This article was originally published at WireTap magazine.
February 11, 2009
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a sunny Monday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, United Playaz (UP) is gathering for their annual march for justice and members are out in full force. Vibrantly dressed tweens, skulking teens, young mothers pushing strollers and tough looking 30-something dudes walk toward a meeting spot at the downtown King Memorial Fountain. Young and old alike sport a distinctive black T-shirt or hoodie emblazoned with the letters “UP” and white script that reads: “It Takes the Hood to Save the Hood.” For the past 15 years, United Playaz has lived their motto, uplifting communities with people power while transforming thugs into community leaders.
UP is a multigenerational violence-prevention and mentorship organization founded in 1994 by Rudy Corpuz, Jr., a former felon and drug addict. Based at the South of Market Area Recreation Center (SoMa Rec), the group’s caseworkers and mentors–most of them former gangbangers or convicts–provide crisis intervention, youth outreach and community-building activities. UP hosts on-site high school and middle school gatherings and dispatches quick-response violence-prevention teams to prevent neighborhood conflicts. Student participants from various UP chapters are at the MLK gathering, socializing, flirting–the usual adolescent stuff.
When Corpuz arrives at the gathering dressed in black with his braided hair dangling, he is greeted and hugged by most of the 200 folks in attendance. If he glimpses a shy kid near him, “Big Ru” (as he’s known to friends) will reach out with his tattooed arms and reel the youngster in for a quick squeeze. Corpuz is a father of two young boys who share his fiery glare and affection for billowy black T-shirts. The elder Corpuz is comfortable in crowds, or rather, comfortable encouraging crowds to realize their leadership potential. Today, at the event that he primarily organized, he leads by delegating or gently urging participation.
After senior UP representatives ask the group to form a circle, Corpuz commandeers a bullhorn and passes it to 22-year-old J.D. Tupuola who has worked with UP since his release from California Youth Authority in 2006. “Okay y’all,” Tupuola bellows through the speaker, “lets keep it peaceful and respectful out there. You know the po-leece will be looking for us to slip up.”
A few elders offer prayers and invocations to the Filipino, Latino, African-American, Asian-Pacific Islander and Caucasian crowd assembled. Then, Corpuz grabs the bullhorn. “The committee canceled their march today,” he tells the crowd, referring to San Francisco’s formal Martin Luther King Day organizing committee which called off their yearly march to celebrate Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. “But we still need justice in our communities, right?” The crowd emphatically responds “yes” and the walk begins.