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Thursday, December 1, 2022

An Anti-Gang Activist, a Shooting and a Community Long Abused and Ignored

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In the final act, we join Rubinstein’s investigation, as he follows Roberts’s preparation for trial on charges of attempted murder, first-degree assault and possessing a weapon. As a person with felony convictions on his record, Roberts is also subject to a “habitual criminal” charge, which, if he is found guilty, could land him in prison for life. Constantly on the move, with no money, waning support and a lurking fear that someone will seek retribution for Jones’s injury, Roberts is clearly buckling under the stress.

In these glimpses of him that Rubinstein gives us from their meetings — many of them in public parks — we see that despite his conversion, he is still consumed by the fears and trauma that haunted his youth and early adulthood. Rubinstein’s portrait of Roberts is a cautionary warning about the ways that growing media interest in criminal justice reform can yield one-dimensional renderings of people like him, who are often portrayed as having overcome their experiences of violence and incarceration. The psychological wounds, the post-traumatic stress, the constant confrontation with racism and the vigilance borne out of violence are not as appealing as headlines that proclaim the innocent now free, or the talk show interviews featuring the gang member turned peace activist.

From the outset, Rubinstein acknowledges the delicate dynamics of being a white Denverite writing about Black people: “As a white man attempting to gain trust in a historic African-American community, I faced certain challenges.” It’s clear that Rubinstein tried to be sensitive to the relationships he built with Roberts and his sources, but at times his ideas about the Holly from his upbringing spill into his prose. “I had been raised in south Denver in the 1970s and ’80s,” he writes. “My only impressions of the Holly came from an occasional story about drugs or gangs that made the local media. I felt like I’d been forewarned not to go there, and I hadn’t.” He acknowledges the racism of the police and the unjust economic structures that shape the Holly and other local institutions, but occasionally he ends up reinforcing the notion of the Holly as somehow other than the rest of Denver.

Throughout his book, he uses the word “invisible” to mean neglected or ignored, but in doing so he fails to confront what exactly is not being seen and why and by whom. Rubinstein calls the area’s gang problem the “invisible war in a major American city.” He reflects, “I came to think of northeast Denver’s gang neighborhoods as ‘invisible Denver.’” He refers to the Black owner of the Holly Shopping Center as “a legend of the invisible city.” For the gentrifying whites who began moving into the areas surrounding the Holly in the early 2000s, Black people are not invisible at all. In fact, their visibility causes their new white neighbors to appeal for more policing. Indifference and invisibility are not one and the same.

Who was there that day in the Holly: Terrance or ShowBizz?

The question, Rubinstein shows us, is irrelevant. Rather, by exposing the state surveillance, the crooked policing, the structural racism, the broken promises and the poverty that had plagued the Holly for decades, he helps us realize that the problem of violence is far greater than two men and one gun.

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