Two Heroes, One Common Dream
By Aaron Kiersh
They call him the “Tag Man.”
That’s how the Bloods, Funk Lords, and Latin Kings who “tag” Bridgeport, Connecticut’s walls with stylized graffiti refer to Mike Gosha. A muscular, tattooed detective, he cruises through back alleys and notorious gang hangouts in a bullet-riddled squad car. He’s a street-smart maverick with a unique strategy for reaching alienated urban youth. Once a gang member himself, the 16-year police force veteran tries to avoid traditional strong-arm tactics. He instead develops relationships with troubled teens to discover why they are falling into prostitution, dealing drugs, and strafing their community with gunfire.
An authority on the gang subculture often on assignment with the F.B.I., Gosha has still risked his career by promoting institutional change in this depressed city 90 minutes north of Midtown Manhattan. That unconventional approach, coupled with his loss of faith in the city’s judicial system, has put him at odds with the Bridgeport establishment. Officials view him as a lone-wolf troublemaker.
Gosha works alone, ever vulnerable to the wild uncertainties of the street. Yet in America’s most dangerous city, Camden, New Jersey, amid rows of condemned buildings and once-toxic vacant fields, another fearless force for change aggressively confronts drug dealers with a partner by her side.
Believing “God will always protect me,” a frail 64-year-old woman known as “Lilly” dismisses concerns about her safety and remains committed to saving young lives. This devout churchgoer defies the cold-blooded brutality of Camden’s drug dealers, urging them to stop peddling their “poison.” She’s tirelessly taken this message throughout the community for over a decade, even while caring for a sister dying of AIDS this past year. Her life is now taking another heroic yet potentially life-threatening turn. After attending a police department course that taught her drug identification techniques, Lilly regularly sits by the window in her run down house, waiting to see if packages containing crack cocaine will be dropped off at a storefront known as a haven for drug pushers. Unlike Gosha, who can always rely on his nine-millimeter Beretta, she has no weapon. She only has a telephone, police contacts, and the will to brave the perils facing informants.
This petite Latina woman with a ninth grade education seems to have little in common with a white, 44-year-old detective whose specialty is demystifying the secret world of gangs. But despite their cultural and geographical separation, these two activists are linked by a passionate commitment to rebuilding blighted communities wracked by despair and desolation. Such selfless crusaders are often ignored by contemporary America, which instead glorifies athletes, movie stars, and wealthy CEOs. Yet seeking to foster hope and reclaim lives, Gosha and Lilly are true heroes.
Taking photographs of a wall spraypainted with colorful graffiti, Mike Gosha worriedly describes the presence of AF 1, a gang that has recently entered the contentious fray over Bridgeport’s East End turf.
“I can tell a young kid painted this wall,” he says ruefully. “Very poor can control. AF 1 is starting to go after the 12 and 13-year-olds. That’s bad. It could mean war.”
He pauses, looks across the alley, and sees faces in the window. “I know that right now everyone on the block is watching me. They’re profiling me, sizing me up by the way I act. If I act too cautious like I’m scared, they’ll start fooling with me. On the streets you got to always act tough.”
Gosha grew up in a strife-torn Newark, New Jersey neighborhood. He has been using his wits to survive ever since he joined a gang in high school. Immersed in a culture where respect, reputation, and revenge were gained with a knife, he lived for the “thrill of the chase,” the exhilaration that came with outrunning the police and disappearing into the night.
His living on the edge was never forgotten, even after he married a “straight-laced” woman and opened a construction company in suburban Connecticut. Once wielding a hammer became “too boring,” Gosha joined the Bridgeport Police Department in 1990. He quickly discovered that a “beast,” the emergence of warring gangs, was “devouring our children.” Yet recalling his own brushes with the law, he saw the futility of treating children like criminals and realized that chasing graffiti artists actually encouraged them to continue vandalizing the city’s property.
“There’s just no such thing as a mean, evil kid,” insists Gosha, sitting in his office flanked by a stack of rap CDs, plaques honoring his courageous police work, and a stark gang-generated poster that’s been widely circulated throughout the city. It calls for his assassination.
“Every kid can be reached. But these teens joining gangs have pressure points, so they slide the wrong way. Cops don’t understand that they are skirting death every day, and treat them like mad dogs. Once you chase a kid, arrest him, and bring him into the system, it’s very tough to pull him back. There is a better way.” Believing disaffected teens could “catch fame” and channel their anti-social vandalism into a positive art form, Gosha hoped to provide graffiti “taggers” with sanctioned space to discover their creative voice. He devised a comprehensive strategy that stressed “connecting with kids and tapping their artistic potential.”Gosha discovered that his radical approach threatened entrenched police thinking. His superiors felt the city’s graffiti problem could only be solved by arresting offenders. Yet he was unwilling to accept the notion that jailing perpetrators would deter them from committing future offenses.
Eventually convincing several public and private organizations to fund his efforts, he established a counseling center at the University of Bridgeport in 1998 that included recreation rooms and art studios where high school students could escape the streets’ consuming temptations. The program was called United Youth Arts Partnership (UYAP). It was an immediate success. Gosha bonded with teens by speaking their language and treating them with a respect rarely shown to them by the police. As expressed in the art on his office walls, 13-year-old girls were able to share their deepest fears about rape and pregnancy. Boys talked to him about the pressures of winning a reputation by carrying a gun, committing various crimes, and living the “gangsta” lifestyle.
Hoping to “save one kid, not the whole world,” Gosha sensitively tried to develop bonds with kids—even the most hardened offenders banished to Connecticut jails—who were previously dismissed as mere thugs. His tireless work was reflected in statistics that showed an 80 percent decline in vandalism arrests and his winning department recognition in 1999 as “Officer of the Year.”
“The way Mike works with young people is just phenomenal,” says Tammy Papa, the director of the city’s after-school Lighthouse Program who helped steer public funds to UYAP. “Even though he’s a police officer, kids are drawn to him, and are comfortable enough to reveal their problems. Thanks to him, they could do this through their writings and drawings. He could surmise what’s affecting them personally and give them hope. He has respect for kids out there, and that makes him special in this community.”
Gosha sustained this “glimmer of hope” for six years. During that period, the frequency of graffiti incidents decreased from 200 incidents a night to what he calls “a trickle.” By going into the city’s worst housing projects alone, handing out spray paint, and directing taggers to a legal “Wall of Fame,” he began to attract the attention of law enforcement agencies around the country. He was a success in a city known only for its failures. But hope has a short life span in this city of 139,664, a once-prosperous manufacturing center where 18.4 percent of the population lives under the poverty line and the unemployment rate has reached 11 percent. Alarmed by a worsening fiscal crisis in 2003-2004, officials felt an after school program for high school students was unnecessary. Eliminating UYAP was another harsh blow for aspiring artists who were already victims of an underfunded school system.
“Years ago things were cuckoo, you saw all kinds of damage in the streets,” says Gosha, sorrowfully recalling UYAP’s demise. “Everyone was bombing buildings, no property was sacred. We changed all that with an approach that wasn’t hard-nosed. I didn’t come across as a traditional cop, and that made a difference. Now you don’t find cultural graffiti [made for artistic purposes] anymore. The stuff popping up now is just about bangers, the gangs talking to one another.” That “change in the game” has had many lethal repercussions. Gangs have become competing enterprises intent on dominating the vibrant drug trade. In their quest for primacy, according to Gosha, “they have divided the city into fiefdoms, and they mark their respective territories with graffiti.”
Now that gangs are seeking greater opportunity for profit and proliferating even in rural Connecticut, Gosha is not only sharing his expertise with Bridgeport’s 465-member force. He’s also consulting with police departments and school districts throughout the state. These “Gangs 101” lecture sessions have cemented his reputation and prompted federal agencies to request his services in combating white supremacists and other racial hate groups. These efforts may well define his legacy. Yet as exemplified by that graphic poster gracing his office wall, gangs have become far more fearsome.
“I’ve been out here solo through riots, firefights, when this place lit up like a Christmas tree,” recalls Gosha, driving through “Stacker Boys” territory in the notoriously violent South End. “This is survival. I never drive with my headlights on. But I’m not scared, for bringing fear to a conscious level inhibits you, paralyzes you. I don’t have nightmares about me, only about the kids I’ve found dead, abused. That’s why I can’t leave this work. I want to help kids.”
Leaving the blighted South End for a busy shopping mall on the other side of town, Gosha enters the parking lot and drives down a ramp leading to “hallowed ground”—his Wall of Fame. He opens his car window and begins to chat excitedly with a group of passionate graffiti artists.
“That’s good stuff,” he exclaims, watching them take pictures of their work. “I’m glad you’re documenting it. When I first got this place going, you didn’t have to take pictures of your stuff. People respected it. It isn’t fair to paint over what someone else does. These new cats with all their toys show no respect. But there’s a lot of heart going on here. America is really missing out on this. It’s beautiful art.”
In the shadow of Philadelphia’s gleaming skyline, an urban wasteland continues to deteriorate, breeding crime, drug addiction, and misery. Determining that Camden, New Jersey had the most violent incidents per capita of any U.S. city over 75,000 in 2003, a Lawrence, Kansas-based research group, Morgan Quitno, merely painted a statistical picture of rampant lawlessness. The numerical data could not describe the sense of desperation and isolation fostered by abandoned factories, crumbling houses ringed by steel gates, and homeless heroin addicts wandering the streets.
The landscape is so overwhelmingly bleak, so hostile even to basic survival, Camden Police Chief Edwin J. Figueroa said last year, “I feel like I’m in Falluja.”
Yet Lilly is undaunted by the city’s tragic statistics, the staggering 20 percent unemployment rate and the meager $9,815 per capita income. Despite the prevalent pessimism that has stymied innumerable revitalization efforts, this unwavering optimist continues to spread a message of hope and renewal in North Camden, one of the city’s darkest and most forbidding neighborhoods.
Standing on the corner of Fifth and Vine Streets, an intersection Lilly calls “Camden’s worst,” she points at an unusually busy barbershop near a schoolyard. Her voice tinged with anger, she insists this establishment is actually a front for drug merchants.
“No matter what store you go to, you’re either going to get mugged, or they’re going to sell drugs to you,” says this lifelong Camden resident, whose full identity must be withheld for her safety. “That barbershop is selling death, and one day I’m going to go up to them, tell them to stop messing with the kids. I’ll say what I have to say. I don’t care that these men are bigger than me. Their stuff is killing us.”
Lilly is a recovering alcoholic whose only income comes from her late husband’s fireman pension. Estranged from her only daughter, she’s mentally preparing for the impending death of her 51-year-old sister, a former crack cocaine addict who is now bedridden after contracting Hepatitis C. Lilly patiently assisted her through the harrowing withdrawal process, and by witnessing her pain, she developed the courage to combat drug usage.
Boldly approaching physically imposing dealers on the street, she questions their morality and in no-nonsense terms demands that they stop preying on her neighborhood. It’s difficult to measure her impact, since contemptuous drug peddlers dismiss her as “Crazy Lilly.” Yet she still feels her unsettling words about drug-induced death and suffering might change lives. “I tell people, ‘I’ve seen children die in the streets,’ that there’s nothing worse,” explains Lilly, who is wearing a red and green sweater in celebration of her favorite holiday, Christmas. “I remind them, like I told my sister, ‘there’s more to life than drugs.’ Because she was doing it, I saw what the drugs were doing. I don’t want people to die or get locked up. That’s why I’m out here.” Lilly’s fight has become even more problematic now that drug kingpins are increasingly sophisticated. As described by a December 29, 2004 New York Times article entitled “Camden’s Streets Go From Mean to Meanest,” they have begun to provide ordinary dealers with health benefits, and represent the only economic successes in a city where “the most thriving trade remains crack cocaine.” In such an environment, where only criminals enjoy the glittering rewards of wealth, civic institutions are struggling to steer youth away from that parasitic lifestyle. It seems impossible that a common citizen like Lilly, without any governmental power or resources, could hope to make a difference.
“She’s just a fragile woman, but she’s been amazingly powerful,” says Camden City Council President Angel Fuentes, who has known Lilly since 1993. “With her help we’ve demolished 15 properties that were being used for drugs and prostitution. She will stand up to these bad elements and walk the hot spots. She is brave. She won’t back down when threatened.” Her resolve comes from the conviction that “God can work miracles.” She attends Mass daily at two churches, a commitment that gives her the strength to counsel troubled youths at schools and hospitals. Encouraged by Police Chief Figueroa, who calls her tenacity “priceless,” she’s also urging neighbors to emerge from their fortified homes and defy the menace devouring their streets.
“I tell my neighbors they can win this war,” says Lilly, approaching the building she wants to renovate and use as a homeless shelter. “I hope they’re listening. We just got to clean up things ourselves. We can’t be scared.” Already grappling with the expectation that her sister Mary will die this spring and the pressures of community involvement, Lilly has found a new cause: questioning the municipal government’s priorities. She criticizes City Hall for supporting a $1.3 billion redevelopment package that includes luxury real estate, while failing to provide such basic facilities as a library, and has voiced her discontent to Mayor Gwendolyn A. Faison. “She knows who I am,” says Lilly with a slight smile. “I say what I want. Before they talk about the waterfront, they better fix up downtown. It’s terrible.” Nothing deters Lilly. She’s convinced ordinary citizens must organize to challenge the criminal establishment ruling city streets. Believing that her neighbors must literally sweep away the trash in North Camden, she’s exhorted them to show civic solidarity by picking up their brooms and removing the physical remnants of decades-long decay. That noble effort might help change the perception that Camden is littered with broken dreams. But even if Lilly plays a limited role in reversing the torrent of violence, her alerting police to drug deliveries will potentially make her a target of more than dismissive teasing. Just as Gosha has been marked for assassination, this vulnerable, elderly woman is now facing the greater risk of antagonizing profit-driven killers.
“I’m not afraid,” she insists. “I don’t have a gun like a policeman. I have Him. I pray, pray, pray, pray. You need faith in Camden."
Two principled visionaries, one shared dream. Their cities are ravaged by strife and decay. Gangs prowl the streets. Drugs consume young and old. The schools are failing. Financially-strapped municipal governments have historically been corrupt. Social agencies are powerless to cope with issues ranging from teenage pregnancy to substandard health care. For those trapped by hopelessness in both Bridgeport and Camden, the American Dream rings hollow.
But Mike Gosha and Lilly persevere. No obstacle is intimidating. Disregarding threats to their physical safety, they refuse to surrender to apathy and are convinced their traumatized cities can be resurrected. As one-time Camden resident Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, words now etched on City Hall, “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth.”
It is an inspiring vision, one that continues to sustain two modern heroes.