Otis “Vegas Don” Lyons is a legendary former gang member who has spent the past 22 years guiding young people in Durham away from gangs through his nonprofit Campaign4Change.
As a member of a steering committee that has worked since 2011 to address gang activity, gun violence, and drug dealing in Durham, Lyons has some thoughts about why these problems continue to plague young people in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods surrounding downtown. One is the idea that the impacts of slavery still haunt the African American community, what Lyons calls a “post-traumatic slavery disorder.”
“It’s true: hurt people hurt people,” Lyons explains.
Lyons, 54, experienced a childhood with an abusive mother and a father who was in and out of his life like a shadow. His was a coming of age period where he and his older sister and younger brother were placed on food punishment and not allowed to eat at home, and bathroom punishment—their toilet became a nearby patch of woods near their home.
“I’m still traumatized and I ain’t never went and sat on [a therapist’s] couch,” Lyons says.
Lyons started a gang in the 1980s, the North Durham Vice, long before the emergence of Crips and Bloods in Durham. Between 1986 and 1989, he robbed drug dealers and liquor houses and shot 17 people before he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Lyons, who credits his maternal grandmother for instilling the importance of an education in him, got out of prison after serving five years and has since won the respect and support of elected leaders and corporations impressed with his desire to educate, empower, and change the mind-set of young people who are at risk for joining a gang.
Lyons and the other community leaders on the steering committee have the tall order of developing effective strategies to reduce young people’s exposure to gang-fueled violence, particularly in Black neighborhoods near the downtown district. And, as the summary of a 200-plus-page gang assessment report that city and county officials discussed last week makes clear, the effort hasn’t seen much success so far in 12 troubled neighborhoods.
“Violence exposure in eight of those neighborhoods is exacerbated by extreme poverty and exposure to other social vulnerabilities that have remained mostly unchanged since 2014,” states a summary of the report, which has been in the works for seven years and is expected to be made public by the end of this month.
According to the report, on average, more than 64 percent of children are living in poverty in eight of the neighborhoods. Even more disturbing, more than 70–82 percent of children live in poverty in some East and South Durham neighborhoods. Nine of the neighborhoods “have high rates of underlying social conditions that contribute to children and youth becoming involved in the criminal justice system and gangs.”
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Jim Stuit is the steering committee’s gang reduction strategy manager who works with Durham’s Criminal Justice Resource Center. Stuit noted that several of the city’s public housing complexes are located in neighborhoods identified in the assessment report, including McDougald Terrace, which has the highest incidence of violence in the city, along with the complex on West Cornwallis Road and along Old Oxford Road.
Stuit says that there are about 1,050 gang members in Durham, with some as young as 14 years old. He notes that by the age of 12, the youngsters who eventually join gangs start hanging out with older members in their neighborhoods. The average gang member has a 10th-grade education and was suspended from school multiple times before dropping out.
“They’ll tell you, ‘School wasn’t for me,’” Stuit explains. “But I suspect the real reason is they fell behind [in their studies] and didn’t want to show the other kids how far they had fallen behind. Maybe he’s not a good reader, got into school fights, before dropping out and turning to the streets.”
Stuit notes that gang activity is so prevalent in the city’s most violent neighborhoods there are children growing up in the culture inside their homes and when they step outdoors. Their older brothers, uncles, and fathers are gang members.
“Most of them need money to support their kids, to pay child support,” Stuit explains. “That’s what’s driving the drug trade. Most of [the gang members] don’t have a job. They drop out of school and they can’t pass a drug test so it’s difficult to get a job. Gangs are easy to get into, to sell drugs, and commit robberies to get money. They need money just like you and I need money.”
The report includes input from a variety of stakeholders, including the public schools system, community residents, and former and current gang members. They all describe, at best, “low levels of satisfaction with the response to gangs.”
In addition to analyzing the underlying conditions that increase the likelihood of youth violence, the report, compiled by Tytos Consulting in Wake Forest, points to 12 Bull City neighborhoods that “are currently affected by excessively high rates of serious interpersonal violence (aggravated assault and homicide) that are … higher than Durham’s overall rate per capita of these crimes.”
A significant number of households in those neighborhoods are headed by a single parent and many of the children are living in poverty.
The report further notes that young people throughout Durham “experience a high level of exposure to risk factors for gang involvement, including substance use, delinquency, the presence of gangs in their neighborhood and at school, family gang involvement, victimization, and exposure to violence.”
The report’s author is Michelle Young, formerly a senior researcher with the National Gang Center, where she helped cities across the United States implement the federal office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention gang model. Young moved to Durham in 2013 to work with Project Build, a gang intervention program and is credited as the driving force that led to the creation of Bull City United, which works using a public health model to stop shootings and killings with Durham County’s Public Health Department.
Young says that Durham’s earliest efforts to address its gang and gun violence problem started in 2006, with a police-led initiative known as “Operation Bulls-Eye” that sought to reduce crime in a two-mile span just east of downtown that was defined by high crime rates and gunfire.
Even then, quality-of-life issues were at the forefront of the conversation, particularly the need for access to parks and better housing. Young notes that housing is still playing a major role, but in the inverse: housing costs have increased by 50 percent over the past decade and longtime residents are being pushed out. Neighborhoods near the downtown district, albeit neglected, used to be affordable. Development of those areas into high-end residential, restaurant, and entertainment areas has served as a catalyst for violence.
“Each neighborhood has its own culture with gangs,” Young explains. “When people are shifted out of a neighborhood into another neighborhood culture, that can cause a lot of problems. When groups who were living on the Southside suddenly move to Club Boulevard, it could be rough.”
Young adds that growth is going to happen, and there are invariably “winners and losers” in the process.
“Some families profit by selling their property,” she says. “Others are displaced. The goal is to reduce crime and bring jobs, and make sure people have a place to be.”
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Durham County district attorney Satana Deberry told the INDY in an email that the assessment report “rightly puts the focus on the concentrated areas of Durham where residents are most at risk for gangs/gang violence, and on the risk factors that lead people to become involved in gangs.”
“It is always important to note that a small number of people, and a very small number of juveniles, are involved in violent activity in our community,” Deberry wrote. “Among juvenile complaints in Durham in 2020, only about 15 percent of juveniles had a complaint involving violence.”
Deberry adds that the assessment report’s research “clearly identifies risk factors for gang involvement that we can and should address,” including poverty, adverse childhood experiences, family history of incarceration, lack of safe, decent housing, and educational attainment.
“We know what works to reduce violence, we just need to invest in those solutions,” Deberry wrote, noting some solutions are easy, such as increasing green space and outside lighting, improving vacant lots, creating cul-de-sacs in streets experiencing violence, and providing fully-funded mentorship opportunities to young people.
“Others are more stubborn—like limiting access to guns, reducing substance use, and helping people out of poverty,” Deberry wrote. “To address violence we should invest in the economic mobility, opportunities, and health of residents in these census tracts.”
The district attorney also sounded a cautionary note about the Bull City’s gun violence that’s happening across the country.
“Manufactured fear and divisiveness are both unnecessary and counterproductive,” she says. “Battling crime and poverty takes time, investment, and long-term commitment—we cannot abandon those approaches out of fear of cyclical crime patterns.”
Durham’s new mayor, Elaine O’Neal, says the problems that have contributed to the city’s violent crime have persisted in the neighborhoods identified in the report for generations. She points a stern finger at several entities, including government, corporations, and the greater community for the city’s youth gang culture, drug enterprise, and gun violence epidemic.
A well-intentioned integration of the schools that had the unintended consequence of diluting the voice and pride of the Black community, as evidenced by the racial academic achievement gap, and the disproportionate rates of school suspension for Black students is one contributing factor.
The shutting down of tobacco factories and jobs that bolstered the overall economic health of Black neighborhoods by providing “a man-made bridge out of poverty” is another. And what O’Neal calls “the Big F”—the disproportionate number of Black people in the community who have been convicted of a felony that blocks them from “ever being a success in life”—is another.
“That [felony conviction] tells them, ‘You will never take part in the American Dream,’” O’Neal says. “There may be no active jail sentence attached to that felony conviction, but you have attached that person to a lifetime sentence from society. This has been happening generationally, and now we have raised a generation who doesn’t care. I was complicit in this system and I had to get out and do something.”
O’Neal notes people with a felony conviction can’t apply for, and are prohibited from living in, public housing and are routinely turned down for apartments in the private sector. She notes that earlier this month, there were 3,300 vacant apartments in Durham, with 116 one-bedroom units renting for $900 a month, that are unavailable to a large swath of Black residents with felony convictions, even if the offense dates back to the 1990s.
“So where are they going to stay?” the mayor asks. “We have at least two or three generations of men and women who have never had a stable home or who have never signed a lease.”
O’Neal says those circumstances have all played a role in the deterioration of inner-city neighborhoods and in the violent crime that has become a troubling fixture, particularly among Black children.
“There’s a Third Culture here and we never see them, because we don’t want to,” O’Neal explains. “The government is never a silent partner. It’s always at the table, and so this neglect is either benign or willful. So, we have to figure out why your system is failing at every turn.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the print edition to reflect that Otis Lyons said post-traumatic slavery “disorder,” not “syndrome,” when discussing the lingering effects of slavery.
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