The first time I see Taylonn Murphy, he is standing between two groups of gang members from rival housing projects in Harlem.
One group, from the Grant Houses, had to be convinced to walk down Old Broadway and into neutral territory for a conversation with gang members from the Manhattanville Projects. Their suspicion is rooted in decades of violence that, since 2010, has sparked 46 shootings and claimed 10 lives, including that of Murphy's daughter, who was shot and killed at the age of 18 roughly four years before this very night.
"The first thing you do before throwing hands is throwing glass bottles and shit," one of the leaders from Manhattanville is saying to a Grant kid over Murphy's shoulder. "I got stitches in my head man, this is some regular beef shit, if we are really going to squash this shit I want my little mans to really be valid on that side."
"And likewise, we want the same thing," an older kid from the Grant project responds. "I want my little mans to be able to come through Manhattanville without any issues."
Seizing on their concern for their younger brothers, cousins and friends, Murphy steers the conversation toward something bigger. He tells both sides it isn't just about squashing their beef — which needs to happen first — but also about setting an example for the "little ones" and getting jobs.
"If they see y'all getting some money at a good job they are going to follow suit," Murphy says. "When you do that, the little dudes behind you are going to see you with a job and want the same thing."
After laying out some more of their frustrations, talking for nearly 20 minutes with Murphy moderating, the two gangs shake hands and some of the members hug, thanking each other for coming out. Then they walk back in opposite directions to their homes.
"This night was two years in the making," Murphy says with a smile as the groups disperse.
Photo: Shakira Robinson and Joniesha Foles
Bringing the two gangs together to talk out their differences was something Murphy and two other community leaders decided to do following a raft of arrests in the neighborhood. After four decades of violence, and faced with a lack of resources inside the community, it became clear that whatever approach they had been using, be it throwing people in jail or kicking them out of school, wasn’t working.
“It was a systemic breakdown,” Murphy says. “These kids have been neglected and it’s not their fault. When I say they have been neglected, I mean the community center has been closed for a few years, kids haven't had any programs that are dealing with young people that might be in the street, or juvenile specific programs for at risk children.”
The goal of bringing the kids together and finding more resources for them was something he committed himself to after two young men killed his daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, inside the Grant Housing project, where they lived. One of the men was identified as Robert Cartegna, a 20-year-old from the Manhattanville Projects. The other was a 21-year-old named Tyshawn Brockington, who lived nearby. Chicken was famous in the neighborhood, both for her winning personality and promising basketball career: she was the 16th ranked point guard in the nation and was already being scouted by major universities. Her 2011 murder was covered by ESPN and received national attention as the end of what many believed would have been a bright future in the sport.
“It was a systemic breakdown," Murphy says. “These kids have been neglected and it's not their fault."
The tragedy made Murphy and many members of the community think hard about how to fix the issues of violence and crime in their backyard. While law enforcement agencies frequently measure success in arrests, Murphy understands that the best thing the community can do for the kids is to show them another path, not throw them in jail.
Nobody seems to know how far back the beef between Manhattanville and Grant Houses goes, but Derrick Haynes — a basketball coach from Harlem who had seen Chicken play — has a pretty good idea. He watched someone shoot his 15-year-old brother when he was eight, back in 1972. Before he died, Haynes’ brother — who was from Manhattanville — told the police he’d been shot by someone from the Grant Houses.
43 years after his brother’s death, Haynes teamed up with Murphy on a mission to quell the rampant violence in Harlem.
Photo: Shakira Robinson and Jonisha Foles
Joining in their crusade is Arnita Brockington, the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, who is serving time for Chicken's murder. (Arnita was among those present at the meeting between the two rival gangs.) In the years following Chicken's death, Brockington and Murphy shocked the neighborhood by walking the streets together, a father who had lost his daughter and the mother of the man who took her life. The two would go back and forth between the housing projects, talking to kids about getting jobs and staying out of trouble.
"In all reality, most of these adults are scared of these kids," Brockington says. "Me, Taylonn and Derrick, we're not scared of these kids. We've been out here since 2012 after my son was convicted… I go to Grant and Taylonn goes to Manhattanville. We've been dealing with the kids so they can see something better and not get arrested, so nobody else has to die."
Now the trio is doing more than walking the streets: they're starting a crisis center and putting it right smack in the center of the violence — at 125th and Old Broadway.
"When they come together they are real," Haynes tells me after the gang members meet that night. "They ain't been together like that in two years, the first group of guys all got caught up in the raid. This was a big night tonight."
Photo: Shakira Robinson and Jonisha Foles
The raid Haynes is referring to took place in June of 2014 and was one of the largest police raids in American history. Over 100 alleged gang members from Grant and Manhattanville houses were taken into custody. Some were guilty of nothing more than sending a threatening Facebook message. Others would be put on trial for murder. Several kids the trio had already been speaking to were arrested. One of them was Brockington’s son — the man who killed Murphy’s daughter — but that didn’t make the raid any easier for Murphy to watch. You’d have a hard time convincing any of them that handcuffs and prison sentences are going to fix the problem.
While Police Commissioner Bill Bratton hailed the raid as a success, boasting that anyone who chooses “this lifestyle” will “suffer the same fate as these individuals,” members of the community mourned.
Within three years of being released, more than two-thirds of prisoners are re-arrested.
“They say they're teaching the kids a lesson but to me they aren't teaching them anything,” Brockington, who had two sons caught up in the raid, tells me. “Some come out better, some come out worse.”
And she’s right. Within three years of being released, more than two-thirds of prisoners are re-arrested, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That should be enough to give anyone pause.
Since they can’t stop the police from enforcing the law, they’re doing their best to encourage kids in the neighborhood to get their act together. So far, Murphy, Haynes and Brockington are off to a good start. In addition to bringing older teens together like they did on the night I met them, the group has already secured a space for the crisis center on Old Broadway, just north of 125th street, paid for by an anonymous donor. (All Murphy knows is it was an elderly woman who'd heard about their work.) They have also received a donation of 20 computers and opened up a dialogue with police in the 26th precinct — all in their free time, on a volunteer basis.
Photo: Rachel Thomas
"They can talk to young people in a way that no one else can, in a way the police can't, in a way the local council member can't," New York City Councilmen Mark Levine says of the trio's work. "They have unique credibility and it makes their work essential."
Levine believes that help from within the community is a necessary step toward ending the violence, and he has pledged to help the non-profit crisis center get up and running.
"They're at the early stages," Levine says. "They're off to a great start, but there is a lot of work ahead in building a thriving non-profit. I'm confident they're going to get there and I want to support them."
Even students from nearby Columbia University have stepped up, rallying publicly for government support in the community, attending Murphy's speeches at the University, and sending student journalists to events like the meet-up I witnessed.
"I love them young people man," Murphy tells me. "Very sharp minds, they're starting to realize it's not always a black or white thing, latino or oriental thing, it's more of a classism thing. The haves or have nots. Poverty and violence go hand in hand; take away the poverty and you take away the violence. Both are man made. There are enough resources for everyone."
Photo: Shakira Robinson and Jonisha Foles
At the end of the night, Murphy and Haynes notice a 26th Precinct police vehicle across the street that has been watching them for some time. Murphy worries aloud that having the cops there, or the threat of another raid, could make getting the kids together a lot harder.
That's not to say anyone expects the police to change their tune. He just hopes they'll let him do his job as well.
"Their job is to get arrests," Murphy says. "I don't fault them for their job, but my job is to make sure they don't get that many arrests. We're hustling peace."