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Jahmol Norfleet in a 2004 family photo. He was the leader of H Block. / Courtesy of Norfleet family via Boston Globe

Last week a man was shot to death in front of the house where his brother suffered the same fate 21 years ago. It happened in a part of Boston known as H Block, because many street names start with that letter. Few places in America have been deadlier longer.

Much of the mayhem has been the work of two street gangs. One is H Block, named after its turf; the other, called Heath Street, is based in a neighboring housing project.

H Block vs. Heath Street has killed or wounded scores of people, many of them bystanders. But what's unusual about the war is that once, one of the combatants tried to end it.

This was Jahmol Norfleet. He was a charismatic H Block leader who had a change of heart after 1) his head was grazed by a bullet and 2) he went to jail on a gun bust. When he got out, he ran into a local pastor who was trying to stop the carnage outside his church door.

This was Miniard Culpepper. Norfleet, Culpepper later told me, "was the one I was looking for'' ?? a gangster with the heart and credibility to be a peacemaker.

In July 2006, Norfleet led his gang to the Kennedy Presidential Library, where a "peace summit" had been arranged by some ministers, social workers and law enforcers. There, H Block and Heath Street agreed on a truce.

Gangs could go on each other's turf if they behaved respectfully. In case of an incident, there'd be no immediate retaliation. A minister would be called and the incident quickly investigated. Gang members would be helped to get GEDs and jobs.

The truce was the toast of the city. Crime dropped in the neighborhood. Other gangs asked for similar talks. A criminologist said it could be a national model.

Four months later, Norfleet was standing in front of his family's home on Holworthy Street, unarmed and at ease, when two young men walked up and shot him. He died seven days shy of 21.

Amazingly, the truce held. Norfleet's followers couldn't seem to bring themselves to tarnish his legacy as a peacemaker. They focused on making a video, Jahmol's Vision for Youth Peace, about a plan he and Culpepper had devised.

But the truce didn't last. In January 2009, an H Block member was arrested for gunning down a Heath Street rival on the street. A year later, a 14-year-old honors student was killed on a Heath Street project basketball court, allegedly by H Block members.

The truce probably was flawed from the start. Underlying grievances were not aired at the summit. There was no follow-up meeting. A third gang that also had a beef with H Block was not included.

But if violence continues in H Block, so does peacemaking. Each summer a well-funded program in the park next to Culpepper's church helps kids develop their skills and have a good time without getting in trouble. Could-be gangsters are hired to provide security.

I walked through that park one night in 2007 with Norfleet's younger sister Teah, who'd been next to him when he was killed. I recall three things: her bravery, her indifference to revenge and the brightness of the stars.

At the conclusion of HBO's series True Detective, Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Marty (Woody Harrelson), look up at the same starry night sky. Marty observes that there's a lot more darkness than light.

Rust, heretofore a nihilist, tells Marty he's got it all wrong: "Once, there was only dark,'' he drawls. "You ask me, the light's winnin'."

Maybe it's winning in H Block, too.

Hampson is a New York-based national reporter for USA TODAY.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: In Boston, memories of a gangland peacemaker

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