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How the Gangs of 1970s New York Came Together to End Their Wars

We spoke to the director of 'Rubble Kings' about the bad old days in the Bronx and whether his film will resonate with contemporary gangs.

In a scene from the new documentary Rubble Kings, former New York City gang leaders offer up a list of clans that seems to have no end.

The Savage Skulls. The Black Spades. The Ghetto Brothers. The Deadly Bachelors. Javelin. The Dirty Ones. The Tomahawks.

One former member asks early in the film, "Remember the scene from The Warriors, with 'Can you dig it?'" whereupon the screen flashes to the opening moments of the 1979 cult classic. Hundreds of NYC gang members are assembled around a peacekeeper named Cyrus just before he's shot and killed.

"That really went down," the former gang member continues. "That really happened.'"

This is what the Bronx looked like in the early 1970s: a battleground filled with gangs of all shapes and sizes in a vaguely moderated state of anarchy, turf wars fueled by the economic failure of shoddy urban planning in a city verging on bankruptcy.

Rubble Kings is the story of what happened on those disheveled streets as told by the leaders of the gangs themselves. It's a gripping chronicle of the bad old days of New York—a time that now seems foreign, even if it's still invoked by defenders of broken windows policing as a testament to how much worse things could get. Still, contrary to the idea that policing saved us all from doom, the happy ending in Rubble Kings does not come from the hallways of 1 Police Plaza. Instead, it comes from a truce orchestrated by a gang called the Ghetto Brothers. That peace that would go on to have cultural ripple effects around the world.

The documentary, which will be released on-demand and shown in select theaters starting on Friday in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, comes as gang violence is once again on the rise in the city. VICE sat down with Shan Nicholson, the director, to discuss what his documentary's all about, and how the Bronx tore itself to pieces in the first place.

VICE: So how did you get involved in this project?
Shan Nicholson: Basically what happened was I started with another film before this, and was doing a bunch of research for that. I ran across the Ghetto Brothers story by reading Jeff Chang's book, Can't Stop Won't Stop. I also knew about their music, because I still DJ and produce. The Ghetto Brothers record was like the Holy Grail of digging. If you found that record, it was like the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's. It was one of those records that was folklore. Their story was always in the back of my head, but when I read Chang's book and I heard the backstory of the gang and the truce, at first I thought it'd be a great narrative. I really wanted to approach it as that. When I started doing more and more research, with the footage of the treaty and the Ghetto Brothers, I was like, "Wow. Let's start with the documentary and then write the script." It was one of those stories that kept following me. Very serendipitous. Like, I was at a party and someone mentioned the Ghetto Brothers. And I said, "I was just reading about them!" Eventually it went into focus.

Gang members in the Bronx. Photo by Stephen Salmieri

And why did you want to tell this story?
In my day, it wasn't gangs, it was crews, but we went through a lot of similar events where I lived in Long Island City, Queens. I lost my best friend in 1992, and for everyone involved, we wanted revenge. He was murdered, and there was no rhyme or reason for it. It really struck me a chord in me that these guys chose peace over violence, and they actually turned the whole thing around, against all odds. That was not the norm of the day. If somebody kills one of yours, you definitely kill one of theirs. That's what really resonated with me about this.

But I made a creative choice to be behind the camera, and not really tell much of my life story in it. It's weird how art works: You're obviously a product of your own environment, and if you, as an artist, are able to channel your experiences into your art, then bravo, right? I never thought about my connection with my past when I made this film, but it's like that vibration—it comes into focus, and it locks in, where it's like, "Oh, that makes sense." It is channeling my past, and I'm kind of consoling my own demons in a lot of ways with this film.

There's always been a history of gangs in New York. So why did they came about in the certain times that they did? To me, it was really interesting how they came about at this period of time in the 70s. It was a reaction to not only the social and economic downfall of New York, but also, the false hopes of the 60s. A lot of these guys came up in a time of hope, and that hope was dashed when all of their leaders were killed. Then it was this whole Fuck you attitude: We're gonna be Hell's Angels now. And then, going back to the political activism that was instilled in a lot of these gangs, because they were protecting their neighborhood. Just galvanizing that energy and turning it into something positive was really powerful to me.

Members of a gang known as the Screaming Phantoms. Photo by Perry Kretz

What surprised you the most when researching and making the film?
Just how organized these guys were. The traditions that went along with it, too, with the Apache lines (which were territorial lines you didn't cross) and all of that. They had this law and order that they followed. And that was across the board: It wasn't like the white gangs did this, and the black and Puerto Rican gangs did that. It was this standardized language and culture that they created for themselves. And I didn't know that it was based off the Hell's Angels. But that's what it was. The warlords as the sergeants-in-arms, the Gestapos as the foot soldiers; that's all biker terminology. I didn't know that. With presidents and vice presidents—it was very organized from the top down.

It seems like most of the gang members stayed in New York and became community activists.
Most of them channeled their energies in different ways to give back. At the end of the interviews, when I had all of my base questions done, I asked, "Is there something I'm missing here? Is there something I'm not asking you that you want to tell me?" And they all said, "We all survived, man. And we're all doing good. When you get older, you have responsibilities—either you have kids, or you just can't live that lifestyle forever. We survived and we did something positive with ourselves. If anything, you have to mention that."

Most things you see with gangs, from TV or movies, they paint these gangs as monsters, reinforcing fear and stereotypes. If you hear about black and Latino gangs now, they're always drug pushers. You have to understand that this is a mentality that goes along with it. In the communities, it's a group tribal experience that these kids go through. It's really how you choose to use that energy.

Two members of a gang known as the Savage Nomads showing off their street jackets. Photo by Stephen Salmieri

Throughout the film, you don't really hear from the NYPD, partly because they seem too scared to go there—you mention in one part that if someone died, the police would show up in riot gear just to haul off the body. What was the significance of cops back then, especially in light of current criticisms of over-policing?
That's another way the gangs kind of filled the void. They did police their own communities. They kicked out the junkies, and most people, if they had a problem, would go to the gang leaders and say, "Hey, there's an issue here. Somebody raped my daughter," or whatever the issue was. They were the law of the land. I heard a story that one day, they cornered this cop car by knocking down a side of the building, and then they started throwing bricks and garbage cans from the roof at the car. It was a wasteland, so what do you do?

When you hear the pro-cop crowd talk about the bad old days, they tend to say it was broken windows that saved everything—it was this "quality of life" policing that restored law and order. But in this movie, it's not that at all. It was an internal peace, not an external force. Why is that important in the current national dialogue of criminal justice reform?
This film has been an eight-year process. We finished filming a year and a half ago. If it came out then, it would've been relevant, but now, it's very timely with what's going on. The fact that the Bloods and the Crips are getting together in Baltimore for a peace treaty... it's the same shit. It's not killing each other, but essentially, it's the same thing: They're rallying around a death to create peace.

The gangs of New York come together to discuss a truce. Photo by Alejandro Olivera

In this present day and time, when we see gang violence back in headlines in New York, what lessons do you think this story has to offer?
We screened this film for a bunch of high school kids from this rough part of Brooklyn. We did this Q&A and they were ice cold. The moderator was like, "What do you think about the film?" And everybody wanted to be too cool for school, and nobody wanted to answer it. But this teacher was sitting next to one of the worst kids in the class, and the moderator asked the class, "What would you say about this film to your friends?" And the kid, under his breath, was like, "It changes people's minds." And the teacher was like, "Raise your hand, man! Tell them that!" And the kid was like, "Nah, nah." I said to myself, "Man, this isn't resonating with these kids."

But then afterward, the teacher pulled me aside and told me that story. If I reached that kid, something is going on. Even if it just resonates for that day.

As a teenager growing up through senseless violence that was going on, it doesn't take a sledgehammer to make a difference. It takes a nudge. It's the leadership—leading by example. You just need to show them a different direction, and know that they have that ability to change their environment and themselves. It's not a big thing. We all have that power; it's just taking the responsibility to it.

The thing about it, you think about how New York has changed. This is one of the richest cities in the world, whereas back then, those kids were living in rubble and squalor. I know a lot of these gangs are drug-related, but at the same time, look at what these kids did with nothing, literally living in rubble. They turned violence into culture. So what's your excuse? Why are you still hurting each other? What's the point?

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