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Memphis Allies: A peacekeeping’ mission in progress 

Recently, Antonio Dowdy’s phone rang in the middle of the night. Dowdy, as a Memphis Allies outreach specialist, works to establish relationships with young people most at risk for gun violence.  

That means answering the call whenever the call comes. This night, the young man on the other end of the line told Dowdy: “I need you to come get me, or I’m going to shoot my cousin.” 

The young man who called is in a gang. His cousin is in a rival gang.  

Nothing unusual about that in Memphis. 

“You may have Thanksgiving dinner over at Grandma’s, and there can be six different gangs in that house,” said Carl Davis, director of operations for Memphis Allies. “There comes a time when you have to choose a side.” 

For the young man who called Dowdy, that moment of truth had arrived. But he made a different choice by calling the one person he knew understood his dilemma.  

“I didn’t ask questions,” said Dowdy, 38, himself a former gang member who served 13 years in prison for a gun charge and joined Memphis Allies a couple of years after his release from prison.  

“[It was a] life-and-death situation,” Dowdy said. “I came and got him.” 

Stop one shooting, maybe stop four more 

When Memphis Allies first put outreach specialists on the streets in the summer of 2022 in Raleigh/Frayser, it did so with the knowledge of a disturbing, predictive statistic: 

On average, every shooting in Memphis leads to four more. So, who’s to say how many shootings Dowdy helped stop that night when he picked up the young man and took him to a location on the fringe of the metro area where Dowdy knew the young man neither would come to harm or do harm.  

We do like to see the numbers decrease in the areas we’re specifically serving.

DAVIS

Today, that young man is a participant in Memphis Allies’ SWITCH program – Support with Intention to Create Hope. He has a full-time job, access to a life coach and a clinical specialist, and he’s trying to step away from gang life, even as his relative remains entrenched. 

So, at a recent weekly shooting review meeting for Raleigh/Frayser, held each Monday, there was no mention of a shooting involving these men. Dowdy’s intervention had been successful. 

In the meantime, the week had seen multiple drive-by shootings where bullets were fired into homes, and it was a miracle no one was injured.  

In another incident, two men were shot and killed, and two others were shot and severely wounded. 

Trying to sort out the truth of what happened in such situations is the foundation of discussion at the weekly shooting review meetings that Davis leads, and that includes several outreach specialists. 

“Even if it starts off personal, if they’re affiliated it can always grow into, I’m a part of this crew, he’s a part of that crew …’ and that brings a whole lot of people into it,” Davis said. “So, our first question is, Are they affiliated?’ Because that heightens the retaliation factor. 

“What’s the word on the street? Are they looking to get someone back? We have to do a lot of rumor control. We don’t want to just jump to conclusions.” 

Memphis Allies’ outreach specialists play no role in finding suspects, leaving that to police. Rather, the task is to prevent future shootings. To that end, those on the front lines do not assume those most at risk for retaliation are unreachable.  

“We’re hand-to-hand with these guys,” Dowdy said. “We won’t give up. We don’t want to abandon them.” 

Holding to a high standard 

No one, Davis says, pushes harder than Dowdy, whom he says has been a “rock star” since joining Memphis Allies. Dowdy looks the part with long dreadlocks and dark shades over a bushy black beard and a T-shirt paying homage to rapper Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G. 

“He’s bringing us a lot of prospects, and he’s bringing us the right guys… the guys who need this program for sure,” Davis said. 

Dowdy, as a former gang member from the Douglass community in North Memphis, has LTO – license to operate. When Memphis Allies’ SWITCH program started, credibility was being built from scratch. So, outreach specialists with a deep understanding of the neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence are crucial to the effort to curb that violence. 

Davis appreciates Dowdy’s willingness to be out front, despite the inherent dangers. 

“If you want to be too discreet, I’m going to start wondering about you: are you living two different lives?” Davis said. “[Antonio] leads with his name, and he’s a peacekeeper.” 

And there can’t be too many peacekeepers. 

“When someone gets murdered, our first question is, `Who was the victim? Were they on our radar?’ If they weren’t on our radar, why not?” Davis asked. “Our goal is to work with the highest-risk individuals. We should know the guys connected to the shooting. That’s how we feel. We’re trying to make sure we’re digging deep and not just surface based.” 

At one point in this last calendar year, while aggravated assaults and murders were going up across the city, Raleigh/Frayser was going down, Davis added. He noted the goal is to see the same trend in Orange Mound and Hickory Hill, where the SWITCH program is newer.  

“We always think one murder is one murder too many, of course,” Davis said. “But we do like to see the numbers decrease in the areas we’re specifically serving.” 

Almost two years into this ambitious initiative to reduce gun violence in the city, Davis sees the positive impact Memphis Allies is having. 

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “But it’s tough because the murder rate goes up, you know what I’m saying? We personally feel like we could be doing a lot more. And if we don’t feel like we could be doing a lot more, we’re probably not the right people for the job.” 

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