James Clark and Norm White want their Neighborhood Alliance to save St. Louis' worst neighborhoods. Then they want it to save America.

Sep 15, 2011 at 4:00 am

For decades, smart men with sensible plans have tried to empower inner-city communities, and they have failed. So it requires a good deal of audacity for James Clark and Norm White to think that they can change St. Louis.

They're posted at opposite sides of the room at 6017 Natural Bridge Avenue on this Saturday morning, Clark standing in the front and White sitting in the back. Between them, in rows of white folding chairs, are the 30 or so soldiers who believe in their plan to fix St. Louis — the Most Dangerous City in America! — one neighborhood at a time, one person at a time. The soldiers themselves are proof that it could work. There's Kenneth McClain, 21, Adrian Robinson, 28, Naheem Houston, 21, and Teddy Willingham, 38 — all former gang members and drug dealers, all now in college or employed and dedicated to the cause.

Clark leans his elbows on the podium and scans the room.

"What we're dealing with is the early steps of the next revolution," says Clark, his voice booming and deep. "There are people who say, 'Our neighborhoods can never get better. We will always have violence in our neighborhoods. We will always have black men killing black men. Our young men will never be respectful to their families. Our neighborhoods are never going to change.'"

He pauses. The room is silent, every eye on the larger-than-life figure before them. Clark is 44 years old, six-foot-two-inches tall and built like a redwood. People joke that he looks like LL Cool J. He's vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization focused on community development. But the title's not important. To the people in this room, James Clark is the leader of a movement.

The underpinning of the movement is Neighborhood Alliance, Clark's two-year-old community-mobilization strategy, which focuses on saturating a neighborhood with faces and resources.

And so every Saturday after these 10 a.m. meetings, Clark and his soldiers hit the streets of the Penrose and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. They slip fliers in mailboxes and under welcome mats and hand them out to drivers at intersections. They knock on doors and shake hands with every person they cross. They tell them about the weekly meetings and the resources they have to offer. They show the community that there are people who care about them.

In the two years since Clark implemented his strategy, crime in these neighborhoods has decreased at four times the rate of the rest of the city. And his movement is growing. Now White, a criminologist at Saint Louis University, is working to take Clark's strategy from a grassroots initiative to a model for combating urban poverty and crime and blight.

At this morning's meeting, Clark talks about how some slaves didn't initially believe they could be free. And how people doubted Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., doubted they could ever sit in the front of the bus.

"And now we're hearing our people say to us, 'Our neighborhoods will never get better. Our children will never respect us. Our neighborhoods will always have gun violence. We will always have bad schools.'"

As Clark speaks, White, who is 58, leans back in his chair with his arms crossed, his face straight and his head nodding. He's a stocky man, an inch or two taller than Clark, with short curly hair and a gold hoop earring the size of a dime in his left lobe.

"I am encouraged by the people who come willing to fight an insurmountable fight," Clark continues. "We have got to fight for the right to life in our neighborhoods. We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world."

The room bursts in applause. A spatter of "Amen, brother!" pops out.

As the cheering dies down, Clark looks to his right and asks a woman in a pink shirt to come up. His voice is softer now. The woman holds a plastic container with a thin slit at the top. Earlier in the week, her twenty-year-old son was killed. Police say it was a case of mistaken identity. She is taking up a collection to help pay for the funeral. Clark tapes a photo of the son onto the podium. The woman brings her right palm to her face and sobs, her shoulders slumped and quivering.

Another murder in the murder capital. Another strike against the revolution.

James Clark came up with the idea for Neighborhood Alliance in 2009. He was speaking to a group of job-seekers at the MET Center, an old brick factory building in Wellston that Better Family Life turned into a vocational training center.

One day, as Clark was describing the programs to a packed room, he wondered, "What if all these people lived in the same neighborhood? Wouldn't that completely change that neighborhood?" His idea was, and still is, to channel as much energy as possible into a handful of blocks, prioritizing depth over breadth to ensure that every resident in those blocks receives maximum attention.

Clark selected for his great experiment the worst blocks in two of the city's highest crime neighborhoods. Hamilton Heights and Penrose, three miles apart and 98 percent black, lie within that wide expanse of weedy lots and empty sidewalks north of Delmar Boulevard, where the infant mortality rate is at Third World levels, and only thieves and fools pull up to gas stations past 11 p.m.

Since 1990, Hamilton Heights has lost 44 percent of its population; Penrose, a quarter. Those who stayed must live with the ghosts of those who left. One of every five houses is vacant. One of every four people lives below the poverty line. One of every three families is headed by a woman with no husband present. It's a stretch of land colored by this choking sense of abandonment — residents flee to safer neighborhoods, businesses choose not to invest, and politicians allow the many properties bought up by the city to rot.

When Clark first launched Neighborhood Alliance, the focus was on jobs. Two outreach workers would plaster the neighborhoods with information about the MET Center's career training program, while Clark and his lieutenant, site director Errol Bush, worked their connections to find employment opportunities for the growing flock. As a result, Clark and his initiative gained trust. This didn't seem like another outreach attempt espousing abstract ideas like "empowering the community" or "cleaning up the streets." The message was simple but powerful: "We'll help you get a job."

With employment opportunity as bait, Clark was able to rally people around bigger ideas, beginning with his "Put Down the Pistol" campaign, where he would host town-hall-style meetings to discuss combating gun violence. Often, more than 100 people would show up and leave with armloads of "Put Down the Pistol" fliers to hand out around their neighborhoods.

In early 2010, Better Family Life was forced to lay off the two outreach workers because of budgetary concerns. Clark had the wind knocked out of him. He had been seeing progress. Old ladies in the neighborhood would stop him on the street and thank him for helping their grandson get that construction job because otherwise he'd be on the corners selling dope or their niece get that nursing job because now her kids can eat three meals a day. More and more residents were buying into his movement. Without the extra staff, he wasn't sure how he and Bush could keep up the pace.

Then a mutual acquaintance introduced Clark to White. While Clark and his staff were trying to fix those neighborhoods, White was at Saint Louis University, trying to develop a strategy to do just that. Clark had the infrastructure, and White had the plan. They traded notes and together began to adjust the Neighborhood Alliance model.

White was struck by how many people Clark was reaching and moving. He saw the room full of people at "Put Down the Pistol" meetings. These people needed more than just job opportunities, he thought. And that's when he came up with the idea for the "resource quilt."

The resource quilt is a network of service agencies, with the Better Family Life building serving as the hub. Residents can come to Clark with any issue — "I'm pregnant" or "I'm hooked on crack" or "I need a lawyer" — and Clark can direct them to the person or organization willing to help. The idea is roughly based on the settlement houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where immigrants and poor people with few connections could go to a single trusted source for any need.

"All these people have different needs, and we can't meet them all," says White, "but what we do have is the most important thing, which is that they come and ask."

Over time, as Clark and White reached out to other organizations, the network grew. The physical manifestation of the resource quilt is on display behind all those folding chairs at 6017 Natural Bridge Avenue: tables covered with pamphlets for services, from Assisting Children of Prison Parents to Head Start, and business cards of lawyers and agency directors.

White saw something else in those packed meetings: an army of eager volunteers. They couldn't send outreach workers to knock on doors three times a week anymore, but they could saturate the neighborhoods every Saturday with dozens and dozens of converts to the movement, many of whom — reformed thugs like McClain and Robinson and Houston and Willingham — served as walking examples of the movement's power.

"You have to find people, local guys that have the ear of the least connected people, young people, the ones that are out on the street, that aren't getting the services," says White. "What inspired me about what James was doing was that he had those same guys that at one point were the targets of the outreach now becoming the instruments of the outreach. That's pretty critical. That you're able to get those guys who were doing that stuff to say, 'OK, I'm going to come in and go out and give testimony that the chances are that your life can get better if you come in and do this.'"

Four years ago Kenneth McClain spent Saturdays slanging drugs and getting high. But today he is standing in the middle of the intersection of Natural Bridge Avenue and Grand Boulevard, passing out fliers.

It's hot — one of those triple-digit afternoons in the St. Louis summer. But when the light turns red, McClain, sweat-soaked white T-shirt pasted to his skin, springs into action, weaving between vehicles holding up two leaflets, one about "Put Down the Pistol" and the other about a green jobs training program at the MET Center.

Some drivers look straight ahead and ignore him. Others roll down their windows, and McClain says, "Here you go, brother," or "We're trying to get people to put down the pistols," or "If you know anyone trying to get a job," depending on which message he thinks will best connect with the recipient. At the bottom of the leaflets, it says: "Interested in crime reduction and job training? Join the Men Claim the Neighborhood every Saturday at 10 a.m., 6017 Natural Bridge."

Ostensibly, saturating a neighborhood with fliers seems like an underwhelming effort to reach people. But the restraint is by design.

"The lion tamer doesn't tame a lion in the jungle," Clark tells his troops one Saturday. "He doesn't run up behind the tree and say, 'Roll over.' He takes the lion out of the jungle, into a controlled environment, so that the lion can receive it. We can't deliver the message to these brothers in their element. You can't talk to the brother at the base of the projects, smelling urine and the elevator that don't work and a sandbox full of glass. He's not gonna receive a message.

"But if you bring him here, sit him down, talk to him, he sees the pictures of other young brothers on the wall, he meets me, meets Mr. Bush, meets some of the other guys, now he's more receptive. I don't stand out there on Kossuth and give him a fifteen-minute lecture. I say, 'Man, if you wanna change, come up to 6017 Natural Bridge.'"

McClain came up to 6017 Natural Bridge for the same reason as many of Clark's other soldiers — a friend had attended a few of those Saturday-morning meetings and convinced him to check it out.

"I never seen so many positive black people in one room," he says. "To be a part of something positive, it's like a new kind of high."

And then there was Clark himself.

"He was really the first father figure I ever had," says McClain.

Even at the height of their drug dealing, McClain, Willingham and Robinson say that a large part of them thirsted for somebody to come in and offer a different path. The father figure who tells them straight up that they're going to get killed if they keep hustlin' and runnin' with gangs, who calls them out for missing a job interview, who challenges them to go to college and move out of their mom's house and buy a car — because a man isn't supposed to be borrowing his girlfriend's.

"The first time I came in, I was like, 'Whatever, I'll see what this is about,'" says Robinson. "Then he went up there, and he did the speech. And the dude, he's a modern-day — and I hate to compare anybody to anybody — but he's a modern-day Martin Luther King. The dude is powerful. His words really possess power. He has a lot of energy. He gives off a lot of energy. And it was just like, this dude, he's real."

They canvas neighborhoods every week, walk up to packs of shirtless young men with dreadlocks and ball caps standing on street corners and hand them fliers, because they know that there's a chance at least one of those guys is looking for a way out. And they know that once that young man sets foot in 6017 Natural Bridge on Saturday morning and hears Clark speak, he'll be passing out fliers by the afternoon, and he'll be back the next Saturday with one or two of those other guys from the street corner.

They know it because it happened to them.

"You see all these people from all these different neighborhoods, who are ex-dealers, maybe even still dealers, who are ex-dope fiends, maybe even still dope fiends, ex-alcoholics, maybe even still alcoholics," says Robinson. "They're all in the same room. For the same cause. And guess what? This is week after week after week after week. And none of them are getting paid. They're volunteering to be here. The dude has the message."

James Clark grew up in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, just northwest of downtown St. Louis. Raised by his mother and stepfather, he was a mischievous child. His mother sent him to Catholic school, but he got into fights and was suspended multiple times. So after sixth grade, she switched him to public school, telling him, "If you're going to behave like this, you can behave like this for free."

After graduating from Business and Office High School of St. Louis in 1985, Clark enlisted in the army, where he was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado for three years.

"My whole belief of taking the streets comes from my military training," he says. "Whenever we would do field operations, it was all about having soldiers with boots on the ground. That was a common phrase: 'We gotta have boots on the ground.'"

When Clark returned to St. Louis at 21, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He spent his days delivering furniture for a rental company and his nights partying with friends. During one night of partying, a friend asked him if he had ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He said that he hadn't and went on partying. A week later, he spotted the book on his mother's bookshelf. Bored and curious, he started reading.

"That book transformed my entire life," he says. "I was drinking 40s and smoking weed when I started reading the book, and by the time I got done reading the book, oh, I was on fire for the community. I was ablaze."

He started volunteering for Better Family Life and grew close with its founder, Malik Ahmed. He stopped delivering furniture and took a position with the St. Louis Public Schools' Role Model program. His job was to find gainfully employed African Americans — lawyers, plumbers, Rams players — to speak at the 68 schools he oversaw.

"I really saw how one conversation, how one interaction, could have a profound effect on a young person," he says.

One of his most frequent speakers was a young St. Louis circuit clerk named Freeman Bosley Jr. Bosley took an interest in Clark and offered him a job as an associate circuit clerk, which he eventually accepted. A year later Bosley ran for mayor, and Clark, charismatic and relentless, handled the campaign's field operations.

Bosley won, becoming the city's first African American mayor, and brought the 25-year-old Clark with him to city hall as an administrative assistant. From that position, Clark worked on Bosley's community-outreach effort— expanding neighborhood and recreational programs and scheduling town-hall meetings. He canvassed north St. Louis and recruited residents into job-training programs. "Basically the same stuff I'm doing now," he says.

It was at city hall that Clark first cultivated his network of soldiers. For instance, he found Willingham, then a high-level drug dealer, playing craps in the projects and hooked him up with a construction gig, his first legitimate job.

After Bosley lost reelection in 1997, Ahmed scooped up Clark for Better Family Life's community-outreach division. One of Clark's first assignments was to bring in people to the organization's job-training program at the newly built MET Center. So Clark — what else? — hit the streets, passing out fliers at every barbershop and nail salon and housing project he could find.

Every enrollment cycle filled.

There is little to no evidence showing that community-mobilization strategies reduce crime. In 1997, criminologist Lawrence Sherman headed a team of researchers at the National Institute of Justice who wrote up a 300-plus-page report for Congress called "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."

On the topic of community mobilization, Sherman wrote: "The scientific evidence that communities matter is strong. The evidence that serious crime is concentrated in a very small number of communities is even stronger. But the link between those facts and the design between prevention programs is very thin indeed."

A big reason for this, according to Robert Bursik, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a friend of White, is that residents of impoverished communities are often disillusioned by all the programs that have come in, promising to improve their neighborhoods, and failed.

"There's a sense of abandonment," he says. "If you've got this sense of abandonment, why the hell would you try to change it, because it's not gonna change. Your mom will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' Your grandma will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' So Norm's gonna have to come in and convince these folks that this is the real deal. Now, Norm's got some advantages. He's a project boy from the Bronx. That's a whole lot different than if some white guy, white college professor that had grown up in Town & Country is gonna say, 'I feel your pain, and I know how we can fix it.' Well, everybody can see through that bullshit."

White's background is unusual for an academic. He grew up in the Dyckman Houses on 204th Street, just across the Harlem River from the Bronx. After graduating with a degree in history from Marist College, he spent fifteen years counseling juvenile delinquents before going back to school and getting his doctorate in criminology at the University at Albany-SUNY in 1993.

His approach to research is unorthodox. Academics who study inner-city crime, he noticed, often don't understand the nuances of impoverished communities. Because of the pressure to publish, they tend to drop in, conduct their research and then leave. White, in contrast, immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

"This kind of community work is time intensive," he says. "And sometimes that doesn't fit into the routine of sitting down and writing. You get less reward for going out and hanging out and trying to do things like change communities and more for publishing papers in journals."

This "publish or perish" paradigm, he argues, is why so many inner-city programs, particularly community-mobilization strategies, have failed in the past. Researchers, often underestimating the interconnectedness of the forces that cause urban blight, end up falling back on models that target a single "cause": crime or drugs or declining education or unemployment or gangs or limited health care. The result is a sort of Whac-a-Mole game.

"We target aspects of a huge problem," White says. "We put Band-Aids on cuts all over the place. There are all these programs right now designed to make a change in communities. And they're all doing the same thing. They're saying, 'Find the problem, and fix that one thing and we'll be OK.'"

White and Clark instead constructed the Neighborhood Alliance model to be dynamic, to address all the negative forces that plague a neighborhood.

It's a daunting task.

"I admire Norm for what they're trying to do," says Bursik. "But, goddamn, I mean, you're getting at the structural roots. That's not easy to shake."

But while the plan to saturate a community with resources and personal attention may be ambitious, it is not unique. The most promising parallel is the much-better-funded Harlem Children's Zone, created by Geoffrey Canada in the 1990s. While Canada's model centers on charter schools, he also developed a network of social services to address all the peripheral needs of the students, things like health clinics for families, violence-prevention initiatives and "Baby College" workshops for new parents.

Measuring the actual effect of any model can be tough. Since 2009, the crime rate has decreased by 36 percent in Hamilton Heights and 31 percent in Penrose, compared to 8 percent in St. Louis as a whole. But there are too many variables, and there's been too little research to definitively link these numbers to any particular initiative.

For instance, in the last few years Hamilton Heights has had a neighborhood-accountability board installed, a police command van added, the Department of Justice's community-based "Weed and Seed" program initiated, and, after police officer Norvelle Brown was shot and killed by a fifteen-year-old in 2007, the police increased their presence throughout the neighborhood. Were all these factors equally responsible? Or was one significantly more effective than the others?

Measuring the model's effectiveness, though, is White's next task. Before he and Clark expand Neighborhood Alliance, they want to fine-tune it. He's been gathering data. On some days, Clark's platoon hands out surveys in addition to fliers. The surveys ask residents what resources they need, what needs are being met and how they think the neighborhood can be improved. It won't be a band of outsiders dropping in and knocking on their doors. It'll be neighborhood guys like McClain and Robinson.

White and Clark hope for the model to be replicable in other cities. In 1982, social scientists posited that maintaining order in urban neighborhoods could prevent outbreaks of more serious crime — and the theory, known as Broken Windows, was used to set policy in numerous cities after its success in New York in the late '80s and early '90s. With poverty deepening across the Midwest and Rust Belt, St. Louis might offer a relevant laboratory for a new age: If you can fix St. Louis in 2011, you might be able to fix Cleveland and Detroit and Gary, too.

Of course, any assessment of Neighborhoods Alliance raises the question: How much of its effectiveness is tied to the model, and how much is tied to James Clark?

"You have to be able to replicate the model without the dynamic leader," says White. "It can't just be about personality. Because when that leader isn't there, what happens to your model?"

Looks like two or three hundred people are in line outside St. Louis Community College-Forest Park's theater. They're all here to get warrants cleared at Better Family Life's amnesty program. This year, Clark got 44 municipalities, including the city of St. Louis, to forgive outstanding misdemeanor warrants for those who participate in the program and then face their original charges in court.

This line may be the most telling sign of Clark and Better Family Life's credibility around St. Louis. Halfway up the concrete ramp, a man in a red polo tells the woman next to him that he couldn't believe he was about to get his four warrants forgiven. "Coulda swore this'd be a sting," he says with a chuckle.

But people know Clark. He's built a brand, and if Mr. Clark says your warrants will be cleared, you can believe him.

The auditorium fills up, and Clark takes the stage. Under his black suit jacket is a white T-shirt with "Put Down the Pistol" in large maroon letters.

"Lemme tell you how this whole amnesty thing started," he says to the crowd, as they scribble away filling out vouchers for the amnesty. "We would take in an individual. We would give them the necessary education. We would give them the necessary skills. We would help them get credentials. We would walk them through the oral interview, help them prepare for the written exam. We'd take them all the way to the point of getting a job. They would get hired. Monday would be their first day. Monday, they would meet their supervisor. He would take them to their cubicle, show them their desk, hand them their employee handbook. And he'd say, 'By Wednesday you need to have a clear police record check to human resources.' Tuesday would be their last day."

Clark has given this exact speech at least 50 times over the course of the three-day amnesty program, each time with the energy and conviction of the first time. Amnesty is just like any other resource Clark and Better Family Life offer: bait to get people to listen to his message.

He talks about the importance of education and how it's not valued enough in inner-city neighborhoods: "One thing I know for sure is when we say you should go to college, we might as well say you should go to Saturn. Or you should go to Jupiter. Or you should go to Pluto. It's that distant. Fellas, this is how it works. It's either education...or incarceration. State pen...or Penn State."

The audience laughs. They have stopped scribbling. Every eye is on Clark.

"It's like our young people have a swing set, a seesaw and a sandbox. And that's all they have to play on.... And then we take 'em to a place called Six Flags. And they see the Screamin' Eagle, the water park, the roller coasters that take 'em to the sky and drop 'em down. They could eat turkey legs this big. They can ride ride after ride after ride after ride.... They will never go back to that sandbox ever again..."

Clark says he wants to introduce a living example of how education can open up new worlds. He calls McClain to the stage.

"This young brother, Kenneth McClain," he says, "when we first met him, two or three years ago, he had dreads down to here. His pants were sagging. He reeked of marijuana."

McClain grins bashfully, hands in his pockets.

"Now Kenneth is about to graduate from Forest Park Community College with an associate's degree."

After Clark finishes speaking, the crowd cheers. Over the three days, more than 34,000 people get vouchers and hear Clark speak.

In a seat near the front, Ahmed smiles and nods his head at Clark.

"It's always individuals that drive causes," he says. "And sometimes you have individuals that's got all of the ingredients. It's all there. They're wired to do exactly what they're doing. James is such a person."

Clark steps down from the stage and takes a seat toward the back of the auditorium, beside his wife of nine years, Pechaz, who works in the research department at Washington University and has been helping usher in the crowd today. They slouch into the red cushions, relaxing before the next wave.

"Boy, I'm tired," he says.

It's draining work. Just last year, in the span of a few months, Clark's car got shot up in front of his house in Penrose, somebody stole a copper spout from his property, and then somebody cut his alarm system and stole an aluminum door.

Clark's wife didn't feel safe, and for the first time in his life, "James Clark left the 'hood," as he says. They moved into a loft downtown and let the bank foreclose on their Penrose house. Clark couldn't afford to pay for two properties because trying to fix St. Louis isn't a lucrative business — he makes $48,000 a year. But that's fine. He has no biological kids and only two hobbies: lifting weights and political campaigning (he's worked on campaigns for Congressman William "Lacy" Clay Jr. and St. Louis county executive Charlie Dooley).

Beyond that, God and family, his life is all about the movement. Everything else is a useless distraction.

"Too many times, these young people, they've seen nothing else," he says. "So what they have, right in front of them, right outside their front door, is all that they experience. And if they ever go and experience something different, they're not going back to that. And that dynamic is really what keeps me doing what I am doing. Because to see that happen time after time after time after time..."

It is a perpetual struggle. Clark can tame the lions, but they still have to go back into the jungle. Last summer, McClain — one of Clark's biggest success stories and a foot soldier for three years — was robbed at gunpoint while passing out fliers along Natural Bridge Avenue. That night, McClain admits, he was overpowered by his old demons. He and an older gang member he used to run with hopped in a car and drove around, guns loaded, looking for the robbers.

They didn't find them. A week later he found out that the men had been arrested.

"That's God, you hear me?" says McClain. "'Cause I was gon' kill 'em. And now they're locked up."

One of Clark's soldiers has just gone to jail. Earlier in the week, "Fred" was hanging out with a friend who sold drugs. There was a drive-by. The police came. Everybody in his friend's house was arrested, and Fred was charged with intent to distribute.

Clark had warned him out about hanging out with that guy. The 25-year-old had turned his life around since meeting Clark and enrolled in community college. But Fred and the drug dealer go way back. Fred calls him his brother. He wasn't just going to stop kicking it with his boy.

So now he's at the St. Louis City Justice Center, awaiting trial. It's his first time in jail, and nobody has come to visit him yet. He has no idea Clark has come to see him today.

When the cop leads Fred into the cubicle-size station, Clark is sitting behind the thick visiting room glass. The two men stare at each other, both leaning forward so that their faces are only a couple of feet apart. There are 30 seconds of silence.

Then Fred rests his forehead on top of his folded hands and begins to sob. His tears drip down his fingers and onto the hard white table. He slowly lifts his head, wipes his face and looks at Clark with big eyes, biting down on his bottom lip.

"So how's everything going?" Fred asks.

"Going pretty bad, man," responds Clark, right to the point. "Terrible, actually. Can't be good with you in here."

They discuss the situation. How the charges carry ten to twenty years. How he couldn't afford the $20,000 bail. How he misses his son. How his friend — his "brother," the drug dealer — made bail. How he tried to call that friend because he needs somebody to check in on his sick mother, but the guy changed his phone number.

Clark tells him he'll call his lawyer friend, and they might be able to get his time down to 120 days. Hopefully. But he better not get out and do some stupid stuff that puts him right back in.

"This right here, this ain't gon' happen two times. I ain't coming here twice," says Clark. "Anything else you got to say?"

"I just want my son, Mr. Clark. I just wanna go home."

"You got to mature, man. Just like you don't watch cartoons no more. Just like you don't play with toy trucks no more. You can't be hanging around mothafuckas packin' pistols no more."

Clark rarely cusses. It's possible this is the first time Fred has heard him cuss.

"You know, man, I'm glad you're in here," says Clark, firmly.

"Me too. I've been reading the Bible."

James Clark has been fighting the streets of St. Louis for fifteen years. He keeps up the fight because he believes things can change. But he's no fool. He knows what change looks like.

He doesn't even miss a beat.

"Everybody reads the Bible in the joint."