The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

BOOK: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

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Dedicated to Robert DeShaun Peace and to his heart, Jacqueline Peace


to tell the story of a man, tell the whole story.”

I was sitting in Cryan's Beef & Ale House in South Orange, New Jersey, with Jason Delpeche, one of Robert Peace's friends dating back to elementary school. His words were not so much a command as they were an observation: if the intent of these pages was to recount the life of a friend who has died—who could neither tell nor defend his own story—then I had better recount that life well, using all means available.

This story is told through memory, observation, and documentation: mine, of course, but primarily that of many dozens of others, including Rob's family, friends, lovers, classmates, teachers, neighbors, colleagues in the professional world, and colleagues in the drug world. In addition, many people have contributed to this telling who did not know Rob at all but have keen perspective on one or more of the many complicated milieus in which he traveled: lawyers who worked for or against his father, politicians in Newark and the surrounding townships, community workers, police who patrol the streets on which he grew up, police who investigated his murder, academics, college administrators, state prison inmates, state prison employees, and more. I sought out anyone who might have a shred of perspective not only on Rob's direct experiences but also on the places and structures that informed those experiences. The result has been more than three hundred hours' worth of recorded
interviews which, paired with my own memories, eventually became this book. Much of this material is subjective, but so is any human life.

The dialogue that appears in this book was taken directly from these interviews. Though recalling precise exchanges, in some cases from decades ago, can be an inexact science, I am confident that the words I've written reflect very closely the words that were said. In instances where more than one person was present for these conversations, I have fact-checked their accuracy.

Segments relating to Rob's consciousness—his thoughts, feelings, various states of being—came from sentiments he shared with others during the respective time periods in which they took place. I acknowledge that it is impossible to fully understand a man's interior, particularly a man as complicated as Rob Peace, and I included such passages only in cases where the recollections were explicit and specific.

There are moments detailed herein in which Rob was alone or was interacting with someone who has also passed away, and so no one could attest as to what actually happened. Again, I relied on conversations he later had with friends and family. On the very few occasions where Rob never did relate the goings-on both within him and without, I used language to indicate that the content is based on the projections of myself and/or those who knew him well.

Names and some identifying characteristics have been changed.

Part I

Chapman Street

Rob with his father, Skeet Douglas, in 1985.

Chapter 1

?” Jackie Peace asked from the back of the car.

“It wears the engine,” her mother, Frances, replied from the driver's seat. “You can't bear it for four blocks?”

“He just feels hot to me, real hot.” And then, when her mother chuckled: “What's funny?”

“You're a brand-new mama and that's why you have no idea.”

“Idea of what now?”

“Babies are strong. They can handle just about anything.”

Robert DeShaun Peace, the baby in question, lay sleepy-eyed and pawing in Jackie's arms. He was a day and a half old, eight pounds, ten ounces. When he'd first been weighed, the number had sounded husky to her. Now, outside the hospital for the first time, he felt nearly weightless. The street outside the car was dark and empty on this swampy late-June night in 1980. The last of the neighborhood children had been called inside to clear the way for the hustlers who governed much of the greater Newark, New Jersey, area, and particularly this township of Orange, during the wilderness of the nocturnal hours.

As Frances had noted, St. Mary's Hospital was indeed less than half a mile from 181 Chapman Street, where the Peace family lived. They were parked outside their home within two minutes. Chapman Street
was about a hundred yards long, dead-ending on South Center Street to the west and Hickory to the east. These bookends actually protected the 100 block from most of the neighborhood's nightly commerce; dealers found the short stretch claustrophobic, and they were slightly wary of Frances, who never hesitated to march outside at any hour and tell them to get the hell out of her sight.

Jackie carried her son inside, past the rusty fence and weedy rectangle of lawn, up the five buckled stoop stairs, across the narrow porch, and through the open front door, where the ceiling fan made the air cooler. The street had been deserted, but the parlor and dining room were crowded with family. She had eight siblings, enough that she couldn't keep track of who was living in the house at any given time. Still dizzy from labor and first feedings, she didn't bother to count how many were there tonight as she reluctantly let the baby be passed around the living room, from her father, Horace, to her sisters Camilla and Carol to her brothers Dante and Garcia. Then her son was crying, and Jackie took him back and carried him to the room on the second floor where they could be alone, which was all she really wanted right now.

“Swaddle that baby and he'll stop the crying,” her mother called as she ascended the stairs.

“I told you I'm not swaddling anything in this heat!” Jackie called in response. And to Carl, who was something like an adopted younger brother, “If you see Skeet out tonight, tell him to get back here.” Skeet was Rob's father.

She laid the boy naked in the center of the mattress with a towel spread beneath him, and she lay beside him at the edge of the single bed to let him feed. They fell asleep that way, with her hand pressed against his back, holding him against her. His cries woke her in the early morning, and she raised her head hoping that Skeet would be there—he had left the hospital room abruptly a few hours after the birth, saying he had some “things to take care of”—but she and the baby remained the only warm bodies in the room.

few failed attempts to strike out on her own, Jackie Peace had lived on Chapman Street in Orange, New Jersey, since 1960, when she was eleven. The house had first belonged to her uncle and had been left in her father's name when that uncle died of lung cancer. Back then, the Peaces had been one of two black families on a block of middle-class European immigrants, mostly Italian, and their race hadn't bothered anyone. In that climate, people didn't think much about race, at least not outwardly. They thought about work. They thought about family. They thought about property. Men woke early and rode buses and car pools to the factory jobs that were the lifeblood of the greater Newark economy. Women stayed home and raised children. Neighbors, in silent and efficient understanding, kept an eye on the homes on either side of theirs, most of which were turn-of-the-century clapboards with peaked roofs set atop fourth-floor attics—attics packed with old photo albums and records and dishware, remnants of the passing down of property from generation to generation beginning in the early 1900s. The homes were narrow and close together, but inside they felt big enough, with high ceilings and wide portals between rooms and long backyards shaded by native willow oaks. Police made regular patrols and were known by name.

Central Avenue, a thoroughfare one block south of and parallel to Chapman Street, connected downtown Newark to the pastoral townships farther west: a succession of Italian, Polish, and Jewish grocers, pharmacies, clothing stores, flower shops, funeral homes, and local banks. On the south side of Central Avenue, Orange Park stretched out in ten green, rolling acres shaped like an arrow, its grounds bright with mothers gossiping and children playing. Though dense and urban, ­Orange could feel very much like a small town where all needs—­social, domestic, ­financial—were proximate and easily sustained. Because factories were the central commerce of greater Newark, and because the workers in those factories lived in places such as Orange, families like the Peaces could feel vital, as if the history of the city of Newark were moving through them.

If Jackie looked east on Central Avenue, in the direction of downtown, she could see in the distance the first of those brick, boxy towers known as “slums in the sky.” The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had erected sixteen of these projects in the 1950s to manage the influx of southerners seeking industrial work—mostly poor and mostly black. These communities had been intentionally segregated by race, in accordance with the common wisdom of urban planners at the time: if people were going to be stacked in such an uncomfortable way, they'd likely be more comfortable stacked with others of their own kind. The towers also served to segregate the urban problems of drugs, violence, and extreme poverty. With such signals largely contained behind those sheer walls and barred windows, people like Jackie and her siblings could drive wide around them, windows up and doors locked.

Jackie's father, Horace, worked at Linden Assembly, a General Motors plant three towns away. She didn't know what he did exactly, only that his work involved simple mechanical tasks that he performed over and over again, all day, every day. She'd always figured this repetition to be the source of his sternness, his absolute insistence on correct manners and etiquette. To him, life was lived successfully by getting the small things right every time. If he grew lazy on the job, he'd be fired and replaced by someone else who wouldn't, any one of the thousands of workers who could do what he did. Likewise, if Jackie or her siblings forgot to say, “May I please . . . ,” when asking for something, they'd be slapped—once, hard—on the back of the head. Days were about doing your chores and schoolwork quietly, keeping questions to a minimum. Nights were about staying out of Horace's way—also quietly, which was harder to do as younger siblings (Jackie was the third of nine) kept being born every two to three years. That house came to feel quite small indeed once three people inhabited each bedroom. As the number of bodies increased, so, too, did the financial and physical strain, shared by all except the very youngest, of keeping everyone fed.

Jackie knew from a young age that she didn't want a big family. As a girl, in church and school lessons, she was taught that Love was a boundless and ever-expanding entity. As she grew into her teens and found herself increasingly responsible for taking care of a generation of children she hadn't herself conceived, she learned that there were limitations even to Love. She understood those limitations definitively: her mother out for milk, her father working a second job, her two older siblings gone with friends, and fifteen-year-old Jackie in the living room, tasked with keeping six stir-crazy little brothers and sisters from breaking anything, including their own bones. She didn't have enough Love in her to avoid losing her mind at certain points. And in the back of that mind lay the knowledge that once she'd seen all those children grown and positioned out there in the world, the time would come not long thereafter when she'd be responsible for her parents in their place.

She wanted a family of two children, that was all: two children who would be hers, plus a man capable of fathering and providing for them adequately.

told that Carl's friend Skeet might show up, but there he was: not tall but barrel-chested and dark-eyed with a particular coil-like hunch in his posture, the kind of man whose presence was noted by all patrons when he walked into a bar—all except Jackie, even as Skeet approached her directly. She was well accustomed to eluding these sorts, men who relished playing the heavy.

The year was 1979, and Jackie was thirty years old. She'd lost her job at a soul food restaurant on South Orange Avenue, which meant that she'd moved back into her parents' house from the East Orange apartment she'd been sharing with two high school girlfriends. Carl, a friend of the family who had more or less grown up at 181 Chapman Street, felt sorry for her, as she had neither a man nor a baby and was no doubt hearing about it from her mother all the time. Still, Jackie hadn't been leaving
the house much lately. Carl considered that a shame, because she was a striking woman with small but intense eyes, a tall brow, an angular chin, thin lips, and short hair (she refused to spend money on a weave) that cumulatively projected an immovable conviction. Carl, when they hung out, got a kick out of the way men would approach her over younger, more classically attractive, easier women; these men seemed drawn to the challenge that Jackie's countenance most surely offered. Jackie was fun, too, and he'd convinced her to meet him at Passion Sports Bar & Café in the Grove Terrace section of Vailsburg, just west of downtown Newark, a conveniently located stopover for the mostly black workers commuting home at the end of the factory shifts. For many, these stopovers could very easily become all-nighters, and the room grew rowdy around nine or ten o'clock, which was when Jackie and Carl found themselves at the bar, talking about work, money, friends, and how to get her out of the house on Chapman Street.

Carl had met Robert “Skeet” Douglas a few months earlier on a factory demolition job, both grunt laborers who manually cleared the debris too fine for the diggers. They'd gotten along well—Carl was quiet and reserved while Skeet was a witty leader of men. Their acquaintance had led to a loose partnership hustling cocaine. “Making movements,” Skeet called what they did, nothing major or particularly dangerous in the great scheme.

At the bar, Skeet eyed Jackie and smiled disarmingly. She ignored him; there were plenty of girls at the bar who would be susceptible to his clearly well-honed charm, girls who didn't know any better. She said she had to get home to make sure her youngest brother had finished his schoolwork.

“What's the assignment?” Skeet asked.

Jackie replied that it was a biography of Frederick Douglass. Skeet proceeded to lay out, from memory, all the key moments and dates of Frederick Douglass's life. The smooth talk vanished as he explained, humbly, that he'd always had a knack for remembering things.

Jackie let him give her a ride home. He happened to live on Pierson
Street, just two blocks north of Chapman. She listened to more biographies on the way; anyone she could name, he knew his or her story. Of his own story, however, she didn't learn much that night, or any of the nights that followed.


Jackie heard these words from everyone. She heard them during her four-week maternity leave from St. Mary's Hospital (in addition to having given birth there, she worked in the basement kitchen), and she heard them after she went back to work. She heard them from her parents, from her siblings, from her friends, and most often from Skeet. “You never put him down. Whenever he wants something, you give it to him. He sleeps in the bed with you!” Skeet would say, not angry but incredulous in a way that only Skeet could get. “Now I see why you won't marry me, because you're married to a six-month-old—”

“There's nothing bad about him feeling safe.”

“There's something real bad about him getting everything he wants when he wants it. The boy's never had to struggle for anything in his life.”

“If I have my say, he never will.”

She talked back to Skeet, and that was one of the reasons he liked her. She didn't know as many facts as he did, and so didn't have the capacity to rebut arguments as he took such pleasure in doing. But she could often shut him up with just a few words, Jackie's basic confidence in her own sense trumping all of Skeet's verbal tricks and back doors. She never let him talk her in circles like he did with Carl; she never let him be right when he was wrong.

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