It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
Ten years ago, when the documentary "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," first premiered on HBO, Little Rock was - by even the most optimistic estimate - a city with a problem. The year before, gang-related killings had spiked the murder count to a record high of 76 - a higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles and New York. With the coming of crack and gang skirmishing to determine who would sell it and where, there were areas of the city that looked like a homegrown Beirut, where drugs could be purchased openly in the streets and graffiti threats sprouted like weeds. Gang life had even spilled over into the suburbs, with white teens - whose closest brush with gang life up until then was probably limited to buying the latest Snoop Dogg CD at Wal-Mart - suddenly willing to do violence for their colors.
Then HBO came to town. You could practically hear the sound of city fathers on both sides of the river chugging Maalox by the quart. With often-graphic footage of gang violence, HBO's "America Undercover" documentary series pushed Little Rock's problems onto the national stage, painting the portrait of a city where the warlords held sway.
It was a burn that lingered. Shown nationally for years every time the popular cable station needed late-nite filler - long after city leaders say police and community intervention had started to knock the gang problem down to manageable levels - "Gang War" became more than a black eye for Little Rock, it hit Central Arkansas in the pocketbook. Officials believe it drove away tourism and the convention trade, not to mention furthering white flight to the suburbs.
Now, with tourism foremost in the civic mind and the Clinton Presidential Library to open in under 100 days, a sequel is set to debut: "Back in the Hood: Gang War 2" with HBO tracking down some of the gangsters featured in the original film and once again exposing Little Rock's inner city to the glare of national attention. As the new documentary points out, the streets of Little Rock are a much quieter place now, maybe even a place of hope for those seeking the straight and narrow. But the city fathers are keeping the Pepto close at hand. Though North Little Rock and Little Rock are officially co-hosting the world premier of the film on Aug. 20, some in law enforcement and city government still have a chip on their shoulder about the first documentary, and reservations about the sequel.
Like the original "Gang War," GW2 is the work of documentary filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson. Levin said he saw many positive changes when he returned to the city in 2003, mostly due to the city ending its denial that there was a gang problem.
Though the first documentary showed life inside several gangs, black and white, the sequel focuses on how the past 10 years played out for several key black gangsters from the original. Levin said that while the white kids from GW1 had largely dispersed - some going into the military, others to prison, most into work-a-day-lives (Levin said a planned two-film DVD will feature more footage about those kids) - many of the blacks in the original were still "on the block," living lives of poverty and desperation. One subject, Moran, was an 11-year-old Crip when the first film was made. Soon after Levin returned, Moran went off to prison for drug crimes.
"You think, my god, this kid is only 21 years old, but what has he lived through?" Levin said. "He walks down the Four Block and says, 'I'll probably die right here… just the idea that he would survive and not have any ambition to leave that street, that was a smack in the face."
Levin said he was most stunned by the transformation of Leifel Jackson. The new film focuses mainly on Jackson and his struggle to stay on the straight and narrow. Formerly known as O.G., head of the Original Gangsta Crips, Jackson was once the hardest of hardcore gang members. With his brother Dewitt, he helped recruit some of the city's earliest Crips, spreading the lessons learned from spending his teen years in gang-ravaged L.A. Jackson was featured most memorably in the first movie in a scene where rival gang members made a play for his life, with filmmakers caught in the crossfire. Eventually, a federal drug conviction sent him away to prison. However, Jackson's eight-year stint brought him a revelation: he wanted to come back to Little Rock and change things. Shut out by his reputation in Little Rock, he eventually found a job at North Little Rock's Marshall Park Our Club, a program set up by city leaders in response to the first documentary.
Levin said it was Jackson's struggle with his past that made him a central focus of the new documentary. Currently working on "Street Time," an HBO reality series about people coming out of prison and adjusting to life again, Levin said that Jackson's story - a man trying to do good while constantly being wooed back by the money and glamour of his old life of crime - hit him as "the real 'Street Time.'"
"It was this drama of, which way is he going to go, and how do you make a difference?" Levin said. "He's not totally remade. He's got a foot in both worlds. That's a real struggle, but in terms of dealing with young people, that's a much more effective mentor than somebody that just says 'Now I'm righteous and pure and don't do any of that anymore."
At Marshall Park, helping kids with their homework and fixing them snacks, it's hard to believe that Leifel Jackson is the same man who swaggered and preened for Levin's cameras 10 years back. He's still a commanding presence, however. A chat with him, and a look in his eyes - eyes with the iron-chip glare of someone who has seen it all - will make you understand why he was successful at turning kids into gang members. He has the look of a father.
Since his release from prison, Jackson has put those recruiting skills to better use. Now the director there, when Jackson started at the Marshall Park Our Club, there were six kids. Now there are more than 40. Though the going was tough early on, often forcing Jackson to work odd jobs to support his work at Marshall Park, Jackson said he's beginning to see some light, especially since the founding of Butterfly Community Ministries, a non-profit dedicated to keeping the program afloat.
Programs such as Our Club are crucial, Jackson said, because they give kids something to do with their time.
"I assure you," he said. "If there's nothing there, then they'll come up with their own ideas. In 1990 we [came to] understand the ideas of kids who have no idea what they're doing - when they come up with stuff, what the end results are."
Though his time out of prison has sometimes left him disillusioned, Jackson said he felt optimistic when he heard HBO was coming back to town. "I knew there was another story to be told," he said. "I don't think the community thought they were coming in to film a documentary to tear the community down, but to bring some kind of understanding to what was going on."
While Jackson said the first documentary glorified gang life, it also helped the city by making leaders admit a problem.
"When you cover things up, it's hard to deal with them," he said. "But when it's out in the open, it's a lot easier. You don't have to come up for reasons why this and why that. People will know… we need money for law enforcement, we need money for prevention."
While the viewpoint of law enforcement was conspicuously absent from GW1, the new documentary gives a glimpse into the lives of those behind the badge, riding shotgun with gang intelligence officer Todd Hurd and the" Jump-out Boys" the city's black-clad team of street intervention officers. It's a difference from the original that Jackson said he is partially responsible for.
"Law enforcement goes out on the streets every day and gives their life to protect us. To give a one-sided story and make it look like there's no other balance to all this violence would just be a lie. There is balance. It's a continuous fight."
Vincent Insalaco is one of the behind-the-scenes leaders who believes in Jackson's contribution to that continuous fight - and who believes in Jackson's rehabilitation enough to help him. Jackson's Our Club program was on the brink of financial failure when Insalaco learned of its plight from North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays. With other civic and religious leaders, Insalaco helped form Butterfly Community Ministries, a non-profit organization with a mission of keeping Jackson's Our Club afloat.
"It's just a remarkable story about Leifel's transformation," Insalaco said. "I'm a strong believer that the only way you're going to make serious change is from within the community. People have to change themselves, and that's what his program does."
The consummate public relations frontman with a history of making businesses and politicians look good (he ran Jimmie Lou Fisher's unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2002), Insalaco witnessed the bad reputation the city got from the first "Gang War" documentary. Now, he hopes the release of "Gang War 2" can be a positive thing for both Jackson's program and the city of Little Rock. He's hoping to mute any negative impact through the force of sheer good will. In the months leading up to the release, Insalaco has buttered up a host of city and community leaders and got them to agree to attend a charity premiere to benefit Butterfly Community Ministries - everyone from Mayor Jim Dailey and Mayor Pat Hays, to Congressman Vic Snyder, and enough local clergy, politicians and civic gadflies to fill a Greyhound bus.
Like Insalaco, they're all putting some fraction of their reputation on the line for Jackson, a man who many in law enforcement still expect to return to his old, criminal ways. Though Jackson has said in the past that gang life and the money it might provide to his family still calls to him, he also says he won't go back to a life of crime. Living in his old neighborhood and shown hanging out and partying with the unreformed in the new documentary, however, it's easy to see why some might wonder if his leaf will stay turned over.
One of those watching warily is Little Rock Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Terry Hastings. A veteran of the days when the LRPD was virtually at war with the gangs in some parts of the city, Hastings' view of both "Gang War" documentaries is decidedly skeptical. While he said GW 2 shows the dead end of life in the gangs, he sees the first documentary only as "a big production designed to sell videos," full of scenes staged by the filmmakers and "people here in town who were trying to make a name for themselves as gang experts." The famous drive-by shooting captured in the film was faked, Hastings said, as were the scenes of gang members openly congregating. "We had some gang problems. We know that," he said. "But the people who made [GW1] managed to get the few folks who were involved in that and got them on camera… obviously there were some things there in the first one that if you went to those parts of the city any other time than when they were filming, weren't there."
Hastings is similarly skeptical about the prospects for Leifel Jackson, and whether his as-seen-on-TV rehabilitation will last. "He's working with that program over there and I will say that's positive for him," Hastings said. "But listening to him talk on camera and seeing the people he's hanging around - he's supposed to be working with kids, but he's still down there in the neighborhoods trying to hang out with these guys."
Steve Nawojczyk is a frequently cited conspirator in the "phony drive-by," and one of the "people here in town who were trying to make a name for themselves as gang experts" 10 years ago, With the extensive screen time he had in GW1, Nawojczyk succeeded. Now working in North Little Rock city government, the last 10 years have seen Nawojczyk speak all over the country about the gang problem and what to do about it. Back in 1993, however, Nawojczyk was the Pulaski County coroner, and had been through an education on the streets about how deadly life in the gangs could be.
After years of trying to convince skeptical civic leaders that the gang problem was not only real but also growing, Nawojczyk said he finally agreed to appear in the HBO documentary to get the message out. Originally, Levin's plan was to film four 15-minute segments on gang life in four Midwestern cities -four cities that Little Rock wasn't even one of. But a call from Nawojczyk to Levin and Daphne Pinkerson brought the filmmakers to Little Rock for a guided tour of the city's gangland, and the rest is history. For his part, Nawojczyk ended up the "face" of a documentary that gave Little Rock a years-long reputation as a haven for gangs. While that star billing turned him into a sought-after public speaker and educator on the subject, it didn't make him popular in Little Rock city government.
Like filmmaker Marc Levin, Nawojczyk calls the accusation that parts of the original documentary were staged ridiculous. He had no creative control over the first film, he said, adding that he would never have cooperated in staging a drive-by, or anything else that might have endangered people's lives. He says that the oft-repeated rumors that he had something to do with concocting scenes of gang life for the production were all part of a "kill the messenger" mentality.
"It caused me a lot of personal grief," he said. "It caused a lot of my friends to no longer be my friends. But we all got through it."
Through it, yes. Over it, no. Though things are significantly better than the days when he heard rumors that LRPD officers had been instructed to arrest him on sight for inciting a riot, Nawojczyk said some of the animosity toward him has lingered south of the river.
One thing Hastings and Nawojczyk agree on, however, is that the gang problem is not on the verge of returning to Little Rock, as some media outlets have speculated. Though a spike in the high murder rates of historic gangland cities like Oakland and Los Angeles - and XX homicides in 2003 for Little Rock (though down from 41 in 2002)- have caused many news outlets to claim a gang resurgence, Hastings called that "media hype," saying there is a difference between drug activity and gang activity. "We've had a couple of homicides that were drug related, but the mainstream media can't distinguish between drug activity and gang activity, even when we tell them. That doesn't sell papers, gangs do."
To keep that gang revival only a myth, Nawojczyk said that both Little Rock and North Little Rock have to remain diligent - and ready to spend money to help kids before they get wooed by gang life. In recent years, he has been a strong advocate of intervention programs like the one run by Leifel Jackson.
Though Nawojczyk and filmmaker Marc Levin see the original documentary as a wake-up call, Mayor Jim Dailey will only credit the film for causing "a huge negative impact" on the city.
By the time the HBO documentary first ran in 1994, Dailey said, Little Rock had already recognized its gang problem and started the Future Little Rock Initiative, a set of goals that listed crime prevention as a priority. Nonetheless, the mayor said the negative portrait of the city was immediate, not to mention magnified by the fact that HBO continued to broadcast the documentary "over and over and over again."
"We had conventions that were concerned about coming here," Dailey said. "You'd hear from relatives here who'd call and say 'Is it safe for our friends to come to Little Rock?'"
When he heard that HBO had a sequel to GW1 in the works, Dailey had reservations.
"I thought, 'Okay, how's this thing going to be portrayed?" he said. "Because if they're accurate with the information, then what will be portrayed is the success story that Little Rock has to talk about, that has occurred over the past 10 years."
Just to be safe, however, Dailey and City Manager Bruce Moore have spent part of the last few weeks before the premiere talking about how to combat any negative publicity the film might generate - gathering crime statistics and information about the city's youth programs, thinking about the possibility of a press conference or mass-mailings to the 130 neighborhood associations they work with.
A chat with Dailey after he had viewed the film found him almost audibly breathing a sigh of relief, even willing to sympathize with some of the gangsters portrayed and to speculate on what their war wounds might teach kids.
"It's still tough for some of these people who have come from the 'hood to clean up their acts, because there are so many pressures on them," Dailey said. "When they start showing their wounds or whatever it may be, it's got to have some kind of impact upon younger audiences who might be sitting there saying, I still have choices. I don't have to go down that path."