. I'm about teaching you young guys to make positive choices. I grew up in the Hood."
Williams names names of the folks who started the Hood.
Blank stares. He continues. One girl pipes: "I know him. That's my daddy."
Back to the frowning Blood: "I don't look at you being a Blood, youngster. You are from a neighborhood. If you grew up in a Crip neighborhood, you'd be a Crip. If you grew in a Rollin' Sixty neighborhood, you'd be a Sixty, or in the Gerson, you'd be a Gerson. Who else is a Blood?"
The two boys in blood-red gear laugh. "I know ya'll are. You don't have to hide it ... Your beef ain't with me. I was a GQ. You beef is with DSC. You don't have any right to hate me."
"Who here can go in any neighborhood they want without fear of something happening to them?"
"No you can't! You can't go on Donna?"
Admission by denial.
"I don't live in fear," he says. "If you are in my program, I can bring you in a rival set and nothing will happen to you. That's the respect I have. I would never put you in harm's way. Trust me. If I bring you somewhere for a program, know that I'll do everything in my power to keep you safe, even if I have to get down with somebody. A lot of y'all think you're hard out here, but once you get to prison you're not. And believe me, prison is coming. Them fellas (cops) are coming to get you, just like they did the Sixties (dozens indicted several years ago). They build prisons for people like you."
Eyes are glued to Williams.
"How many of you wrap red bandanas around your little brothers and sisters?"
The guilty culprits are ratted out. The kids laugh.
"Stop that! Seriously," Williams says. "Don't lead them the wrong way."