Over the years there's been the block of outstate legislators who back the police no matter what and the block of outstate legislators who don't want to risk political capital by getting involved. The status quo has persisted.

This is the Fourth Ward. It's pretty bad around here," says Nasheed, as she navigates her off-white Ford SUV through empty streets in the middle of the day.

"Oh, look at that," she says matter-of-factly, glaring out her driver's side window at a crumbling three-story house with an entire side wall missing, exposing its interior like a dollhouse.

State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm 
black before I'm a Democrat.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm black before I'm a Democrat.
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.

The whole block is decaying: graffitied boards on shattered windows. Weeds rising over and blanketing stoops. Vacant corner stores. Piles of brick and shards of wood decorating empty lots.

She crosses into the 21st Ward and turns onto Vandeventer Avenue. She slows down as she passes a row of abandoned buildings that look like they used to be apartments.

"This is an important block of mine," she says softly. "That door right there, that's the door my mom came out of after she committed suicide. That door right there..."

That door right there is where Jamilah Nasheed lived back when her name was Jenise Williams and everybody called her Niecy.

She didn't learn about her mom until she was seven and noticed that all her friends said "mom" while she said "grandma." So her grandmother explained the difference between "mom" and "grandma" and then explained that her mom killed herself when Nasheed was two. That's also when she learned about her dad. Less than a week after coming home from the Vietnam War, and a few months before Nasheed was born, her dad was killed in a drive-by shooting while he played craps outside the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

So Nasheed and her three brothers were raised by their grandmother in the Darst-Webbe project. The four of them lived off $500 of government assistance every month. The budget shrunk as the days passed. By midmonth, the family often subsisted on cheese bread and sugar bread.

To get a little cash in their pockets, Lil' Niecy and her brothers shined shoes. She used the money to buy candy wholesale. Then she'd set up shop at the bottom floor of her apartment and sell whatever she didn't eat, making a solid profit each day before the neighborhood boys would run up and steal as many sweets as they could fit in their pockets.

She spent most of her free time with her twin brother, Jahid. They were inseparable. A couple of low-level hoodlums, they threw rocks at windows and picked fights, which they always won.

"They were the baddest kids in the projects," says Nasheed's older brother, Jason Williams.

After a few years she graduated from Now and Laters and penny cookies to weed and crack and heroin. It was the mid-'80s, and north St. Louis was a drug boomtown.

"That was part of the project life," she says. "Materialism was very high, and it influenced a lot of us. And we wanted it, and we couldn't get it. And our parents couldn't get it."

So Lil' Niecy — rockin' gold teeth, gold rings, bright silk shirt and Jheri curl — slanged her product. She carried a gun before reaching her teens.

Nobody messed with Lil' Niecy.

"She was a fighter," says Williams. "She was a good fighter. All the boys were scared to fight her 'cause she would beat them up."

When she was thirteen, she started a gang with a dozen or so friends. They were called "El Control," and they wore matching white-and-blue T-shirts whenever they went out together, roaming the neighborhood and sneaking into nightclubs. If a rival gang from another building — and it always seemed to be the girls from the Peabody houses — stepped onto their turf, they rumbled. Usually Lil' Niecy busted girls' faces with brass knuckles. But one time she stabbed a girl in the chest and spent a week in juvenile detention.

She got in so many fights that Darst-Webbe's manager kicked her out of the complex and banned her from the grounds. (The family moved to another apartment a few blocks away.) She dropped out of school in tenth grade, after her guidance counselor told her that she was so far behind that she had no chance to graduate. A year later, Jahid was convicted on conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Nasheed was devastated.

"The environment sucked him up, and he wasn't able to get out of it," she says. "A lot of guys that I grew up with, they didn't make it through. A lot of them became drug addicts or ended up jailed. Many of them were murdered."

She found herself reflecting on her life, searching for meaning.

"I didn't believe in God," she says. "I felt that, if there was a God, then why am I living in these conditions? Or why did he take my mother? Why did he take my father?"

So she channeled her anguish toward books and spent her days at Progressive Emporium, a local bookstore. She met activists, discussed current events and read Na'im Akbar and Malcolm X. Raised Baptist, she started going to the mosque. When she was nineteen, she converted to Islam, and Jenise became Jamilah — Jheri curl and gold rings replaced by a headscarf and flowing African dresses.

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