Peace Means Coming Back to the Table: Transforming Urban War Zones

War is a daily reality for many people living in the inner city. Restoring the environment starts by first restoring people. Aqeela Sherrills from Watts in South Central Los Angeles, who brokered the histroic peace treaty between the notorious gangs the Crips and the Bloods, sees that model now spreading across the country and the world.

Aqeela Sherrills

Peace Advocate ~ Mediator ~ Spirit Centered Activist

It is difficult to grasp Aqeela Sherrills’ turbulent life. It is flat-out astonishing to consider what he has done with it.

Sherrills, now 40, grew up in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. In that combative world he was a Crip, wearing blue. On the other side of the tracks were the red-clad Bloods. In one year alone, 1989, Sherrills lost thirteen friends to the gang war.

He tried to escape. He was one of the few in his circle who went to college instead of jail. He reshaped his rage and displacement into an ethic of responsibility, first for his own life, and then for his community. At 19 he began working with football star Jim Brown and co-founded the Amer-I-Can Program, Inc. to heal gang violence around the country. For three years, Aqeela lived on the road in Las Vegas, Cleveland, New York, Portland, phoenix just to name a few and in each city they were successful in negotiating “Peace Treaties” in those Cities. In 1992 he brought his message home to Watts itself, gangland’s ultimate battleground. With his brother Daude and a few other key players in the community, he was able to forge a historic truce between the Crips and the Bloods in Watts.

A truce is not peace. When the ceasefire began to fray, the Sherrills brothers created the Community Self-Determination Institute in 1999 to tackle the overwhelming personal and social issues that underlie crime, drugs, and violence. Sherrills spent an exhausting half decade building and running CSDI while taking his message of forgiveness and healing around the country. In 2002, CSDI employed over 80 community people, operated 18 contracts with the County, City and State and had 3 satellite sites through Los Angeles County and a $3 million dollar budget. Through Aqeela leadership, the connection between the violence national and internationally was made. It’s estimated that over the past 20 years, over 15,000 murders have been committed in these Los Angeles neighborhoods. That’s far more than all the victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland. However because Watts is in the USA, people don’t recognize this as a war zones. The youth and adults in this community suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Hypervigilence exhibiting many of the symptoms that veterans of the Vietnam War experience upon their return home. In 2000, Aqeela and Daude was invited to Belfast, Ireland to share their idea on creating and sustaining peace, In 2002 to Croatia, in 2003 Serbia, Belgrade, in 2004 to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2005 Holland and this is just the beginning.

When his wife died of breast cancer in August 2003 that should have been the bottom. It wasn’t. On January 10, 2004, Sherrills’ 18-year-old son, Terrell, home from studying theater arts in college, was shot in the back at close range. A Crip may have mistaken Terrell for a Blood because, of all things, he had a red Mickey Mouse sweater slung over his shoulder. Terrell died within the hour.

When Sherrills responded by saying of the killer, “I forgive you, because it not so much about who killed him as it is about what’s killing our children in this culture,” he became even more of a mythic figure in America’s troubled urban neighborhoods. “When the bodies dies, it releases an energy that can be harness to do good or bad deeds, Terrell’s death will not be in vein, we are taking the essence of who he is and igniting a deeper question within the culture.

He understands gangs as “a surrogate family when the nuclear family has been broken.”

“We’ll never get rid of gangs,” he observes, “but we can instill morals and values in that structure and shift their purpose.” “We can facilitate a conversation with the key player and define the unwritten rules of the street amongst those who choose to live that life style bringing honor back to the streets”.

Today, Sherrills is still evolving. Currently Co-Directing, Transformative Change (“XC”) a strategic partnership between two Bay area non-profits who’s vision is rooted in co-creating a new paradigm where personal accountability, deep practice, and leadership are core principals for a new movement for transformative social change—Sherrill’s see XC as the catalyst for what he calls a “Reverence Movement.” “Reverence is the quality of attention that we give to someone or something. It’s our ability to see people beyond the experiences they have had and hold space for their highest possibilities to emerge. I believe that “where the wounds are is where the gift lies” by exposing the wounds of our personal tragedies, guilt and shames, we subconsciously give permission to others to do the same in some cases releasing generation of pent up anger and aggression. Reverence is the convergence place of all of the movements of the past (i.e. civil rights, human right, environmental justice, etc.) because at there root is a need to restore the vitality of the human spirit. If we cannot imagine ourselves in the future with our so-called enemies playing a role in our salvation, we are all doomed to repeat the past.

Aqeela serves on the board of the Turning Tides Coalition, Yoga For Youth Foundation, Fathers of Watts and Transformative Change. He consults with violence intervention/prevention agency locally, nationally and internationally. Aqeela also serves as the Principal of The Reverence Project, Owner/Curator of the Watts Arts Gallery and is the Southern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternative to the Death Penalty and Currently the Regional Director of Resources for Human Development (RHD), California. You can watch Aqeela on dozens of documentaries, films and Radio and internet interview just by google’ing his name. And will often find him Keynoting at conferences for spirit center activism to Juvenile Justice reform.


Aqeela still lives in the Watts community and can be reached at
[email protected]

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