One in a series
From the outside, they looked like heroes.
As a young kid, the men with blue bandannas hanging out of their pockets, left pant leg rolled up, and X Blocc tattooed on their arms and chests, those were the people you looked up to.
“You’re in the hood, you walk outside, girls playing hopscotch, you’re with your friends playing in the dirt, and you look around — you don’t see a doctor next door, you don’t see a lawyer, you don’t see a man in a business suit,” said Melvin Claybrooks, 23, who grew up in a central-city neighborhood claimed by X Blocc, a Crips gang.
“When I was growing up, it was pant leg up ... people throwing up gang signs, you see people smoking weed, may see a crack fiend here. ... As a kid you look up to that and ... it’s going to take a toll on you, but they mold you. You can’t let them mold you.”
It’s been years since Melvin Claybrooks fit the cast gangbangers on his block crafted for him — the blue, the rolled-up pant leg. It’s been a long time since he was one of the kids in his neighborhood who were too young to join X Blocc, so instead they initiated one another with jump-ins and created their own gang, Little X Blocc.
“Most of my friends were in it,” he said. “I seen a lot of things. We basically tried to do what we saw the X Blocc do.”
Watch and learn.
Hustle, sell drugs, get girls, get money, carry guns, fight.
On Sept. 14, Mr. Claybrooks, who now lives in a Bloods neighborhood and has no gang affiliation, will release his first short film, a 20 to 30-minute production called Innerview.
It’s a science-fiction flick that will be available to watch, for free, on his Facebook page. A screening is scheduled for 2:30 p.m., Sept. 28, at the Kent Branch Library, 3101 Collingwood Blvd.
Behind the camera
Mr. Claybrooks is a hustler, but not in a way that’s going to get him or his friends shot and left for dead on some street corner, typecast in another role they don’t fit.
A self-taught director, Mr. Claybrooks turned an interest into a hobby into a business.
All of his work is done on a camera, which a friend — who spent tax-refund money to purchase the Cannon T2i — surprised Mr. Claybrooks with more than a year ago for his birthday.
He produces music videos for local artists and, last year, won best director at a local 48-hour film festival for an 8-minute short called Illuminasty, an eight-minute comedy that follows two ill-fated agents looking for a drug called Illuminasty.
That film was made in only two days, minus about nine hours in the dark after someone crashed into a utility pole near Mr. Claybrooks’ home.
“He’s always been a creative kid,” said David Bush, who runs Toledo’s MADD Poets Society and has known Mr. Claybrooks for about five years. “A lot of the things he does are really part of the positive nature that speaks directly to his peers and that means a lot.”
His work speaks to young people in the same way the gang members spoke to him.
Before he was one of them, before his friends jumped and beat him, making him an official member of the gang, it seemed like X Blocc was good for the neighborhood.
“You don’t look at them as enemies because they fight people from other neighborhoods,” Mr. Claybrooks said. “You look at them as heroes. You see the police stopping them and you get emotional. ‘Hey, that’s the guy who tries to make sure things aren’t happening in this neighborhood.’ ”
On the Blocc
Little X Blocc was all about fights. They started one-on-one, and that seemed OK. It was, at the very least, fair odds.
“I thought we were protecting our neighborhood, not antagonizing,” Mr. Claybrooks said. “I thought we were here to protect our loved ones and everyone around us. I thought we were the good guys.”
Fair became less fun than devastation. Individual fights became group assaults.
“That’s not something I was into,” Mr. Claybrooks said of his time with Little X Blocc. “Growing up you see it from a different perspective, but while you’re in it you see it for what it is.”
There was no formal denunciation of Little X Blocc. Mr. Claybrooks — then about 12 years old — just stopped hanging around the block, his family moved, and he spent more time on art, a natural fit because his father, his namesake, is a retired Toledo Public Schools art teacher.
“My dad is very supportive,” Mr. Claybrooks said.
Since, he’s continued to explore drawing, poetry, screenwriting, and, of course, filmmaking.
“His artwork and poetry are phenomenal,” Mr. Bush said.
Many of Mr. Claybrooks’ poems speak to the culture of violence he saw growing up.
“I need you to trade your piece for some peace and a future for our black kids. Why not stop violence? Why are you still inactive?” he wrote in Public Faces [Stop the Violence].
Touched by violence
Quelling the violence that young people are exposed to is critical. As someone who has lost friends to the senselessness, Mr. Claybrooks knows that firsthand.
“I lost a lot of friends,” he said. “It became a problem until you become numb to it. When you become numb to it, that’s bad.”
Sometimes, that unfortunately familiar feeling goes away. Making the right moves and the right choices doesn’t mean you’re immune to heartache.
On Nov. 17, the leading actress in an action film, Toledo Heroes, that Mr. Claybrooks was planning sent him a text message asking when they would start shooting. She’d been preparing for the demanding role by stretching and taking self-defense lessons for her fight scenes.
Filming would start Nov. 21, Mr. Claybrooks told her.
The day after the text-message exchange, the actress, CreJonnia Bell, begrudgingly went to meet her ex-boyfriend, Tra’quawn Gibson, in North Toledo. She was ready to tell him to leave her alone, it was over. She was done.
Ms. Bell, 19, an aspiring actress, model, and dancer, was shot in her chest, abdomen, and head.
Gibson, 19, is set for trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court on Sept. 3. He faces two murder charges, one for Ms. Bell and another for Deonta Allen, who was shot dead on Oct. 18.
“It was devastating,” Mr. Claybrooks said.
The death of a friend is the kind of thing that might set some people back or send them down a destructive path.
When violence touches home, if all you know is retaliation and violence, that’s what’s expected.
“Where Melvin lives ... he’s confronted every day; every youth that lives in that community is confronted with a choice if they want to participate in that,” said Carnel Smith, the assistant principal at Robinson Elementary School. Mr. Smith met Mr. Claybrooks years ago in an art program, and the two have grown close.
“I take my hat off to Melvin,” Mr. Smith said. “Every time he steps out of his house he’s confronted with gangs, and he’s able to make good life choices. He is definitely an asset to his neighborhood and the community. He’s able to connect with youngsters ... being as young as he is, and the experience from living in an at-risk community.”
Mr. Claybrooks said that through his work, he’s showing youths around the city that there are options beyond the block.
Almost two years ago, in the hours after a fatal shooting at a North Toledo carryout, the nearby neighborhood was quiet as Mr. Claybrooks and local rap artists scouted a location to film a scene for a music video.
The glow from a street lamp on Stickney Avenue set the right mood.
Mr. Claybrooks was setting up his camera when two young boys came by.
One boy stopped, climbed off his bicycle, and stood in the street, never saying a word.
Watch and learn.