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The Holly Explores the History of Gang Violence and Police Tensions in Northeast Denver

We spoke with acclaimed journalist Julian Rubinstein, who spent seven years reporting on Park Hill and Five Points for the new book.

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In 2013, beloved Denver anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts shot a man at a peace rally he had organized. In New York City, a world away, Julian Rubinstein wondered how such a moment could come to pass. Unable to find robust answers, Rubinstein—a long-form journalist and University of Denver visiting professor, who has done award-winning work for the The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine—flew to the city where he was raised, moved back in with his mother, and began a seven-year investigation into Roberts’ life and the social and cultural forces that shaped him, and that he, in turn, shaped. 

The book, out May 11, has garnered ebullient praise from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. In it, Rubinstein charts the history of Northeast Park Hill and Five Points as they evolved from the “Harlem of the West” to the epicenters of Denver’s civil rights and Black power movements, then from overpoliced suburbs to the site of a gang war, and today, a rapidly gentrifying community. At the heart of the book is Holly Square in Northeast Park Hill: once a shopping center and cultural mecca, it was burned down in 2008 and left to smolder for months. Roberts, a lifelong Park Hill resident who came of age in and around the Holly as a smart, no-nonsense Blood known as ShowBizz, dedicated himself to counteracting the gang violence in which he’d been ensconced and, in the process, returning the Holly to its former glory. But, as The Holly reveals, billionaire private interests, shadowy police subterfuge, and the all-subsuming force of history complicated his mission. 

We spoke with Rubinstein about his relationship with Roberts, the challenges of reporting on and with a community that many journalists have failed, and one of The Holly’s most central, staggering questions: Did Denver police target Roberts because of his activism? (No spoilers, but possible answers continue to play out in real time: Roberts was charged with a felony for allegedly inciting a riot after leading peaceful protests in Aurora last summer. Just last week, all charges against him and four other organizers were dropped.) 

(MORE: Senior staff writer Robert Sanchez profiled Terrance Roberts in 2014.)

5280: Many of the most frustrating and most disturbing events in the book have to do not with actions of individual gang members in the communities of Northeast Park Hill and Five Points, but with the way media reported on the communities and the way law enforcement policed the communities. How did it feel to encounter and write about this history?
Julian Rubinstein: One of the most disillusioning aspects, as a journalist, was seeing the misrepresentation of the communities over the years. In a way, it goes back to the civil rights movement in Denver, which as I discuss in the early chapters, really kicked off from a 1968 police shooting in Holly Square. The reporting on the shooting was really questionable—it hung on the issue of whether or not Nathan Jones, the Black man shot by police, had been carrying a gun. Ultimately, there was no evidence that he was. 

Right, and there are about a dozen instances like that that you detail in the book—when the police allegedly do something suspicious or downright illegal and no charges or consequences are brought against them.
One of things I wanted to do was tell a story from the community’s perspective because, especially in gang communities, it’s very hard to find books or any kind of media that’s not told from a law enforcement perspective or from law enforcement sources. And in this case, especially because even some of the media reporting was inaccurate and seemingly also based on law enforcement sources, I really lean heavily on the communities’ story. Now, I also tried to be very transparent about what I couldn’t prove, but I tried to primarily report deeply in Park Hill and Five Points. This leads me to a question you might have, about being a white man doing this.

Yeah, that was a question I had, actually. How did you go about reporting from within a community that you had to approach from without?
It was a challenge. I was well aware of being a white man going into basically an all-Black community—though every year Five Points and Park Hill are becoming less and less that way, as they’re gentrified. In a way, I approached it the way I approach any story, which is I really, really showed up for things and listened to what everyone was saying. As I was deeply reporting and researching, I was actually finding out historical details that community members didn’t know, and I was able to share those in certain cases. There was a time when, as shootings happened in the community, sources were texting me about them on the day of, of their own volition. I realized it felt like they were not only telling me what was happening, but they were pointing out that no one else was reporting on them, and effectively saying, we’re trying to help you tell this story now, because you’re the one following it. I felt the burden and respect of that responsibility, and I tried to follow through with my promise of revealing the stories not being told, the stories being missed. Later on, several people mentioned to me that it actually probably helped me that I was white—if I were Black, they may not have trusted me, and this is an unfortunate byproduct of a community that for decades has been a place where police informants infiltrate social circles. The mistrust among Black men in these communities is very high. 

Terrance himself was very concerned about informants. As you write, he began to suspect a number of his friends and colleagues of being allied with the police, allied against him. What did you learn about the use of police informants in Denver and elsewhere?
I mean, there are so many problematic things about their use. One being that guys who had clear connections to law enforcement appeared to have immunity from crimes they were committing. Active gang participants were being held up as anti-gang activists. Terrance didn’t like the way the Denver police and the feds wanted to run their anti-gang efforts; he felt they were possibly endangering him because of the way they wanted him to give them word on ‘street information’ and be like a secret informant himself. It would have violated the trust he had built in the neighborhood, but other guys would go along with it because they had an arrangement with the police.

Law enforcement sees informants as an ends-justify-the-means type of thing. But it kind of flies in the face of everything to have someone working for law enforcement who’s killing people.

Or, depending on how you look at it, it really checks out.
Exactly. Either law enforcement is giving these informants direction to do messed up things, or the informants are getting away with freelance violence because of the lack of direction. It’s messed up regardless. 

I will go on the record saying that there needs to finally be some actual laws governing the use of informants. There are only guidelines at the moment, and they can be violated because they have no teeth. When Whitey Bulger killed dozens of people as a crime boss while simultaneously working as an FBI informant, people thought that was a scandal and that we’d get some reform. Now, it seems to be going on in vulnerable communities of color on a regular basis, and for white people, it’s invisible. In the book, I call it invisible Denver, because as soon as I spent time in the Holly, I saw that no matter how consequential what happened there was, it just wasn’t visible to the rest of the city. That’s also sort of the case with informants—they’re the black hole of the criminal justice system that needs reform and oversight. 

So much of the book can be read as a many-decades-long litany of failures to end and heal from gang violence. What do you see as the crux of those failures?
The number one thing that has sadly gone wrong in Denver is the real lack of oversight. Things like the misuse of police informants may be regular or may be occasional, but regardless, it’s critical. The mistake of using active gang leaders or gang members as informant-activists is a serious problem.

Right now, the U.S. Department of Justice and city and state law enforcement control the lion’s share of funding for anti-gang work. I think a better approach would be to do it without law enforcement, which has its own goals and needs. This is part of why people say there’s a structural problem with our systems—that these neighborhoods are providing the bodies that go into prisons, that bodies that are being shot at, and it’s because of these bodies that all the money is coming in. 

You gesture toward this a lot in the latter part of the book—that the bloat of carceral systems like police and jails sustains the systems in a way. For instance, as you write, gang units in police departments are among the biggest draws of police budgets.
I mean, I think there is definitely a correlation between rising gang violence and police budget increases. Some people might call this the urban war industrial complex, a subset of the war industrial complex. If there’s no violence, there’s going to be no funding for these police teams that take part in federal task forces nominally trying to stop the violence. But as we have seen, the money keeps flowing and the violence keeps going. 

Did you come across ways this work could be done differently, in ways productive or generative?
One thing that could be done is funding independent anti-gang efforts. For example, instead of having an anti-gang initiative be run by the city of Denver with funding from the feds in the city and the state, have the government allocate money to community-led efforts. 

A famous version of this is the Truce of Nine-Deuce, in Los Angeles in 1992, with the first Crips and Bloods. Their motto was nobody can stop this war but us, and of course what they meant was no police, we’re doing it ourselves, because they didn’t believe the police really wanted peace or that they were effective at achieving it. That effort was successful in a lot of ways, but also had problems, both of which I chronicle in the book. But I think the key thing is to shift the control into the hands of capable, trained people like Terrance and Aqeela Sherrills. Sherills, a former L.A. Crip, is now leading a public safety effort trying to get a consortium of cities on board to do exactly what I’m trying to describe, raise money for anti-gang work independent from the auspices of law enforcement. That’s what should be attempted here.

You spent seven years reporting the book, which follows hundreds of people and dozens of interwoven side plots spanning some seven decades. Given that the book is absolutely rife with details, this might seem like a counterintuitive question, but I’m wondering what you had to leave on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it in?
When I first turned in the book, it was 550 pages. I was like, oh my god, I know it’s got to be under 400 pages, which thankfully it is now. I didn’t want to write a huge doorstopper, but because of the side stories and history, it did end up being about 360. 

George Roberts, Terrance’s father, could have a book dedicated all to him. He’s an incredible character. I also wanted to spend more time on the feud between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, which became this sort of proxy war between the Bloods and Crips. It’s mind-boggling. A lot of my description of that had to be cut. 

What was it like to develop such a close relationship with Terrance over seven years?
It was transformative in a lot of ways. The challenge of a journalist is often to get as close into something as possible, to be really immersed, and then pull all the way out and tell a level-headed story for readers who don’t know the context or the people involved. 

When I first met him, a little over seven years ago, I was living in New York, I had read about the shooting in the New York Times and the Denver papers, and his voice wasn’t present in any of those stories. So I found an email on a website and emailed him. He was out on bond, and he wrote that he was willing to meet with me, so I flew out to Denver and stayed with my mom (I grew up here) and met him for breakfast.

I really was blown away. First of all, he has a charisma that I’ve come to understand as an ability to literally tap into the vein of history. He’s the heartbeat of everything that’s come before him. His family lineage is absolutely fascinating. His father was one of the first kids in the Black Panthers’ national free breakfast program, and was a junior Panther of sorts growing up. Now, his father is a preacher who’s presided over more gang funerals than anyone. Terrance’s grandmother escaped virtual servitude on a plantation in Arkansas in 1955 and came to Denver, then shuttled her eleven siblings here, and most of them had children, so Roberts has a huge extended family. He is truly at the center of the community of the Holly, so it made sense that he’d be at the center of the book The Holly

Editor’s note: The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

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