A North Portland man finds only pain in past and present from gang violence
08/11/02
MAXINE BERNSTEIN

They called him "J-Dogg." On his own since age 17, Jamal Ford "kicked it" with his gang buddies on street corners, cruised the hood in slick cars, and charmed ladies with stylish clothes, bulging biceps and smooth talk. Life was cool and carefree, smoking weed, getting drunk and listening to rap.

Today, Ford's home is a hospital bed; his transportation, an electric wheelchair. Behind drawn blinds that shut out the sun's rays in the small bedroom of his North Portland apartment, Ford channel surfs between Court TV, daytime talk shows and pro sports. He pops prescription painkillers and antibiotics, and for fun, watches his piranha named Grill gobble up feeder fish.

A year and five months has passed since Ford was shot at the Fast Trip Gas Station in Northeast Portland. Five bullets ricocheted through his body, one penetrating his spine and paralyzing him from the waist down. It was the second time Ford had been shot in nine years. But this time, there was no returning to the streets. In an instant, the March 9, 2001, shooting transformed him from a free-spirited adult to a disabled 31-year-old and dependent on his mother.

Though he's considered an OG (Original Gangster), he feels pain for his past, not pride. At a time when gang-related gun violence is picking up in the Portland area, he wants other streets youths to know "it's not cool."

Isolated, he struggles with depression. But with the support of his 55-year-old mother, Diane Ford, who moved from San Francisco to be by her son's side, he believes he has beat the odds and that God has some plan for him, potentially helping others.

"When you lose a certain part of you, something else grows stronger," Ford said, a football jersey concealing his tattoos and scars. "It's going to be a struggle. I know I can still do something good with my life. Here I've been shot six times, I know he has a plan for me. . . It's something good."

Ford grew up in Hunter's Point -- one of San Francisco's roughest neighborhoods.

He was raised by his mother and grandmother and attended Catholic schools through eighth grade. He played football in high school but dropped out in 11th grade. He got into fights, sold marijuana on the street and got busted with a stolen car. He tried a Jobs Corps program in Sacramento only to drop out a month before graduating.

At 17, his mother sent him to Portland to live with his aunt. He flipped burgers at Burger King, then worked at Safeway. But his aunt's rules and demands that he attend church drove Ford away.

He moved in with a girlfriend in North Portland. Her cousin introduced him to local gang members, and he began to feel at home.

"I joined because I liked the friends I was hanging with. The whole lingo, the words, how you act, how you dress. . . it makes you feel like you're in a secret club," Ford said. "When you're down and out, and you got no place to stay or you're broke, they'll go out of the way to take care of you. . . The girls, the cars, the drugs, all the parties, it was all cool."

Cool, until his best friend, Ramone Peck, 18, was shot in the head and killed by a gunman on a bike Nov. 22, 1992, as Ford walked with Peck along the 4000 block of Northeast Mallory Street.

"We were just going out to get some weed, that's all," Ford said.

Ford, struck in the stomach, remembers porch lights shutting off as he limped to nearby homes for help.

Ford didn't stick around for the funeral or trial. Angry and traumatized, he returned to California.

Yet, after two failed relationships and several odd jobs, he came back to Portland in early 2001.

The night that changed his life started like any other. He drank two or three beers at a friend's house before heading out to a club on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Ford's friend had a tape of a rap group, UTFO, that Ford was hot to hear. So Ford hopped in his friend's truck, equipped with a new stereo. They stopped at the Fast Trip Gas Station for gas about 10:30 p.m. Ford got out to relieve himself by garbage dumpsters at the southwest corner of the lot, he said.

It was dark, but Ford saw four men walk up from an alley. "What's up? Blood," one said in a show of disrespect, and fired. Ford lifted his right hand and was struck five times.

"I was tryin' to breathe in and couldn't. My mouth felt really dry. My legs, tingly," he said. "I heard someone saying, 'Don't fall asleep. Don't close your eyes.' "

The middle-of-the night call couldn't have come at a worse time.

Struggling with finances, Diane Ford was out of work and in the midst of losing her home when she learned her oldest son had been shot.
But the next morning, she dropped everything, left two younger children behind in San Francisco and flew to Portland. For 32 days, she kept a vigil by his bedside in the intensive care unit at Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center.

"He just looked like a big explosion. His intestines were outside of his body.

I've never seen anything like it," Ford said. "I just couldn't fathom the fact that there was a chance he was going to live."

Ford was in the hospital for eight months. The bullets had punctured his pancreas, liver and caused nerve damage in his right arm. He underwent 27 surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. His mother visited every day. She realized he needed her support. She never returned to San Francisco, and even transferred legal guardianship of her daughter, now 16, to a niece in California so she could care for her son.

Ford had joined a new, unglamorous group, becoming one of the thousands of young men across the country paralyzed by gunshot wounds. Nationally, gun violence is the second leading cause of spinal cord injuries, and African American men make up about 28 percent of spinal cord injury patients, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Alabama. The average age at injury is 32.

Today, Ford and his mother share an unfurnished, two-story,
handicapped-accessible home in North Portland. Each of their lives has been drastically altered. They face unimaginable restrictions -- be it financial, physical or emotional -- and an uncertain future.

Diane Ford earns $1,245 a month from the state to be her son's full-time caretaker. That involves changing his colostomy pouch and urine catheter, fixing breakfast, cleaning his room, washing his clothes, filling his prescriptions and arranging hospital visits -- 14 since his release in December because of recurring bladder infections.

Dealing with her son now, she said, is like learning to live with a stranger.

Ford returned home from the hospital with little patience and would erupt in rages when she would not cater to his every need. She tried not to take his outbursts personally, but had to leave the house at times for her own sanity.

"I thought at this point in my life, my children would be grown, and I'd be financially secure, and able to enjoy my life and travel. But I'm like a 19-year-old living in an apartment with no furniture," she said, her voice rising with emotion. "I'm dealing with a child I love and adore. The pain is almost unbearable to see him like this, but what you see is that this child, this person, needs you. I won't leave him, but I have to endure this every single day of my life, and yet keep his hope alive."

The deep scars etched on Ford's chest, abdomen, neck and arm provide little hint of the psychological pains he battles daily.

On bad days, Ford feels cheated, questions "Why me?" and loses patience when he spills a cup and can't lean over the side of his hospital bed to pick it up.

Yet his life-altering injuries have also made him appreciate what he took for granted: waking in the morning, going to sleep at night, his true friends and family. Being able to dress himself or wheel himself to the shower is progress.

Instead of playing sports, he watches sports, reads and writes in a personal notebook about his experiences.

With gunshots still ringing out in his neighborhood, he wishes younger gang members could gain his insight, without the experience he's endured.

"Police used to write in their reports -- 'gm, gang member, or ga, gang affiliate.' There ain't no 'ga' or 'gm' -- it's all gang. If you're involved in any kind of way, you're a piece of it, and anything can happen to you. There's only three ways you're going to end up -- either dead, in jail, or like this," he said, lying in his bed.

Under the title, "It's Not Cool," Jamal wrote in his notebook, "Who is really there when you're dead, alone, or in my case, paralyzed. It's just you and your friends who love you, not your gang. . ."

Maxine Bernstein: 503-221-8212; maxinebernstein@news.oregonian.com