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.
I grew closer and closer to the ALKQN over time. I developed a friendship with Jay, and a more casual one with other Kings. I knew them by their King names, some of which were the source of great amusement to my college friends — Squirrel, Toasty and Spanky may have been the favorite monikers.
I had a fondness for Hype, an ironic name considering his stoic yet overwhelmingly sweet and gentle character. Jay’s blood brother Peaceful was often around, and frequently wanted to talk about girls.
Most of the members came from messed-up backgrounds and broken homes. Jay acted as a father figure, even becoming legally responsible for a white teenager named Bam with his mother’s blessing. I watched him direct Focus to a culinary program and then help him land a job with Guilford College’s food-service provider.
In one of our first interactions, Jay asked me to show a Queen around campus and introduce her to professors to help fuel her drive to apply to college. At a talk to a grad-school class at UNCG, Spanky told students about how he used to be a petty criminal until he met Jay, who turned him around. By banding together and living somewhat collectively, Jay helped this crew of misfits pool their resources while organizing in various community initiatives.
The whole thing made my parents pretty nervous. Once they visited and they invited Jay and Bam to join us for dinner at Binh Minh, a Vietnamese restaurant near campus. They had a lot of questions about why anyone would hold onto the vestiges of a criminal organization, and were concerned that if police were targeting Jay as I said, that I’d be caught up in it eventually. But after meeting King Jay they gave me their tacit support, while encouraging me to be careful.
I just kept drawing closer.
We held several touch-football games, Latin Kings versus Guilford students, at Center City Park and on campus. Hype and Jay joined us for a friendly soccer game once, though Jay stood on the side chatting. We organized screenings of the Black & Gold documentary, too, and attended meetings about immigration reform or protests against an eviction together, but many of our interactions were more private.
I was standing in the middle of a Dumpster when I got the phone call.
The police were slowly crawling up and down Terrell Street off of Freeman Mill Road, where Jay lived in a house with a few other Kings, and he feared a baseless raid was imminent. It was right at the end of the school year and a friend and I were going through a Dumpster outside of a freshman dorm at Guilford hoping to find something hastily thrown away by students as they moved out. In years past we had salvaged couches and even uncovered a shoebox with a few full cans of beer inside.
We left some records and the other items we had found and split, pulling up across the street from Jay’s yellow house with a camera at the ready to document the anticipated raid. The street was quiet, eerily so, and we couldn’t see any police cars. So we waited.
None ever materialized — at least not that night.
I spent the spring semester of my junior year studying abroad in Central America. Since meeting Jay a year and a half earlier, the Latin Kings had become a big part of my life, and while I don’t remember particularly missing anyone else while I was gone, I struggled with being away from them.
It wasn’t just that we were friends — I felt a level of guilt about my ability to leave on what felt like an extended paid vacation. Right as I left, a King named D who I had played football with but wasn’t close to, was killed in a hit-and-run accident while walking across a street.
That semester wasn’t the only time I felt conflicted about my role as a privileged, white college kid hanging around poor, mostly uneducated Latino guys, but I experienced extended guilt that semester. The differences in our lives were stark, and I had no clue how to navigate it. Why was I traveling or in school when my comrades in the struggle for a better world were out there committing themselves to the movement full time?
Jay was aware of the contradictions and imbalances in our relationship, and he was shrewd enough to point them out with humor. He knew how my classmates looked at them, so he would jokingly ask them if there was anybody they wanted him to tie up in a trunk and get rid of. I wish you could have seen the looks on their faces, or their relief when he busted out laughing after keeping a brief poker face.
Once Jay commented that he knew I liked hanging out with them because it made me look tough and helped me get girls. How could it not when I walked around campus with a posse, which initially included the aptly named Bear and Menace a few times? I denied his friendly teasing, but spent a lot of time after that thinking about my subconscious motivations. Was I hanging out with these guys for the right reasons or did I just want to seem cool, or down, or rougher around the edges?
Being honest with myself, I realized it was probably a combination of all of that, plus a genuine commitment to what I saw as their mission.
I respected so much of what they stood for, particularly the gang peace treaty. So much time and money is invested in dealing with crime and violence on the streets, but here was the only man in town who seemed capable of bringing together warring factions and pointing them in a positive direction.
It spoke volumes to me that rather than celebrating Jay’s success and trying to emulate it, the police department — driven by what I considered to be a clueless city council of out-of-touch white people who wanted to seem tough on crime — relentlessly harassed him with one bogus charge after another.
We had worked to change the narrative, and to bring to light what the ALKQN was really about, but it just didn’t seem to be making a big enough impact. We needed a bigger plan.
That plan came one day after I returned from Central America, while we were sitting in the office at the Beloved Community Center with its director, Rev. Nelson Johnson, and organizer Wesley Morris. I forget the specifics of who came up with the idea, but we left the discussion with a decision: Jay would run for city council.
I ended up being Jay’s de facto campaign director, and as the election grew closer we spent every day together passing out fliers, attending candidate forums and knocking on doors. He chose to run at large so that the entire city would be his audience, but we were able to attract media attention from around the country. Nothing screams headline quite like “Gang leader running for office.”
But our goal was to raise issues that weren’t being addressed: topics that affected poor people who we felt were locked out of the political process. Jay, who is Puerto Rican, would’ve been the first Latino on city council in Greensboro’s history.
The most memorable moment of the campaign was also one of the most unexpected. It was August 2009, at big outdoor concert in Hamburger Square downtown Greensboro, where we planned to distribute a bunch of fliers. As we waited for Hype and others to arrive with Jay’s daughters, we noticed a few off-duty officers working the event and eying Jay.
He recognized one cop as an officer who frequently gave them trouble and had kicked in his door before, so we braced for a confrontation. Jay and I were with his girlfriend and a friend of mine from school, and so my friend and I agreed we would start filming when the officers approached. Another officer surreptitiously took my picture, quickly pretending to talk on her phone when she realized I was looking at her.
I saw the Kings when they arrived, and when the police saw me wave at them the officers started moving briskly towards them. Our cameras came out immediately as we all walked over.
I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow account, especially since my footage is on YouTube, but Jay was ultimately arrested without cause. Police claimed to the TV news reporters and later in court that Latin Kings were throwing up gang signs to provoke Bloods who were there. They could’ve only been talking about a King waving back at me.
After the arrest Jay was put on a 6 p.m. curfew despite the minimal charge, an action that is usually reserved for minors or serious offenders and one that we took as an affront to his city council campaign.
The whole incident, like most of the ALKQN’s interactions with the police, reeked of BS. At trial, an officer testified that the camera I used to film the incident was one of those bulky, shoulder-mounted behemoths that TV news crews use. It was actually a small digital camera that fit in my pocket, one that I kept there daily next to my wallet so that I could document the campaign for the Cornell for Council website I had created.
Just another example of police lying with an ulterior motive, I thought. I called the police department the night of his arrest and asked to file a complaint. Nobody ever followed up with me about it. I shouldn’t be surprised, I remember telling friends.
Election day fell on my birthday that year, and every minute the polls were open I spent out campaigning for him, mostly at a church in the Glenwood neighborhood. Jay didn’t win his bid for city council, placing towards the very bottom of the pool of candidates. But we considered the hundreds of votes he received to be a rebuke of attempts to paint him as a good-for-nothing criminal.
I accrued countless other stories in the thousands of hours I spent with King Jay, like when he invited me over for Christmas dinner and Hype was pulled over for speeding on the way to the store. I can still remember how good the macaroni and cheese tasted, and Hype’s bashful look when Jay asked if he had actually been driving over the speed limit. He said something like, “Yes, brother Jay, I’m sorry.”
We traveled to Detroit together for the US Social Forum, a sprawling conference for left-wing social movements. By then I worked at the Beloved Community Center and shared a hotel room with a few Kings, and I was there when Jay suffered from a heart attack at the convention center downtown after the long opening march.
He had been asked to speak on a panel about the ALKQN’s organizing work, but he missed the rest of the conference and sent me in his stead.
After graduating from Guilford College with a degree in history — a major I picked out of interest and convenience rather than any career aspirations — I worked for another four months at the Beloved Community Center as a contract worker.
When the gig ended I had planned a cross-country road trip with three friends. My parents had moved to the San Francisco bay area and it was time to give the big white family minivan that I had been driving here to my sister, who was also in the Golden State attending college.
I returned unsure of what I wanted to do but with a diminishing interest in community organizing as a profession — I didn’t want to mold my politics to that of an organization, in part — and took two unpaid journalism internships. My closeness to King Jay had waned, but when my girlfriend at the time wanted to shoot a photo project on the ALKQN, I used it as a chance to reconnect.
Still, as I moved more and more towards journalism, especially after starting a part-time job as a reporter, my orbit crossed less with Jay as I stopped planning and participating in protests. In 2011 he made another bid for city council, with several of my friends helping his run against conservative Trudy Wade in District 5, but I kept my distance. Even if I hadn’t been trying to maintain an ethical distance as a journalist, I was burned out on the nonstop organizing cycle. I still wanted to make a difference, but my means had changed.
One of our biggest arguments came when he appealed the conviction stemming from his arrest I had filmed at the concert. It’s probably fair to say that I was considered his star witness for the case, but his lawyer didn’t reach out to me leading up to trial. I received a call the day of trial and was told they needed me that afternoon, and it wasn’t until after I had left an internship at a newspaper to drive to court that the lawyer called back and said I didn’t have to testify until another day, if at all that week.
Some of the minutia of the timeline eludes me now, years later, but I remember being at the Durham office of North Carolina Public Radio. It was the final day of a different journalism internship I was doing there. I checked my phone (which was on silent) during a bathroom break and realized I had missed several calls from Jay. His lawyer urgently needed me to come testify, I learned, and out of stubborn principle, I refused.
We fought bitterly, but I didn’t budge. I was exhausted and felt like I had routinely put my needs second. I had repeatedly called the lawyer to figure out when I would be needed with no response and made clear the lone day I could not be available.
To Jay, the instance was emblematic of me choosing myself, or a career, over him. In retrospect I wish we had somehow sorted things out about the trial before it came to a head, though I’m not sure how. We eventually made good, agreeing that we were both actually mad at his lawyer who Jay hadn’t really worked with before. Yet things didn’t really return to normal, and the incident set the stage for future tension.
Jay and I actually weren’t speaking when his house on Lexington Avenue in Glenwood was raided that December. The specifics of the precipitating argument — about whether I would write a letter to Guilford’s student newspaper criticizing an article about his campaign — was almost irrelevant. The deeper issue is what caused our radio silence: I felt like Jay tried to give me orders, as if I were a King under his leadership rather than a friend, and he felt like I had sold out and betrayed him.
We were both right, to an extent, and we were too bull-headed to deal with it. I figured I’d let time sort it out and revisit our friendship later.
Friends lived across the street from Jay’s house and quickly alerted me when a dragnet of FBI and other agents descended on his home. By the time I arrived, camera in hand, Jay was already gone.
The specifics of the federal racketeering indictment and the subsequent kangaroo trial deserve a separate story as well, but it’s worth noting some basics. The feds had been watching Jay and his ALKQN for years and even had a man inside. Jose Lugo, who I knew as King Hova from Charlotte, wore a wire and still came away with almost nothing. Of the Kings who stood trial with Jay on a barrage of charges that were almost entirely lacking in physical evidence linking them to the crimes, about half were set free, including Hype who had been wrongfully held for a year without bail.
I’d love to go point by point through the contradicting witness testimony and outline just how pathetic the feds’ case against him and the other Kings was, but when it comes to a vague charge like conspiracy to commit racketeering, you’d be as confused as the jury appeared to be. On a Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving in 2012, they found Jay guilty on three charges.
Jay and I didn’t talk for most of the year leading up to his trial. I contributed a little money here and there to help the Kings afford things like phone calls, but we couldn’t raise enough money for lawyers. I visited other Kings like Hype at the jail in downtown Winston-Salem, and went to see Speechless, with whom I was friendly before he took a plea deal and cooperated in Jay’s prosecution.
When news of a deal involving several defendants including Speechless reached us, I had an unsent letter written to Focus in my notebook. Focus, the one whom Jay encouraged and supported as he went back to school, the one for whom Jay found a cooking job when he finished. I always liked Speechless — he was a funny, thin guy with braids, about my age, with a propensity for dancing but a heart condition that kept him from it. The betrayal by Focus, Speechless and others I knew stung me, but I could only imagine how Jay felt because we still weren’t talking.
I eventually reached out to Jay in a letter before his trial, telling him that regardless of our petty beef I wanted to quash our differences and that it didn’t matter in the face of this bigger evil of a sham trial. He readily agreed.
Testifying can be a nerve-wracking experience, though I don’t remember being fazed when I took the stand after Jay’s silly arrest at the downtown music festival. This time was different. I had been having dreams about Jay and the other defendants walking free, but I had always had a sinking feeling that since the feds were involved, everything would be different. Plus, this time I knew that Jay was looking at serious time, possibly life, on the bevy of charges.
My testimony can’t have lasted very long, but even though I was telling the truth I remember my leg shaking and my hands sweating as the prosecutor cross-examined me. I didn’t know until right before I was called that I would be testifying at all. In fact a federal agent working for the prosecution had called my office and, without identifying himself, tried to find out if I would be testifying, acting as if he were part of the team of public defenders.
I didn’t know until after that call, when Jay’s lawyer reached out in what felt like an afterthought, that I’d be asked to appear. The most useful thing I can imagine I did was contradict some of the false images the prosecution wanted to paint. I was asked about the trip to Detroit, which the indictment had hilariously and terrifyingly referred to as a trip to a Latin Kings criminal conference. But for the most part I doubt I added much at all, unable to provide direct alibis for anything specific.
We were able to influence the sentencing by writing letters to the judge. Citing the overwhelming community support of Jay as a social-change agent, father and friend, evidenced by letters I and many others wrote, the judge made some of Jay’s sentences concurrent, limiting his time to 28 years. Once the verdict was in, that gigantic length of time is basically the minimum Jay could have received.
I visited Jay several times in that big, red, ugly jail in downtown Winston-Salem before he was bounced around. We feared he would land in federal prison somewhere like Oklahoma, so we were glad, all things considered, when he wound up three hours away in a medium-security prison near Petersburg, Va.
We’re able to communicate through an email system for inmates called CorrLinks, which is free for people on the outside but costs him based on time. Our relationship has waxed and waned, connecting more through the support I can provide his daughters who are in middle and high school with things like rides to softball practice.
I’ve only managed to travel up to the prison to see him twice, most recently the weekend after Christmas with a friend and Jay’s daughters so they could see him. After making it through the seemingly arbitrary and ever-changing dress code at the front, a guard escorts visitors into a large room in spurts, where some physical contact with inmates is allowed as people sit around low, plastic tables.
On our recent visit my friend and I lingered near the snack machines along the side wall to give Jay a chance to be alone with his daughters. They’re too young to drive up alone, so this is the closest they can come to privacy. Since I last saw him he’s gotten two big tattoos of their faces on his forearm, and we all joked about how hairy their images appear.
We took turns playing chess and checkers from a small stack of available games. When we walked to the corner to have our picture taken together, Jay told us the inmate with the camera was one of the star players on the softball team Jay coached.
I’ve been inside a prison before, albeit a minimum-security one, as part of a literacy and discussion group volunteer project at Guilford College. But I had no context of those guys in the outside world, only ever knowing them in their green prison pants.
Seeing someone you know in prison shakes you. It’s most jarring at the end of the visit, when you’re pulled back into reality by the guards who split the room into lines on opposite sides of the room. You stand there, staring across the gulf, waiting for a guard to hand you back your driver’s license, and try to act normal.
As the guards signaled the end of visitation that Sunday, Jay joked that now it was time for his favorite part of the visit — a strip and full cavity search. But, he said in a more serious tone, it was absolutely worth it.
Jay just wants to be set free and leave his old life behind. All he really wants is to raise his daughters, he doesn’t care where. And even though he maintains his innocence, I doubt he’d do much differently in hindsight.
He’s a proud man, as he should be. I know that he, like myself, doesn’t find fault in himself, but in the system. I alternate between feeling that the police, the courts and the systems behind them are too thick to understand who Jay is and what he was trying to do; and conversely feeling like they knew exactly what Jay symbolized and that’s why they needed to put him away at all costs.
A strong Latino man who came from the bottom of the bottom and could unite street gangs into a political force, a man with a righteous disrespect for authority who could also pull together black preachers and a white Jewish kid from up North. That kind of unauthorized power is threatening, especially if one of its primary objectives is challenging abusive police and morally bankrupt politicians, whose power he routinely didn’t recognize.
It’s hard then, to explain why I still have hope. I guess it’s because there is no alternative.
In Jay’s latest email, from just a few days ago, he expressed hope too, as he did when I visited him. He has an appeal coming up on Jan. 29 in Richmond, Va. and he has a strong case.
“Less than 25 percent of cases get oral arguments and go to direct appeal,” he wrote to me via CorrLinks. That alone is a good sign, and we’re hoping that the worst-case scenario is a new trial. Best case is that he walks.
There’s even a plan for when Jay is set free: I’ll drive up there with a few of our mutual friends and pick him up, but we won’t tell his girls that he’s out. He wants to surprise them, maybe standing outside of school when they’re let out for the day or knocking on their mom’s door unexpectedly.
I’ve started to have those dreams again about him walking free, and this time they feel a little different. Closer.
I don’t have a sixth sense about it, like some people do in their knees when rain is coming. But Jay does, exuding confidence about the inevitability of his early release and a modicum of vindication in this nightmare. And just like it’s always been, it is his strength that sustains me and not the other way around.