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SunLit interview: “The Holly” author Julian Rubinstein reflects on the story and its challenges

A 2013 shooting by a Denver anti-gang activist revealed what the author saw as a narrative of national scope and importance

Julian Rubinstein is an award-winning journalist, author and producer. His new non-fiction book, “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May 2021. Julian’s first non-fiction book, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, was a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime Book and was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice.” His journalism has been cited and collected in numerous anthologies, including Best American Essays, Best American Crime Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing and twice in Best American Sports Writing. He lives in Denver, and is currently a Visiting Professor of the Practice of Documentary Journalism at the University of Denver. 

Growing up in Denver, Julian Rubinstein was only peripherally aware of an enclave in the city’s northeast Park Hill area known as the Holly, a largely Black section of a mostly white city. But when the Brooklyn-based journalist and author heard the story of a 2013 shooting — one that left a gang member paralyzed and former gang member Terrance Roberts, then a celebrated anti-gang activist, on trial — he ultimately returned to his childhood home to embark on what became a seven-year project. The result was his work of narrative nonfiction published in May as “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood.”

Though built around the experience of Roberts, who was later acquitted in the shooting of Hasan Jones, the book raises and links a range of issues that shaped the neighborhood — everything from its activist history to racism to gang violence, gentrification and aggressive police tactics. The story delves into the collision of cops, confidential informants, activists and gang members — some who cast themselves as neighborhood defenders while others, like Roberts, struggled to shake free of their past.

Amid that storyline, Rubinstein also found himself uniquely positioned to address the racial justice protests that flared in Denver — organized in part by Roberts — and cities across the country following last year’s murder of George Floyd.

Poet and playwright Martin McGovern, who teaches at the University of Denver’s University College, recently sat down with Rubinstein to discuss his book on the patio of a coffee house near Denver’s City Park.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Martin McGovern: What was it about the shooting that piqued your interest and led you to take on this project?

Julian Rubinstein: I was intrigued by the story when I read about the shooting and did several reporting trips where I flew back to Denver and stayed with my mom. It was clear that there was a lot going on — a gang shooting in a very politicized place and time with high-profile redevelopment. But probably what made me more determined to continue was that the local reporting on the case did not match with what I was coming up with, and the discrepancies themselves began to lead me in other directions.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

MM: The shooting happened in 2013. When did you begin your research — and then move it to Denver?

JR: I first flew out in February 2014, and it was sometime that summer of 2014 that I decided I was going all in. I moved back officially, and into my mom’s apartment, the following year because I was back and forth so many times in 2014 that it no longer was feasible to cover this from afar.

Sadly, in the Black community, the high incidence of informants has over decades really made people distrustful of each other. And so the fact that I was white, maybe it made me a little less likely to be undercover or not who I said I was.

Julian Rubinstein, author of “The Holly”

MM:  You write about going into the neighborhoods and interviewing people — being white, going into Black neighborhoods. That must have been challenging.

JR: It was definitely slow. One of my things was to just keep showing up, keep showing up. Keep showing that I’m not just passing through. What was interesting — and I didn’t know this till late in the process — some people said it might have even helped me that I was white. I thought it was, of course, working against me. Sadly, in the Black community, the high incidence of informants has over decades really made people distrustful of each other. And so the fact that I was white, maybe it made me a little less likely to be undercover or not who I said I was.

But it was challenging, for sure. That’s why it took a long time. I got started on it soon after the shooting happened, followed it all through the trial. And then there was a lot of follow-up I needed to do and a lot of continued research.

I thought it was important to put the story in its historical, long-arc context. Because we clearly can see, in this story, these cycles have continued. And I really wanted to make sure that was part of it. It’s almost a cliché that a writer misses their book deadline, right? But in this case, thankfully, I did miss a deadline. Because, there’s the epilogue — I mean, if I had missed [including] all that was happening in 2020, especially after everything that came before it . . .

MM: Continuing on that point, I was reading “The Holly” and thinking how George Floyd’s murder was an echo, another tragic one, of all the things going on in your book. Did that impact your research as you were finishing the book? Did people put up walls?

JR: Yes, definitely. But people were very helpful as well.

By that point in the story, I was writing. And I wanted to do two things: I wanted to pull back and look at the general protest movement, and at activists — what was happening to them, not only their arrests, not only their struggles, but also how challenging it was to them, personally, health-wise, everything.

MM: We know that Terrance played a role in last summer’s racial justice protests. What else is he doing now?

JR: Thankfully, he finally has a good job. He works for Zillow. He was able to become a home inspector. And then he was hired by Zillow and he’s in charge of their home inspectors. Thank God, because he was broke for so long. And he still lives in Denver but not in Northeast Park Hill.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

MM: Let’s turn to your writing for a moment. Do you consider what you do journalism, nonfiction or creative nonfiction?

JR: I certainly consider it journalism, but I call it narrative nonfiction. I don’t like the term creative nonfiction for what I do as it is often used by MFA types who aren’t doing straight journalism.

I guess I would say that I realized I wanted to try to tell this story from the perspective of community members as opposed to law enforcement. I don’t have anything against law enforcement. My brother is an elected district attorney in Colorado. But they, along with other powerful and influential forces, control the narrative about vulnerable communities. I knew it would take a long time to gain their trust, but ultimately I did gain access to all of the major players and found myself deeper inside a dangerous and highly political world of street violence than I expected.

MM: I was thinking early on about your different audiences — like newcomers to Denver, old-time Denver people and moderately new people. Did you have those kinds of audiences in mind? Or any particular audience?

JR:  Not really. Honestly, I just wanted to tell the story. I mean, the only audience I had in mind was national, because I saw it as a national story. It’s obviously a Denver story, but I think it’s very much representative and symbolic in so many ways of what’s going on elsewhere. And what I thought was interesting about it being in Denver is that it’s not what you might have expected with all these things, gangs, gang violence, systemic racism and things like that. Because Denver has been very good at cultivating its image. And over the years the truth has purposefully been suppressed.

…That’s why the events of 2020 were so interesting, and key to the book. Everything in 2020, it’s like, wow, OK, this is another level.

Julian Rubinstein, author of “The Holly”

MM: I think your epilogue is important, too, because it’s about exactly what Denver is, or might be, in the wake of a summer of social justice protests. What’s true and what’s image. I don’t know, for example, that I’ve heard the word “activist” much in Denver in the last 10 or more years. What’s up with that?

JR: Well, as you can see, in this story, there’s a lot of people who are calling themselves activists who maybe don’t deserve that. But, I came to think that this book, in many ways, is about decades of activism and thwarted activism. And that was, I thought, really interesting and unexpected to me. When I got into it, I didn’t really see that right away. But later, I thought that’s why the events of 2020 were so interesting, and key to the book. Everything in 2020, it’s like, wow, OK, this is another level.

You know, Terrance Roberts gets arrested for “inciting a riot” for his leading protests against the police. They arrest him in a park and tell him he’s been followed for weeks. Anyone who knew anything about what he was doing — he was not trying to propagate violence or gang activity. In fact, he was trying to throw people out of the rallies who were actually acting violent or whatever.

In fact, with a lot of those people it was suspect about who they really were and what they were doing, because they were coming to his rallies that his name or organization was on, and then turning it into something violent and then laying it on him. Right? Like he’s taking the fall for it, so it was almost easy to set him up.

I couldn’t prove it, but certainly it was questionable whether law enforcement was targeting some of those activists, him and the others who were arrested, because they were basically trying to undermine that movement. Because law enforcement, especially the Aurora police, were so mad they had 10,000 people out there protesting law enforcement, and law enforcement just wanted to destabilize and take them down.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

MM: So police were keeping an eye on Terrance during last summer’s protests?

JR: Yeah, big time. But again, if they were keeping a real eye on him, they would have known that, actually, no, we don’t really have anything we can get him on, which is why they had to drop those charges.

But this is what happened in the civil rights movement to a lot of these activist leaders who were taken down, often by false charges that they never were charged with or were found not guilty on. But it’s nonetheless destabilizing them and taking them out of the game.

I mean, it did that with Terrance. He was facing charges, and he’s got kids to take care of, he’s got a job. And so there he is facing a felony. So he stopped doing protests, because it’s just too risky because if he got even one misdemeanor  he’d be right in jail, waiting for his trial in jail. He couldn’t do that. So it works: If gang members or law enforcement could destabilize Terrance and anti-gang advocates, all the better for them.

MM: You’re now working on a documentary connected to the book. Does it have the same kind of narrative arc?

JR: It’s built into the sort of like framework–of Terrance facing these charges [of attempted murder in the shooting of gang member Hasan Jones in 2013], then the end being the current day protest movement.


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