Bloods gang member: Trenton’s crime issues linked to poverty

Earlie Harrell, a high-ranking member of the Sex, Money, Murder set of the Bloods street gang, who is also known as Messiah. (Contributed photo)

Earlie Harrell, a high-ranking member of the Sex, Money, Murder set of the Bloods street gang, who is also known as Messiah. (Contributed photo)

Earlie Harrell, a high-ranking member of the Sex, Money, Murder set of the Bloods street gang, knew several murder victims who died in 2015. In fact, he’s known many of the victims killed in Trenton over the past 15 years.

Harrell, who’s also known as Messiah, doesn’t keep a tally of the people he’s known who are now dead, nor does he like to talk about the lives lost. But as media and community leaders analyze the capital city’s murder rate at the end of each year, Harrell can’t help but wonder if he’s been correct all along.

“I think about it all the time, and the way I see it, the politicians and city leaders are at fault for all these deaths,” Harrell said. “The people in leadership positions who have the resources to change things are at fault.”

Violent crime in the capital city has significantly declined since 2013, the deadliest year in Trenton’s history. Law enforcement officials attribute the decline to a multi-faceted crime fighting strategy that includes collaborative efforts from local, state and federal agencies. The newly reformed Mercer County Shooting Response Team and the Attorney General’s Targeted Anti-Gun (TAG) initiative are just two strategies officials say help significantly improve their ability to keep the city’s most violent criminals off of the streets.

Much of the city’s gun violence is related to drug trade, police say, and often times retaliatory in nature. So, while everyone analyzes initiatives that help solve and prevent crime, Harrell wonders why no one is questioning what caused violence to spike in the first place.

“They have to give street hustlers the tools to change,” 40-year-old Harrell said. “We need to train people to work in today’s job market.”

Harrell joined Sex, Money, Murder when he was 25 years old. He said he joined the Bloods street gang because he “needed some soldiers” who would be willing to stand up and fight for civil rights and other social issues. Harrell was not raised in a broken home, he said; his mother and father have always been in his life. But he was sold on the idea of a “band of brothers” who would work together to be on their own economically.

“My family are fighters, but they’re not soldiers when it comes down to social issues, and that’s what I thought Bloods were, based on the information I was getting at that time,” Harrell said.

In 2005, Trenton experienced 31 homicides, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. And around that same time, Harrell decided to provide young gang members with motivation and tools to create a better life for themselves. In March 2006, Harrell spoke at The Covenant of Peace, which was a national gang summit held in Trenton dedicated to finding peaceful solutions to gang violence and creating alternatives for the city’s youth to prevent them from joining gangs.

According to court documents related to a First Amendment rights case between local documentary filmmaker Kell Ramos and the City of Trenton, several local leaders attended the 2006 gang summit, including the city’s mayor and police director who were in office at that time. Harrell later traveled across the United States promoting peace and solutions to gang violence.

Earlie Harrell, also known as Messiah, sells hand-carved candles on East State Street. September 25, 2015 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

Earlie Harrell, also known as Messiah, sells hand-carved candles on East State Street. September 25, 2015 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

“They paid for me to travel around the country and use my influence to push the peace movement forward,” Harrell said. “But when I got back, I found out it was politics and not real. I was pushed to the side.”

Harrell believes his suggestions for teaching life skills to young gang members and providing them with tools to build a solid economic future were not taken seriously. So, he decided to do it himself. According to court documents, Harrell and several other street hustlers started visiting the library every day, and their attempts to gain knowledge needed to leave the gang lifestyle were documented by Ramos.

“The gang members were going to the library every day from like 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” Ramos said. “They were trying to learn life skills and things like that. I found that interesting.”

Harrell, his fellow street hustlers and Ramos had several encounters with police during that time. And eventually Ramos stopped filming as a result of what he believed to be police intimidation. Ramos later filed a lawsuit against the City of Trenton, alleging police officers violated his First Amendment rights. The lawsuit was originally dismissed by trial court, but Ramos appealed, and the appellate division ruled that “a documentary is a recognized form of journalism, entitled to protection of freedom of the press.” The case was then sent back to civil court, but the city and Ramos agreed to settle the case for monetary compensation.

Eventually, the library branch that Harrell and crew visited closed down, and several street hustlers returned to dealing drugs and other crimes. Harrell said hustlers who were going to the library and trying to live a law-abiding life returned to dealing drugs because they needed money.

“We were drawing a lot of attention, so they wanted to take us out of the library and stuff us in the basement somewhere,” Harrell said. “I really felt like we were on the right path. We were transitioning out of the hustler lifestyle. We still had people dealing drugs at that time because that was how they made money. But a lot of us made the effort to go to the library, and no one dealt drugs from out of the library. The point was to learn how to transition out of illegal activities.”

Less than 20 people were killed in Trenton each year from 2008 to 2010, but in 2011 the death toll increased again and continued to rise through 2013. Harrell truly believes the key to decreasing crime in the capital city is to increase employment opportunities for the city’s youth.

“I read about investors wanting to bring jobs to the city, but who would be the workforce?” Harrell asked. “Most of the citizens of Trenton are undereducated and underemployed. How do you get them prepared for these jobs when you can’t even get them to dress neatly, when you can’t even get them to respect themselves? That all takes training, and welfare doesn’t prepare us for incoming jobs.”

Harrell’s comments are supported by a citywide economic market study released last year that says “employed Trenton residents have lower paying jobs reflecting the relative lack of educational attainment.” The report also states that “almost four in every five local jobs are held by persons who do not live in Trenton.” Most of the city’s workers come from surrounding towns in Mercer and Bucks counties, according to the report.

Harrell said he no longer sells drugs, but he hustles just as hard as ever to earn money and provide for his family, which includes a daughter and a grandson. He sells hand-carved candles from a sidewalk space on East State Street, and he sells paintings and other art created in collaboration with SAGE Coalition. Harrell has also held several part-time jobs.

A few years ago, Harrell and SAGE Coalition started the Positive Educational Training in Economics and Resources Project (P.E.T.E.R. PROJECT), which encourages positive attitudes toward economic empowerment. Later this year, SAGE — in collaboration with the Living Hope Empowerment Center — will host Buy a Brother or Sister a Suit Day, which aims to buy suits and provide business education to people living in Trenton’s underprivileged neighborhoods.

“To end poverty, we need to recondition negative attitudes and reinforce positive entrepreneurial skills,” Harrell said. “People of the city are suffering from lack of employment, and that leads to them doing anything out of desperation. The easiest thing to get into is drugs, so we need to give them the tools to make better decisions. I’m not a Saint and I don’t claim to be a Saint, but I’m trying to help the brothers and sisters of Trenton.”

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