Michael Wilder begins describing the night of his 33rd birthday by saying, “I was involved in a murder.”
In May 2006, Wilder, known as “Too Short,” was celebrating his birthday with his friend Harvey Durr. During the course of the night, Wilder got into a fistfight with Scott Shaver in the parking lot of a Kalamazoo apartment complex. Shaver’s brother, Terrance Mackerel, came to the fight wielding a baseball bat.
Wilder says he believed Mackerel was going to kill him with the bat; instead, Mackerel was killed when Durr shot him.
A new leaf
Fast forward 12 years. Dressed in a black security guard uniform, 41-year-old Yafinceio Harris sits at a small table in a classroom inside of the Barclay Hills Education Center, an alternative high school in the Parchment School District. At 6 feet and 370 pounds, Harris manages to make the relatively spacious room and everything in it look small by comparison.
Harris grew up in Osceola, Arkansas, where he remembers being involved in crime at 15. “(I would) go to the clubs thinking people love me, but they was using me up to run bags (of contraband, like drugs) and hold guns, and I loved that shit,” he says.
He came to Michigan and started dealing drugs in Kalamazoo around 2002.
“I was only hustling because of my ‘criteria’— my background with my violent history and everything,” says Harris. “It was difficult for me to get the jobs that I felt like I was qualified for and deserved, you know? I was denied that.”
When he describes his life on the streets, Harris’ voice has a pained, almost disappointed tone. He describes “demons and visions” of his life that came and sometimes still come to haunt him, including the night his cousin Terrance Mackerel was killed.
“They shot P, B.”
A neighbor near the fight called Harris that night and told him about the shooting. Harris rushed to the scene in a “panicked rage.”
“When I got there, I seen Scott (Shaver) in the back of the police car,” he says. “And then I see my cousin ‘P’ (Mackerel) laying on the ground, bleeding out the back of the head. You know what I’m saying? He was just lifeless.”
Harris, known as “Big Beast,” or “B” for short, says he set out to kill Wilder that night.
“If you don’t get back at that person (who wronged you or someone close to you), you lose a lot of respect,” he says. “You lose your respect, you lose money. You lose money, you lose status. Now you went from a somebody in the hood to a nobody in the hood.”
Harris never caught Wilder, but he ended up going to Michigan State Prison in Jackson from 2006 to 2008 for being a felon in possession of a weapon.
Before the death of Terrance Mackerel, Wilder had been working as a drug dealer in Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties for 20 years.
“I really didn’t know anything else,” admits Wilder, who spent most of his early years on the South Side of Chicago. “Where I’m from, my heroes were high-ranking gang members and drug dealers.”
Wilder had been to prison three times, including a stint in the state prison, which he describes as “the belly of the beast.” Like Harris, Wilder’s last visit to prison (for a cocaine charge) began in 2006 and ended 2008.
After getting out, Wilder stumbled upon a copy of Terrance Mackerel’s obituary at a friend’s house.
“It was on my mind every day for two months,” he says. He couldn’t figure out why it was particularly striking, until he realized the month and date of Mackerel’s death was Wilder’s own birthday.
“Usually, if your birthday is on an obituary, you’d be dead,” he says. “You don’t get to see your own birthday on an obituary, you’d be gone.”
He saw that obituary as a challenge, believing it was God’s way of asking him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He decided to re-enroll at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, which he had dropped out of in 1993.
“Prison is like college for criminals,” Wilder says, noting that inmates have conversations about things like making money from selling drugs the way college students discuss how to most effectively use their majors.
“For that reason, I went ahead and enrolled in college, because I just wanted to be around different people,” he says. “I wanted to do something different.”
He graduated in 2014 with an associate’s degree in applied sciences. “It’s like a master’s degree to me,” Wilder says. “I never could have imagined graduating from college.”
Something else came from Wilder’s time in college, something totally unexpected: Wilder met Harris.
Even though they had been in the same prison at the same time, Wilder hadn’t encountered Harris there. But a few years later, they were enrolled in the same College Success Strategies course at KVCC.
“I’d been off the streets so long (since 2006), I didn’t know who he was,” Wilder says.
Wilder says the feud between himself and Harris had been at a “kill-on-sight” level of hatred, but despite wanting revenge for his cousin, Harris just patiently observed Wilder at KVCC. Wilder even tried to sell Harris on He Reigns Gospel Magazine (a publication of which Wilder is a part owner), completely oblivious to his identity. Eventually, Harris confronted him.
Wilder thought he was going to die when Harris introduced himself. “In our culture, if my buddy killed your friend or family member, then you have to retaliate and kill him,” Wilder says. “It goes back and forth.”
But when Harris found that they were both working to turn their lives around, he offered Wilder a truce. Wilder accepted, but he turned down Harris’ offer to get to know each other over a game of pool.
Still scared, Wilder told the course instructor, Sam Bailey, about the history he and Harris shared, only to discover that Harris had already told Bailey.
“I let my guard down and went to pool with him,” Wilder says. “And we clicked. Mortal enemies, and we clicked.”
With Bailey’s help, their story ended up on American Public Media’s podcast The Story, in a 40-minute segment called “A Classroom in Michigan,” in 2011. That spurred Wilder and Harris to use their story to make a difference, and in 2013 they formed an anti-violence youth and adult mentoring program called Peace During War.
“I named it Peace During War because during this war me and him (Wilder and Harris) brought peace, but the family (of Terrance Mackerel) still wants war,” Wilder says.
The “war” part is particularly difficult for Harris: Some of his family haven’t spoken to him since he and Wilder struck their truce.
“I miss my family. I miss them, man,” Harris says. “I used to go to barbecues, cookouts. You know what I’m saying? I got memories. I got visions. I got pictures of this shit. Ever since I started this thing with Mike, it’s like I gained the crowd that needed me, and I lost the crowd that used me.”
KVCC instructor Bailey also helped Wilder and Harris write a proposal for collaboration and funding from the Fetzer Institute, which awarded Peace During War $30,000 in 2013 to support and evaluate the organization’s activities.
“They (Wilder and Harris) recognized the transformation they went through, and they wanted immediately to take that message to other people, particularly at-risk youth, to help shift their potential destructive cycle and path,” says Gillian Gonda, Fetzer’s program director for engagement.
It was that transformation, Gonda says, that matched the Fetzer Institute’s search for examples of community-changing “love and forgiveness” and violence prevention efforts during that time.
Telling the story
In their Peace During War roles, Wilder and Harris visit students at area schools, telling their story and mentoring them.
“I tell them about all the gruesome shit first, and then I tell them about what’s going on with me now mentally and physically so they could see,” Harris says. “And once they see that, the only thing I can hope for off of that is that I got the attention of one of them and they want better.”
Harris describes telling student basketball players about the impact that having a friend involved in criminal activity can have on their athletic futures. He also warns them about the risks of letting a romantic or sexual relationship get in the way of their education.
“Go over there and get your friends (and tell them), ‘Get your ass up, we got to go to school,’” he says, imitating what he tells students. “I try to let them know, like, ‘Y’all need each other, too.’”
Harris and Wilder have met with students at the Youth Advancement Academy, an alternative school of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, and at Lakeside Academy, a facility in Kalamazoo for kids ages 11 to 17 who have been in trouble with the law. Last month, the pair wrapped up a four-month stint visiting monthly with students at Outlook Academy, an Allegan Area Educational Service Agency facility that works with troubled kids.
Bailey also helps Harris and Wilder connect with people like Colleagues International’s executive director, Jodi Michaels. Colleagues International runs professional and youth leader exchange programs that bring people from all over the world to various cities in the United States, including Kalamazoo. CI often has guests who are trying to tackle violence in their home countries meet with Wilder and Harris. So far, the pair has spoken to groups from Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Brazil and Iran.
“People who have lived something are the best people to be involved in solutions and in next steps for the future,” Michaels says. “I think it doesn’t matter where someone is from, they (Wilder and Harris) are very inspiring, and I think people have a lot to learn from them.”
Harris and Wilder also help others in their daily jobs. Harris, who was working at Barclay Hills Education Center when this interview was conducted, has left there and now works in outreach with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, working to find and provide support to homeless people in Kalamazoo. Wilder works as a full-time support staff member at Kalamazoo Covenant Academy, a charter school for students who have previously dropped out or are at risk of not graduating on time.
Wilder’s and Harris’ former instructor, Bailey, now teaches at the Alternative Learning Program middle school in Kalamazoo and hopes to bring Peace During War to his school as well.
“What Michael and Yafinceio do which is really unique and really powerful is say, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s who we were, and then we found it within ourselves to forgive each other,’” Bailey says. “And they don’t preach so much as they listen.”
It’s that listening, Bailey says, that has the most impact.
“They (the young people) sit around and just talk, with Michael and Yafinceio just listening,” he says. “It really helps the kids feel safe and protected and take a lot of the lessons that (Harris and Wilder) are trying to give to heart.”
Harris says the important thing is making sure kids know they are loved, not judged. “We don’t got (anything) to offer them. No money,” Harris says. “They don’t care. All they care is that we got love for them. All they care is that they can come to us and be they-self without being judged, without dealing with the egos we was dealing with. Without people judging you because they feel like you ain’t so rough.”