"Do you believe in metaphysics and astral energy and all that?" Aaron Sims, in his early 20s and from West Baltimore, asks the few dozen Baltimoreans in line in front of T&M All In One store on Monument Street. They're here the day before Thanksgiving for the 300 Gangstas Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway.
"I have mad respect for them and the energy they putting out here today, man," Aaron says a moment later to everybody and nobody. He's here to gather supplies for a friend of his who is a single mother, he says. A few boxes of Stove Top stuffing make their way over to him as other people scoop up canned and boxed food, shave kits, and clothing. A select few, who've been waiting the longest or are in the most need, get frozen turkeys and chickens.
Baltimore is small. I've met Aaron before—at the bus stop at Pennsylvania and North avenues over the summer. He was shouting at a caravan of cops and hearses driving the length of North Avenue for a "Stop The Killing" drive, put together by some community-minded Baltimore Police officers, along with local pastors, M.O.M.S. (Mothers of Murdered Sons/Daughters), and some funeral directors.
Aaron wasn't into that event.
"This is pseudo. It's pseudo. This is a pseudo event," he said. "This is total disrespect right here. You're gonna bring a whole thing of hearses around here? This is psychological warfare. You're psychologically trying to interrupt my life. I don't like that. This is pseudo as hell."
Navigating a handful of stuffing, Aaron shakes a few hands and thanks 300 Gangstas and everybody who's out here today. And then his attention turns to a burly dude in a leather jacket with an Ankh tattoo on his cheek, stomping down the street.
"What you know about that Ankh?" Aaron says chasing after the man. "What you know about that Ankh?"
He has, presumably, finally found the right person to talk metaphysics and astral energy with.
In the meantime, the line for food and supplies has gotten a little too loose.
"Cold-blooded, I need a line," PFK Boom, the co-founder of 300 Gangstas, says. "We're not gonna let you go hungry but we need a line."
300 Gangstas is "a coalition"—kind of like a grassroots collective mixed with some of the tenets gleaned from the growth and development wing of gang culture, mixed with the community-first m.o. of the Black Panthers—intent on introducing ways for communities to police themselves. PFK describes it as "a movement of self-accountability."
"By us having self-accountability it will bring us to have accountability to our community," he says. "By calling for self-accountability—physically, mentally, spiritually—you get what have here today, people getting turkeys."
PFK, along with Big Wolf, a Blood, who says he is no longer involved in the life, concieved of 300 Gangstas following the Baltimore Uprising. The loose gang unification that happened during the uprising and, in general, the communal spirit of West Baltimore was something to keep going.
"At the time, everybody saw that a lot of vanguards, as I call them, were able to come together and we just kept that bond. And from that we continue to grow with brothers that wanted that change—I'm not in the Bloods and Crips, I'm not in the vanguard sector," PFK says. "When the uprising came you saw in that moment everybody was jolly and everybody felt good, we wanted to hold onto that the best way we could. That was something real beautiful. But I don't want an uprising to bring out that beautiful unity, I don't want that to have to happen again."
It is a rough-around-the-edges utopian conceit, really, a forceful, scrappy, and radical way to make change and stick it in people's faces (recall a viral moment where he gave Pastor Jamal Bryant a dressing down—the two eventually united and fed the homeless together on the Fourth of July).
In the '90s, PFK, whose name is Davon Neverdon, was charged and ultimately acquitted of murder. He was recently involved in the group Out 4 Justice, "an ex-offender, member led organization that promotes policy reform," according to their website, who were instrumental in getting felons the right to vote in Maryland. Out 4 Justice's shirts read: "5 Ways To Support An Ex-Offender: 1. Listen to their story; 2. Tell them your story—successes and failures; 3. Don't assume you know their struggle; 4. Help them identify their skills and passions; 5. TREAT THEM LIKE A HUMAN BEING." He is also a frequent face at marches, community panels, and anywhere else that he can make a difference.
300 Gangstas is also a culture-jam-like counter to the 300 Men, an anti-street violence group praised by the city's establishment and, therefore, ineffectual, PFK and others have argued. PFK wants to redefine the word "gangstas," and stresses again that 300 Gangstas is positive and inclusive.
"Gangsta is a narrative that Amurdicah feels as though we fit into," PFK says. "We don't want the youth to be gangstas. We don't want them to have to cross over to that life."
Minister Carlos Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, here in support of the turkey giveaway and to help, interjects, professorially: "And it's interesting that we get a lot of pushback for the terminology 'gangsta' when America glorifies her gangstas. You know, Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger, he was a gangster. But he gangster-ed in a manner to make his family great. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, they make movies and biographies about them. But the moment that moniker is given to us and we flip it around to do service to our people, it takes on a negative scenario. This country was founded on bloodshed and violence. The national anthem says it. Our people built this nation. Blood, sweat, and tears. I just wanted to add that in because a lot of times we get that pushback, 'Oh, 300 Gangstas out here, how can it be that they giving out food?' This is a coalition of people helping people. We live here every day."
"We ain't all in the same, we all agree to disagree but we do this together—we're black and we need to save our people," PFK says. "Whatever I got to do to save my people, 300 Gangstas is in."
The day before the turkey giveaway, PFK testified at a public hearing at City Hall tied to police reform, and gave an impassioned and intense plea for understanding in the city and a challenge to the Baltimore Police, with Commissioner Kevin Davis sitting nervous and redfaced, just a few feet away. He asked the police to "put some skin in the game" and pointed out how all the police sat on one side of the room and all those from the community who had come to testify were on the other.
"We're dying over here," PFK said, "I don't want my city to burn [again]."
What's playing out on Monument Street is PFK putting skin in the game. Speakers blast a live mix of old-school hip-hop, with a focus on the empowering golden era hip-hop of the late '80s and into the early '90s from Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Eric B. and Rakim, along with old aspirational tracks such as Kurtis Blow's 'If I Ruled The World,' and some late '90s lyrical laments such as Big Pun's 'It's So Hard.'
All afternoon, members and friends of 300 Gangstas move in and out of T&M All In One, handing out food and other supplies: "If you need plastic bags for your stuff, they're over here, just yell all right?"; "make sure the stray paper plates and water bottles get into the trash cans too, you feel me?"
"Oh we all out?" T, who owns T&M All In One, says shocked, whipping his head from inside the store where there aren't any turkeys left to the still-sizable crowd in front. Someone runs out and they promise the group more turkeys are on the way. There's a burst of chaos at one point when Big Wolf lets a stack of one dollar bills fly into the air. It sends everybody—giddy kids, creaky grandmothers—to their knees to scoop up the bills.
Around the corner, Duane "Shorty" Davis, cooks hot dogs while others begin laying out a table so that the line can get their hot dogs as quickly as possible. One of the helpers almost places some condiments on the ground and Shorty quickly yells to stop. "Man, never put any food shit on the ground."
A mother and her two kids are selling candy bars—organizers and even some in the line for food hand her and the kids ones on top of ones. "I don't even need the candy bar," one man tells her with a proud smile.
A number of guests move through and make appearances and help out. Along with Minister Muhammed, there is gang interventionist Ted Sutton and Abdul Salaam of KEYS Development. Salaam is invigorated and provides a quick pep talk.
"You thought it was a mess out here," he says, referring to how Baltimore is portrayed. "But it's not!"
"They ain't ready for this kind of unity," PFK says proudly. He segues this into a chant of "We all we got, we all we need."
T jokingly yells "Where you at Sir Charles?" referring to former basketball player and current commentator Charles Barkley who was in town the night before recording a show for TNT and was confronted by activists who saw his appearance as predatory and disrespectful, especially after Barkley insulted "Aunt" Diane Butler, family member of Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013.
PFK, Wolf, Salaam and others pose for defiant, triumphant pictures, fists up or balled tight and straight out and, in the case of Wolf, his finger twisted into the hand sign for "Bloods."
Aaron Sims, back from rapping with the guy with the Ankh tattoo, gently puffs on a joint and listens hard. He holds a copy of the official newspaper of the Nation Of Islam, The Final Call—this issue has Donald Trump on the cover and the words "Whitelash" sprawled across the cover.
He's got some food to take back with him too.