A duo's dynamic attack on video game violence

March 16, 2005
Washington Post
By Jose Antonio Vargas

You see Jauhar Abraham, you see Ronald "Mo" Moten. Nothing doing without the other.

For weeks now, the two founders of Peaceoholics -- a program that mentors about 150 teenagers in the Washington area -- have each sported a T-shirt with an X on it. The T-shirt comes in black, gray and white, but the X is red on all three. It's a big red X on a scene from Grand Theft Auto, the hit video-game series.

It's a big, red, personal X, the men will tell you. Though neither has played San Andreas, the series' latest installment, its stereotypical "gangbanging," "hate-inducing," "fear-creating" black and Latino characters drive them up the wall.

And, on a recent Saturday, they drove the men to the front of the Best Buy in Northwest Washington. Megaphone in hand, Moten led a picket line of teenagers carrying flimsy posters that read: "Best Buy is selling San Andreas! Best Buy is selling poison to our children!"

Several weeks ago, their aversion drove them to hold a meeting at the Bellevue Resource Center in Southwest Washington, where they lectured a dozen or so teenagers. "This game makes y'all look like garbage, and you sit around and laugh about it and play it like some fools," Moten said. "If you play San Andreas, you a fool. I'm telling you."

Still, it raises the question: How can Moten attack a game -- last year's best-selling title, pulling in more than $230 million in its first week -- that he never played?

Moten pauses, then answers the question with a question: "Why would I play a game that lets me kill police officers? Kill pregnant women? Rob banks?" He pauses again. "You don't have to commit a crime to know that you'll go to jail for it."

To the duo, the line between fantasy (what happens on PlayStation2) and reality (what happens on Benning Road) is simply too blurry.

At a news conference at First Rock Baptist Church last month, Moten, 35, and Abraham, 36, stood alongside community activists, church leaders and D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4) as he announced a bill to ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors. It's a move that seems to be popular among legislators this year. (Maryland, Illinois and Georgia are among the states with similar pending legislation.) Moten and Abraham, Fenty says, came up with the idea for the District -- they approached him in January, telling him that 11- and 12-year-old kids who are caught "joyriding" in stolen cars are influenced by Grand Theft Auto.

"In this game, you can steal cars, you can use drugs," Moten said at the news conference. "It's horrific what our children are exposed to in this game."

The day after, while lunching at Ben's Chili Bowl, Moten and Abraham underscored the point to a group of 17-year-olds -- all San Andreas fans -- as they sat at a corner table sharing chili cheese fries.

"Everybody at one time wanted to be just like Michael Jordan. When they saw Mike on TV all the time, they wanted to be like Mike," Abraham told the boys. "When they play this Grand Theft Auto all day, kids as young as 11 and 12 with no mothers at home with them, they're going to be influenced."

Both Moten and Abraham acknowledged, though, that there is no conclusive evidence tying a specific game like Grand Theft Auto to a specific behavior like joyriding.

San Andreas, one of the boys pointed out, is rated M -- it's for adults.

"Don't tell me for a minute that you don't know some 11-year-old playing that game," Moten says. The silence ended the debate.

Rockstar Games, the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, said in a statement: "When it comes to the sale of video games, parents should make entertainment decisions for their children, and adults should make decisions for themselves. The tastes of a few politicians and/or activists should not be imposed on parents, or other adults."

They look somewhat alike, Moten and Abraham, with stout builds and shaved heads. The two are a staple on the streets of Washington: party planners, urban-wear marketers (Moten works closely with the H.O.B.O. Shop, Abraham with the Universal Madness Shop), relentless activists. They are both single fathers, living no more than a 10-minute drive from each other east of the Anacostia River.

There is the duo on the steps of City Hall, asking the D.C. Council to rethink its priorities. ("Let me get this straight: a new baseball stadium before newly renovated schools?" Abraham asks.) There is the duo at the big basketball game between Southeast's Ballou and Anacostia high schools. ("It's the Southeast Cup," Moten says.)

They met a decade ago at the Million Man March. Both are disciples of Al-Malik Farrakhan, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of the national group Cease Fire: Don't Smoke the Brothers and Sisters. Back in the day, both had their own run-ins with the law, most of it drug-related.

"Soon as Jauhar and I met, we started throwing parties together, started doing peer intervention together, started hanging out," Moten says.

Peaceoholics, which they started in November, was born out of an almost decade-long partnership. It's garnered support from community activists, Hollywood stars such as D.C. native Big G (aka Ralph Glover of the HBO show "The Wire") and religious figures such as the Rev. Anthony Motley, who runs the Bellevue Resource Center.

Moten and Abraham run a lunch program at three D.C. high schools: Anacostia, Ballou and Eastern. They lead a community intervention program at Barry Farms and Condon Terrace, both public housing complexes in Southeast Washington. They head to Oak Hill, a juvenile detention center, at least four evenings a week.

Now add going after violent video games to that list. Initially, San Andreas is the target. Later this year, they plan to go after Fear & Respect, created by Hollywood director John Singleton and starring a virtual Snoop Dogg. ("We're going to go after Singleton even harder," Moten says. "He's been sucked into this thing where money is more important than the welfare of his brothers.")

Tony Stover, one of the teenagers Moten and Abraham mentor, was at Bellevue, talking about how much he likes San Andreas. But he was also at Best Buy, carrying a poster.

"I don't play San Andreas no more," is all he would say, which, coming from a 17-year-old who shares two PlayStation2's with his five brothers, is saying a lot.

Peaceoholics is launching an all-out attack. On Feb. 3, it mailed letters to 11 stores in the Washington area -- Best Buy, Blockbuster, Target and Wal-Mart, among others -- demanding that they stop selling San Andreas in 30 days. The group didn't hear back, so it sent another round of letters: two of them were hand-carried, the rest were sent by certified mail.

Best Buy, Blockbuster and Wal-Mart declined to comment to The Washington Post. Target issued a statement, saying that the ratings system ought to be sufficient protection: "Target has an aggressive video game education program to inform our guests about the rating and labeling systems for video games."

That's not enough for Moten and Abraham. They've started boycotting individual stores -- Best Buy came first, with Blockbuster, Target and Wal-Mart soon to follow, they say. On March 29, during spring break, they plan to take a busload of teenagers ("about 45 kids and 10 chaperons," Abraham says) to Manhattan -- the headquarters of Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive -- to picket.

Together. In white T-shirts with the big personal X.