by Eric Ginsburg
My friends tell me that I take too long to tell stories. They ask when I start a story whether this will be like “Pebbles,” the infamously long report I provided during our first semester of college about a hangout with a crush that involved tossing pebbles, but didn’t include even a kiss. “Don’t give us the Pebbles version,” they say. “Just tell us what happened.”
I still find myself in the middle of unnecessarily long stories with some frequency. I’m particularly self conscious about it when trying to explain the most complicated and unusual part of my life. It’s often easier just to avoid telling it altogether.
That’s why most people don’t really know the whole story of my relationship to the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation and its leader, except for maybe those who were there.
How could a white kid from Massachusetts at a small, private college in the South end up being so close to a Latino “gang leader” with teardrop tattoos on his face, a man now serving almost three decades in federal prison? It was a lot easier than I expected, actually, and if you’ll give me the time to explain, it’s actually a pretty good story.
The summer of 2008 was a hot one in North Carolina, unbearably so for a kid spending the season away from home in Massachusetts for the first time. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and when I wasn’t working a shift at the Juice Shop smoothie joint, babysitting or at the short-lived Key Valet company in downtown Greensboro, I tried to move as little as possible.
Living with three other students who wanted to save money by skimping on air conditioning led to a lot of movies in the dark. It’s not hyperbolic to say that one film that I bought online that summer changed my life: Black and Gold: The Story of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.
I’d seen a few documentaries about the Bloods and the Crips before, but what made this film stand out were the in-depth interviews with Latin Kings and Queens as they explained their desire to transform from a street gang into a political movement. It was the mid 1990s in New York City, and after the group’s key leadership was locked up, the younger leaders decided to emulate militant community groups, such as the Young Lords or the Black Panthers from earlier generations,. They became the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, eschewing guns, drugs and violence but keeping their colors and organizational structure while pushing for social change.
The police didn’t buy it, but despite massive raids on ALKQN members, they came up empty-handed again and again. I was transfixed, fascinated by the footage of people flashing Latin King signs and wearing black and gold as they marched in political demonstrations. Too bad it was more than 10 years old and hundreds of miles away.
I don’t know what to call it other than serendipity, but less than two weeks later I would meet King Jay, the inca of the ALKQN for North Carolina. The film made no mention of Latin Kings or Queens spreading this political trajectory to other parts of the country, and as far as I knew there wasn’t really gang activity of any kind to speak of in Greensboro. But there sat King Jay, flanked by several Kings who looked seriously tough, right across the room from me.
That summer I would sporadically drop in on an open community meeting, held weekly on Wednesdays at the Beloved Community Center, as my schedule allowed. I hoped to someday work at the nonprofit doing community organizing work (and later did), so I would swing by infrequently to try and get involved. And this particular Wednesday the Latin Kings arrived for the first time, directed to the space by a desire to organize against police harassment and to facilitate a gang peace treaty in the city.
Feeling stunned and intimidated, I sat there trying to formulate an excuse to talk to King Jay, whose full name is Jorge Cornell. Even though I didn’t really write for Guilford College’s student newspaper on a regular basis and hadn’t taken any journalism classes, when Jay expressed an interest in spreading their story I saw my opening.
When I approached him cautiously after the meeting and offered to write a piece about them, I couldn’t have imagined what a prominent role he would end up playing in my life.
Jay, as I call him, grew up in New York City and started hanging around ALKQN members right as the organization shifted. The more time we spent together the more of his story trickled out, one that deserves its own book rather than a quick summary.
He would offer his story in pieces here and there when appropriate, sharing that he had witnessed domestic violence as a kid while speaking at a meeting on the subject, or mentioning to a public-radio reporter that he hated drugs because his mother contracted HIV from a dirty needle.
Jay was partially raised by foster parents; he later got married and had two daughters. He moved to North Carolina to leave his old life and the Latin Kings behind, retiring from the organization to focus on his family. But after witnessing police treatment of Latinos here, he decided something needed to be done to organize for change. Jay reached out to the ALKQN in New York, and received permission to found the nation in the Old North State.
After that meeting where I met him and a few other Kings, Jay set to work. With the help of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum and the Nation of Islam, Jay had brought together several different local gang leaders that summer of 2008 to hammer out a peace treaty in the basement of a church. With the Bloods, Crips and others at the table, the group agreed to a pact of nonviolence and interest in community empowerment.
Not long after, Jay was shot multiple times and was told he was lucky he survived. From his hospital bed, Jay said he forgave his assailant and that nothing would stand in the way of peace. Besides his charismatic nature and authoritative presence, who wouldn’t be drawn to that determination and commitment to principles?
It’s a story I grew familiar with reciting. After the newspaper article, I invited Jay and other ALKQN members on campus so I could interview them on Guilford’s radio station. The relationship continued to grow as I set up speaking engagements in classes and worked alongside Jay as part of a nucleus at the Beloved Community Center to organize a Peace, Unity & Justice march that fall.
The perception of Jay and the ALKQN as violent criminals dogged him. Once, sitting in the college dining-hall at a table full of students, one bold kid asked what the teardrop tattoo by his left eye meant. Jay took it in stride, explaining that he got the tattoo to commemorate his mother’s passing, so that even when he is smiling his pain is visible.
The Greensboro police, like the NYPD before them, decided Jay was full of it and arrested him and other ALKQN members on a litany of charges, including kidnapping, that were routinely dismissed in court.
There were close to 100 charges in all from Greensboro police, many of them hanging around Jay’s neck, but very few convictions. Analysis by (my now colleague) Jordan Green in 2010 showed that the rate was under 20 percent and only 10.8 percent for felonies, much lower than the county average of 65.4 percent conviction rate on felony charges. To those who knew Jay, myself included, it was a clear case of harassment and frivolous charges.