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.