Born and raised in Lincoln Projects, J calls himself a “project baby.” He credits growing up in the projects for giving him his street sensibility and toughness. These qualities helped him rise through the ranks to gang leader of the Original Blood Brothers, a chapter of the well-known Bloods.
J chews Pina Colada flavored gum when he’s not puffing one of 20 menthol cigarettes a day. At a gang meeting in Harlem, he breathes in deeply, sits back and watches the clouds of smoke dance off his lips and into the air. The cigarettes and gum replaced the Endo Percocets and OxyCotin painkillers and the overpowering cognac, Grand Marnier. “You don’t want to see J on anything else,” gang member and cousin Eliot warns.
J says he joined a gang to fight other bullies. His mother Rion Davis, who works for the New York Department of Health, remembers J’s cousins bursting into the house screaming that 11-year-old J had stayed back to fend off some 30 to 40 gangsters who wanted to hurt him after he got into a fight with one of them. “The smartest thing I’ve ever done is take the punch and walk away,” he says.
When he was 13, J began to shoot guns across rooftops. It’s what he calls “mischief.” Two years later, doctors told J he had he could no longer play his favorite sport, baseball, because he had scoliosis, a disorder where the spine curves.
So at 16, J turned to the streets to look for a sense of protection and validation. “We looked up to gangsters in the street and drug leaders on the block,” he says. By then, he felt that being a man meant being numb, fearless, and aggressive- attributes necessary to join the Bloods.
In order to pass the Blood’s initiation test, J beat up a man with brass knuckles. Tests like these, held whenever a gang feels the need to network and grow, are responsible for the outbursts of violence in many communities. In 2008, the NYPD advised schools to close in advance of the night of mayhem.
After proving his loyalty to the gang by showing both aggression and restraint in fights, J was promoted to “Enforcer” or commanding general of the foot soldiers. Looking back on his success J says, “I was excited. You get to channel that hatred and anger towards somebody directly.” Under his rule, members had a stash of guns instead of personal ones, so they could throw it away to avoid getting caught. He also made sure they didn’t look like gangsters. “They had to look well-dressed and sometimes we’d take children around with us so that the police wouldn’t think we were gangbangers,” he says.
J went to Catholic school and because of his mother he had one foot in the street – and the other in college. J and his brother, Justin, enrolled in Delaware State University and studied accounting. But as the death toll of friends mounted, J abandoned school and the therapist he was seeing and began to depend on the gang for support. He says the gang leaders valued his academic background. Soon, he was organizing meetings, fundraisers and alliances with other gangs from across the country. In 2001, the leaders stepped aside and anointed J “President” or leader of the Original Blood Brothers.
His big moment to make an example out of someone and elevate the status of the gang came in 2003, J’s junior year of college. To retaliate against another Blood, whom J said attacked an old lady, he stabbed the man 16 times, but he lived.
J’s mother was in “utter disbelief” when he called to tell her that he was a wanted man. Until then, she thought J just hung out with gangs for protection. He spent the next 5 and half years on the run. No one snitched him out, he said, because they were too scared. He couldn’t be near his family – a girlfriend of 7 years or his three children. He stopped using credit cards, avoided cops, and worst of all, J said, he couldn’t sign his real name. Then, in 2008, he was caught and charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder. “The day I was caught I was smiling. I finally got to sign my name in prison.” He served one year.
J’s years as a criminal gangster defined his reputation but they also haunt him. He became depressed and turned his violence inward to numb the pain of lives lost-and taken. His brother Justin says, “[J] used to ask me to keep punching him over and over again.” He began to resort to the same destructive behavior he had as a child when he used to stick his fingers in electrical sockets to numb his emotional and mental pain. As an adult, J found what tools he could, quarters, wire hangers, razors and cigarettes to slash and burn his body like a canvas. The NCPTSD calls this “self-harm” and reports that very little is known about it. What several studies have found is that people who directly destroy their bodies have unusually high rates of childhood physical abuse and neglect and could be suffering from psychological injuries, including PTSD.