How did a man who renounced his life as a gang member end up in 2013 shooting a member of the Bloods the same day of a planned peace rally he’d organized?
Journalist and Denver native Julian Rubinstein has spent the better part of a decade digging into that question and earlier this month released a book called “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood." Roberts' path went from Bloods gang member, to well-known anti-gang activist eventually turned on by city leaders and nonprofits for his wariness that redeveloping The Holly would displace Black people, to facing new charges of attempted murder and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.
The book links the course of Roberts’ life to Denver’s history in a tale of race, gentrification, and institutional power tracing the history of a section of historically Black Northeast Park Hill called "The Holly" as a center of Denver’s civil rights movement. It follows the rise of street gangs in the area and how government initiatives intended to decrease violence resulted in disproportionately harsh policing, prosecution and incarceration of Black people.
Rubinstein found news coverage of Roberts and The Holly’s redevelopment that didn’t line up with his own reporting. He spoke with The Denver Gazette about his research and writing. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Denver Gazette: This book traces the history of this historically black neighborhood in Denver. And over the past year and change, there's been a lot of discussion about opportunities for journalists of color to be able to tell stories of their own communities as part of this broader racial reckoning that we've had. And so in that context, why did you feel like you should be the one to tell this story?
Julian Rubinstein: To be honest, I didn't even feel like I should be the one to tell this story. I would almost have rather someone else had told the story. I ended up being the one who was willing or able to tell the story. Let's put it this way, it was a story that was being mis-told.
I should also say that I'm a huge proponent of more representation in journalism, in newsrooms; all of that. If there was even one journalist of color who was also trying to do this story, I would not have tried to do it. So I had no interest in taking someone's spot or anything, but I did ultimately have an interest in getting the truth out and getting the story out that appeared to me to be an alternate history, and a history that people in the community wanted told.
Obviously they didn't have to talk to me or trust me or anything. I had to earn their trust on my own, as an outsider. I just tried to do a job of a journalist where no one was doing it.
DG: How did you come to Terrance’s story?
Rubinstein: I've done some crime stories, and this was a kind of interesting twist on a crime. It was not a “whodunit” mystery, but it was like a “whydunit.” We already knew who pulled the trigger. But why did this happen? And it was very layered. So I came out here -- my mom was and is still living here -- I came out, stayed with her, and started looking around; talking to some people.
There had been a lot of stories done. But what I found, as soon as I started really getting more and more into it, was that the stories and the reporting that I was coming up with wasn't really matching exactly with the reporting I'd seen. I felt like, well, I am a white guy, but I don't really see this story being done, and I'm interested in doing it, and if I can gain the trust of the people that I need, then maybe I can do this.
Of course it was hard to get to that point. I just tried to keep showing up to things, and keep talking to people, and keep actually showing that I was paying attention. Because I was trying to really dig up information that was gettable, either from public records or from people, or information I was being told.
And so ultimately the people involved did trust me, and frankly, that includes the people who don't come out well in the story.
DG: With Terrance and other people you talked to, how open or skeptical were they when you first approached them? Can you just talk more about how did you overcome their skepticism and get them to open up?
Rubinstein: At first, I was being stood up all the time. That happened with a lot of people early on, and I think basically there were people who were trying to figure out who am I; are they safe talking to me; are they safe talking to anyone? There was a lot behind the shooting, a lot of politics, a lot of secrets.
Terrance at first was more open to talking to me because he at the time was, first of all, very unhappy with the local media coverage. He felt that he had not been treated fairly, and I think he has reason to believe that, certainly, in some cases. And so he wasn't wanting to talk to them. Then here comes someone who's not part of that; who's interested in hearing his story.
But I do want to make clear that what I did with the people in this story was I basically scoped every person for 360 degrees, probably Terrance the most. I mean, I looked into every case; every girlfriend he had, I've spoken to; everything he's been involved with; his family, his friends, his former gang, all of it.
There were lots of things that I couldn't confirm to the level that I wanted to, and they didn't go in the book. A lot of things that he did believe I was able to follow up and check. He had a lot of suspicions about a lot of things, a lot of which were true. He was a great subject in that he's a real insider into a world that's hard to get into. So his sort of hunches and leads about things were very helpful in terms of setting me in the right direction, where to look for things.
And so among the people I spoke to, he was at the beginning more interested in speaking to me than some of the others. And then others along the way, as the months went by, they knew who I was and ultimately, everyone spoke to me, some of them many, many times.
DG: I wanted to return to something you mentioned a little bit earlier, [that] you think that maybe a reason that so much of this story hasn't been told or, hasn't been told well, is maybe people haven't necessarily felt safe doing it; that they would end up in situations where they wouldn't feel safe. As you were gathering information and reporting this, did you get any sense that maybe other people's wariness about their safety if they were to kind of really go deep with with these stories … was at all based on stereotypes about these communities and Black people?
Rubinstein: That in and of itself is a nuanced question and it's a nuanced answer, because it's both.
So 100% agree that, or think that the community was probably seen as a sort of “other” in a way that's sort of just this built-in kind of stereotype and built-in racism that a lot of us have, even if we don't think we have. So I think that's one of the reasons that perhaps it was easier in some cases to rely on law enforcement sources or some well-known activist or or person who has some connection to the neighborhood, but not going deeper to the first-hand sources.
So I pushed heavily past the first type of racism that maybe some white people have and that if I had, I was trying to make sure that this was going to be something reported and told through the eyes of actual firsthand people, community members.
In fact, ultimately I met a lot of gang members and talked to a lot of gang members, active gang members.
Let’s say, because of the types of things and the types of information I was ultimately coming across, and because my understanding was starting to become on a level that was maybe not expected, I felt that that placed me in some danger.
There was a situation in which I got information that was credible about a paid hit on someone I knew. And I found myself in this situation that I never expected to be in, which was here I was in my hometown of Denver, and I felt, actually, less safe reporting this information to the police than if I didn't report it. And I really struggled with this.
I consulted people, including the person who there was a hit on. That person, for example, did not want to go to the police, and ultimately I decided not to, partly because I felt that it might make me or him less safe. And that's a pretty disillusioning thing to come to. I've reported on some stories overseas in a few places where I felt like, my flight is in a couple days; if I could just make it till then, I'm out of here. But like I never expected to be feeling that way in Denver. So that was kind of an awakening of sorts.
DG: You've talked about not going into this process [of] telling the story with an agenda. What were some of the most surprising or most unexpected pieces of information that you came across?
Rubinstein: I figured this would be sort of a complicated case, but there's so much gray area; just how deep it would go sort of surprised me.
And also -- this is something that a lot of people rightfully have been talking about lately -- is that you can't in the Black community assume that there's agreement among a block of African-American people because they're African-American. It's an incredibly divided community. There's a lot of differences of opinion and differences of allegiance.
But I guess what was, I would say, particularly surprising was how the city was empowering the wrong people. Basically, I felt like my world was upside down. The really disillusioning part of it was that people who were the real peacekeepers were being prosecuted, and people who were active gang members were being supported with public funding in ways that they should not be.
The results were pretty bad, pretty obvious, in terms of increases in violence and in programs that were designed to decrease violence. [Because of how the media reported on it] there was no understanding of what I was seeing. It made it, at times, like I felt like I couldn't even talk about it with people, because this was a case that was in the media here, and anyone who I did talk to about what I was seeing had a completely different view of it, and in some cases seem to think I was just crazy. Ultimately it felt very isolating to be seeing these things that were otherwise seemingly invisible.