Inside Denver’s Gang — and Anti-Gang — Warfare

June 2, 2021   •   By Martin J. Smith

The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood

Julian Rubinstein

IN 2013, DENVER resident Julian Rubinstein set out to understand why Terrance Roberts, one of the country’s most dedicated anti-gang activists, fetched a 9mm pistol from his SUV and shot someone in cold blood at a peace rally. The result, eight years later, is The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save An American Neighborhood, a detailed account of what happened that day in Denver’s redeveloping Holly Square.

Rubinstein does not merely retell the events before and after the shooting but rather illuminates the dynamics that help explain the Black rage that has spilled into American streets over the past two years.

“I came to think of northeast Denver’s gang neighborhoods as ‘invisible Denver,’” Rubinstein writes. “No matter how striking or consequential, little that took place there seemed apparent to anyone outside the community. I hope this book will contribute to changing that.” He thanks the dozens of neighborhood residents who helped him tell “an alternate history of why Terrance Roberts shot Hasan Jones, and […] examine how a historic neighborhood could be fighting an invisible war in a major American city, for decades.”

At the story’s center is Roberts, whose early life as a gangbanger nicknamed ShowBizz was marked by the kind of criminal record that put many of his contemporaries in early graves or behind bars. To protect their respective turf in the 1980s, the area’s young men often committed to one of the offshoots of the Crips and the Bloods, the Los Angeles–based supergangs.

Holly Square in Denver’s Northeast Park Hill area became an open-air drug market and a favorite gathering spot for Bloods who warred constantly and violently with their rivals. A story in The Denver Post around that time called The Holly “an urban sore that won’t heal.”

Roberts was no passive participant; he spent nearly a decade in prison between 1995 and 2004 for various crimes. Over the course of the book, he also fathers seven children with a succession of girlfriends. One of the saddest passages in Rubinstein’s book revisits a jailhouse moment between Roberts and his grandmother:

In February 1995, Ernestine visited with news: Terrance was a father. He was eighteen. He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel. He hadn’t even known Clarice was pregnant. Granny told him she was taking in Clarice and Javon, Terrance’s new son. Clarice’s family and friends were homeless or in jail. They had nowhere else to go.

But like his father before him, Roberts emerges from prison a changed man, committed to Jesus and determined to become a force for good in his community. When the Holly Square Shopping Center burns down in May 2008 — apparent retaliation for the killing of a legendary founder of Denver’s Crips gang — Roberts expands his view of gang prevention to include community redevelopment that would, as Rubinstein writes, “bring actual jobs, which young men in the neighborhood needed, and […] bring honor back to the community.”

But that’s when the story, and Roberts’s life, gets complicated. He tries to navigate a world of opportunists and power brokers who say they want to help him save The Holly, but who also covet the cash from anti-crime grants. He also runs up against the same intractable problem chronicled so well in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning 2016 documentary film, 13th, which showed how criminal records perpetuate the cycles of poverty. As Rubinstein writes, “Police records are used to slam the doors of employment shut.”

Roberts allies himself with a billionaire benefactor and ends up walking a fine line between his own street credibility and the need to cooperate with anti-crime commissions and law enforcement agencies in the city. He finds his ideas co-opted by powerful people who install themselves in influential positions and eventually feels marginalized by forces he doesn’t fully understand. He begins to mistrust people whom he thought were allies and finds himself mistrusted by the people he is trying to help.

That culture is one of most striking aspects in Rubinstein’s book. He exposes the dangerous role of police informants and how mistrust leads to violence. Roberts found himself in jeopardy for being labeled “a snitch” during the One Love Black Unity Rally the day of the shooting. And yet law enforcement agencies rely on active gang members as informants and shield them from prosecution. Rubinstein’s book makes clear the dangers inherent in that approach.

He also lays out a distressing theory that crime-heavy neighborhoods such as Roberts’s can be a boon to what he calls the “urban war industrial complex.” In Denver, for example,

about one-third of the city’s nearly $1.5 billion budget went to the Department of Safety including the police, GRID [Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver], and other law enforcement programs. […] Theoretically, in a world without gang violence, law enforcement stood to face severe budget cuts.

If that sounds a bit like the recent calls to “defund the police,” it also speaks to the intractability of the underlying problems. Rubinstein artfully connects the dots between the rise of gangs, the long-ago shooting that put Roberts on trial, and the ongoing protests sparked by unjust police killings of Black citizens. The outcome of Roberts’s trial and the role he continues to play in those protests, including those against the 2019 killing of 23-year-old Elijah McClain at the hands of suburban Denver police, will surprise some readers.

Rubinstein’s commitment to this project is laudable. He moved from Brooklyn back to his hometown, and into his mother’s apartment, so he could fully immerse himself in this complicated story. He likely never expected that arrangement to last for so many years, and he dedicates the book to his mother. But as a white reporter covering a shooting war between Black gangs and as an outsider trying to understand the city’s labyrinthine politics, it clearly took time to gain people’s trust in order to tell the story well — the one-time leader of the city’s Black Panther Party vetted Rubinstein for a year before agreeing to an interview.

His reporting often found him asking uncomfortable questions of both gang members and law enforcement officials, each trying to protect their turf. That kind of reporting takes guts, and, at one point, he considered carrying a firearm — an ironic dilemma considering Roberts’s own downfall after he reached for a weapon.

For those of us who are suckers for telling details and character complexity in nonfiction narratives, Rubinstein delivers, even if at times I found his attention to detail working against the effectiveness of the book. His cast-of-characters list in the book’s front matter is four pages. His recounting of gang hierarchies, alliances, and grudges both in Denver and Los Angeles is encyclopedic, at times suggesting the kind of “research rapture” that often grips nonfiction writers. Does the reader really need to know, for example, that Roberts was known as #449863 in the Denver gang database?

But it also says much about Rubinstein’s clear writing and organized storytelling that I seldom needed to consult that four-page cast list, and his inclusion of most of those players almost always serves a purpose. The density might indeed be unavoidable, given its multigenerational scope.

The Holly is not an uplifting book, triggering as it does a sense that the problems that led to Roberts’s 2013 shooting of Hasan persist, and that reliable solutions to those problems remain out of reach. But at this tipping point in American history, where the issues embodied in Roberts’s story are central, it’s an important read.


Former Los Angeles Times Magazine Senior Editor Martin J. Smith is the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads (Bower House and Tantor Media, April 2021).