Better Choices Lead to Better Days for Former Gang MembersNov 01, 2021 10:42AM ● By J.D. Avant
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
The streets of Omaha are no stranger to gang culture. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the city was one of many Midwest locations subjected to an unexpected influx of migrant gang members from places like California and Chicago.
Their influence was so potent that many residents don’t remember a time when monikers such as Bloods, Crips, and Gangster Disciples were only heard on the evening news.
he days when entire swaths of streets were dedicated to different gang sets such as Crips at 40th Avenue and Bloods at 16th Street are not as prevalent, but the impact gang culture had on Omaha seems unending.
New gang members have upgraded with the times, and the days of tagging rival neighborhood walls with graffiti are replaced by disrespectful posts and comments on Instagram and Facebook.
Instead of Crips and Bloods roaming the streets, the prominent clique nowadays is N.I.K.E. gang (N**** I Kill Everything.) With such a moniker, it’s no wonder violence attributed to gangs is on the rise after a long respite.
“I think now it’s just a bunch of kids lost,” said Johnny Waller, Jr., founder and executive director of Second Chance Organized People Empowered, based in Kansas City, Missouri. “You don’t have to beef with someone from different [gang] sets anymore, the violence is engrained.”
A former Omaha resident, Waller is a business owner with a master’s degree in organizational leadership and development from Rockhurst University. He has held multiple honors since moving to Missouri, including recognition as “Kansas City Champion” by the Kansas City Health Department, and being named “Mr. Kindness” by Kansas City Magazine.
He was also the perpetrator of a shooting outside Westroads Mall in 1995 during an autograph signing for Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith.
“I didn’t know how to resolve conflict. Some stuff I didn’t really want to do,” Waller said when asked about that fateful day. “I was a kid that had to make adult decisions that would affect the rest of my life.”
Regrettably, Westroads has become a location tinged by gun violence over the years. A recent incident in April 2021 resulted in the death of 21-year-old Trequez Swift, or “Juice from Facebook” as identified by 16-year old shooter Makhi Woolridge-Jones. Waller and Woolridge-Jones’ events share the warranted label of gang violence.
Fortunately for Waller, his gunfire didn’t cause any casualties. The negative branding by the media, on top of his charges, did have a lifelong effect that he fought hard to overcome. Despite the adversity, when a former gang member works toward redemption their efforts are rarely talked about.
A deeper dive into Waller’s incident reveals a young man’s questionable morals and misguided decisions that can shine a light on the bigger issue of youth violence. His father was drug-addicted and abusive. By age 14, Waller was homeless and alone, turning to gangs and drugs. At 16, he was playing Russian roulette and selling drugs. As a gang member, he was involved in many shootouts, including one that led to him being shot in the head at point blank range. The incident at Westroads was a spillover from school hostilities.
“My intentions to go there wasn’t on any gang stuff,” Waller said. “I was there as an Emmitt Smith and Dallas Cowboys fan.”
He remembered standing in the long line of people waiting for autographs when the friend he was with said it was almost time to start his very first job, and he didn’t want to be late. They stepped out of the line and Waller saw some guys walking towards them he recognized from Northwest High.
He knew a fight was coming when he heard one of them say, “There goes Johnny, Blood!”
Northwest High was divided by rival Crips and Bloods gangs at the time, and Waller’s reputation as the former preceded him. When one of the teens stepped on Waller’s shoe his friend initially lost his cool but was knocked to the ground by a hard punch before the larger group attacked Waller.
“There were eight of them and two of us,” he recalled. They slammed Waller through the AMC Movie Theatre entrance, located on the northeast side of the mall at the time. As he was being punched and kicked by older and bigger guys, Waller pulled a .380 handgun from his pocket and shot in the air.
His assailants scattered.
Discombobulated, Waller quickly ran through the parking lot towards his car in an attempt to flee, but just as he pulled his car out of the spot a female security guard blocked his way.
“I put the car in reverse, but by that time seven [to] eight police officers had arrived,” he said.
Waller was arrested and charged with discharging a weapon within city limits, disorderly conduct, and other misdemeanors, but the Ithaca-37 sawed-off rifle found in his trunk garnered a felony charge. He was held on a $500,000 bond for around a month before his mother posted bail.
“I never asked Mama how she came up with that bond money,” Waller said.
For people in Omaha, that’s the end of Waller’s story, which was, at the time, so big Ernie Chambers got involved with his case to make sure Waller was not made an example of as a black teen firing a weapon in a predominantly white area. The news quit reporting on the case, so how would most people know he avoided doing extended time for the mall shooting?
Unfortunately, two years later, in 1997, he would face criminal charges for possession and possession with intent. He was ordered to serve 2 ½ to 5 years and 18 months in Lincoln Correctional Center.
A term of his subsequent parole was to leave the state of Nebraska. This unusual situation came about because Waller’s best option was living with mother, who had moved to Kansas City to escape an abusive relationship. After having 24 hours to settle his affairs, Waller relocated to Missouri. He worked with a parole office there, and, from that point, had no documented gang-related incidents. Waller worked his way to esteemed opportunities like fighting for six years with state legislature to reverse a lifetime ban on food stamps for people with drug convictions in the state of Missouri.
Retired police officer and executive director of nonprofit organization YouTurn Omaha Teresa Negron wishes more disillusioned youths would realize success is possible after making life-altering mistakes.
“Young men involved in these instances of violence, many of them haven’t really seen opportunity,” she said.
Negron calls her work at YouTurn her passion. Along with Operations Director Stewart Giddings and a host of dedicated employees, their organization approaches the issue of gang violence in Omaha through a health lens in an effort to suppress issues at their core.
“Violence is a learned behavior and spreads like a disease,” Giddings quoted epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, creator of the Cure Violence health model, which uses a public health approach to prevent violence.
The innovative system was suggested when YouTurn was created in 2016 and implemented in 2017. Cure Violence already had a proven model of success, experiencing a reduction of violence up to 72% in larger cities like Chicago and internationally.
YouTurn’s goal was to implement the model in a target area of north Omaha and reach 365 days without a homicide. While there were still instances of violence, they accomplished their goal in an area including North 24th Street and 42nd Street and Redick Avenue between August 2018 and August 2019.
“Behavior change will ultimately remove you from that space,” Giddings said. “Our approach isn’t to tell any individual to denounce a gang. That can be like walking away from blood relatives—family history, not just the notion that gangs are family.”
YouTurn embraced the Cure Violence methods by introducing “credible messengers”—including former gang members and people who were involved and understand what it takes to walk away from the gangster lifestyle—to high-risk adolescents and young adults to act as violence interrupters. Their access to the community is empowered by holding events and making their presence known, allowing them to mobilize neighborhoods to stand up against violence.
hen we all become upset when a shooting occurs, not just when it involves my loved one, we begin to change. And we’re not there yet,” Giddings said.
He continued, “We engage the same way you attack a disease: first, understand the cluster and where it happens at the highest rate. See who’s affected the most and then work to change their societal norms. You begin to dissect and educate them on how to move different and not resort to violence as the only way to handle conflict.”
Negron asks the public to support their efforts to help people involved in the gangster lifestyle turn things around.
“The people you see involved in these instances of violence are human beings,” Negron said. “They have circumstances that are behind them being in this space. YouTurn gets to the core of what those circumstances are and works alongside young people to work through that process. We ask people to volunteer, talk to legislatures, anything to help this community-based organization doing this heavy-lifting.”
Rallying their communities against youth violence despite gang influences are passions Waller and the team at YouTurn share despite their distance. Waller hopes to return to Omaha in the near future to act as a credible messenger in his hometown. Recently, he went back to Westroads after 30 years.
“I felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, and had a flood of emotions,” Waller recalled. “It felt like stepping back in time, reliving a memory of a not-so-good period in my life.”
He was once told to never return to Westroads Mall, but those representatives didn’t foresee his eventual transformation into a respected member of society.
“I understand, people are judgmental about the lifestyle, but I get it because I did it,” he said. “You’ll eventually realize life is more than just day-to-day. When people talked to me about the future I couldn’t understand it. The way I was going about getting the things I wanted wasn’t the way to get them.”