By the time Tommie Scott was 13 years old, he was an experienced, hardened gang member in LA whose nickname was “Hitman.” Known for his short temper and willingness to carry out orders, Scott quickly established himself as a hothead, and a dangerous member of a gang that was an offshoot of the notorious Bloods. His father had been one of the founding members of the Crips, and was in and out of jail during Scott’s entire upbringing. Any child with such a tumultuous and disadvantaged background could be expected, perhaps, to face a tragic end, but the story of Tommie Scott is not a story of tragedy. It’s a story of forgiveness. It’s a story of redemption. It’s a story of growth. It’s a story, above all, about hope.
The journey was anything but easy. Scott says that as a pre-teen, he had already been given so many negative messages about his worth as a human being that becoming part of a gang was “second nature.” It wasn’t something he thought about or considered; it was automatic. “When I got into the gang,” he says, “it wasn’t like I was a kid coming from the suburbs; it was part of life already.”
He’s done some things that he still feels shame about and says growing up in bad economic circumstances and without his father around provided a fertile breeding ground for his becoming involved in a gang.
I grew up in poverty and my father was one of the first Crip gang members in the U.S. Watching him as I grew up, he was in and out of jail and it drew me to live that lifestyle-into a life of crime. I was known as ‘Hit Man,’ and as an enforcer. We would look to attack people, rob people; terrorize them and break into houses. I was jumped into the gang, which is like an initiation. One of the ‘knuckleheads’ starts it. There were ten guys in a park and they surrounded me and pounded my head into the ground. That began my rampage of gang shootouts and burglaries, which of course landed me into the California juvenile justice system.
For Scott, being part of the gang provided for his needs: the love, acceptance, respect and mentoring that his father was not around to provide. The benefits the gang offered were so tempting, there was no chance for Scott to avoid becoming a member.
When my father was home, he would take care of us, but he couldn’t stay out of jail. When he was home he never told me he loved me. You take on father figures because your father isn’t there. Everyone is born with glitches in their system; but there was no male figure, so you turn to others.
His father, though absent for much of Scott’s life, nevertheless influenced him by example. Scott says that his father’s involvement in the Crips was legendary in his neighborhood and in the detention center where Scott eventually ended up doing time. “My father had escaped from the same place,” he said, “and they had his picture up on the wall.”
His mother, while a stabilizing influence, was somewhat “in denial” about Scott’s gang involvement. She was raising three children alone, and Scott says she was “an angel” and “an A+ mom,” but it wasn’t enough to keep him off the streets. There was a time, he says, when he became incapable of feeling emotions even for her.
My mom and dad broke up when I was three years old because he was abusive. We moved into a shelter and my mother went back to school to be a nurse. She wasn’t on drugs or anything like that…If I came home with bad grades she would be in tears. Mom was in denial but she saw me beat up; she saw the people who I was hanging out with, smelling like marijuana. She would get on my tail about it. I became numb even to my mother’s feelings. I just couldn’t even cry anymore.
While running with the gang, Scott endured the loss of 30 people and several very close friends. For most, the tragedies would have been devastating and prompted an outpouring of grief. Scott dealt with his feelings by further engaging in criminal behavior and forcing himself to become totally tuned out to the world around him. His hatred of “everyone,” including himself, intensified:
When you’re growing up and you see people killed in front of you, you become numb. I didn’t care. I knew I wasn’t going to live. I hated myself. I didn’t care about myself. I never thought about what I was doing. It was like being a kid in Afghanistan-he’s walking about with an AK 47 and it’s second nature to him. I’ve watched several of my friends die. I became territorial with no heart. I was racist. I hated white people, but the people I was scared of the most were my own people. (At this point) I’m numb to the world, I hate everybody, I hate other gangs. On the flip side of that, I really hated my own friends because we were trying to kill each other and do each other wrong.
It wasn’t just the death of his friends and his own intensely crippled emotions that kept him tethered to the streets; having served time in jail made him “famous” in his neighborhood and increased his rank in the gang.
When I went to jail they gave me status in my neighborhood. It made me worse. I started having more gang fights, more shootouts. We did stuff I won’t even talk about, that I’m shameful about.
Scott became suicidal. His life was in tatters and he felt that he would not live to see old age. Then, a chance meeting in an elevator planted the seeds of change he could never have imagined.
Scott had committed armed robbery and was in the court building for an appearance in the case. The victim was from Scott’s neighborhood and Scott says he was a random target:
We said ‘let’s just rob somebody.’ We walked up on him and said ‘give us the money’ and he started running and screaming and knocking on people’s doors. He called the police on us.
Scott didn’t expect to see the man he had robbed, but the elevator doors in the court building opened and he found himself face to face with his victim. Their eyes met. Unbeknownst to Scott, the next few seconds would provide lifesaving nourishment to his empty and shattered soul .
Scott’s victim, the man Scott had robbed at gunpoint, reached out to his attacker. He turned to Scott and said “I forgive you .”
As Scott stood, wide eyed and in shock, the man issued a stunning invitation. “I want to invite you to my house for dinner,” he said.
It was the first time anyone except his mother had ever reached out to him with kindness. In that moment, Scott says, everything changed.
I was going through an emotional crisis. I didn’t feel worthy to live. I knew I wasn’t going to live that much longer anyway. (Just before it happened) I had been sitting on my bed and I said if I could have a better life, I would sell my soul. I didn’t feel loved. There were so many things going on: killings, emotional frenzy; and when he said that, it was like a light went on. It was like I snapped out of my trance. I couldn’t believe it. I had never felt that from anyone else besides my mom; that feeling of love and forgiveness. I never, ever forgot that. (After it happened) I always thought about that guy every time I was in a dark hour. I thought ‘there is hope to stop people from treating each other badly. Just those little bitty words; they showed me that there is some good in other people.
Scott lost track of the man after the trial, and despite numerous attempts to find him, Scott still has not been able to express to his victim his deep gratitude for that life-changing invitation; but the incredibly brief moment would end up being the catalyst for a path out of the experience Scott had known, and into a mission of saving children from gang life. Suddenly realizing the good in people, Scott’s heart opened to endless possibilities.
The seed that was planted in that fateful elevator encounter sprouted and began to blossom when Scott was moved to attend a Bible study offered by the prison. After the first meeting, that seed had bloomed into a fully formed entity; a beautiful, vibrant flower that shines in him to this day. The hate in his heart for everyone withered and died, and in its place, a love for humanity sprang up; a love so intense that he went back to his cell and told another inmate he loved him. Scott had finally discovered the good in other people and the greatness in himself.
After that night, Scott says, all he wanted to do was help. The moment he was released from prison, he set about his mission to rebuild his life and bring his message of love, light and hope to everyone in need.
As soon as I got out, I was like man, I just wanted to go help people and share. I’m out on the street, talking to people, going into nursing homes, giving inspirational messages, talking to AIDS patients, cancer patients; even a guy who wanted to commit suicide. Then within my church we stared getting the youth coming in. We would play hoops with them and formed a basketball outreach. We’ve had the Harlem Globe Trotters come in as well as police officers and the Southern Nevada Community Task Force. We talk to parents about how to identify gangs. We connect kids to other young leaders and young men who have their lives in order. I mentor several kids through youth outreach to think outside the box. I try to take on the really hard cases-the gang bangers, the outcasts.
It is challenging, though, to get kids to quit gangs, and the biggest problem, says Scott, is not pressure from other gang members; it’s the kids’ lack of self-worth:
There is no confidence. There is no self-esteem. (For example,) I never felt I could make it in the world. Our peers put into our mind that everyone hates us, the world is against us, and that we can’t compete. In most cases they don’t have the education. There is a lack of pride, and misinformation all their life keeps them stuck.
To combat this, Scott says, he lets kids know that he will always be there for them “no matter what”; no matter what trouble they get into and no matter how many criminal acts they’ve committed. What the youth really need most, Scott says, is positive reinforcement. He takes great pride in many success stories, including a kid who belonged to the Bloods in Las Vegas, where Scott now resides.
I have a kid who has shown a lot of progress. He’s a Blood gang member from West Las Vegas. When he first got to our group, he had been shot in the leg. I think that opened his eyes a little bit. While he was with us, you could tell he had a serious attitude problem. He would disrespect and pick fights every week. I would be honest with him. I told him how much I loved him and cared about him, no matter what people had told him, like (how they told me) I would never make it and I would never be anything in life. I said ‘you need to erase that out of your memory bank. Look at me. I am still here with you. I love you.’ It showed him that people could love him no matter what his faults were.
That transformed this young man. He’s talking to me, he’s smiling, and he’s asking ‘how did I do today?’ He’s having a breakthrough. He was the worst of the worst. You just have to show a kid ‘you know what? Someone is always there for you. You are not hopeless. You can press forward.’
Today, Scott is married and has five children. He is a successful author with one book, The Tommie Scott Story under his belt and another on the way which will focus on racism in churches. He has appeared on television to talk about his experiences. This year, he’ll be busy with 25 speaking engagements in between furthering his career in the dental field, but his number one priority is saving kids from gangs. He endeavors to get his book into every prison in the U.S. and U.K so inmates can gain strength and inspiration from his life. He says people need to know that no matter how far down they’ve gotten, there is always hope:
The biggest problem they face is that every human being has issues. We want to be loved. We want to be a part of something. We want to be patted on the back sometimes. The kids who get into the gangs, they’re looking for love.
The main solution for getting kids out of gangs, Scott says, is showing kids they are cared for, leading by example and letting them know they can be forgiven. The most important ingredient though, he says, is love. “Someone came at me with forgiveness,” he says. “This hope, for me it was God, and that’s my solution; but those things I pointed out are the main solution. “As long as you have breath in your body,” he says, “there is an always an option to change.”
By: Rebecca Savastio
Interview with Tommie Scott