The peacemaker: On a crusade to stop gang violence

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2009 - 10:58 AM

A former gangbanger preaches the joys of hope and change to gangsters and drug dealers on the North Side's mean streets.

K.G. Wilson stood at the intersection of W. Broadway and Lyndale Avenue N., recently and called out the gang members and drug dealers mingled in the crowd.

"We're taking on evil," he proclaimed through a bullhorn. "You don't see men over 40 being murdered here. It's always kids. ... Why are grandparents going to their grandchildren's funerals?"

It's more than a rhetorical question for Wilson. For the ex-gang leader, drug dealer and addict, it is a crusade.

Since the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Charez Jones in June 2007, Wilson, 43, has rushed to a half-dozen homicide scenes of complete strangers, most of them teenagers. He didn't know Charez, who was caught in gang gunfire. But his video tribute to her moved her dad, Guy Jones, to team up the Charez Jones Foundation with Wilson's Hope Ministries.

"Not everyone embraces you in times of turmoil," Guy Jones said. "It was like he felt what I felt."

The latest homicide scene Wilson came to was on W. Broadway, a couple of blocks from where he was broadcasting his anti-gang, "hope, not dope" message. Someone had shot 18-year-old Heywood Eaton in the parking lot of a McDonald's on a Sunday afternoon in September. A shrine of plastic flowers, deflated foil balloons, a white teddy bear, a Styrofoam cross and photos of a smiling teenager marked the spot.

At least once a week, Wilson commandeers Minneapolis' meanest streets with his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame and a bullhorn.

"He'll sit right in front of the ones doing the dealing and talk about what they are trying to do," said Minneapolis police officer Patrick McCarver. "It's very brazen, very bold. ... He takes the bullhorn and starts preaching. If it makes the drug dealers uncomfortable, most of them will leave."

Wilson's philosophy is as simple as his in-your-face delivery. "You have to stand up and not be afraid," he barked into his bullhorn during his recent North Side appearance.

Officer David Roiger calls Wilson's style risky but effective. At homicide scenes, Wilson comforts families and friends, Roiger said. But eventually he holds a noisy vigil in which, Roiger said, "he confronts not only the shooters, but the people hiding them."

"K.G. tries to shame" gang members and drug dealers, Roiger said. "He tells them that's not how good people act. He's actually out to make people better, not to get rich, not to be a media whore. He did the gangbanging and the drug dealing. ... They know he's not some white farm boy from Worthington trying to preach the Gospel. He's lived in roach-infested houses, eating ketchup sandwiches, and gotten himself out of it."

Wilson knows he infuriates drug dealers because his interference costs them money. He doesn't care.

He understands the consequences of selling dope and being a thug. He was a Black Gangster Disciples gang leader on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s and 1990s. His drug problems threatened to destroy him after he moved to Minnesota around 2000. Court records show that he battled with the law until 2006. Since then, he's kept his demons at bay, pouring himself into a war against gangs and drugs.

'I want to help everyone'

At Broadway and Lyndale, Wilson and a few lieutenants stood on four corners with signs reading, "Hope," "Pray" and "Stop the killing."

"We're not out here because someone gives us a paycheck," Wilson said.

Of course, he would love public or private funding so he could support and expand his work. He lives on donations from friends and family. Hope Ministries has no office, no sanctuary, no denomination. It operates out of Wilson's Minneapolis duplex and a 2002 gold Cadillac with a bumper sticker that reads, "Prayer changes things."

Wilson calls himself spiritual, not religious. "If you choose a religion, it makes you separate from people," he said. "I want to help everyone. I have done vigils for victims who don't speak English. I've gone to Muslim services, although I'm closer to being Christian. A life is a life. These are our children."

Though homicides are down in Minneapolis, the neighborhoods where Wilson operates remain among the city's most violent. Community activists say too many young people still lack the hope and opportunities that would keep them away from crime.

Wilson knows what that's like. "I was raised in a foster home," he said. "My mother was an intravenous drug user. In the foster home, I was abused. I chose the gangs because they looked to me like a family. I didn't care what they were doing. I saw them hugging and smiling and doing things that weren't part of my foster home."

As a gangster, Wilson taught others the "chain of command of the streets," he said. As a drug user, he fought addiction. "It wasn't that I was tough," he said. "I was terrified."

Pushing hope over dope

At Lyndale and Broadway, no fear quaked in the voice amplified by the bullhorn.

"I'm out here for the gangbangers because I don't want to do a vigil for you," Wilson shouted.

Later, he said: "Normally, at the corner of Broadway and Lyndale, you see drugs on the street. You see people being hurt. We're taking on evil. You do not have to go into next year as a crack cocaine addict. You do not have to kill yourself with alcohol poisoning.

"We are men and women who came from the streets like you. We don't represent that we are better than anyone who is out here. We represent that you can be better than what you are. We want to turn the dope spot into a hope spot. I'm talking about that Jesus dope. All you need is one good hit."

As he spoke, young men shuffled by. "Hello, brother," Wilson said to them. He pumped his hand in the air and horns blared from passing vehicles. A young man sprang from the passenger side of an old white sedan stopped at the light. "Minister K.G.," he shouted, thrusting a fist into the air, "God bless you." He climbed back into the car, which sped off.

Wilson says people have stopped to turn over their guns or to ask how to get addiction treatment or to find homes and jobs.

In a typical outing, he'll work his way from a troubled section of south Minneapolis, where he lives, to a downtown shelter and then to the North Side. Often accompanying him is Merriam Rice, the sister of Chicago street gang leader Jeff Fort, founder of El Rukns, the blood rivals of Wilson's old posse, the Black Gangster Disciples.

"I heard Jeff Fort had a sister here," Wilson said. "I introduced myself and told her to come out with me. She did, and she's been with me ever since. Here I am, an ex-chief of the Black Gangster Disciples, and God gave me the sister of Jeff Fort. I think that allows us to show people that this gang thing is garbage."

Marcus Harris, 20, crossed the street to embrace "Minister K.G."

"I got in trouble trying to rob a gas station down the street," Harris said. "I got a gun from some younger kids in the neighborhood.. They (the police) arrested me for attempted aggravated robbery."

After Harris met Wilson, "it didn't take long before I felt the love."

Most drug dealers and gangbangers don't feel the love, said Harris. But, he added, "I think some drug dealers even respect him because they aren't over here beating on him."

Ferome Brown, an ex-gang member who runs Urban Youth Conservation, a jobs program designed to keep teens away from drugs and gangs, said, "They call us [ex-gang members] dinosaurs. What gives K.G. credibility is that he's out there every day showing he cares."

Striving to make peace

A couple of years ago, Wilson's son, Damion Curtell, got shot in Illinois. Curtell survived, but family and friends asked him to come back to get even because "I was the one who came with guns to take care of people," Wilson said.

Emphasis on was. A minister, not a gang chief, went to Chicago and delivered the hard truth.

"This is my son that I told if he didn't stay away from gangs and drugs, he'd get shot," Wilson said. "This is my son that sees I turned my life around.

"When you come to my funeral, it won't be the story of a gangbanger and a drug dealer, but someone who died a peacemaker."

Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029


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