COLORADO — While George Floyd’s brutal murder garnered the most attention last year, there were plenty of other protests nationwide, too. In Denver, thousands took to the streets over the death of Elijah McClain. The young man was killed after being stopped by police in nearby Aurora in 2019. Local news coverage of the protests often featured a charismatic Black man named Terrance Roberts shouting through a megaphone and working the crowd. This is nothing new. For years now he’s been a familiar, powerful voice against corrupt police and neighborhood gang affiliations.
But almost eight years ago, on Sept. 20, 2013, at a peace event Roberts organized, he shot Hasan Jones — a young member of the Bloods gang, a man whom Roberts knew and once had taken to a Denver Nuggets basketball game.
Both grew up in Northeast Park Hill, about five miles east of downtown Denver, and hung out in an area known as the Holly.
Jones survived the gunshots but was left without mobility. Roberts was charged with attempted murder and assault, as well as possession of a weapon by a previous offender, which carried a mandatory prison sentence.
“I was looking at a bunch of prison time. I went to jail, and I started really studying about activism and organizing.”Terrance Roberts
Why would Roberts shoot someone he knew at a peace rally, knowing it would automatically give him prison time? That question was so unusual and intriguing — even haunting — it pulled journalist Julian Rubinstein from New York back to his hometown of Denver where he spent more than seven years writing “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood.” The book attempts to explain the events leading up to the shooting, what actually happened in those few confusing seconds and what the consequences were for everyone involved, especially after Roberts was found not guilty.
“I was intrigued by the redevelopment effort at the Holly — it involved Denver’s African American mayor, Colorado’s oldest and largest community foundation, and the prominent billionaire Philip Anschutz — and puzzled why an anti-gang activist would shoot someone at his own peace rally,” Rubinstein writes in the introduction to “The Holly.”
As he found during years of research, the story has a seemingly infinite number of layers.
Northeast Park Hill was a quiet residential area dotted with brick homes. In the 1940s lots of African American families started being pulled to the area and have raised their families there since.
The Holly was home to something unique, a shopping center. It inherently made it a gathering place — a hub where neighbors came together to talk, gossip and even do some shopping. By the turn of the century, it was also a gathering spot for the Bloods — a notoriously deadly gang which sprouted in South Central L.A. before eventually spreading across the nation — who ruled the area by the 1990s.
News stories about the shooting tended to portray Roberts as someone who had turned back to his old ways after almost a decade of involvement in trying to limit gang activity (Rubinstein found local news coverage of such activity was spotty and insufficient to inform the community).
Terrance Roberts was no saint. A tall, imposing figure, Roberts had been a member of the Bloods since he was a teen. He did what members are told to do. His gang name was Showbizz — a word flamboyantly tatted on his arm — and he committed crimes along with everybody else in the Bloods. Roberts wound up in prison after an altercation with a fellow gang member ended with him spraying the guy’s car with a stream of bullets.
While there, Roberts turned his energies to reading and learning. When he was out, he became as convincing an anti-gang advocate as he had once been a notorious Blood member.
“I was looking at a bunch of prison time. I went to jail, and I started really studying about activism and organizing,” Roberts told The Denverite in October 2020.
“The Holly” focuses on northeast Denver and Roberts, but Rubinstein weaves in plenty of history of gangs. He gives readers a glimpse into how gangs began taking root across the US. Through Roberts’ story, Rubinstein encapsulates the history of how American gangs, mostly through violence and intimidation, influence and ultimately take over entire communities.
In the process, the book explains how young Black men — and some women, but mostly men— are enticed into a life of serious crime with few other choices available. Rubinstein vividly captures how they grow up and how their gang membership makes them protectors of their communities, at least in their own eyes.
Rubinstein also lays out how the federal response under the administrations of presidents Reagan, Clinton, Obama and both Bushes was inadequate and often exacerbated the problems. Many of the victims of gangs are innocent. But the victims also include the young men and women who are forced to kill and steal at the behest of OGs — or Original Gangsters, the ones who started the gangs and are often still leaders behind the scenes.
After he got out of prison, Roberts set up the Prodigal Son Initiative — a non-profit with the intention of giving youth somewhere to congregate, hang out and do school work instead of falling under gang influence. He helped discourage the use of red and blue colors by introducing camouflage clothing and caps rather than the outfits gangs usually donned, including sports hats and jerseys, which eventually caught on around the country.
After a fire started by the Crips — the rival of the Bloods — burned a Safeway store in 2008, the city of Denver got involved in the Holly. Anschutz donated money for a youth center there. For a while, it seemed, violence actually began to diminish as people began working together.
At first Roberts shared office space with a state senator on a corner of the Holly, but as more people got involved, Roberts began to feel left out.
“I was intrigued by the redevelopment effort at the Holly — it involved Denver’s African American mayor, Colorado’s oldest and largest community foundation, and the prominent billionaire Philip Anschutz — and puzzled why an anti-gang activist would shoot someone at his own peace rally.”Julian Rubenstein
Roberts was outspoken and could rub people the wrong way. He pissed off everybody. He was skeptical of the police as much as he was of gangs, a skepticism that ultimately was warranted, especially after the police began to approach gang members to become “snitches.”
The problem, as he saw it, became the police, who by extension allowed “snitches” their crimes, until nobody knew who was snitching and who wasn’t. Gangs were killing themselves instead of their rivals (One of the reasons Roberts was acquitted is because he was considered a “snitch” by Bloods, and he was just protecting himself by shooting Jones).
By telling Roberts’ story in exquisite detail, Rubinstein offers a history of race relations that leads all the way to the present, when the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain in Colorado — among too many other — have triggered reexaminations of how police act against civilians and how racism still affects neighborhoods around the country.
Today Northeast Park Hill is in the process of gentrification. As homes become pricier and the neighborhood changes again, some gang activity has moved into other communities, including neighboring Aurora. Terrance Roberts is still leading protests and rallies — and still pissing people off. Homicides and gang murders continue. Some things never change.
“The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” by Julian Rubinstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).