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.