Dec. 20 – When Kenneth Edwards borrowed 25 dollars from his childhood friend, Jason Ford, he had no idea what it would cost him.
The two boys had grown up only two blocks away from each other. They rode their bicycles together and played on the same baseball team. A resident of Bedford Stuyvesant, and later Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Edwards grew up in a sheltered home. His parents made sure that Edwards was kept away from the lifestyle that existed on the streets– one that often introduced kids to drugs and guns.
But it all changed by the time he was 14, when he got the chance to see what the “guys on the corner” were really about. “The cars, the jewelry, the girls,” Edwards remembers. “Once I got a taste of it, once I found out about it, it wrapped me up.”
Edwards quickly fell in with the “in crowd,” a group of older boys who were selling drugs, shoplifting, and carrying weapons. He was making more money than his father, who worked as a mechanic. The more money he made, he says, the meaner he became. His childhood friend, Ford, was also drawn to the streets. At first, they were working as partners selling drugs. “But the drug game will turn you into enemies.” Edwards said.
It was August of 1990 when Edwards borrowed the 25 dollars from Ford. But when he hadn’t paid Ford back after two months, Ford came to find him and threatened to kill him if it wasn’t returned. “It was either I get him first, or he get me first,” Edwards recalled.
On October 28th, Edwards told Ford that he would take him to a house to get drugs and money. As his friend Pepe drove, Edwards climbed into the backseat of a van next to Ford. “We got into an argument,” Edwards remembers. “I pulled my gun and he pulled his gun, and my gun went off first.” He fired the first shot at Ford’s left temple. The sound of the gun startled him, and he fired twice more. His friend fell on the ground, but was still moving, so Edwards pulled the trigger for the fourth and final time. Then he and Pepe drove until they could see water. They stopped on Gold Street near the East River, and left Ford’s body on the street near an underpass.
The police did not have any witnesses when they found a John Doe at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. But Edwards knew he ultimately had to pay for his crime. “That wasn’t the life I wanted to live anymore,” he said. Two days later, he turned himself in. He took a plea deal, and was sentenced to 15 years to life.
In 1990, murders were occurring at an alarming rate. Forty-nine murders were reported in the local 79th police precinct. An increasing number of youth were participating in these murders. The same year, almost 8 percent of murders reported nationwide resulted in juvenile arrests, according to the FBI. Some of these youth ended up on Rikers Island with Edwards, whose life took a sharp turn in jail.
Edwards was placed in Sheila Richard’s GED class at the on-site educational facility. Richards was a new teacher and was hesitant to teach in a jail. But after visiting the men’s ward and seeing the number of youth that were behind bars, she says she felt she had to do something about it.
Kenneth Edwards was placed in Sheila Richard’s GED class at the on-site educational facility on Rikers Island.
At first, Kenneth Edwards seemed like every other student in her class. But one thing stood out to Richards. “He was very quiet, and he was one of the kids that didn’t really participate in the madness going on there.” Just three months before Edwards arrived, a bloody uprising on Riker’s Island had left more than 130 guards and inmates injured. Edwards says that what he saw in jail when he arrived was no different than the streets of Brooklyn. “You have your drugs, you have your homemade, jail made weapons, you have gambling.” Edwards says he had to make a choice- whether he was going to be a part of that crowd, or not.
Edwards chose the latter. With the help of his teacher, he earned his GED and worked several jobs inside of jail. By the time he was released in August of 2007, Edwards had spent almost as much of his life inside of prison, as he had outside. He says he was disappointed to find that the same things were happening. “The only thing that changed was certain language they [were] using,” he said. “Still [you] have people selling drugs and people with guns and using the gun.”
Today, Edwards is back on the streets where he grew up, but in a different role. He works as a violence interrupter for an anti-gun violence program called Save Our Streets (S.O.S.) in Crown Heights. Edwards goes out into the community to hand out educational materials about gun violence, forms relationships with community leaders, including the clergy, and mediates potentially violent situations.
Kenneth Edwards works for an anti-gun violence program called Save Our Streets in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Edwards was hired by Sharon Ife-Charles, the Deputy Director of the Crown Heights Mediation Center, which runs the S.O.S. program. Ife-Charles says that Edwards was searching for redemption when he applied for the job. “It was as though he and God had this agreement that what he did, he knew was wrong,” said Ife-Charles. “He’s gonna pay the time for it. He paid a time for it.”
Although crime rate in Crown Heights has gone down significantly over the past 18 years, residents still complain about disturbances in the community. Brower Park, located between Kingston and Brooklyn Avenues, has become a safe haven for a notorious gang called the Brower Park Gang, also known as Brower Park Boys. The gang has sparked fear in the neighborhood since they started calling the park home during the summer.
Edwards says that he will always feel guilt for what he did. Although he has a full time job at a window manufacturing company, he says his work with the S.O.S. program is his priority. He says that he hopes that through his work, he can keep others from making the same mistake that he made 21 years ago. “I get people to understand, the kids, that when you commit a crime, regardless of what that crime is, you are hurting someone else, not just yourself.”