Shortly after the Los Angeles uprising Carl called me about an incredible invitation he had received from LA gang leaders to help them find a way to peace in the streets. I knew I had to help, so I scrambled to find some of the funds that enabled Carl to spend a month in LA with the gangs. Then I got his report—what a prophetic powerhouse blow and challenge to all of us! Carl wouldn’t let us rest with smug progressive stuff; he pushed us to astonishing action. I participated in the gang summit in Minneapolis-St. Paul and helped with the national summit in Kansas City and a follow-up summit in Pittsburgh. Carl died from an illness way too young, leaving a huge hole in the movement, especially for our cities.
Carl Upchurch (1950-2003)
A gang summit? To many people that sounded like a meeting to maximize the profits from the drug trade, but it actually was a gang-initiated, grassroots effort to bring peace to the streets of U.S. cities. At the heart of this movement was Carl Upchurch, a child of the slums of Philadelphia, a former federal prisoner and a peace activist who blazed a peacemaking trail where nobody had gone before.
Upchurch described himself as “convicted in the womb,” born into a poor, violent setting where the crippling injustices of systemic racism left people in the most desperate and hopeless situations. He saw his grandmother shoot his grandfather when he was three years old. Soon he was running with gangs, beating up other kids, stealing whatever he wanted, and going through the revolving doors of the juvenile criminal justice system. His next stop was adult prison, and following a string of bank robberies, he ended up in the federal prison system with a 10-year sentence.
In a solitary prison cell, Carl Upchurch’s life turned around when he discovered a collection of William Shakespeare’s sonnets under the leg of a wobbly table. That moment became a key scene in the 2002 made-for-TV movie, Conviction, with Omar Epps portraying Upchurch. Poetry opened up a new world. Soon he was devouring books. The experience was so visceral that he actually voiced loud debates with authors he was reading. He discovered the rich academic and activist heritage of black resistance writers. He realized that nobody was going to set him free; he would have to liberate himself. Racism and poverty may have been responsible for the world into which he was born, but he was responsible for what he would be in that moment and in the future he would shape. Upchurch also pursued his formal education while in prison, and continued upon release.
After his release from prison in the mid-80s, Upchurch formed the Progressive Prisoners Movement (PPM), which pushed for prison reform. African-Americans are sentenced to prison, and to death row, at a far higher rate than other Americans accused of crime. Upchurch recognized that systemic racism played a role in that pattern and in the dehumanizing aspects of the prison system. On the other hand, PPM challenged prisoners not to blame others for their plight but to take responsibility for their own actions and confront within themselves the dynamics of toxic self-hatred, addiction and violence.
In 1992, members of the Bloods and Crips gangs in Los Angeles were struggling to form a peace agreement but failed to obtain any support from the religious or public institutions in the city. Someone saw a PPM brochure and contacted Carl about helping them work on peace in the streets. Drawing upon his religious community for support, Carl spent a month in LA then wrote a report to some of the sponsoring religious and peace organizations. He challenged them to work in directions that no one had dreamed of before. Upchurch discovered indigenous community leaders, some of them gang members or former gang members, others local activists working closely with the young people on the streets. He learned of anti-violence efforts with gangs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, Chicago, San José and Cleveland. Together, Upchurch and these gang-based peace activists formed the Council for Urban Peace and Justice. Because of Upchurch’s own story, he was able to gain the trust and respect of high-level gang leaders in city after city. He heard from voices that no one else could have reached, and then used his skills to shape those voices into a powerful challenge—both to those in decaying urban neighborhoods and those in positions of power.
Upchurch promoted the shocking idea of convening a national gang summit to address common issues and to explore new ways of relating to each other and to the gangs’ communities. The first National Urban Peace and Justice Summit, or Gang Summit, was held in Kansas City from April 29–May 2, 1993. Gang members from 26 cities came together and met in two churches under the facilitation of Upchurch and his team of urban peacemakers. They discussed their systemic issues and problems and explored their own feelings and responsibilities. They prayed together—though they came from different religions, some with no religious back- ground at all, they all knew they needed divine help. At the closing worship service, gang members laid their “colors” on the altar and pledged to work for reconciliation.
In spite of media skepticism, the energy from the summit flowed back into many cities. Follow-up local summits were held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and San Antonio. In many urban areas the murder rate from gang violence plummeted. Cease-fires were established, and local community workers helped calm volatile situations that previously had spun out into cycles of retaliatory violence. In some cities “tables” were set up to bring together gang members, church leaders, city officials, social workers, probation officers and prosecutors to solve problems such as the barriers to employment for young men with long criminal records. Because gang members cited finding legitimate jobs as their number one issue, their discussions centered around this topic.
Upchurch was not content with peacemaking in urban streets. He also wanted to address the underlying issues that fed the violence. He became a national voice by challenging racism in the criminal justice system and the punitive policies regarding incarceration that were especially focused on people of color and the poor. He challenged traditional peace groups who worked against injustice in Central America and apartheid in South Africa, but were afraid to touch the issues of injustice and racism at home. He even challenged African-American leaders from the civil rights movement who he felt were abandoning the poorest people and communities to enjoy the benefits won for the black elite and middle class. He did not seek a platform for himself, but repeatedly would create a space through his connections and personal presence, then allow African-American and Latino voices from poor neighborhoods to speak in settings that had never been accessible before.
Over the years, cycles of violence have come again to these cities, but the movement Upchurch founded has continued past his death in 2003. Urban Peace, Justice and Empowerment Summits continue to be held as the national collective of gang peace organizations continues to work together to address the issues plaguing urban communities. Gang summit veterans continue to strive to reduce violence and secure cease-fires between warring gangs. An ongoing National Council for Urban Peace and Justice continues as a voice against what amounts to the criminalization of entire communities of color. The council also encourages best practices for positive community transformation instead of merely locking away hundreds of thousands of young black, Latino and Native American young men. The ripples of Carl Upchurch’s peacemaking work continue to touch some of the most shattered lives in our cities and bring new hope.
Care to learn more?
Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.