The street code has its own commandments. Thou shalt be down with thy set no matter what. If someone shoots one of yours, you retaliate. If you get arrested for a crime you didn't commit, you take the case and serve the time like a good soldier.
Darrell Armstead, 23, who goes by D-Real, grew up under that code. His dream was to become the ultimate gangster. At 14, he joined a gang in East Oakland. He encouraged his younger brother Dominic Carter to follow. At 18, D-Real says, he took the fall for an armed robbery and assault that he didn't commit. After serving six months in jail, he left the gang. But Dominic wouldn't make it out alive. On Dec. 11, 2010, he was shot six times at 91st Avenue and International
The way stories like this often unfold, D-Real would get some of his crew together. They'd jump in a car and ride around until they found whoever killed his brother -- or someone close to him. Then, they'd start shooting. If some poor soul who had nothing to do with it got struck in the crossfire and killed, too bad. He shouldn't have been in the way.
But D-Real chose a different path.
Instead of seeking vengeance with a gun, he turned to dancing as an outlet for his anger and pain.
"You can't search for justice and happiness at the same time, you'll drive yourself crazy," he said. "So, instead, I search for happiness and pray justice comes."
A few months before his brother's
It was a tribute to D-Real's godbrother Richard Davis, 22, who had been killed by a drunken driver the previous night. The four, part of a group called Turf Feinz, started to dance in the rain at 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard where the crash occurred. They glided and flipped in spectacular fluid motions that stopped traffic. Yak Films recorded the
The video, which has garnered more than 5 million hits on YouTube, introduced the world to Turf dancing, an Oakland-born urban dance movement that stands for "taking up room on the floor."
The buzz caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks. Jenks cast D-Real in the second season of his reality series "World of Jenks" on MTV. The first of 10 episodes airs at 11 p.m. March 4.
On the show, Jenks embeds himself into the lives of three young people who are trying to achieve their dreams in the face of extraordinary challenges. One young man has autism. Another woman is a cancer survivor. D-Real struggles to cope with the traumatic impact of gun violence on his life.
In one powerful scene, Jenks takes D-Real to see the crosses in front of St. Columba Catholic Church in North Oakland -- a memorial to homicide victims. D-Real has never been. He sees a cross in memory of his cousin who was fatally shot and is reminded of his younger brother Dominic. He blames himself for introducing his brother to the life that got him killed.
"I thought I heard him knocking at the door but he never came to the door so I just got mad," he said through sobs. "I'm never going to forgive myself for it -- never. "... Everyone says, 'Wait, you'll see, he's resting.' He ain't coming to my door and I waited all day yesterday."
D-Real is on mission to help stop the killing in Oakland.
He sees dance as a vehicle for helping frustrated and angry young people living in poor urban neighborhoods to channel their aggression into something creative and positive. He wants to work with community groups to promote "dance battles" among youths instead of gunbattles.
He has a 5-month-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. Having grown up without a father, he says he is determined to be "that man" in his children's lives. He now lives in Vallejo but spends much of his time in Oakland.
D-Real is just the sort of thoughtful and passionate young man who should be part of the public safety dialogue. He knows the mindset of the people who are doing the robbing and shooting. He is proof that it is possible to leave the destructive gang lifestyle behind. Most of the members of his gang supported his decision -- unlike in many instances where gang members threaten and even kill people who try to get out.
D-Real works as a tattoo artist. A lot of his business is "rest in peace" tributes. He has reminders of his own brother inked on his stomach, neck and leg. "People ask, 'Can you tat my son on me? Can you tat my cousin on me?" he said. "... I understand, but at the end of the day is that the way you want them to be remembered? Is that what you want to be encouraging everybody to do? Die so we can tat you on our skin?"
People from his generation are dying day in and day out, but D-Real insists it doesn't have to be that way.
"If y'all can open up your eyes now rather than later," he said, "we can save a whole lot of people."
What: Reality series featuring Oakland native Darrell "D-Real" Armstead
When: 11 p.m. Mondays; 10 episodes beginning March 4