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Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu
March 02, 2017
Call number: 2016.027.1.07
OKECHUKWU: OK. This is Amaka Okechukwu. It is March 2nd, 2017. We're atBrooklyn Historical Society, and I'm interviewing Rudolph Suggs for the Voices of Crown Heights Project. Do you prefer Rudolph or Rudy?
SUGGS: Rudy is good.
OKECHUKWU: OK. And we're at Brooklyn Historical Society. So to start off, canyou just state your name, your birthdate, and where you were born?
SUGGS: My name is Rudolph Suggs. I was born [date redacted for privacy], 1962,in Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn.
OKECHUKWU: So can you tell me some memories of growing up in Crown Heights?
SUGGS: Growing up in Crown Heights was, it was nice. That far back, I mean ourmothers used to let us stay out on the street until two o'clock in the morning. We didn't have to worry about nothing. But when she came outside, she didn't have to say nothing to us. All she had to do was just come out on the stoop, and we knew it was time to go in the house. So we'd be up the block playing 1:00football, we'd just see our mother, we just run in the house. Because there was seven of us, so we would just run to the house, she said, "Alright, it's time for y'all to go take your showers now." Growing up in Crown Heights was nice; you know, you didn't have to worry about anything. You know, your neighbors was friendly, and people respected one another, there was no violence or nothing like that. You didn't have to worry about nobody snatching your kids or anything like that, because everybody was always looking out for each other. You know, there was like five big families on the block. There was the Wiggins, the Suggs, the Carmichaels, the Hones, the Lewises. You know, we used to get out there and play all day. We used to set up electric racing car sets in people's yards, and we stayed out there from sun up to sundown, just racing cars. But it was, was nice growing up there.
OKECHUKWU: What were some of your favorite things to do when you were young;growing up?
SUGGS: Some of my favorite things to do; we used to go on the other side of2:00Eastern Parkway, and they had these alleys that-- you used to go through them in the back of people's houses. They had cherry trees, apple trees, peach trees, and pear trees, and we used to go back there and pick the fruit and eat it. Then after we had so much of it, and we didn't want no more, we'd just throw it at each other and have fun that way. That's what we used to do when we was young, because we didn't have nothing else to do. Then we used to go to Prospect Park, right, and go fishing. We would never eat the fish, but we would catch the fish and we would throw it back. I remember one time we went to Prospect Park and it was me and my next door neighbor. We got into an argument, so he took my sneaker and he threw it in the water. So I took both of his sneakers and threw them in the water, and I remember we both coming back on the D train without no sneakers on. [laughter] You know, those were some of the-- those were the memories.
OKECHUKWU: Can you move your mic [inaudible]? Yeah, I think it's fine. So you3:00mentioned Prospect Park, what are some of the favorite places? Like were there any sort of, yeah, places that when you think of Crown Heights, growing up in Crown Heights, like the sites, particular places that you would go?
SUGGS: I mean we used to go to Prospect Park a lot. But my father, well myfather, you know, he used to take seven kids and pile us-- He used to have a Galaxy 500 station wagon, with the fake wood panels on the side. He used to pile us up in that station wagon. He would just take us all throughout Brooklyn. He said that way, if you ever get lost, y'all will know how to get home. Without taking the train, even if it was-- I don't-- Williamsburg somewhere, you can walk home. So that's what he used to do, and he used to take us all over the place, especially like Christmastime; see all the lights, decorations, and stuff like that. My father was very good for that. That's why today, people say, "How you know about these places in Brooklyn?" I said, "My father used to show us these things." And it was, it was nice. Growing up with 4:00seven kids in the family-- seven brothers and sisters, right-- it was ironic, because my mother used to wake us up in the morning time; she used to wake us up like 10 minutes apart. Because we all had to go in the bathroom. We all stayed in this one, this one first floor apartment. You know, two bunkbeds, and my sisters slept on two bunkbeds, and the twin sized bed, and we all used to have to get up and go to school. So my mother used to wake us up 10 minutes apart. But she always had breakfast ready for us, stuff like that, in the morning. Sometimes what we had for breakfast, we had for lunch. You know? But we made the best of what we had. You know, back then it was considered like a middle class family. We lived. Unfortunately, you know, it didn't seem like that then. Unlike now, it didn't seem like it, you know, like we was middle class back then.
OKECHUKWU: So what do you mean? Can you explain that?5:00
SUGGS: I mean back then, it was like you got more for your money's worth.Right? You used to get three loaves of bread for a dollar. There used to be an A&P right around the corner; there was an A&P every other block. And my mother used to send us to the store, she'd say, "Go around the corner and get three loaves of bread." Three loaves of bread to feed seven people is a lot. That was good for us, you know what I'm saying? Now, you can't even buy a loaf of bread for a dollar. It's $2.39. So that's the thing, now? Wow. You know, if we could just only go back to those days, to make the money that we make now, and go back into them days, you'd be living. [laughter]
OKECHUKWU: What did you parents do for a living?
SUGGS: Well my mother stayed home, and my father worked for the MTA. So heworked for the MTA, you know, and we used to stay on Herkimer Street in Bed-Stuy. So in-- something like '69, '70-- between '69 to '71, we moved to 6:00Crown Heights. Because he had bought a house over there on Lincoln Place. Right? And when he purchased the house, the house was going probably about $32,000, I think. So, we lived there, and we live to right now, to the present day. It was pretty nice.
OKECHUKWU: What was like, the racial makeup of the neighborhood when you movedto Crown Heights?
SUGGS: Well, you know, it was a mixture of Dominicans-- Then, back then theDominicans had all the bodegas. Right, it wasn't like it is now, where Arabs have it, you know. It was Dominicans, it was Black people, and it was the Hasidic Jews. That was the makeup of Crown Heights back then. And you still 7:00had mainstream White people that lived in certain houses on the block, still across the street in the apartment buildings. And that was ironic that we moved on the block and they still had White people that lived on the block. Right? And then you see how they moved out over the years; you see how all the Jewish people moved off the block over the years. Nowadays, you see how all of them is moving back on the block, buying the houses, and moving back into the same apartment buildings they moved out from.
OKECHUKWU: When did White folks start leaving, the ones on your block?
SUGGS: Mainly they died off. And like, in the late '70s, they started dyingoff. And the houses stayed there. No-- I don't know if they had kids or not, but they stayed in decay for a while, and then people just came in and, you know, bought the houses from the taxes and stuff like that. And that was it. I 8:00remember one guy, we used to call him Mr. Toolie because he was -- used to come up, he didn't care what he seen in the street, he just keep the block clean. Anything he seen in the street that was dirty or something, he used to just clean it. And you know, these are the things you remember so vividly like it was today. You know? There was so much going on in Crown Heights. And then, as you got older, as we got older, we started on other things, you know; start chasing the girls, and having fun, and the next you know, the neighborhood started changing, changing. Then you have an influx of Panamanian people that was coming in. Then you have the Jamaicans that was coming in. Right, then we started moving towards the early crack ages.
OKECHUKWU: When did all the Caribbean folks start coming into the neighborhood?9:00
SUGGS: About in-- seventies. I mean--
OKECHUKWU: OK, late '70s?
SUGGS: Late '70s, seventy-- '79. That's when they started coming in theneighborhood. Because the majority that started coming in the neighborhood didn't live in the neighborhood; they were coming here to sell their drugs. So they really didn't live in the neighborhood. So, they migrated there to do their illicit business. So it started; the neighborhood started transforming, right? It started going down, down, down. But, it's ironic because you would see these guys standing out there, and you would see so much money coming through that area; you would see all these fancy-- these nice cars, nice clothes, and you know. Growing up, we didn't have role models that we see doing 10:00these things, so we started emulating them; trying to get what they had. You know, that's how I got caught up in the madness. What'd I tell you? I did a little 18 months in jail because I wanted to sell drugs; I wanted to have what they had. Not knowing there was another way of going about it; just finishing school, and doing what I had to do. So that occurred, you know. Now we're moving down towards like, the Crown Heights riots and everything. And I had got-- I had gotten locked up when that happened. I was locked up. But it's ironic I'm sitting here in Rikers Island, watching all this going on where I live at, on TV. And I'm sitting there, I'm looking at these things. I'm like, "This is crazy." At the same time that was going on, you had the 77th Precinct 11:00scandal that was going on, too. You know, you had Officer Winters, Blondies, and Fitzgerald; these guys was going around, giving people guns and giving you badges, "Yo, go up in that spot and rob them." You know? "And just give us what you give us, you keep the rest." There was times-- they had caught me one time in the hallway, and they took all the money out of my pocket, and drugs, they told me don't leave the building. And I stood in that hallway until they left. When they came out, that was it. That was a day I didn't go to jail. And the next time they had-- they came to me, they said, you know-- they searched me and finally, they said, "Who do you work for?" I said, "Roy." "All right," they gave me all my stuff back. These are things that used to go on back then in Crown Heights.
OKECHUKWU: We're going to get back to that. Let me -- sorry, let me back up12:00slightly, a little bit. So, do you remember when the blackout happened in '77?
SUGGS: When the blackout happened in '77, it's ironic, because everybody was onthe stoop that day when that happened. Right? And I had to have been no more than what, maybe 15, somewhere around there though. And I was sitting there, you know, all the kids were happy, "Yay!" So, my mother looked at me, she said, "Where you going?" "I'm going to Utica Avenue." She was looking at me, "Why you going to Utica?" "I don't know, I'm just going to Utica Avenue." So my mother was funny. "You do what you want to do, don't bring it in my house." Right? That's her whole thing. Don't bring your illicit games in my house, or anything like that. So, a whole crowd of us go to Utica Avenue and we just see 13:00all the stores open up. People done broke into them, stuff like that. That was when Lee dungarees was out, and all these type of jeans, and stuff like that. So, they had a, they had an electronics store, yeah, and had a discount store called Giant Discounts. So I went into the electronics store, I think I was the littlest person in there. I went to the electronics store, and they had opened up a hole about this big, and I'm going in there, I'm saying, "Oh wow, TVs, color TVs," passing them out. I'm passing them through the door, and I was coming out. By the time I got out, I didn't have a TV. We couldn't take -- the TVs I pushed out; somebody already took them. So I said, "This is not going to work." So I went next door, and they had broke into the store next door. They had a liquor store and Giant Discount, and I don't know, they had -- the next day we had sneakers, we had jeans, we had everything. There was a building across the street from my house, I couldn't take it in the house, so there was an apartment building across the street called 1170 Lincoln Place. That next 14:00day, we had a store inside of 1170 Lincoln Place. [laughter] We had everything that we had in that store, in that hallway, selling it. We were selling jeans for $5. We were selling sneakers for $10. And that day, that was it. I didn't even, I didn't even -- the blackout didn't even phase nobody.
OKECHUKWU: What do you remember going through your mind, like when you weregoing to Utica Avenue, with your, with--I'm assuming-- your friends?
SUGGS: Well I was going to Utica Avenue --
OKECHUKWU: Can you move your -- sorry, the mic [unintelligible].
SUGGS: Where do you want me to, move it here?
OKECHUKWU: Right there.
SUGGS: Right here. When I was going to Utica Avenue, I was just --
OKECHUKWU: Hang on. It should just [unintelligible] a little feedback, a little--15:00
SUGGS: Move it right here?
OKECHUKWU: Yeah. Uh-oh. OK.
SUGGS: When I was going -- is it OK now?
SUGGS: When I was going to Utica Avenue that day, I -- that night, actually, Idon't know. I was just going to hang out. I was just going where the crowd was going; see what they was doing, that's all. I was just following everybody else. So we had to -- there was nothing else to do. It was pitch black, nobody had no electricity, there was no cell phones then. You know, I just followed everybody else. I get to Utica Avenue and see what happened. But there was, there was a couple of jewelry stores-- the owners were standing out there with their guns, so we bypassed them-- and those two places was the only ones that was available at that time. And there was a couple of supermarkets and stuff like that, but if anything, they would have had to throw the food out anyway, 16:00because that day, you know. But --
OKECHUKWU: Did the stores open back up? You know, after those things,sometimes the stores just never opened --
SUGGS: Yeah, well on Utica Avenue, everything was replaced with better stuff.Everything was replaced with better stuff. Even though it was higher. Because you know, when we would do stuff in our neighborhood, it'd always go up higher the next day when they refinished, when they finished fixing it up. They replaced a lot of the stuff out there, unlike Broadway. Broadway was a disaster area, right. Nostrand Avenue was a disaster area, because I remember a shoe store, they used to have; Syl's Shoe Store Trophy Shop. That's where almost everybody in Brooklyn used to go to get their shoes and sneakers, from over there. That was a disaster. I don't think-- He really never recovered after that. You know, and that was pretty much about that. I remember the second 17:00blackout, too. I remember that one, that one there was -- it wasn't as exciting as the first one. Because somehow or another, police was more in tune with this one than they was before. So really, no looting or nothing really happened that night, just that you was just out there. And then I was older, so I wasn't looking into those type of things then either. So, we was just out there on the stoop, just worrying about people getting home, doing what they had to do. That's how that turned out.
OKECHUKWU: And what kind of kid were you? How would you describe yourself as akid? Were you into school, or were you in-- like what kind of kid were you?
SUGGS: I was your average Black kid; didn't want to do my homework, reallydidn't want to go to school, wasn't a dummy. I grew up with three brothers and 18:00three sisters, and the middle child, next to the last-- and spoiled to a degree because they used to spoil my brothers and spoil me-- and I mean, I wasn't a bad kid, but I got myself into things. You know?
OKECHUKWU: Like what kind of things?
SUGGS: A lot of fights. You know, I didn't start-- I didn't start gettinglocked up until I was 24 years old. So, and the path that I took, I didn't have to take that path. Because like I said, I come from -- back then, it was a middle-class family. So the things that I seen going on, the things that I seen-- I didn't have to lead that type of life. All I had to do was go to school, like momma said, "Go to school, you'll get anything you want." You know, but when you're a rebellious kid, you don't hear nothing your mother got to say. And pretty much how these kids are today, that's how I was; kind of 19:00rebellious, did what I wanted to do, didn't want to listen to nobody else. Until I got a little older, then I had to listen to somebody. I had to listen to somebody tell me, "Go to that cell there and lock yourself in." And that's when I really started taking heed to things that was going on in my life. You know, and growing up with seven brother-- with seven siblings; it had its good to it and it had its bad to it. Because I never had to have no clothes, because I always just -- I didn't care about my brothers' hand-me-downs and stuff like that. Because as long as they were passing, they was in good condition, and I had the latest things that they had, it came to me. So I didn't care, you know? You envy your brothers and stuff like that, and you liked your brothers because 20:00of what they had, and what they was giving you. So I didn't have a problem with that. Just that I wanted to do what I wanted to do. That was a problem. You know, my mother stuck by me the best she could; she did everything she can for me, right? It's just that I didn't want to listen, what she had to do. My father, excellent man. Excellent man, that was my stepfather. That's my father. But he took seven kids and put us in the house and raised us like we was his. He may not have been my biological father, but that was my father, and I respect that man to the fullest. You know, no man would do that today. And that's a rarity, that he took seven kids and raised us all, put us in a house, and when my father retired from Transit, when he got his first check, he said, "Come on, we're going out." He went to Fulton Street, and he bought him some hats. And that hat store is still there, too, on Fulton Street. He took -- he 21:00went to Fulton Street, he bought some hats, and he bought him a couple old pimped-out suits back then. [laughter] Yeah. And he took me to a toy store, he said, "What you want?" And I remember him buying me an electric racing car set; and it was the AFX electric racing car set. And he bought that for me. Any time that man got his check, he would come give me money. Me and my little sister, he would come and give us money, and he'd swear, "You know I'm not your father, but you know I'll do anything for you as long as you're doing the right thing." No, you're my father. You just ain't donate no sperm, but you're my father. But, you know, that's how we was. You know, I would never look at him no other way but my father; good man. And I mean, there was a time that we all 22:00slept in one place, right? And we had tenants upstairs. Well, first he said, "Once these people go," and they was Caribbean, and they was from Jamaica. He said "Once these people get out of here-- it's too crowded down here, you're getting older-- you're going to go upstairs." When they got out of there, we had room to breathe. [laughter] So, all the boys moved upstairs, the girls stayed downstairs. Oh man, we lived there for a long time. And we still have the house today. Just me and my brother, and my mother's there. The only reason why we there, because she's stubborn; she don't want to go nowhere, she's 85 years old. So, we have stayed there to take care of her and help out with the house. Because it's getting more expensive living there than it is in an apartment. The house is already paid for. It's, like, the taxes and the water 23:00bill; it's crazy. And like I said, growing up in Crown Heights wasn't bad.
OKECHUKWU: With all the siblings, is it like a close knit family? Or I canimagine with so many people, it's like you can be real close, and then probably at each other's throats at the next minute.
SUGGS: There was times we was at each other's throats, and you know, an ironicpart about that now, right? My brother would walk past me right now and won't say nothing. But let me lay upstairs in my room and don't come out, he knock on the door, "Yo, you all right? You doing--" Like I was just saying, I was sick Monday; he found out that I was sick, and I went to the hospital. They was going to keep me; talking about they had -- I had pneumonia. I didn't have no 24:00pneumonia. So he had a fit; he's calling around trying to find out where I'm at. But I'm already home now. I was just in the back room, and the door was closed, and I was laying there asleep. So he came to me like, "Yo man, I was calling all these hospitals, looking for you. Why you ain't tell somebody you was home?" And that's how he is. We be in the street, he won't say nothing to me, or stuff like that. But we inside, it's like we're the best -- just like my sister and brother; when something happens, we all come together as one, and stand as one. And up to today, my mother don't understand that, either. She said, "You act like you don't like each other, but when something happens, I do see that y'all come together, and y'all handle the business that needs to be handled." That's what you're supposed to do. You know? There's times we was at each other's neck, you know? Normal, dysfunctional family; we're at each other's necks, we have our arguments and, you know, we're coming out. Me and my little sister; I was always protective of her, right? Because after a while, 25:00when I was going to school, you know, they had this thing where they had-- used to send us out. They sent buses out to the White area for schooling.
OKECHUKWU: Where were you bused?
SUGGS: I was bused to PS 95. I think it's out in Gravesend, I think. So theybused us out there, so we used to get up 6:30 in the morning and go stand on Schenectady and Eastern Parkway for the bus to pick us up, and take us to PS 95. But I appreciate that part; that going to school there, because when I was going to my local school, I didn't know how to read. I didn't know how to read. But the, the two years that I stayed out there, by the time I finished out there, I knew how to read, and they had the equipment that taught you how to read. Because they used to have this machine that-- We would sit up there, and they would say, "Well, you've got to go to remedial reading," and I would go to 26:00this class for two hours a day and sit there, and they would put this, this film in this machine, and I could slow it up, and as it goes past, I read the words. And then eventually, I learned how to read, started comprehending more of what I learned, and I got better. Back then, I mean I appreciated that part where I was sent out to school there. I didn't like it.
OKECHUKWU: Yeah, what was it like?
SUGGS: It was like --
OKECHUKWU: I mean were the, were the -- what were the other White studentslike? Were you friends with the White students?
SUGGS: They was cool, because one thing about, I can say that, you know, youhave Jewish and you have Italian out there. So what used to happen, is that I would go out there, and out there, you could go home for lunch. I didn't know nothing about going home for lunch, we had to eat lunch in school. So, we go out there; a couple of times, it was like, "Come on, come to my house, we'll have lunch." Go to their house, have lunch, tuna fish sandwiches. Go across 27:00the street, get pizza for 25 cents. You know? And it was nice. It was nice going out there, right? I mean it's funny, I didn't get into fights out there. I didn't get into no fights out there. The White kids was cool with me, so I didn't ever have a problem with them, right?
But then I came back to my local school again after I started going to juniorhigh school. I came back; I went to 320, and what had happened there is that got mixed up with the same wrong crowd again. Right? And started smoking weed in junior high school. And it's so funny, there used to be this lady named Joy Dixon, used to live across the street; the same building I was talking about, 1170 Lincoln Place. She used to live there, right, and we used to go there and 28:00just hang out, have fun. She had two daughters and they was cool. They used to take us to Jersey, and we used to go all over the place. And we would go there. When I was high, I would go there. I wouldn't go home. When I got out from school, I would go over there. And I would sleep it off, then I would go home. She didn't care. Go over there, sit in the chair, sleep it off, and then go home. But I couldn't get away with that for so much longer. And then, that went on for quite a while, for quite a while. Then as I got into high school and stuff like that, I just, I didn't want to do nothing. And like I said, it was ironic that I did, like, two years of high school, got in an argument with a teacher; we had a fight. Then they wanted to kick me out of school, they sent me back out to the White section again. Abraham Lincoln; and I went to, I went to school out there with my sister. Cool with the White people and everything, 29:00and now I had problems with the Black guys; the Five Percenters in Coney Island. They went to school out there. So it's like, had a problem with them. But it was cool, I got around all of it. And the sad thing about all this is that, one day, my friends, we all go out. All right? I go to the bagel shop and get me a-- get me some bagels. And a hot -- they used to have nice, hot bagels. Get me some bagels, and one of my friends goes in the liquor store; they didn't check ID, they didn't care, they'd sell you liquor there. He goes to get a bottle of Tango. He gets the bottle of Tango. Now we're walking; we're inside the school now, all of them drinking. All of them drinking. Get down there by the pool area; all of them drinking, I'm eating a bagel. So eventually we come to the stairs to walk down the hallway. I run into the assistant principal. 30:00"Oh, all of you seem like you were drinking. Except for you. You come with me." "What happened?" "You're suspended." "For what? I'm not drinking." He said, "No, you're not drinking. But the thing is, you have better sense not to drink, you have better sense not to be with them." This is their stupid logic. His stupid logic. And his -- the thing that was there; I already knew he was already out for me. So, they suspended me. It went into my records, and they said, "Well, you know, you'll be in school an extra two more years, da-da-da, you need to do this. What can you do? We can send you to an alternative high school, and you can get your GED." Okay. Six months later, I'm out of school, 31:00got my GED. Like I said, I wasn't a dummy, I just had to buckle down and do what I had to do. I got my GED. Now all my friends are looking at me, like, "How did you do that?" I said, "I just stayed away from y'all and did what I had to do, because I wasn't going to be 30 years old getting out of high school." Got my GED, went to a couple of business schools. They had a school at CS for data entry accountant. I done that, and you know, got caught up in the drug trade then.
OKECHUKWU: So you already had a job, you said, in data entry before you gotcaught up. So what do you remember about that moment; of just making the decisions to not do what you were doing?
SUGGS: Actually, how I got caught up into that-- I got it for data entry, but Ihad got a job from Greenpoint Savings Bank, and what had happened, we -- I worked there for about a year. That's when they had Bentley's and Roxy's, and 32:00all those clubs was out, so I was hanging out. You know, not in school, my mother wasn't telling me nothing, I was giving her rent money. I was hanging out, and you know, smoking weed, drinking, and all that. So, this is what happens, I -- One day I go, I spend all my money, and I'm like, "Oh how [unintelligible] I've got to give her my rent money. So I go to work that morning. So when I go to work that morning, they sent a lady to me; the lady wanted two teller's checks. And I'll always remember this, she wanted two teller's checks for 675. So when she -- when I done the transaction, she gave me a withdrawal slip. I withdrew the money out of her account, she gave me a withdrawal slip for $700, I withdrew the money out of her account, gave her the 33:00two teller's checks, and gave her $25 change. Well she gave me seven $100 bills. Me, I put the $700 in my pocket. So I'm sitting there, I'm like, I'm nervous now, I'm going crazy. I'm sitting there, I'm like, "Oh my God, how -- what am I doing? I've got this money, I've got rent money, I can't wait to get out of here." I go downstairs. Remember, I gave the lady $25 change out the drawer, so I had to put the $25 back. So I go down, put the $25 back. So by this time, they get a call from the, from the lady, the bank. So the bank manager came and asked me, I said, "Yeah, I had a transaction; that she gave me a withdrawal slip, and she wanted two teller's checks that make up the 675. And I gave it to her. And I gave her $25 change back, because the withdrawal slip 34:00was for $700. He said, he said "OK, was she old? I said, "Yeah, she's like 85, 90, 90 years old, yeah." Which she was; she was like that, she was about that age. So I done the transaction, and now, at the end of the day, I'm trying to approve my money. Now I'm $25 short. Not knowing that I sold somebody a life insurance thing for $25, processed it, and so when I processed it, now I'm $25 over. Now the bank manager's-- everybody's on me now. "Oh, where does this come from?" Da-da-da. They're not saying nothing about the $700. "Where did this come from?" da-da-da-da-da, everything else checks out. "Oh, you're $25 over, it's because of this, the savings bank life insurance." OK. That passed. 35:00About two days later I just quit. They was just so easy, and I see myself just taking advantage of that. My stomach growling, I hope that don't come up in the thing. [laughter] So, I see myself just making it happen, because that wasn't the first time I did something like that. And the cops used to come in from different precincts to cash their checks, and I used to short them $10, $20, some days I'd go home with $200 in my pocket on a certain day. And I seen myself doing certain things that wasn't right. But I wasn't being questioned about it or nothing like that. Even one day they came up with my box, my box was correct, but they timed that the day before payday. I took $200 out of my box so I can go hang out, and you know, they never ordered my box. So I just, one day I just quit. I just quit. [laughter] I just quit. 36:00
OKECHUKWU: So around what year is this?
SUGGS: This was in -- maybe around '83, '84. Somewhere around there.
OKECHUKWU: So, you mentioned that -- So after this period is when you startedto get involved with drugs? It started like that?
SUGGS: Yeah, I started out with weed and then-- Before it was, before it wascrack, they used to call it "coke rock," because back then, they used to say freebasing and stuff like that. Because after that, you know, it got to a degree when Richard Pryor got burned, everybody was more curious to what was this, what was going on. But they called it coke rock. They never called it crack yet. So that's when they started calling it coke rock. So back then, the police see you with it, they wouldn't do nothing to you. They knew it was something illegal, but there was no law against it, so they didn't know what it was. So, they would just take it and throw it away, and take your money, and 37:00that was it. So I got involved in that, and I think I first got put on probation; it was in 1985. And I got--that's my first-- maybe 5 years, I got put on five years. I sold an undercover two vials then, and I got put on probation in 1985.
OKECHUKWU: So what was Crown Heights like during the crack era? I mean, weknow that the '70s --
SUGGS: Oh God.
OKECHUKWU: -- there was heroin, right, in New York.
SUGGS: There was heroin in New York in the '70s. I'm not too familiar withthat part of it, but there was still a bunch of heroin addicts that lived on the next Lincoln. Right? And it's ironic that you say that, because a lot of the heroin addicts started dying off of HIV and AIDS, and they didn't know what they was dying from. But they just noticed all their friends started dying. And 38:00they start, they started smoking crack. So once they started smoking crack, they was done with the heroin and stuff like that. Then they just started withering away and dying. In the '70s, I -- there's not too much I remember about that heroin, you know, I just remember the reminiscence of them in the '80s.
OKECHUKWU: Did crack change the neighborhood for you?
SUGGS: Did it!
OKECHUKWU: Can you explain?
SUGGS: I mean, you see people do some of the craziest things for crack late atnight. I mean, there was times, you know, there was two corrections officers that lived on the block, and they used to pawn their guns to the drug dealers. Yeah, Dupree died, and Kimeke dead, both of them. Right? But they used to pawn 39:00their guns to the drug dealers. And they were New York City corrections officers. Yeah. These are people who I grew up with, just as I know these stories just like the back of my hands. And the same house they used to stay in, it was, it was a guy we called Fruit Mike. Right? He was one of the main guys that the 77th, the crooked cops from the 77th used to mess with. Right? And he was one of the main guys, one of their best friends, you know, he used to have bags of money in his house. And I witnessed this one time, he had got shot in his hand, and I went and knocked on the sister's door, tell her, "You better move everything out of the house, because the police is coming here." So they took everything and threw it in the backyard. Shopping bags full of money. And a man next door, Mr. Bob, he took the money and brought it into his house. Mr. 40:00Bob was about 70 years old then, and he was involved in the crack trade. He used to have all the little young girls around him in his house. He used to have his old friends come and spend their money on them, long as they were around, you know? It was a mess. It was a mess.
OKECHUKWU: This was Lincoln Place?
SUGGS: This was Lincoln Place. And like I tell you, there's a book that theywrote about this. Right? There was three crews that stayed out there and hustled. Right? There was -- they used to call themselves R & R, they was Jamaican. Then you had Roudi Gun, right? They was Jamaican. And then you had some remnants of the Panamanians that used to sell straight cocaine, they had 41:00pushed them down towards Albany Projects. Right? And what happened was, Ronnie and them; Ronnie had got a key of cocaine, and he had just bagged it up in pure tens, dimes and twenties, and made a whole bunch of money. And then he just started importing all his people over. And then he just started selling millions and millions of-- coke-- dollars of cocaine a day around on Troy Avenue. I mean, if you can-- and the next one was Roy. Roy used to own a store over there, and if you can go back to the New York Post, they had a front page, "Roy from Troy." I can't remember the exact year it was, but it's in the New York Post, "Roy from Troy." But it's ironic, because they had an article about him. Right? And he had got shot in his head. But he died, maybe about seven 42:00or eight years ago, and they finally classified it as a homicide. And the bullet stayed in his head for about 25 years. So that happened, right? He's another one; if you told police, they grab you, told them you work for Roy, they wouldn't do nothing to you. They'd just take the money. And, you know, every other week, somebody was getting killed out there on Troy Avenue. In that same particular store I was telling you about, they used to kill people in the store and just drag them outside and throw alcohol and stuff on the floor. You know, and it's ironic because it's -- I was just talking to somebody about these things just yesterday, because there's still people that was out there. They're no longer into it, but there's like three or four of us that remember these things, and there used to be a good hundred people on that corner a day, selling 43:00drugs or stuff like that.
OKECHUKWU: Troy and what corner?
SUGGS: Troy and Lincoln.
OKECHUKWU: Troy and Lincoln.
SUGGS: Right. And we used to just sit there and we'd just talk about it, wewas talking about it the other day, you know. It was something.
OKECHUKWU: So, were you-- in terms of, so I know that, you know-- in terms ofyour peers, you would have, you know, you had other peers that were in the drug game like you [inaudible].
SUGGS: I had other peers-- You see, my thing was this; I had other peers thatwas in it, but they didn't get as close as I was able to with the people who I-- who was dealing with it. Because a lot of times, they would trust me more than they would trust them, because you know, when I got locked up they had like six, 44:00seven, eight rows. Right? And they had me sitting, and they had this-- the midlevel big drug dealers, and they had me sitting in the middle, and out of everybody, I was the only American that got locked up with the Jamaicans. And one day, I was in Rikers Island, I was sitting there, and they called me and they said, "Yo, you're getting out. You've got a visit." And it was two detectives, right? They took me down to the municipal building. Took me downstairs, brought me, brought me to the DA's office. So they sat me, they showed me a whole bunch of pictures. I said, "You think I'm-- You think I'm going to tell y'all something? The same thing y'all know I know, so I don't have to sit here and tell y'all anything. What are you doing?" "Well, what we don't understand; you're the only American amongst the Jamaicans. How did you 45:00get so close to them?" "I don't know, maybe they just trust me." And I would sit there, and they sat there, I didn't tell them anything. They said, "OK, we're going to take you back to jail, and we're not going to reduce your bail, and we're going to press this case." I said, "OK." Next time I went to court, I sat there and God bless my mother, she took $15,000 and she got me a paid lawyer. And when she got that paid lawyer, the lawyer told her, he said, "It's not looking good for your son because he had a prior conviction, and he was on probation." But then after me and that lawyer talked, I said, "Listen, I need for you to go to the DA and I want you to tell him exactly what I'm about to 46:00tell you. Tell him-- off the record though-- you're right, I was there when the sale was made, but the undercover never paid what he said he paid for it. But y'all got to vouch, to say the undercover paid $5,000 for it, which he didn't pay for it. And tell him like this, if you want to take me to trial for this, this is what's going to happen. All the other cases are going to pop up to find out somebody was stealing that money." The lawyer went back and told him. The DA looked at him, and said, "Well, we've got an offer for your client. How much would he take?" "He's not going to take nothing. Let him go." "We can't do that." They took me back to Rikers Island. Two weeks later, they brought me back to court. Umm, "Mr. Suggs, they got another offer for you. One to two 47:00terms, three and a half. You've already been in Rikers Island for 15 months. You ain't got much longer to go. You go upstate, [unintelligible] you come home." By that time I was beat. "OK, give me that." That's how I came home. And when I came home --
OKECHUKWU: What year is this?
SUGGS: This was in -- it could have been '93 or '92. I just remember my statewas num-- I always remember that my state number was 92R4905. Right? I'll always remember that, that's like a Social Security number. [laughter] You know what I'm saying? So I always remember that. I think it was the end of '92, or just the beginning of '93. But when I came home; when the other guys, they finally got, right, that the main person that told on everybody, he got eight 48:00years. And then I came into the courts one day to give one guy support-- he got sentenced to eight years-- and the arresting officers that was there see me sitting in the court. They looked at me, and they said, "How did you get out so fast?" "Because y'all knew you never had nothing on me. It's not me who y'all wanted. Y'all wanted my codefendants, so y'all ran me through the system." He said, "You're kind of right, but you was involved in it. We didn't know how much involved you was into it, but you was involved, so--" So, I did that little 18 months, I came out, and got little off-and-on jobs, and stuff like that. Still went back to hustling, and a friend of mine opened an ice cream parlor up on Troy Avenue. And when he opened the ice cream parlor up, he said, 49:00"Rudy, come work. I can't pay you much; I'll give you $200 a week." Hey, $200 a week, up the block from my house? I ain't got to pay car, why not? Started working there, there was times he wouldn't even come there. I would just work and it didn't last, but the thing is, we transformed and started cooking food and stuff in there. So one day, a young man came in there, he tasted the food. He said, "Yo, who cooks this?" I said, "I did." He said, "Do you want another job?" He said, "I can get you a job at a senior citizens center." So, cool. I went and filled out an application. The lady liked me, she hired me. So I've been working at a senior citizens center ever since. And that was oh, about 10 50:00years now. Ten years.
OKECHUKWU: So, was working at the ice cream parlor when you decided that youweren't going to still be hustling, or what -- ?
SUGGS: I did -- they was years apart, right? But like I said, I hustled for alittle while after that, but I didn't get too involved and into it like I was. You know, and I just --
OKECHUKWU: What in you -- like, did you just drift out of it, or was it likeyou made a decision that I'm not going to do this anymore?
SUGGS: It was a transition.
OKECHUKWU: What was that process?
SUGGS: It was a transition. A transition like; OK, you sell a little somethinghere-- in fact you didn't even sell it, you let somebody else sell it-- and like, because I knew a lot of people, people would come to me, and wanted certain things, and I will connect them to them. But if I didn't know you, I had to really, really know you for a long time. But I couldn't get nobody else involved in it, so they would come to me, and I would -- I'd make $1,500 off a sale and stuff like that. And I used to just do that. And that went on for a 51:00while. But then, again I stopped that, and you start getting older, and you start seeing certain things in your life, like-- You're saying to yourself, like, "You're going to be 35 years old doing this. You're going to be 40 years old, doing this. Worrying about police, and you're still doing this stuff where you, where you live at, and somebody going to come in your house and kill you, your mother, and your brother, and everybody else." So you know, you start transitioning yourself out of it. Not that you want to, it's that you're getting older, and you're getting more wiser now. That was beginning to happen.
OKECHUKWU: What do you remember-- like family members--? Like you know, youmentioned your mother got you an attorney for the [inaudible] when you got into 52:00trouble. Did she ever say anything to you about it? Or any of your siblings, or like, what do you remember your family feeling about you being in the streets?
SUGGS: They couldn't say too much, because they was benefiting from it. Theonly one that wasn't benefiting from it was my mother. Because by that time, I think my mother was working home care attending. And my father was still, was still with us, and he was driving oil trucks, so he was making like $300 a day, and his-- plus his pension and stuff like that. So, there was money flowing in there. Right? And I mean, to be honest with you, I was ungrateful.
OKECHUKWU: What do you mean?
SUGGS: Because I told, I was, "Oh, Don't spend your money on me." Because they53:00was willing to put the house up. But I know me. "Don't put the house up, what're you going to put the house up for?" I'm the type of person that, let me deal with what I got myself into. You know? And that's how I am. It's like, I had heart surgery done. I didn't tell my mother. I didn't tell nobody. But one person, that was my niece. And when I told her, she waited until I went in the hospital and had the surgery before she told anybody. That's just how I am, I'm not one to just tell people things, just to be telling. You know, the reason why I agreed to this is because like, get the story out. [laughter] Somebody 100 years from now will hear it and can identify to what I, what I went through, what I was saying. That's why I agreed to it. And Amy hear bits and pieces of my story, and she be like, amazed when I tell her certain things. So, 54:00I don't know. That's how that went, pretty much.
OKECHUKWU: So you mentioned, you know, in the '80s I guess, the 77th Precinctscandal. And you can talk some more about it, but my question is, they were clearly corrupt. When you were younger, did you --? I mean, they got caught, right, in the '80s, but were they --? Your experience with police growing up in the neighborhood, was it always like that? Or was there like a turning point? Like what do you remember about just police -- the police's relationship to the community --?
SUGGS: The police relationship to the community back then, I mean after the --around -- growing up, we never had a problem with the police. And I'm being honest with you, because back then, we weren't getting killed by the police, we weren't. There were scrimmages going on, and then if we was getting killed by the police, we didn't hear a lot about it. Because there wasn't social media, and there wasn't media every day; that something happens, it goes right on to 55:00the social media, or something like that, and spreads around. At that time back then, right, we had a relationship with the police that was that "Hey, how you doing officer?" and you could talk to them. It wasn't like today where-- that you sit there, if you say hi to them or whatever, you've got to be mindful of what you say to them, because of the arrogance that they portray. Or either, that your immediate peers figure that you're telling them something, then you'll be-- or labeled as-- a snitch. You know, I didn't grow up in, I didn't grow up with that -- this is what a lot of these young kids, how they think now. See, if I talk to police, it's on the level like -- and it's ironic that you say that, because there's this young kid; young kid say he knows me, for years, and 56:00he's a detective now. And it's ironic that every time he sees me, he says, "Yo, what's up OG?" And he's patrolling the 77th Precinct area. He says, "Yo, what's up OG? You don't remember me? I used to live on Union Street. I used to watch you all the time." I'll be like, "Oh really?" [laughter] And one day he was -- he see me standing there with a couple other friends, and we was talking. He literally pulled the car up and got out the car. He literally pulled the car up, got out of the car, stood there and talked to us about a half an hour. He said, "Yo, I remember you, you used to give me $5 when I was young," da-da-da-da-da, and he said, "Yeah, I remember that." He said, "Yo, OG, I used to see you all the time, you always was cool and everything, you know?" He said, "I'm glad that the work that you're doing now is good. Keep doing the work that you're doing." And he would talk to us. And, well we're going to go 57:00back to the 77th Precinct. I mean, we didn't have a problem with the 77th Precinct as-- growing up-- as kids. Right? Because, there's always a transition with them. Right? You always have that set of police that was going-- that was the bad set. Right? So there's times my mother called the police on me. Right? And they came and my-- and inside the house, she let them in, and they came and knocked on the door. I said, "What do you want?" "Can you open the door?" "No. I pay rent here. I don't care what she tells you. Now get away from the door." They would leave. They would leave. Unlike today, they be ready to kick the door in, and do whatever they have to do. They would leave. They respected you, and they would leave. Now, I mean back then, 58:00they had about 15 officers that was really corrupt. Really corrupt.
OKECHUKWU: So what would they do?
SUGGS: Like I said, there was times, they -- I witnessed one time they hadchased a guy down, right? And they caught him in an alley, he had a kilo of cocaine on him, and they was about to stick it in their pocket and let him go. But the backup came, so they had to arrest him. Right? And that was funny, because you just knew how that was going to turn out. You sat there and you watched how it was going to turn out, right? And there was times that, like I said, that once or twice they grabbed me, they told me "Don't leave; in the building, stay in the building, and don't come out until we leave." Drugs be 59:00all on the floor, they thought I got the money, pick the drugs up, and you go out there. Next time they grabbed me, "Oh, I work for Roy." They take the money, that's it. So they used to take people's drugs and stuff like that. And rob these drug spots. Like then, they used to have drug spots; that you would go in somebody's house full of drugs, they're selling drugs inside. They would bust in and take the drugs, and take them to Roy. I can't -- I couldn't remem ber this book. I can't remember the book.
OKECHUKWU: Email it to me.
SUGGS: I can't remember the book. I can't, no, because you -- it's OfficerWinters, it was Blondie, it was enough of them. I can't remember the book, but I'm going to remember this book, and I'm going to email it to you, even if I have to buy the book and bring it down here and give it to you personally. 60:00Right? That's what happened. And there was two people that are so close with them. And I was close with Mike and Mitch, but I knew not to cross the boundaries. Mike and Mitch used to hang out with them. They used to give them guns and bulletproof vests, and badges, and send them into these places to rob. And when they robbed, Mike and them used to come back and give me money, rent cars, and we'd ride around. These are things that I know for a fact, because I was there. I witnessed it.
OKECHUKWU: Mike and Mitch, were they--? Were they police officers, or were they-- ?
OKECHUKWU: No, they was just -- OK.
SUGGS: They was my peers. They was my peers, that was just involved with thesepeople. It was Roy, the 77th Precinct, Mike, and Mitch. It was that triangle. 61:00
OKECHUKWU: You mentioned the transition from the police generally, you know,when you were younger, they kind of respect you to a certain extent, versus now being arrogant. When do you think that transition happened? Like, was it during this period, when they was real corrupt? Or was it afterwards?
SUGGS: Well again, like I said, I never had an issue with police myself, thesame, right? Even when they was corrupt, that's who they are. Right? That arrogance was that-- and again, that blue wall, where it's that-- they feel like they're always better than each other, that's academy training. That's something that you can't take away from them. Because to them, everybody's a perp. You know? You can be married to a police officer, you're still considered a perp, to a degree. You know, just like correct-- if you know anything about corrections officers; if you look at them, they stay in jail, 62:00they work there for 20 years. Think about the reality of it. They've done 20 years in jail with you. So they're going to have a type, a type of psyche too, even though they go home, that they're confined and they're locked in there. So after a while it, it, you know, you're going to start acting a certain way, that you're better than this. Because they used to tell you, "Get off my tier." Like they owned the jail. The same way with police. "We own the streets, we have guns, we have the law on our side. Now if I kill you, oh, what do you think is going to happen to me? I'll probably lose my job and my pension, but guess what? You're dead."
OKECHUKWU: Do you remember in--? This is-- you would have been young, but-- in'78, there was a man in Crown Heights named Arthur Miller who got killed by the police? 63:00
SUGGS: I remember that, "Arthur Miller." I remember Arthur Miller. Iremember, I remember Arthur Miller. But I don't remember the details of it, though. I remember the name. But I just don't remember the details. And I didn't even want to go back and look at it, because I didn't want to come here and tell you something that I didn't know, right?
OKECHUKWU: Do you --? So this is around the same time, there was a teenager inthe neighborhood, Victor Rhodes, who got beat up by, like --
SUGGS: Hasidic Jews.
OKECHUKWU: -- the Hasidic. Do you remember that?
SUGGS: He wasn't the only one that got beat up by Hasidic Jews.
OKECHUKWU: So talk-- So tell me about that. What was that -- what were theneighborhood dynamics with the Hasidics there and, you know? I heard that they had, like, these security patrols.
SUGGS: Yeah, they had the same security patrols that they have now, that theyhave then, right? But you know, the ironic part about that is this. This is like, seems like some déjà vu, like years ago, we [unintelligible] [laughter] 64:00No. The situation with Shorim and their patrol is this, right? You're not supposed to be over there; plain and simple. You're Black, you're not supposed to be walking through Crown Heights; that side of Crown Heights.
OKECHUKWU: The other side of Eastern Parkway?
SUGGS: The other side of Eastern Parkway. You're not supposed to be walkingthrough there. You're not supposed to be on Presidents Street, you're not supposed to be on Carroll Street, you're not supposed to be on Kingston Avenue. Because if you're supposed to be in that area, you're Black; you're doing something wrong. But now, to a degree, I understand where they, where they're coming from. Because I had friends that used to go over there and rob them. Break into their house, take the silverware, the menorah candles and stuff like that-- was pure silver-- stuff like that. And used to rob them. Like, to a 65:00degree I understand where they're coming from. I would never do it, you know, but I had friends that used to go over there and rob them. One friend that we grew up with, right, they caught him in the house, and they killed him. We know this for a fact, but it was never -- but nobody never found the body though. Nobody never found the body, we know he got killed that night. Because we was together, he said what he was going to do, and we know they caught him in their house, and we know they killed him. That wasn't the first person that got killed by them. And this is facts. You know, there was a time when we was coming up; when we was young, that's what I was saying. We did just as much to them as they did to us, right? Back then they used to have fire extinguishers 66:00on the trains, and we used to break the fire extinguishers on the train and go in the synagogue and spray it. This was a game to us. And spray it, right? So you know, you got this big cloud of white smoke in there, and they used to come run out and chase you. But I was the slowest one, I wasn't stupid, so I would always be at the front, right? But back then, they wouldn't go past Lincoln Place. The furthest they would run was to Lincoln Place. So you live on Lincoln Place, you run on Lincoln Place, you run up the block, you run into, again, 1170, to our friends' house, and that was it. But you stand on the roof and you watch them, all you seen was black and white, gray and white, and blue and white coming up the block. All these suits and this is things that we used to do to them, too. So, it was like it was nothing new. It was vice versa. 67:00The only thing is that when they did something, it was blown out of proportion.
OKECHUKWU: What do you mean?
SUGGS: Like, they again, a lot of times we would beat them; we would beatJewish kids up. We'd do stuff to them. It wasn't blown out of proportion, though. They wouldn't say nothing. But let one of them beat us, we made a big issue about it. And it's the truth. I'm telling you facts. You know, we would beat them up. We would literally beat them up. Jewish kids come over there, we'll beat them up. Like I said, they did-- they wouldn't make an issue out of it. It's just that there'd be a whole lot of them come looking for you, though. You just had to run. [laughter] Right? But when they beat us up, we made an issue about it. And I'm being honest with you, too, the same situation with 68:00Michael Griffith. We're going to go into this, now. Michael Griffith was no angel, right? People can sit there and tell you that, Michael Griffith was just as rough as anybody else out in the street. Two or three days before he got killed, he came through Lincoln Place and Troy Avenue, and his girlfriend had on a, like, a pinkish color leather outfit. And one of the Jamaicans said something to her, and he got an attitude. Right? He got an attitude. He said, "Yo, I'm going to get my gun." I said, "Yo man, leave that alone. It ain't worth it, man. A man says something to your girl, take it as a compliment. It ain't nothing for you to get upset about." He said, "Yo man, all right, all right, that's cool, that's cool." He went up the block. Three days later he 69:00was dead.
OKECHUKWU: What do you remember about that? Like --
SUGGS: My thing is this; what were you doing out there? That's myunderstanding. That's what I always say, what was he doing out there? I don't think he knew anybody out there. I knew Michael Griffith, I didn't know him that well, but I knew him. And I knew he was one of them in the streets that was out there doing his thing; robbing people, whatever, whatever. What was he doing out there? See this is the part of the story that nobody is really questioned about. They just question the White men chasing them and beating them down. What did he do? Why was he out there?
OKECHUKWU: Why do you think he was out there?
SUGGS: Probably doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing. And I'm beinghonest, see, and I'm a Black man around his age, then. And I say it now, what 70:00was he doing out there? Something he shouldn't have been out there doing. Because he used to live right there in Weeksville [Gardens]. And he used to come through Lincoln Place all the time with his girl. Yeah, there's -- they were -- I knew a, I know a lot of people.
OKECHUKWU: But there was a lot of like-- in New York City, there was a lot of,like-- really racially charged incidents in the '80s, right? Where it was either police was found killing Black men, or mobs of White men, you know, it wasn't -- it was Yusuf Hawkins, you know what I'm saying? So like, what do you remember about that period, and just the, like, racial politics of New York?
SUGGS: I mean, the racial politics; that was this, right? I mean, you had toreally look at it like this. Right? And I'm always going to be that devil's advocate, right? I always look at it, "Why do these things happen?" What part 71:00will we play to make situations like that happen, to put us in situations like that? A lot of times, it's not justified that the reason -- the end results of it. But what could we have done differently? What could we have done differently? Now, I used to work out of Howard Beach. I used to work for a, for the state, right? And I didn't like it. I used to go out there, five o'clock in the morning, and there's still racism going on over there in Howard Beach. I used to come over-- that ok, now-- get right there. Where they got the casino, I'd come over, walk over there. Walk around the corner; same place where the girl got killed at. Pass through all that, go to work. And there 72:00used to be White boys parked in cars in there, "Nigger, what are you doing over here?" I'd just keep walking. And this was in the '90s. This was in the '90s; the end of the '90s. So, I mean it -- I mean, racism affects, it affects me, right? But how I look at it is this. You know what you're up against. What can you do to make things better? I can't always look back to the past and say what happened to this one, what happened to this one. How can you make things different from what it was? What little part can you contribute to make things 73:00different from what it was? That's how I look at it. I'm not going to dwell on the past and say like, you know-- I had a friend that got killed by Jews. Michael Griffith got killed by White people, running, right? My friend got killed by a Black man, my next door neighbor got shot in the head for selling weed. Somebody come to rob him. All four of those; there was an antecedent that triggered all those behaviors. And the antecedent was-- the last one, the young man that got shot in the head-- it was this. You shouldn't have been selling weed. Especially, if you have a job for MTA. There was no reason for you to be doing what you was doing. So if you wasn't doing that, you didn't put 74:00yourself in that situation. Years ago, what I said about Michael Griffith, "If your black ass would've stayed in Weeksville, whatever you was doing out there in Howard Beach, nobody won't know." Nobody'll never know what happened, why he was out there. You should've stayed your ass over here. Right? All those people that was out there doing things, there was a reason why, if they were to just change their thinking about certain things, they wouldn't be in those situations. Not to say that it doesn't happen sometimes, but sometimes you've got to know, and you've got to be aware about what you're doing, and your surroundings.
OKECHUKWU: When did gun violence become an issue in Crown Heights? Was thatthe '80s, or--? Tell me about that.
SUGGS: Gun violence became an issue when the crack, when the crack came about.75:00The simple fact of that is that you have these young kids making a whole lot of money. So now, you've got to realize you got to protect this money now, and you've got to maintain this type of particular lifestyle. And you've got to maintain where you're hustling at, because if you're not able to protect where you're hustling at, somebody else is going to come in and they're going to move you out. So what you got to do? You've got to arm yourselves. So we have a little small scale war going on now. So now you have a .38, this one have a nine, the next one have a nine-millimeter, the next one have a submachine gun. So now, you're all fighting for a little corner spot; a little patch. If you 76:00notice Troy and Lincoln, Schenectady and Sterling, Franklin Avenue and Lincoln Place, Nostrand Avenue. All these places was saturated with drugs and guns. Because this is where all the people would go out for the drugs, is in those areas. Again, when you're inside Eastern Parkway, you never heard about these things going on. But they had more Jews coming from on that side over to this side, buying crack. Even up to today. You can look out my window at night and seeing the Jews come over there, buying crack. Looking for these little, young Black girls over there. You know, it's still going on. They're still selling crack on Troy and Lincoln. It's nothing changed. It's just that it's not as 77:00abundant as it was. And people was more wiser than they was before. It's not as much money as it used to be. But this is all they've got, so they're not going to fight and kill each other, and shoot each other for it no more. Because if they do that, then they ain't going to have nothing else. See, they learned to adapt.
OKECHUKWU: Well going from the '80s into the '90s, how -- what -- did CrownHeights change in any ways, going from the '80s into the '90s?
SUGGS: From the '80s to the '90s it was, it was all about guns and sellingdrugs, from the '80s and '90s.
OKECHUKWU: So you'd say pretty similar, you think?
SUGGS: Yeah. From the '80s and '90s. When it really started to change was,like, in '98.
OKECHUKWU: Why '98?78:00
SUGGS: Just when you started, a slow flux of gentrification started happening.
OKECHUKWU: So what did that look like in '98?
SUGGS: What it looked like is that, on my side was still the same. But as youstarted going up on Franklin Avenue, you started to see more and more White people getting on the train. And then you started seeing different buildings popping up, and then you started seeing $15 burger joints that started popping up on Franklin Avenue in '98, and stuff like that. These little bistros; you started to see those popping up. And then eventually, 2005, you see it started coming down. You started to see it more, from then it's totally different now. For example, like the other side of Williamsburg. You know? And -- because it used to be nothing but Panamanians up there. Nothing but Panamanians used to be 79:00on Franklin Avenue. And if you noticed, they still get their little Panamanian parade every year on Franklin Avenue. But there's no more Panamanians up there, though. The majority was -- they got the little clinics now for dogs, and little bars, and little restaurants, Mexican restaurants, and yeah, it's totally changed.
OKECHUKWU: So what do you, you know--? Seeing that transition, starting in'98, like, what were you thinking as you're seeing--? Like, because, you know, from '98 I'm sure it was sort of little changes here and there that start to build upon each other. Like, what were you thinking when that was happening?
SUGGS: Well, what I was thinking, I was thinking like, well, the neighborhoodis about to change. Either you change with the neighborhood, or you'll still be out here doing the same thing that you was doing. Right? And, you've got to always remember that your mother's getting older, and you're getting older, so 80:00do you still want to be part of the same thing? Or that you want to make changes too. It's, you know, you look back and you see these things happening; either you'll be part of it, or you'll just stay the same. Because I know people who sold their houses, up to today, on Lincoln Place, and they regret it. They regret it; they said that's the worst thing they ever did. What can you do? You see a little money, you see like-- Like I said, my father paid $32,000, somewhere between 32 and $38,000 for that house. It's $950,000 now, they can get if we sell it. That doesn't make sense. Because you sell a house now, you still won't be able to walk away with 950,000. You won't even walk away with half of that, because the government's going to tax you for it if you don't reinvest it into other properties. So I mean, the gentrification is something 81:00else, though. I mean, a good thing about it, you get better services in the neighborhood.
OKECHUKWU: Like what?
SUGGS: Like you're going to see more police in the street. You're going to becertain, to see certain things that's happening that you didn't see before, like even the streets will be cleaner. Right? It shocked me one night when I came out of my house-- and I was putting garbage out-- a White person, he walked past, he looked at me like, "What are you doing here?" That's how they look at you sometimes!
OKECHUKWU: What does that feel like?
SUGGS: I got to laugh. What can I do? I can laugh. I'm like-- and you know,82:00I just laugh. Because I still, I still come on home at two, three o'clock in the morning, and see White people walking [laughter] down my block. I got to laugh myself, like wow, 10 years ago, y'all wouldn't be able to do this. But it's ironic because this could happen in your-- in our neighborhood, do you think we can go in any neighborhood and do that? Honestly, without being harassed? Two o'clock in the morning, go down somebody's -- two o'clock, me walking in Howard Beach, without being harassed? No, that's not going to happen. And that's the ironic part about it, is that. It's fine for them to come in our neighborhood and do the things that they're doing; open up these bars, open up these places, and stuff like that. Because I see establishments, 83:00and I see churches right across the street. But I remember when my friend was trying to open up-- when I told you he opened up the store-- he couldn't get a liquor license because he was too close to a church and a school. But what I've learned since that; they come in, they get on the community board, they get voting power. So when somebody comes in-- this is the only way you can get liquor licenses and certain things, through the community board-- you go in there, you tell them "No," da-da-da-da-da. OK, now if you have your people on the community board, you're going to get what you want. See, we didn't -- we don't think like that. We don't think like that. Community board's been there for years. We didn't stick together to get what we needed. We're instead busy worrying about what we had, losing it. Or somebody coming to take it. But we 84:00didn't think about coming together to hold onto what we have. And that's what I see with them. They'll come together to get what they need. And once they get what they need? It becomes a chain reaction. Next thing you know, you have five bars on this corner, five bars on that corner, and a church in the middle of the block.
OKECHUKWU: How did you get involved with the Mediation Center?
SUGGS: I have a friend that I grew up with. I mean the Mediation Center alwayshas been there, and after the Crown Heights riot was started. And my friend came to me, he said, "Yo Rudy, they're going to have an anti-gun program that's 85:00coming in your area. Do you want to be part of it?" "Now listen, man, I ain't got time for that, man. Because they always say they'll do something in the neighborhood, and then you get involved with it, and then it fizzles out." He said, "No man, this one is going to be around." I said, "Yo Dave, don't tell me it's not going to waste my time, and it's gone." So I said, later for it. Came down there when it started out, and I started -- I volunteered, they didn't have no money yet. They had the money for who they have it for. I volunteered for about six months, so I never [laughter], I never believed it would last so long. So any time something happened; a shooting and stuff, I would give flyers out, 86:00I would put them on the cars. I done this by myself, because I was once part of the destruction of the neighborhood, now I can be part of -- a person that can help to rebuild the neighborhood, to bring it back to what it used to be. I used to give out flyers, I used to do anything that I needed to do that was required for me to do, I did it. So, and then they got money, they hired me as a violence interrupter. And the thing was that I lived in the neighborhood, and I know everybody. If I didn't know the mother or the father, I know the child. The child didn't know me? I knew the mother or father. So some way or another, I can get to these people-- the people that I needed to get to-- to mediate conflicts. We went, and a couple of shooting responses we did, and I got hired as a violence interrupter, and I've done that for about three years. But I also have my other job as a cook at the senior citizens center. So I, I stayed in 87:00there, I hung in there. Seven years later, I'm an outreach worker supervisor. I still got my cook's job. [laughter] So, you know, being involved in that was -- it meant a lot to me. To see the change in the neighborhood, how people perceive us when we come through there. Because, you know, it's a good thing; we come out and say, "Yo SOS, what's going on?" Even the police shouts out, shout us out. You know? And they see that we're out there. You know, and they see that we're out there trying to make a difference, trying to change the mindset of these young individuals that's out there shooting and killing each other for no reason. Right? It's easy, let me say it's not easy getting them to put the guns down. If you're getting them to put the guns down, what are you going to give them to replace that? This is something that we need to work on 88:00now. You can have them put the guns down, but what are you going to replace it with? But getting involved with the Crown Heights Mediation Center, I think was the best thing for me that I can ever do.
OKECHUKWU: As someone that was in the streets, in the neighborhood at aparticular period, how would you compare-- you know, like the, I guess-- the street life that young people are involved in now in the neighborhood; is it different, or is it the same? How would you compare it?
SUGGS: It's much different. Because we had respect for each other back in thedays. If I knew you and hadn't heard about you, I respected you, even though I don't know you. I know you're not the one that's being messed with. These kids today? They don't respect nobody no more. They don't, they don't respect nobody. They don't even respect their mama, or their father. They feel that they're the only ones that know something, and you can't tell them nothing. And 89:00that's the sad thing about it, you know? The reality of it is, is that it's hard getting a kid that may have a mother that may suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, living in the projects, has no source of income coming in, on public assistance, and here you go, 16, 17 years old, selling drugs, making money. You're coming home, you're giving your mother 5 or $600. Your mother's taking it. But as a parent, what are you going to tell that kid? What can you tell that -- no, I couldn't do that with my mother. I, I couldn't do that. I 90:00couldn't come home and give my mother -- my mother would go, "Where you get this from? No, I don't want it. Get that shit out my house." I couldn't, I couldn't do it. These kids today? They sit there, they smoke weed with their mama, the mama don't question nothing. You running in and out my house all night, I want to know what the hell you running in and out my house all night for. The next thing you know, you're running in and out, I hear gunshots, you're dead. Two hours later, the police coming kicking my door down, and they're going in your room, finding $30,000 and two guns and a bunch of drugs. Now I'm out of an apartment, a place to live. But you didn't say that when you was taking that $500 from them, you didn't question that. All you did was take the money, and you didn't care what your son was doing. As long as he was 91:00feeding you money and smoking weed with you. And these are the things that I'll tell the parents about their own kids. They may not want to hear it, but it's the truth. So that's how you've got to start talking to them, and get them to change their mindset. Listen, you've got to, you've got to check your kid. You can't sit up here and smoke weed with your kid, and take money from your kid, and think that you can tell them what to do. Because that kid feels that he's the man of the house now, and you accepted it, because you're taking money from him. So right now, you're giving up your parental rights. Because he's the man of the house.
OKECHUKWU: Can you explain like, what a violence interrupter does and, like,maybe what a typical day would look like?
SUGGS: A typical day looks like we'll be in the neighborhood canvassing, right?92:00Say if like we see a bunch of kids, and it doesn't look right; they're standing around, hanging around, and they're maybe plotting against somebody else. We'll come up and we'll talk to them, find out what's going on, right? We may get some information, and find out they're having trouble with some other group on the other side of the street; that they're about to go have some problems with them. So what we do, we try to mediate that conflict. Mediate the conflict; if we can get them to put down the gun, and walk away in good faith, without nobody having a problem, then our work is done. Or either we just walk around, we pass out palm cards, we let them know that people -- we let the people know in the community what we are trying to do. We try to get them to buy into what we're trying to do. And we done a good job of that with Albany Projects. Albany Projects is going on what, 400 and-- maybe 420-something days without a shooting or killing in a whole year in Albany Projects. That's a miracle. 93:00
SUGGS: I mean, I not going to blame it all on us. We played a major part inthat, because we have certain people in there that we took out of there. And brought us -- with the kids, a lot of the young adults, we brought and they come to the office, and they hang out. So they don't have time to get in beef with one another, where they have to run and get guns, and stuff like that. Then we have a presence out there that we come through there, and we sit down and we talk to the people in the community, to try to get them to buy into what we are trying to do. See once we change their mindset about gun violence, and what causes it, if we save one person's life, our work is done. Because it's, it's not easy trying to get people to understand how these things happen, right? You 94:00have a kid that's been -- may not have been abused by his mother or father, but every night the father's beating the shit out of the mother. That kid is witnessing this. So, he's starting to get these learned behaviors that, "Yo, I've got to beat my woman every day." So he grows up learning this from his father. Because his father was beating his mother. Either that kid's going to get resentment from his father beating his mother, or he's going to pick up them same behaviors and beat his girlfriend up. Because this is all he knows, this is what he was taught. This is what he learned. This is the behavior he learned from his father. So he may get that animosity and end up killing his father to keep him from beating his mother. Well somewhere down the line, that kid is going to pick those same traits up. So we've got to intervene on them 95:00early to let them know this has to stop. There's other ways in dealing with situations instead of always putting your hands on people. That was one of my problems too. I used to always want to fight. And I was very good at what I did. Right? And my mother used to always tell me that too, right? But I had to look at my mother, tell me one day, I said, "But that's your fault too, because remember one time I got beat up, and you sent me back outside to beat that kid up. You made me into what I am today, always wanting to fight, because after he beat me up, you told me I better go out there and beat his butt, or else you was going to beat mine." So you need to think about what you say. And she looked at me, and these are things that, you know, I sit back and I remember clear as day. You know, that's why I tell these parents this, I tell these kids 96:00this. Every fight you fight doesn't mean that you have to win. It's a battle. Some of them you have to walk away. And that one you walk away from may be the one that saves your life.
OKECHUKWU: You mentioned that, you know, in violence interruption work that youdo, you mentioned, you know, if you take the guns away, it's like you have to replace it with something else. What other types -- like what do you think would make the difference? If you're able to replace it with something that is -- what are some of those other things?
SUGGS: If -- some of the other things that I feel that you, you have to givethese kids an outlet to, to release some of their anger. So they have to channel it in a different way. You have to give them the outlet to -- for them to express themselves. One day I was talking to one of the participants, and my 97:00voice went up a little high. So he looks at me, says, "Yo man, listen man, I have a problem with that, because my mother yell at me the same way." So I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, and I've got a problem with people yelling at me." I said, "OK. But if you didn't tell me that, how would I know?" He said, "You're right." So now, every so often, I'm going to yell at you. And if you don't like me yelling at you, you let me know. And every so often I yell at him. But the same time I yell at him, he look at me, he start laughing. So that's my formal way of saying like, "Listen, in life people is going to yell at you, it's how you deal with it, right? You don't have to get as hostile as you got to me the first time I did it, but when I'm yelling at you, it doesn't mean that I mean any harm, just that my voice went up that -- to another pitch. Now 98:00you have to find a better way to channel that anger differently from the way you challenge it to me. I'm not your mother, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm there to help you." So that's my point, we have to give these kids another outlet to let people know how they feel, where they can get rid of their anger. Talk about what they're going through. This is what we have to do. As long as we sit up here and-- thinking that we know everything, we don't know everything, we don't know what goes on in these kids' heads. We have to give them an opportunity to express themselves. Then from there, we work with them. If one of them kids gets into a problem where I can't help them, we have staff on hand. "Kenton, I need for you to talk to this young man, because he looks like he's a victim of crime, or something. Because it's beyond me. So can you talk to 99:00him?" And he will talk to them. So either we have to get them jobs, we try to get them back in school, right? We just give them a safe place to be. That's why when they come to the office, they feel comfortable coming to the office, because they know they're in the safe environment, and they don't have to worry about nothing. Some of them just need a peace of mind; somewhere they can go and just hang out.
OKECHUKWU: Where do you see Crown Heights in 10 years? What do you think theneighborhood's going to look like in 10 years?
SUGGS: I see Crown Heights like I see all of Brooklyn; 90% rich, 5% poor, 5%middle income. That's what I see. If you don't have a job making $100,000 or 100:00better here, you're not going to be able to live in Brooklyn. All these so-called low income apartments and stuff, like-- what is low income? Is $1,000 low income? Is $1,000 low income? Sixteen hundred dollars for a one-bedroom, 10 years ago, it was only going for $800. Sixteen hundred dollars? So somebody that's making $15 an hour can afford to pay $1,600? Or you have to work two jobs. Again, if you're Black, trying to live in Brooklyn, trying to raise a family, you're going to have issues. Because you and your man going to be working two jobs. Then you're paying a babysitter to watch your kids. When are 101:00the kids ever going to have time, or you're going to ever have time for that kid, to bond with that kid? It's never going to happen living in New York. Especially Brooklyn. May have a better chance living in Manhattan than you would have living in Brooklyn, because Manhattan probably be cheaper than Brooklyn. So in 10 years from now? I don't know. I guess I'll probably be in Charlotte with my sister.
OKECHUKWU: Are most of your siblings still in Brooklyn? Or are they spread out?
SUGGS: My sister own a brownstone on Decatur Street. And it's just me and mybrother that's here on Lincoln Place. I have a sister in Connecticut. I have a brother in Washington. I have a brother in Virginia. And I have a sister in Charlotte. So, we pretty much -- all of them have houses. So, you know, and the house that we have, the family house, we all made an agreement to tell our 102:00father to put it in my sister's name, my youngest sister. So, she said, "Listen, that house is yours. If y'all can't afford to take care of it, I'll get rid of it. That's up to y'all." And that's it. Ten years from now? Please. I don't think there are going to be Black people living in Brooklyn; at least poor Black people. Crown Heights? The only thing that's going to be in there is Hasidic Jews and White people. Nothing else.
OKECHUKWU: Is there anything else about Crown Heights that you would like tosay that you haven't been able to talk about yet? 103:00
SUGGS: No, I think I touched a pretty good portion of it. I hope this was--[laughter] I hope it was enough.
SUGGS: But you can give me a card. I have some people that I was talking toabout this, and I'm quite sure they'd be willing to talk to you, too.
OKECHUKWU: We need more people, so that's good.
SUGGS: Yeah, you give me a couple of your cards. I have a perfect person; hegot a big mouth and he like to talk. [laughter] He loves to talk.
OKECHUKWU: OK. Well, yeah. I mean if you don't have anything else to say, you good?
SUGGS: OK. I'm good.
SUGGS: I just hope it was enough for you.
OKECHUKWU: It was, it was excellent actually. Thank you. So there's a releaseform; you can use this pen. And so, I'll send you the audio, and then we're going to get the audio transcribed. So somebody will type up a transcript, and so I'll send you the audio and a transcript. And then you can, you know, 104:00approve it, and then it'll be archived here.
SUGGS: You going to fill the rest of this out? Or you want me to fill it out?
OKECHUKWU: If you could fill out your mailing address --
OKECHUKWU: -- you know, there's a few things up there.
Oral History Interview with Rudy Suggs
Rudy Suggs, an African American male, was born in 1962 at Kings County Hospital. He grew up (and continues living) on Lincoln Place, between Albany and Troy Avenues in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. His parents were from North Carolina and came to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Suggs is one of seven siblings. He attended a variety of public schools as a youth in the Crown Heights, Gravesend, and Coney Island neighborhoods of Brooklyn. As a young man he was a drug dealer and spent eighteen months in prison. At the time of the 2017 interview, he worked as a cook at an elder care facility and served as a violence interrupter with Save Our Streets Crown Heights (based on Chicago's Cease Fire model), a program of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center. He has worked with Save Our Streets Crown Heights for eight years.
In this interview, Rudy Suggs narrates his life from childhood, to life as a young adult involved in the drug trade, up to the contemporary period where he works as a violence interrupter; all centered in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Suggs talks about the drug trade in detail and elaborates upon the 1986 New York Police Department 77th Precinct scandal. He describes his youth, being bused to schools that were predominantly attended by White students, and growing up in a large family. He also remembers the 1977 New York City blackout. He details his time spent in prison and how he moved from a life of crime to working as a cook for a senior citizen center and as a violence interrupter for the local Save Our Streets program within the Crown Heights Mediation Center. He also speaks about his experience of gentrification in the neighborhood. Interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu.
This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.
CitationSuggs, Rudy, Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu, March 02, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.07; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Congregation Lubavitch (Crown Heights, New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights Mediation Center
- Griffith, Michael, 1963-1986
- New York (N.Y.). Police Department
- Suggs, Rudolph
- Community activists
- Community centers
- Drug dealers
- Drug traffic
- Electric power failures
- Family life
- Home ownership
- Race relations
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidVoices of Crown Heights oral histories