NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Recent political ads in a state Senate race targeted Nashville's Gideon's Army, accusing the African-American group of being radicals who have endorsed rioting and looting.
Gideon's Army leaders were on the front lines of some of this summer's peaceful protests, challenging the city to view justice through new eyes.
But, for the Nashville group, it was more than just talk.
In some of Nashville's most economically challenged neighborhoods, it's also their walk.
While the group may sometimes use provocative language, our investigation discovered, the reality of what Gideon's Army is trying to accomplish is very different from that dark portrayal in the ads aired by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally's political action committee.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates spent time with the group on the streets of Nashville this summer as part of our continuing "Broken" investigation of the state's juvenile crime issues.
What is Gideon's Army?
Neighborhood heroes, suggested one member.
Family, another added.
"Our goal is to end the school to prison pipeline and the racial inequities that are the root causes of that pipeline," said Gideon's Army founder Rasheedat Fetuga.
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Fetuga, a former Metro school teacher, founded the group after dealing with children like Lamar Hughes, who was murdered at age 16.
She first met him when he was in elementary school.
"This was a third grader," Fetuga recalled. "He said, 'I will not live to see 18, Miss Fatuga. Why should I keep fighting?"
Gideon's Army made its first public splash four years ago with a "Driving While Black" report that targeted the disproportionate stops of African-Americans by Metro Police - an effort that did result in change.
And after several high-profile police shootings, Gideon's Army helped lead the public referendum for a police oversight board.
"When those officers come through it doesn't feel friendly," Fetuga said.
"It feels threatening because of the culture of policing. That's why our neighborhood heroes are so important, because they grew up in the community."
Inside the Cumberland View Apartments - an area once known as Dodge City because of all the bullets flying through the air - Gideon's Army acts as violence interrupters, trying to build peace and harmony, rather than police coming in to impose law and order.
"We put that love energy out here - you know what I'm saying?" said Gideon's Army member Hambino Godbody. "We make sure there ain't no violence going on."
Fellow member Larry Turnley, known as L.T., agreed.
"It's about creating safe zones and safe spaces where our children can be out and be children - and our elderly can walk around and be safe -without worrying about something happening to them. That's what we do."
Another member, Chef Mic True, added: "What makes us credible messengers is we've done it all. It ain't nothing you can talk about in the streets that we can't relate to."
True said, not only are they from the neighborhood, some like Turnley and Godbody also know what it's like to be on the wrong side of the law.
"We come into the 'hood to educate you or show you a better way," Godbody said.
"And we ain't just talking, we're walking. That's why we are credible messengers because we've done lived being drug dealers, we've done lived going to jail for murder, we've done lived going to jail for guns. So we understand."
They've also tried to assist police in better understanding the communities they're supposed to serve.
"Police, like I'm saying, if they was honest they would tell you that most of their training, it came from the community, it came from the community," Turnley said.
We watched as a woman approached the men of Gideon's Army about a problem she was having with her boyfriend, looking for a solution that wouldn't involve calling the police and someone potentially getting arrested - all part of an effort known as "restorative justice."
"If someone causes harm within our family, we have to figure out what to do to make things right," Fetuga said. "It's a natural way of being within our family."
Video of one of the teens they had worked with, Dontrail Spencer, went viral back in May as he celebrated his graduation from Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School.
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"He's a product of what Gideon's Army facilitates in the schools and the communities," True said.
"He got with the program, stuck with the program and went from a failing student to a student that graduated that now has a full-ride scholarship."
Dontrail was one of the teens we met earlier this year at Pearl-Cohn High School, saying they need more mentors to help them stay on the right path.
"By them being here at Pearl, they helped lots of students change their ways," the teenager said.
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Still, the group is not without controversy. They were asked to leave Pearl-Cohn after a philosophical disagreement with a new prinicipal. And they were passed over for a contract they had sought with Nashville's Juvenile Court.
"What Gideon's Army is not saying is we just need violence interrupters," Fetuga said. "What we're saying is that we need to build healthy communities."
Healthy communities, they said, also includes providing a return path for individuals who have made mistakes and want to become productive members of society.
"When you're looking at somebody selling drugs, you're looking at them as a criminal, but you ain't thinking of him trying to take care of his mama because the jobs y'all give us as felons don't allow us to make ends meet," Godbody added.
That's why Gideon's Army also focuses on the community's basic needs.
When last spring's tornado decimate parts of North Nashville, Gideon's Army rolled up its sleeves to help with the recovery.
This summer, they called for placing more social workers in schools instead of police, putting mental health first responders on the streets, as well as addressing issues like generational poverty that can drive people to acts of desperation.
When those basic needs are met, they argue, the other problems plaguing their communities subside.
"They don't exist because people are not hungry, people aren't fighting for their next meal, trying to figure out where clothes are coming from," Fetuga added. "Those issues just don't persist anymore."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "What I hear you saying is we're treating the symptoms of the problem instead of the underlying problem?"
"Yes," Fetuga answered, "we are not addressing the root causes."
"If you continue to address the symptoms, then you have to ... punish people, life in prison, all of these different things. But if you address the root cause issues, you knock out the need to do any of that."
While the intensity of the protests may have subsided, as they told us back in the summer, Gideon's Army has no plans to walk away from its push for change.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Are you concerned that there will be this intense period of discussion and then nothing will change?"
"No," Fetuga insisted, "because we are not even going to allow it.
"The pessimism, there's still room for it. But at this point we are at a stage where we are just not allowing those things to happen anymore."