When a Gangsta Goes to College

Jason Pierce had been gone two years from the ghetto. A college man now, and hauled up by his own bootstraps too. He’d always been bright, but sometimes when he was younger, when he was rolling through Roxbury with his boys and his guns and his cocaine, it was hard to tell. Not that any of that made him dumb: For some kids in some neighborhoods, the thug life is the high life. Jason Pierce just happened to be fairly adept at it. Kept it real. That’s what his boys would say.

The trick was staying out of prison. Jason did that too. He’d been arrested a few times, but no judge ever gave him more than probation. In the fall of 1997, just a few months after he got his diploma from English High School, in Jamaica Plain, and two years after the police accused him of shooting at some people in Brookline, he moved out of Roxbury, packed up, and headed south to Atlanta, to college, to the promised land. He enrolled at Morris Brown College, a small liberal arts school founded in 1885 by nine black teachers, 107 students, and the generosity of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. More than a century later, almost all of its students are black and, by demographic extension, disproportionately poor. For Jason Pierce, a bright black man with a criminal record, a college such as Morris Brown was a shining path out of the ‘hood.

Shunae Allen found a path too. She was never a hoodlum, though. The worst she was ever arrested for was shoplifting and trespassing. Perhaps worse, she took on Jason Pierce as her boyfriend. They were close, Shunae and Jason, even if they did fight sometimes, like last summer when she threw a bicycle at him and he punched her in the face. Last spring, they showed up at her prom together at English High, the two of them dressed in matching gold brocade. By late August, they were together in Georgia, Jason preparing to enroll for his junior year, Shunae, two years younger, ready to start classes at Atlanta Metropolitan College.

Her best friends came with her. Patrice Lassiter enrolled at AMC too, and Monique Brown, who might have been the smartest of them all, was accepted at Clark Atlanta University. They’d had their scrapes too, but nothing terribly serious. Patrice had spent some time doing community service after she assaulted a cop in 1996, and Monique, in 1994, stole some money. But that was all in the past. At the start of the academic year 1999, the three of them were living in a prefab townhouse in East Point, Georgia, taking the first steps to a better future.

Police say on Wednesday, August 25, Jason and Shunae went to a movie, then returned to the townhouse, where they spent the night. The next morning, Jason got up early and went downstairs. At 8 o’clock, he padded back to the top of the stairs. To his left, Patrice was in the master bathroom, putting in her contact lenses. Ahead and around the corner, Monique was in the shower. He turned right, into Shunae’s room, back into the thug life.

“You’re setting me up,” he told her. He’d said that before, but playfully, laughing. This time he used his surliest hoodlum snarl. “I know you’re setting me up.”

Then, police say, he put a nine-millimeter pistol to her cheek and pulled the trigger.

Shunae fell face down to the floor. The last thing she saw was Patrice holding her hands in front of her, screaming. The next bullet went clean through Patrice’s hand, fired point-blank, so close that the barrel of the gun scorched a circle on her palm. A third shot went through the top of her skull. The fourth and final bullet hit Monique square between the eyes.

By the time the police got there, Patrice was dead, Monique was dying, and Shunae was bleeding from both sides of her shattered face. And Jason Pierce was on the run, already finding his way back to the streets of Boston, the streets he almost pulled himself out of, the same streets where he once kept everything so real.

Jason Pierce, for whatever reasons, never completely untangled himself from the thug life. Yet his life suggests a troubling subtext about the deep chasm cleaved between the gangsta ‘hood and the rest of the world. For generations, black colleges have been a ladder out of poverty, an antidote to Jim Crow segregation and, later, the isolation of larger, whiter campuses. Yet in recent decades, that climb has been longer, steeper, and more treacherous, especially for some urban kids such as Jason Pierce. Partly, that highlights a general backslide in recent years among minority scholars—The College Board, for instance, last year reported that black and Latino students are reaching the highest levels of academic achievement in anemic numbers—the reasons for which an army of sociologists and educators are still trying to decipher.

But there is also another, more commercial force aggravating an already difficult situation: the glamorization of the gangsta, an ethos of music and movies that elevate the street thug to iconic anti-hero. “An entire pop culture has emerged that celebrates badness,” argues the Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III, who has spent his adult life working with troubled kids. “The icon for marketing to the college audience, which overlaps with the high school audience, is some black dude in a leather jacket trying to look as tough as possible. At every level of merchandising in the black community, you want to look like a cross between Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur.

“It’s the cultural sewage of thug life masquerading as keeping-it-real hipness,” says Rivers. “And vulgarity, profanity, and ignorance are celebrated as major cultural virtues.”

Neither Tupac nor Tyson, of course, carried a gun into Shunae Allen’s East Point townhouse. But they are still bit players in a profitable production of baggy-pants bravado, mindless violence, and hip-hop hedonism. For the white boys in the suburbs (who’ve always bought the lion’s share of hard-core hip-hop), adopting the slang and the wardrobe is little more than a harmless, voyeuristic foray into a bad-boy fantasy. But for a kid adrift in the ghetto, where the gangsta is a flesh-and-blood character who carries an authentic gun, that makes for a seductive image that can be sadly destructive.

Thirty years after the Civil Rights movement, the most tangible legacy Martin Luther King Jr. left for the ghetto—the most physically real thing—is a street sign. Every city has a boulevard named for him, and almost always in the same weatherbeaten precincts that burned after King was assassinated. Despite the very real gains of the sixties for the black middle and upper classes, the poorest black Americans have been trampled farther under.

Indeed, many of the urban poor are worse off than they were three decades ago. Manufacturing jobs have been stripped away, public schools have been abandoned by anyone who could afford to flee, and no viable political force has emerged since the sixties. At a time when there are more black elected officials than ever, more than 8,000, they are less relevant to their poorest constituents, leaving a void filled by race-baiting hustlers (Al Sharpton) and bigoted demagogues (Louis Farrakhan).

The results have been predictably horrifying. Between 1985, the dawn of the crack age, and 1992, the murder rate for black boys between 14 and 17 tripled. (Though it has since dropped precipitously, many criminologists expect that a boomlet of children coming into their crime-prone years early next decade will push the numbers back up.) A black child in the city is still more likely than not to be born out of wedlock, and more than twice as likely as a white baby to die in the first year. Black men are four times less likely to find work than their white counterparts, yet more likely to be victims of a violent crime. And one of every three black men is in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation.

Jason Pierce was of that quarter: He was on probation for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute when he was arrested for the August shootings. And that was on top of earlier arrests for attempted murder, carrying a gun, and possession of cocaine.

Those ugly statistics, in turn, have become the reference points for an underclass street culture, the trappings of which have bubbled up to a wider audience. The baggy-pants style now in suburban vogue, for instance, began as homage to ill-fitting jailhouse jumpsuits. Throughout the nineties, a disturbing number of artists who rapped about the woes of urban life were, in fact, living those woes: When Tupac Shakur was murdered, for instance, a theory given wide credence tied it to some mindless rapper feud. More recently, about the time Shunae Allen’s face was healing, platinum-selling rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs was arrested for the second time in less than a year, after speeding away from a New York City nightclub shooting in an SUV with his girlfriend, a bodyguard, and a stolen and loaded gun. (The first was after he beat the bejesus out of a record-company executive.) Combs wasn’t charged with shooting the three people in the club—another rapper named Shyne got that honor—and he vigorously proclaimed his innocence. Still, it’s hard to imagine, say, the Dixie Chicks ever getting themselves into a similar predicament.

Rivers sees in the current mess a tragic irony, almost as if a loose thread from the black nationalism of 30 years ago has knotted itself into chaos. He traces it to Malcolm X, for whom Rivers’ own son is named, and his soliloquy on slaves in the fields and those in the house. The former, in today’s parlance, kept it real; the latter, in a bygone slur, were Uncle Toms.

Stripped of its historical context, however, that rhetorical ploy “gave ideological legitimacy to a certain form of lumpen proletariat thug life,” Rivers maintains. In the thug’s distorted view of history, Malcolm, the militant nationalist, kept it real; Martin Luther King, the nonviolent integrationalist, did not. Malcolm’s ideological heirs, from Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement to Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, kept it real; King’s heirs, from Jesse Jackson to Bill Cosby, did not. Gangsta rappers like Tupac Skakur kept it real, whereas kids who hit the books hard and graduate from college do not. “The house nigger as the bourgeois black who studied, who obeyed the law, who worked hard, was delegitimized,” Rivers says. “If you worked hard, had a legitimate job, sacrificed, you were a square and a house nigger. If, on the other hand, you cheated, hustled, were a pimp and a player, you were a field nigger, bad man, tough guy. And that vision, that image, is romanticized.”

Like many ghetto blacks, Jason Pierce had to chose between those two worlds. He came into the world several levels above the demographic bottom. Born on April 10, 1978, to Barbara Pierce and James Carter, he was taught the blessings, and necessity, of education, and from his earliest years he was an obviously thoughtful and dutiful student.

Yet Jason’s adolescent years were marked by a tidal struggle with the street life, each new opportunity washed away by another wave from the ‘hood. In the fall of 1993, he enrolled at Milton High School, arguably a better learning environment than all but a few of Boston’s urban institutions. He lasted barely two months: In November, he was expelled for bringing a weapon onto campus.

From Milton, Jason enrolled in Boston’s English High School. Though steeped in history—English was one of the first public high schools in America—and boasting a handful of standout programs, English, in the aftermath of the busing crisis, was left in the same demographic mess as most urban classrooms. Its 1,200 or so students, a melange of mostly black and Latino teens, score horribly on standardized tests. In 1998, only 2 percent of juniors reached “solid academic performance” in the reading portion of the Standford 9 Achievement Test, and 99 percent had “little or no mastery of basic” math. (Somehow, though, the school purports to send 75 percent of its graduates on to higher education.)

Among that student body, Jason Pierce stood out. Tall and thin, he draped himself in fashionably baggy clothes, shambled through the hallways with the appropriate thug posture, and spoke the proper, butchered dialect of the streets. Outside, he lurked for a time on Copeland Street, haunting the corner of Warren Avenue with a sparse pack of young toughs. But he showed up in class, appeared to be thoughtful and articulate, a boy who seemed to want to learn, to want a future, maybe even to be a teacher or a lawyer.

In 1995, when his junior year began, Jason switched schools again, this time enrolling in Another Course to College (ACC) in the Back Bay. Run by the Boston Public Schools, the program is designed to coach the most determined juniors and seniors into college. The academics are more rigorous, the work more challenging. And the students, by and large, are brighter than the city average: The math scores are still lacking, with 69 percent scoring at the little-or-no basic skills level, but nearly a third are proficient in reading. In any case, 80 percent of ACC graduates make it into the college of their choice.

But Jason washed out of there too. In the middle of his senior year, he was back at English High. Why is unclear; ACC administrators are prohibited from releasing such details. Back at English, however, he stood out among his peers, a curious hybrid of streetwise and book smart.

“He was a deep thinker,” says Jerry Howland, who teaches law at English and coached Jason on the mock-trial team. “He was very articulate, and he had the respect from all of his peers for his intellectual ability. And that’s what I think impressed the students: He was cool, but he was intellectual. And a lot of times in city schools, it’s not cool to show off your intelligence.”

Then again, by the middle of his senior year in high school, no one could question Jason Pierce’s street credentials. He survived his juvenile years—in Massachusetts, the first 16—without any legal scrapes. But two months after his seventeenth birthday, he started building a solid thug résumé.

The first arrest wasn’t terribly serious. In June of 1995, according to court records, he was arrested for receiving a stolen motor vehicle in Milton, a charge that eventually was dismissed. Ten weeks later, though, he allegedly graduated to a more serious level of crime. In what is almost a depressing rite of passage for aspiring thugs, Jason allegedly pointed a pistol at some rivals sitting on a stoop in Brookline and started squeezing the trigger. No one was hit, and Jason was quickly arrested and arraigned on three counts of armed assault with intent to murder, one of assault with a deadly weapon, and three gun charges. Those too were eventually dismissed, reportedly because the alleged targets declined to testify in Norfolk County Superior Court, a development that is not unusual in street-level beefs.

There was more to come. In November 1996, while still enrolled at ACC, Jason was arrested at the corner of Copeland and Warren with, according to court records, a loaded gun and a pocketful of cocaine. Such arrests are the dreary drumbeat of urban courts, the same interchangeable characters busted for the same generic crime. Yet even then, even after his earlier scrapes, Jason didn’t fit the mold of a ghetto gangbanger. His parents retained a private attorney, for one thing, as opposed to letting him be represented by an overburdened public defender. “He was completely atypical,” says one source who knew Jason then. “He had a very supportive family, he wanted to go to college, and he had the grades to back it up.”

In fact, that is a large part of the reason Jason Pierce did not go to prison. In 1998, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Donovan accepted a plea deal that allowed Jason to serve three years probation for the drug charges (the gun charges are still pending). She levied one condition: that Jason, then a sophomore at Morris Brown College, stay in school and out of trouble.

Morris Brown College is a cluster of red brick buildings around a wide green lawn along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which in Atlanta begins in the high-rise shadows of downtown before trailing off into a wearied neighborhood. It is not among the premier institutions of black academia but it is still a fine school, fully accredited and offering majors in more than 40 disciplines to roughly 2,000 students.

Jason Pierce, after two years of studies, still hadn’t settled on a major. Officially, he hadn’t re-enrolled for his junior year, which Patrice Williams, a college spokeswoman, hastens to point out. Morris Brown administrators, in fact, don’t have much at all to say about Jason Pierce, which is understandable, considering the last thing any college wants to be associated with is a triple-shooting.

Before the shootings in August, Pierce was never in any trouble in Georgia. Considering the history of Boston hoodlums operating field offices from Atlanta—Keith Pinson and his Headquarters Block gang from Dorchester made a fortune running drugs north in the early nineties—investigators in Georgia made an obligatory check in Pierce’s activities there. By most accounts, he was a solid student, thoughtful and quick to speak up in class, albeit not one infused with any bubbling enthusiasm for campus life: He lived off campus and traveled north to see Shunae and his friends with some frequency. Indeed, Pierce seems best known for his last alleged acts in Georgia—shooting three women—than for anything he did on campus.

One thing stood out, though. “He was so smart. He was, like, street-ish, so you wouldn’t think it,” one of his classmates told the Boston Globe in what, apparently, was meant to be a compliment. Yet only a generation ago, such a trait would have been a curiosity at best if not something to shun outright.

The allure of black colleges traditionally has been that they allow students to escape the pigeonhole of whiter campuses; in other words, rather than being part of an obvious minority, forced into a singular clique defined by their melanin count, students are able to be themselves, breaking up into social circles based on interests and attitudes. Historically, however, street thugs were not one of those subsets. Even as late as 1988, in his film School Daze, Spike Lee drew wide and solid lines between black collegiates and the hoodlums at the fried-chicken shop.

“Fifteen years ago, it would have been unimaginable to see this [thug] element on black campuses and in rich white communities,” asserts Marc Germain, a 1998 graduate of Morehouse College. Then, gangsta culture came on the scene. “When you have the worst elements of hip-hop culture infiltrating mainstream culture, this is what happens,” says Germain.

The acceptance of gangsta chic was not just restricted to young blacks, of course. But the impact on blacks can be much more severe than on white suburban males who affect hip-hop fashion. “The options for black males in this country are far too few,” Germain says. “And through BET and VH1 and everything else, it’s reinforced that the best options are to be an athlete or a rapper . . . Then that creates an authentification of the thug life, a sense that it’s okay to be a thug. Before, the black middle-class kid was saying, Uh, I don’t know about this stuff.”

In a basic sense, a kid like Jason Pierce is no different from a teenager in, say, Wellesley. “They tend to follow what the dominant culture of the neighborhood is, what their peers are doing,” says Alvin Poussaint, the renowned psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “That’s what teenagers are attracted to.”

In Pierce’s small circle of street corners, the overriding ethos is one of violence and lawlessness. Playing football and teasing geeks may make a boy popular in the suburbs; shooting at kids who happen to wear a different-colored bandanna works in the ‘hood. “That’s your world, that’s what you know,” Poussaint says. “And even though Jason went to Morris Brown, he had a reputation here that gave him a sense of standing among his friends. And he’s not going to give that up easily.”

The problem, of course, is that captaining the football team doesn’t hobble your chances of joining mainstream society as does, say, shooting people. Yet abandoning either social network can be equally difficult, an emotional conflict Poussaint likens to that of a struggling-to-reform drug addict. “The problem frequently is you don’t know any other lifestyle than being a drug addict—the problem is to find a whole new life, not just give up the drugs,” he says. “And in some ways, Jason had to find a whole new life, which could be a very difficult bridge to cross psychologically.”

And he never got all the way across it. In the fall of 1998, shortly after he began his sophomore year at Morris Brown, Jason Pierce was indicted in Boston on charges of trespassing and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

By the time Sergeant Bill Gorman got to 4073L Windy Rush Lane in the Candlewood Apartments complex, Shunae had bled all over the townhouse, from her bedroom, down the stairs, and out to the stoop. The bullet had shattered her cheekbones, going in the right side and out the left. But she could still talk.

“Who shot you?” Gorman asked her.

“My fiancé,” she said. “Jason Pierce.”

She didn’t say why, not then. Gorman thought she might not live long enough anyway, there was so much blood. At that particular moment, with one victim dead and both others badly wounded, what Gorman needed most to know was what Jason looked like, not why he shot three women in the face.

Two weeks later, after Patrice and Monique had been eulogized and buried and Shunae had recovered enough to return to Boston, Gorman flew north to talk to her again. A stocky man with a lazy southern drawl and two decades of police work behind him, he found his way to her home on Nazing Street, in Dorchester, and sat down to talk with her. One thing he wanted to ask her about was $1,000 in cash that one of her roommates had brought south at the beginning of the school year, which after the shootings couldn’t immediately be found. Was there a chance, Gorman asked her, that Jason took it? “Jason’s no thief,” Shunae snapped, according to Gorman. “And I’m tired of people accusing him. Jason don’t steal.”

In the end, it didn’t matter because the money turned up. But two months later, sitting in his office on the second floor of the East Point police station, Gorman replays the moment. “She got kind of livid when I brought up the money,” he says. “I mean, she got pissed. This guy shot her in the face, killed her two best friends, and she’s worried about him being called a thief? Don’t you think that’s kind of strange?”

Gorman, as well as other law-enforcement sources in Massachusetts and Georgia, think a number of things are strange. They believe it is odd, for instance, that Shunae has accepted at least one phone call from Jason in jail, where he has been held since Brookline police arrested him in a shootout five days after the murders. (Shunae declined to speak with Boston Magazine, though she did say she “sort of” spoke to Pierce). They also no longer believe, as was reported last fall, that the shootings were sparked by jealousy or by Pierce’s fear that his girlfriend was going to leave him. Rather, they suspect Pierce’s final snarl—”You’re setting me up”—was a paranoid reference to a street-level beef last August, the details of which, as well as any involvement Shunae may have had, are unclear.

In the end, the motive hardly matters. Jason Pierce, a bright young man on the edge of his future, carried a nine-millimeter pistol like an anchor from his past. After Shunae Allen fell to the floor, after Patrice Lassiter tumbled into the hallway, after the door to Monique Brown’s bedroom was kicked off its hinges and the last bullet fired into her head, Jason Pierce ran. He was spotted at a train station not far away, but then he dropped out of sight. Hours after Sergeant Gorman learned his name, the press officer for the East Point Police Department passed it on to reporters clamoring for news, stressing that Pierce was not a suspect but that he should be considered armed and dangerous. Spooked, Pierce ran north, to the streets and his old life.

Back in Boston, he hooked up with Sean Taylor, an old friend with a similar record of arrests for carrying guns and drugs. For five days, they managed to hide, burrowing underground and dodging the cops, Pierce sporting a freshly shaved head he hoped would help him hide.

On September 2, just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the police caught up with Taylor and Pierce. They were sleeping in a gray Honda with expired license plates parked just outside The Mall at Chestnut Hill. When a Brookline officer knocked on the window, Pierce and Taylor sat up. Taylor, in the front, passed his driver’s license through the window, put the car in gear, and stepped on the gas.

They didn’t get very far. Pinned in by two cruisers, the two men bolted from the Honda, each squeezing the trigger of a pistol. Taylor kept running, carjacked an old lady, then vanished again. Pierce tumbled after only three steps, a police bullet in his leg. The next day, sedated and groggy in his bed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he pleaded not guilty to three counts of armed assault with attempt to murder.

Pierce still hasn’t been arraigned for the shootings in East Point. His attorney, Willie Davis, is fighting extradition to Georgia, where the locals are not averse to executing convicted murderers. In fact, the news of Pierce’s arrest was greeted with a mixture of relief and regret.

“We’re glad he’s in custody,” East Point police Captain Bob Mathews told reporters. “I’m just sorry it’s not a more serious wound.”