Many of Philadelphia’s young Black males live in a world of despair and desperation — anxious for opportunities for financial success but without access to legal resources that might make such success possible. As a result, many turn to crime — drug-dealing and robbery. Some get killed, others go to prison. Brandon T. Jones, a young outreach worker with Philadelphia Ceasefire, said it’s his mission to help at-risk young males to make smarter decisions.
That’s not an easy task, Jones said. When you’re out on the street, trying to reach these young men and engage them in one-on-one interaction, you sometimes find suspicion and mistrust. He said it all depends on the local environment and the people themselves.
“You can’t just roll up on these young men if they’re involved in, let’s say, a crap game. You have to be aware of what’s going on. I do believe we can reach them with a life-changing message, but it has got to be on their level and with people they can relate to,” Jones said. “We can’t just keep throwing money at their problems with this program and that program. That’s not going to really work — not unless we bring them to the planning table and find out from them what their opinions are and what their issues are, you know what I mean?”
Jones, 26, has been working with Philadelphia Ceasefire for several months, having been released from prison after serving four years and 11 months for shooting a rival in an illegal drug-related situation. Now, a year out of prison, he’s continuing what he started while in prison — reaching out to at-risk, young Black males.
“I think what’s needed is a credible message that they will hear and relate to,” Jones said. “It can’t just be what it’s always been, because our generation is a ‘now’ generation — not long-term planning — because there are multiple issues they’re dealing with. If the people who are planning the programs aren’t in the streets, in the same environment as these young men, then we won’t see a change. We hear a lot of people saying jobs are needed, and that’s true. But a lot of these young men aren’t prepared to hold a job — they’re in a world outside the mainstream. They’re financially illiterate; they don’t know how to handle money. Then there’s the females — these young men aren’t ready for relationships, and neither are the females.”
Jones said at-risk young Black males are filled with hopelessness — and they are desperate. He repeatedly said that if city officials want to solve the problem of violence, the young men themselves must be brought to the table and then listened to, carefully, for what they have to say.
Jones’ descent into the subculture of the streets started when he was arrested at age 13 for stealing a car — actually, receiving stolen property, he said. His descent into that street world is a story that is reflected in the lives of so many young Black males, not just in Philadelphia but coast to coast. They get caught up in an environment that is difficult to avoid, even for those from stable families.
“I didn’t come from a broken home, I had a good family — father and mother, and they were there for me. But I wanted to fit in within the world I saw outside my door. I now call it being a part of the ‘in crowd’ because you either end up incarcerated or in an early grave. I didn’t want to take the slow way to success, I wanted it ‘now.’ Those negative influences led me to making bad decisions. At age 18, I graduated out of a juvenile facility; three weeks later I was arrested for drugs. At age 18 I thought I knew it all. What happened was that my parents ended up using the money they had put aside for my education for bail and lawyers — $12,000 for bail.”
Eventually, Jones said, he was involved in shooting someone who tried to take his drugs, and that incident in 2006 led to almost five years in prison. He was incarcerated at Montgomery County Correctional Facility, then moved around to Camp Hill and Graterford.
“It was a drug supply thing,” he said. “I shot him because the way I was taught; if you have a gun, wear it. If you wear it and your life is threatened, you use it. When I was in prison, I realized I had to be an example to others. What helped save me was first, my relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Second, I had a supportive family, and third was my son. I wanted to be a good father to my son. When I was incarcerated, someone said something to me that stayed with me; he said prison could either be a fool’s playground or a wise man’s university. I resolved to make it a university. While inside, I connected with Michael Tabone, aka O.G.-Law. He was already speaking to the young kids, and we decided to continue with that once we got out. We weren’t concerned about how we were going to do that — basically, we used money out of our own pockets.”
Tabone has gained some notoriety in Philadelphia for his public demonstrations against violence using a makeshift prison cell. Last year, the spoken-word artist and community activist, along with several friends, including Jones, erected a mock jail right next to a full-size wall mural he had painted near 19th and Hunting Park Avenue. The mural is dedicated to young people slain by street violence. Tabone remained in the open-air mock jail for the month of February, in the cold with minimal comforts, to call attention to the devastating impact of Black-on-Black homicide.
“Eventually, what I was doing got the attention of Philadelphia Ceasefire. I’ve been with them for almost a year,” said Jones.
Philadelphia Ceasefire is part of a nationwide, evidence-based violence intervention program which has been proven to decrease instances of gun violence. The Philadelphia connection is attached to Temple University’s School of Medicine and based at the school’s Center for Bioethics. In 2008, the Department of Justice issued a report on Ceasefire’s effectiveness and found a reduction of up to 73 percent in the number of shootings and killings in areas of Chicago where Ceasefire was active.
Philadelphia Ceasefire seeks to reduce the number of homicides and shootings in North Philadelphia using five core components: community outreach, community mobilization, public education, faith-based involvement and criminal justice participation.
“Mike and I are using the energy we used in negative ways to be part of the solution,” Jones said. “We don’t sugarcoat it; we might be at a funeral where some young brother got killed or at a school. We’re in their faces with it. We don’t carry guns, we don’t carry badges. We’re out there with God’s help, fighting death. That’s what we’re doing, fighting death.”