In 1992, summer in Brooklyn, New York came early. We had “permanent beef” with a West Indian crew, which meant trying to terminate each other on sight. Gunshots sparked so often that Flatbush residents didn’t have to wait for the Fourth of July to see fireworks. One spring day, I strolled down Flatbush Avenue with my two comrades, Bumpy and Capone. Because we all wore baggy tracksuits, we had to tie our guns around our waist with pieces of my sister’s jumprope…
Warm sunbeams caressed my cheeks and cool, soft breezes softly pressed against the nylon material of my tracksuit. I bopped my head to Shabba Ranks’s voice as it roared through the speakers of a passing car. Women of all ages, shapes and shades sauntered back and forth in bright green, red and yellow garments. Strong aromas of curried chicken, stewed oxtails and beef patties rode the airwaves into my nostrils. It was a beautiful day.
As I passed the small church on the corners of Church and Flatbush Avenues, which coincidentally had a cemetery in its courtyard, I spotted Tiger, the leader of the West Indians. I could tell from his black and yellow denim shorts and tight fitting tank top that he wasn’t armed. He walked with an elderly woman, that I later learned was his grandmother, and a beautiful girl no older than four, my niece’s age.
Tiger had plenty of notches on his belt, so taking him out would earn someone instant celebrity hood status. Among his many street accomplishments, he had shot his way out of an ambush in a gambling spot, killed one of my friends, and shot and seriously wounded another. I wasn’t angry; I respected the game. Both of my friends had been armed at the time, so it was respectable. But even so, it was my “hood duty” to avenge them if I had the chance, and I now had Tiger in a very compromising position.
This could be fun, I thought.
When we were about two car lengths apart, Tiger’s eyes met mine, and a half smile died on his lips. His eyes widened, his forehead creased and he inhaled sharply; I heard him gasp from several feet away. We both knew where this could go.
“Hey man,” I smiled and quickly closed the distance with two large strides. “Long time no see.”
He looked like a mannequin, his arms stiff at his side as my two friends took up positions on either side of us. I stuck my hand out, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him into a tight embrace, squeezing the front of his body hard against mine to make sure he felt the 9-millimeter Taurus on my waist.
Happy to see you too.
I held onto him for about ten seconds, much longer than the usual hood embrace, as I thought about the numerous ways this scenario could play out, I could shoot him dead on the spot. I could pistol whip him or slap him up in front of his family, the ultimate disrespect. I had options, but for some reason I didn’t want to scare his family. But if I spared him, I’d have to come up with a good reason because we had permanent beef; letting him go would make me look soft in my comrades’ eyes.
“You know I had you, right?” I finally whispered in his ear.
I felt his chest deflate. He exhaled as I broke the embrace. I smiled at the woman beside him.
“Hello. This man and I went to school together,” I said truthfully.
The woman’s eyes were suddenly half their normal size as they sliced through my fake smile. Surely she knew her grandson had many enemies, mostly African Americans, and the sight of me, Capone and Bumpy suddenly caused beads of sweat, that had nothing to do with the weather, to race down her grandson’s face.
A gust of wind softly pressed my windbreaker against my skin. Tiger’s eyes went directly to the outline of the gun tied to my waist. I kneeled down to conceal the imprint and used two of my fingers to softly twirl one of the pink barrettes in the little girl’s hair. Her eyes were focused on the Mr. Softee truck parked at the curb.
“How come an angel as pretty as you don’t have no ice cream?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking at Tiger.
“Listen here,” I said, taking a dollar out of my pockets. “You take this and you buy you an ice cream because all pretty angels deserve ice cream, right Tiger?” I asked, looking up.
Tiger hesitated, coughed, and finally said, “Uh, yeah, that’s right.”
The girl looked at her grandmother for approval before softly taking the dollar bill in her fingers and saying, “Thank you mister.”
The wind had calmed down so my suit was, once again, baggy.
“You’re welcome, cutie,” I said as I stood up. “So, Tiger,” I said, clapping him hard on his shoulder, “I guess I’ll see you around, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said, forcing a weak smile.
“Goodbye, Miss Lady,” I said to his grandmother.
“Goodbye,” she said, smiling for the first time as her eyes thanked me.
As we walked away, my friends asked why I didn’t “let him have it right then and there.” I told them I wanted to, but the avenue was too crowded and if we did that we would never make it back to the block without running into the police.
“There’ll be other times,” I assured them. “There always are.”
I didn’t tell them that thus far, all of our shootouts had been fair because everyone involved had been armed and most had been shooting back. I didn’t tell them that shooting Tiger in front of his family could’ve led to three deaths: the old lady could have had a heart attack and the little girl, who had nothing to do with what Tiger did to Oscar and Derrick, could have been emotionally traumatized for life. I couldn’t tell them all that because it would’ve revealed the weakness in my heart. In our line of work, kindness was interpreted as weakness.
Giving Tiger a pass was, at the time, was probably the kindest thing I ever did for someone I didn’t care about. At the time, I struggled with my conscience, my desire to be accepted by the streets, and my misguided attempt to live up to my own reckless, destructive standards.
Of course I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it back then because my young mind was trapped in a mental prison. Today, at forty-one years old, serving 22 years-to-life in a physical prison, I have learned to recognize my responsibility as a black man and my duty to my community.
That kind act, or rather omission, that occurred over twenty years ago, was the right thing to do. It also turned out to be the turning point in that situation. Tiger informed his friends that I had him and his family at my mercy and I let them walk away untouched.
He later sent me a message saying he wasn’t sure he would’ve done the same for me had the roles been reversed, but that he respected my actions. Against my comrades’ wishes, I sent a message back: “It’s all good.” That vague phrase became an unsaid truce that stretched into an implicit peace treaty, and although we never officially ended the war, not another shot was fired in relation to our “permanent beef.”
Jermaine Archer was finally released from Sing Sing in December 2020 and is home with his wife and family for his very first Christmas in 23 years!