- Jeffrey Marini
A couple years ago, Reverend Pervis Thomas of Englewood's New Canaan Land Missionary Baptist Church was on the verge of ending the neighborhood's annual Battle of the Blocks basketball tournament. Also known as the Englewood Peace Tournament, it gathers together young men from the area, many of whom Thomas says are members of rival gang factions, for a weeklong series of games. But eight years of organizing the tourney on his own had begun to wear on Thomas, and he wasn't sure at the time whether the initiative was truly fostering peace in the community.
Thomas reconsidered after a conversation with the coach for the tournament's 59th Street team. "That guy over there shot at me three years ago, and ever since he's been coming to the tournament," the 23-year-old, pointing to another basketball player, told the reverend. "It changed my mind about killing that guy."
"That changed my whole mind-set," Thomas says. Despite the tremendous effort involved, he decided hosting a yearly basketball tournament for guys who in other circumstances might exchange gunfire was worth continuing if only because it had saved at least one life.
Earlier this month, the Battle of the Blocks took place for the tenth year in the parking lot of the Nicholson Technology Academy at the corner of 60th and Peoria Streets. Church volunteers sold plates of food to the crowd, and a DJ hired by Thomas provided a soundtrack for the games.
As the players darted across the pavement in goldenrod and maroon jerseys, Thomas live-streamed the on-court action on Facebook. His voice boomed above the music as he narrated the play-by-play, routinely punctuating his color commentary with demands that the young men "put the guns down." Thomas, a tall, muscular African-American man with a shaved head and a thick tuft of hair on his chin, shouted his cell phone number and told the community to call or message him on Facebook if they need help settling a dispute.
The 16 teams that compete in the tournament are named after the street blocks in Englewood from which the players hail. The young men who play year after year are responsible for organizing their own squads, Thomas says. The goal is to bring together men in their late teens, 20s, and early 30s—a majority of whom Thomas says are affiliated with gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, among others.
"We're talking about guys that last month shot at each other," Thomas says, "but when they come out here it's peaceful."
Thomas, whom players affectionately refer to as "Rev," says in the ten years the tournament has existed, shootings and other instances of violence in the neighborhood have dropped to nearly zero during the week of the event. (The Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether the tournament correlates with a decrease in neighborhood shootings.)
"Ever since we had it, we never had any problems or shootings going on," says Paul Rufus, a 35-year-old Englewood resident and a former player for the Peoria Street team. "We don't worry about nothing. They know everything is peaceful. If anybody has differences, they wait to take care of them."
Brian Davis, a 28-year-old who's played for the Morgan Street team since the Battle of the Blocks began, describes the tournament as a neighborhood reunion.
"There are a lot of enemies out here talking amongst each other," he says. The local community, he adds, views the tournament as a sacred space to relax without the threat of violent eruptions; family and friends from out of town come back to the neighborhood to watch.
Thomas, who grew up on the west side at 18th Street and Kildare Avenue and became the reverend of the Englewood church 15 years ago, says his own experience playing basketball against boys who lived down the street on Cullerton inspired the idea for the annual peace tournament.
A decade ago he walked block by block from Normal Boulevard on the east to Throop Street on the west, and then from 57th Street south to 64th Street to recruit young men for the games.
"It was intense my first year because I didn't know what was going to happen," Thomas recalls. "You could feel the tension in the parking lot." After the third year, Thomas says, the tension eased as everyone came to understand that "we can come over here and the guys here won't try to shoot at us," he says. "It's basically a neutral ground where everybody feels safe."
Jello Soraspy has played each year of the tournament for the Union team, the Englewood squad with the most wins. Victory at the peace tournament means "you got bragging rights for the whole year," he says. "You can say you got the baddest block for the whole year." In an extremely close championship game at this year's Battle of the Blocks, Peoria Street bested Union Street. Thomas says he always provides trophies for the winning team and the tournament's most valuable player.
Accolades aside, Soraspy says, the main impact of the event is its ability to unify people who might normally view each other as foes.
"Everybody got one love for this week," he says. "That's the most important blessing of the tournament to me. Because you got guys who, just for this, keep the peace—keep their differences to themselves just for this. They probably leave here and want to kill each other, but when they here it's all love."
In more affluent neighborhoods, community centers that play host to basketball leagues and other sports-related activities and special events are the norm, says Shari Runner, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, an organization that works to create social and economic opportunities for African-Americans. In communities with fewer resources, such as Englewood, there aren't as many opportunities to keep young people engaged in organized extracurricular activities such as basketball. That's where the city and the corporate community can play an integral role by offering funding assistance to events like the peace tournament "to support communities where disinvestment has occurred over a long period of time," Runner explains.
Englewood residents would welcome more activities like the peace tournament, say Davis and Soraspy.
"If we can get this not just in the summer but a fall tournament or spring and winter," Soraspy says, "it will give somebody something positive to do."
"Definitely more of this," Davis says. "That would bring our neighborhood back together."
But an increase in programming would necessitate an increase in money, and putting on the Battle of the Blocks isn't exactly inexpensive. Thomas receives funding to cover the $5,500 it costs to host the games—which includes uniforms, the DJ, and the installation of basketball hoops on the Nicholson school's parking lot, as well as the cost of removing them when the tournament ends—from individual sponsors, mostly people he's played basketball with downtown, including University of Chicago Institute of Politics director David Axelrod, former Cook County state's attorney Richard Devine, and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose grandmother is a member of Thomas's congregation.
The Battle of the Blocks is difficult and exhausting to coordinate, Thomas says. In future years, he's looking to get enough support, ideally from a corporate sponsor, to start delegating tasks to other people. He says a Nike rep attended one of the games this year, and he hopes the company will back the tournament so the event can move from the parking lot to an indoor hardwood court. He also would ask that Nike donate gym shoes for kids in the neighborhood.
Images of peaceful community celebration aren't often associated with Englewood—a public perception Tatiana Jones and Taylor Jordan lament. The 18-year-olds attended the penultimate day of this year's tournament.
"It's so nice to come out and not worry about nobody getting shot, nobody getting killed," Jones says. "You know the crazy thing about this is, you never see this in the newspaper."
"Violence does happen in a lot of black communities, but violence happens anywhere, and it's great our community is doing something good," Jordan says. "But it's still bad because we're not getting portrayed for the good."
Thomas says the young women are right. Local media is more often focused on the violence than on potential solutions to it, and that can hinder an event like the peace tournament from getting the coverage and attention it deserves from both city officials and corporations with the means to support it.
Still, it doesn't stop him from doing what he can to mitigate violence.
"I just want to create more peace in the community I serve," Thomas says. "I just basically tell them, 'We don't need the coverage, we just need to cover each other. If we cover each other, the more we get along, the more we unite, the more peace we can have in that community.' That's what I'm teaching, that's what I'm speaking out on." v