Normally, the family of murder victims sit behind the prosecution during the trial of their loved one’s killer. But that wasn’t the case for the mother and sister of Julius Jegede.
It was 1994, and Taylor Paul—then known as Paul Taylor; we’ll get to the name-switch later—was the defendant, a ruthless drug lord in Newport News, Virginia, whose street nickname was “The General.” He was much-feared, and had been one of the protectors of a young basketball phenom known as “Bubbachuck” on the Newport “Bad” News streets: Allen Iverson.
Paul had already beaten two previous murder charges—sashaying out of court each time, he says now, “like I was George Jefferson, strutting, or some mafiosa—Gotti!”
Only this time, the victim’s family sat behind him. Every day during the proceedings, he heard their sobs, felt their pain. It’s hard, looking back at the complex geography of a life, to pinpoint truly decisive moments, to locate those pivotal nanoseconds before which you really were somebody else. But, for Paul, this was it: Sentenced to life plus 26 years, he couldn’t get the sound of their pain out of his own head.
From then on, whenever he told anyone of his crime, he’d have them say the name of the victim with him, aloud, three times: Julius Jegede. Julius Jegede. Julius Jegede. And, in the same way that he’d ultimately forgive the inmate who’d slain his own little brother—“leaving him there, on the asphalt”—Paul dedicated himself to a simple but daunting proposition: using his God-given leadership skills to do enough good in the world that it might one day warrant the forgiveness of Jegede’s family.
Today, to spend any time in the presence of Paul, who was paroled in 2016 on his tenth try, is to be overwhelmed by his humanity. He’s a charismatic apostle of love, an evangelist for second chances, a no-bullshit advertisement for the possibilities of transformation. Oh, he’s still in your face, just like during his gangsta days, only now, he says, it’s to do good, to redeem himself and his past transgressions.
The tough facade, though, frequently breaks, especially when Paul charts his own journey, breaking into sobs when he talks about the one person who always believed in him—“mommy”—and talking about his RVA League For Safer Streets, which Richmond’s police chief says has lowered the gun violence rate by 8 percent, and his SANITY counseling program: Standing Against Negative Influence Towards Youth.
Decades-long feuds between rival gangs have melted away and police and community relations are better now that kids and cops compete on the hardwood.
Paul co-founded both while incarcerated, with his late fellow inmate Jawad Abdu. One day, he attended the prison’s Cognitive Community Reentry Program, where they were talking about this thing called cognitive behavioral therapy. He became an elder and a facilitator, learning the curriculum until there was no distinction between him and it, even tutoring the head of the Department of Corrections on it.
He reversed his first and last names in order to convey to everyone back home on the streets that, from now he on, he was going to be precisely the opposite of who he’d been. Soon, attending his prison workshop was the hottest ticket inside, though Paul had a price for admission: “If you don’t care about your kids, get the fuck out,” he’d tell inmates who refused to hold themselves accountable for the pain they’d caused.
“The first thing everybody in group had to say was, ‘My name is such and such, the proud father of X,’” Paul recalls today, noting that their work—the cognitive behavior techniques, the focus on conflict resolution, the practicing of fatherhood, the mastering of life skills—was no replacement for dealing with their inner pain. The more Paul read, the more he realized: We all have PTSD.
“We raise guns better than we raise young men,” he says, and he might as well be talking to himself. For Paul is the mass-incarceration epidemic personified. Not only did his grandfather serve time, so did his drug dealing father. And, now, three of his sons are behind bars. Thirty-three year old Polo is doing time for armed robbery, while Pree, 31, and Meek, 28, are serving murder sentences.
“You feel like a freakin’ deadbeat, like a failure,” Taylor says. “That’s why I started SANITY. Because the worst day of my life? That’s when my homey found me in the yard and said, ‘Yo, there’s someone here says he knows you.’ Sharing a cell with your own son? This boy you used to tuck in at night? Man, it don’t get no lower than that. Proof that you’ve ruined your kid’s life. They say, ‘Pops, we made our own decisions,’ but it ain’t work like that. When I went away, my guys on the streets would slip my boys $500 here and there and fill ‘em up with stories about how I’d run them streets: ‘Your pops was the man.’ ‘We want to be all hard like you, dad,’ my boys said, ‘carry on that tradition.’ How fucked up is that?”
SANITY was born to reverse that narrative. The attorney who prosecuted Paul had lobbied for his release—“This was my Eliot Ness, man, he was after my ass, and he was going to go bat for me?”—and, after 23 years inside, parole was granted, prompting a prison-wide celebration. Paul was a free man at 9am, and by 6:30 that evening he was on the basketball court, leading an RVA workshop, coaching and counseling a generation of young men to find purpose beyond the pose of the street.
Paul is not the first to turn to hoops to combat the ravages of crime. Back in the early ’90s, Republicans ridiculed Bill Clinton’s crime bill for funding Midnight Basketball leagues, and there is conflicting evidence on its efficacy. But at least one study, a 2006 report, found that, when midnight basketball programs were initiated as a crime-prevention strategy, crime rates dropped.
There was a 30-percent drop in crime in Glenarden, Maryland, where the program began, and Phoenix saw 10.4 percent less juvenile arrests and 50 percent less juvenile-related incidents. Los Angeles reported a 60 percent reduction in drug-related crime, and Fort Worth, Texas, documented an 89-percent drop in crime on nights when games took place.
Those old Midnight Basketball leagues were about using basketball as a way to distract kids from committing crime. Paul’s RVA League for Safer Streets does that, sure, but it also goes deeper. His motto is “No Workshop, No Jump Shot,” and if you want to play you first have to gather in the bleachers—members of rival gangs seated next to one another, seated next to members of the cops’ team—to work on critical thinking and conflict resolution skills, together.
Today, after the passing last summer of his co-founder Abdu, Taylor runs the league with Commissioner Robert Morris and workshop coordinator Weldon “Prince” Bunn. “We do everything unconventionally,” Taylor says. “The conventional way for going into business with your bro is you grow up together, go to elementary school together, go to high school together, maybe college. Prince and me? We went to juvenile detention together, juvenile prison together, county jail together, prison together.”
“The league is really about intervening in young men’s lives, about giving them a glimpse of their own humanity, about forgiving others and forgiving yourself, and finding in that forgiveness a way forward.”
The connection works. Taylor and his partners in mission have the street cred to garner instant respect. Alfred Dunham, the recently retired chief of Richmond police, points to Paul’s league as the reason local gun violence is dropping. Decades-long feuds between rival gangs have melted away and police and community relations are better now that kids and cops compete on the hardwood. “Now the firemen want to have a team in the league,” Paul says, laughing. “They’ll win one game. They’ll beat the cops.”
The Richmond police help fund the league, as does a $50,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. Paul is convinced that scaling the league can help save our cities. “Because basketball is just the bait,” he says. The league is really about intervening in young men’s lives, about giving them a glimpse of their own humanity, about forgiving others and forgiving yourself, and finding in that forgiveness a way forward.
That’s what Taylor Paul did when he forgave his brother’s murderer and when he dedicated his life to being worthy of the forgiveness of his victim’s family. “The weak can never forgive,” Ghandi once said. “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Ironic, isn’t it, that this one-time street tough, whose chest is emblazoned with a tattoo reading “Man Of War Bad News Chapter” has, in his resolve to “eradicate the social ills I helped to create,” finally shown what real toughness looks like?
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Header photo courtesy Aberdeen Proving Ground / Flickr