HIGH POINT, N.C. — Gang culture and crime are often synonymous.
Two men who understand it say there’s only so much law enforcement can do. The work has to be done from within, and they work with gang members to do that work.
“When I was growing up, all the gangbangers were dope boys,” said Willie Pettiford. “They had the money. They had the cars. They had the girls.”
Willie Pettiford wanted to be just like them. He says he started running around with a street gang when he was eight years old.
His mom kept him in football to keep him out of trouble. He graduated with multiple offers to play college ball, but he got caught up in a crime spree right after graduation.
North Carolina A&T honored his scholarship and he played there.
“In my day we didn’t call them gangs,” said Greg Commander. “We got together as a group. My group, this side of town vs. that side of town, or this street vs. that street.”
Greg Commander operated one of the biggest drug rings in the area: a crack cocaine operation in High Point.
“We sold on a level to where the federal government had to come in bring our whole crew down,” he said. “It was like nine of us. They locked us up for conspiracy to sell large amounts of drugs.”
He spent 18 years in federal prison. Pettiford got probation for his crime spree.
The two men’s pasts are tied closely to street and gang life, and now they’re using what they learned to reach men, women and kids as young as nine who are either in gangs or thinking about joining one.
“I know once you’re in it, you’re in it,” Willie said. “I know I can’t go up to a kid and say ‘Hey, let’s leave this gang.’”
“They’re thinking about ‘How am I going to survive going across town and knowing this guy got a gun?’” Greg added. “‘I have to join a gang now, a group of men who become my army because I wouldn’t be able to survive out there by myself.'”
So far this year, gang activity is blamed for eight of the 31 murders in Greensboro, and four of the 16 murders in High Point.
In Winston-Salem, there have been 20 murders so far this year. Police tell us none are believed to be gang-related, but they also say there are 746 validated gang members in the city.
Through his non-profit, Willie goes all around the Triad talking to kids who are at risk of getting involved with gangs. One part of his work is connecting them with economic opportunities.
“If we had some business owners out here that would say, ‘Hey, we can offer a job to this kid. We can offer a job to this person, because we know they`re coming through your program, we know they`re going to have a great support system behind them that`s going to keep them on the right track and that`s going to hold them accountable if they mess up,’” Pettiford said.
Greg started Commander Peace Academy after he got out of prison. He says one component is communication.
“A lot of the wars and fights are going on because ‘I don`t know how to sit down with you and talk to you about my situation, what I`m going through, or the problem me and you have.’ Let`s sit down and have a conversation,” Commander said.
Both men say treating these young men and women as people and not a label is key. And grabbing potential gang members early is the only way.
“If you don`t create a place or a sanctuary for these kids, then these kids go wild because they don`t have anything else to do but drugs, sex, and clique up in gangs,” Commander said.
“Stop telling kids they`re not about nothing, stop telling kids they`re making the wrong decisions. You`re going to have to really start nurturing their interests in a positive way,” Pettiford added.
“These kids need support. They need someone to sit down and say brother or call him by his name or man we love you man,” Commander explained.
As optimistic as Greg and Willie are about reducing gang violence, they say the hardest ones to change are gang members who don`t care about consequences — whether it be jail or death. Those guys, they say, will always be around.