Gang problems escalating in schools and neighborhoods, says activist

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Justin O'Donnell.
Denver Police haven't confirmed that the shockingly public slayings of Justin O'Donnell and Deon Rudd in northeast Denver on Friday were gang-related. But Reverend Leon Kelly, the veteran activist behind Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, sees gang connections in this terrible act and many others that have happened in Five Points and beyond lately. Yet he also cites reasons for optimism.

"There has been an increase of gang activity within the schools, within the neighborhoods," Kelly says.

Thus far, the DPD hasn't made similar statements, despite claims by advocates such as The Youth Connection's Heidi Grove that gang violence has been escalating for months. Why not?

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Reverend Leon Kelly.
"I understand what the police department is trying to do," Kelly allows. "They're trying to keep things together. But my guys in the gang unit, they've really been working to address these kinds of issues, especially in the Five Points area."

After the death of O'Donnell, who was 21, his family stressed that he wasn't involved in gangs -- and loved ones talking about Rudd, thirty, said he actively counseled young people to reject them. Yet in Kelly's view, that hardly proves the killings, for which Marquise Davis and Denzel Richardson have been arrested, were unrelated to gangs.

"This is my 27th year of dealing with all this craziness, and I've known generations of folks in certain neighborhoods -- including Deon and Justin," he maintains. "I've known Deon and I've seen Justin grow up. And you don't have to be in the gang itself to be touched by it. Just by growing up with kids who chose to take up that kind of lifestyle, it easily causes them to be pulled into it."

Last week's shootings have received more media attention than usual "because it happened in broad daylight, and four people got hit, and two of them died," he goes on. "But we've been dealing with shootings on a weekly basis in that neighborhood. And now, because we're dealing with the migration and the changing of that neighborhood, they're going to take on added interest."

Kelly's referring to the increasing gentrification of Five Points. "It's not just blacks and Hispanics there now," he says. "A lot of whites are moving in, bringing their dogs and everything else. And those folks aren't going to go for that" -- meaning the sort of violence that's becoming all too common in this part of the city.

Page down to continue reading our interview with Reverend Leon Kelly.

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