Another piece of journalism that’s gotten a lot of attention this week is The New Yorker’s long look at Wilmington’s TRU Colors. Founded by white entrepreneur George William Bagby Taylor Jr., the brewery got national attention for employing active gang members as a means of decreasing violence. TRU also attracted a notable investment from beer giant Molson Coors.
Then a double homicide last summer at the home of Taylor’s son cast its role in the city into question.
Atlanta-based reporter Charles Bethea spent a year reporting on the brewery. We spoke to Bethea about the story and his experience in Wilmington.
The Assembly: Obviously, it’s difficult to unpack the extent to which TRU Colors is impacting gun violence and gangs, positive or negative. But what sense did you emerge with about their role in these issues in Wilmington?
Charles Bethea: One of the trickiest parts of this story is indeed determining whether TRU has been effective in stemming gang-related violence. There are a few reasons for this difficulty. For one, it’s tough to prove a negative. So when George Taylor repeats, as he often does, that “We’ve stopped so many shootings,” do we just take his word for it? How does he know? Since he has an incentive to make claims like that—just like police chiefs and district attorneys do—we might then turn to the local crime statistics themselves to see how a given year compares to previous ones.
But these statistics are also notoriously resistant to causal interpretation. They’re impacted by an array of national phenomena (say, a pandemic) as well as various local events (say, a decision to change the age at which someone can be charged as an adult and thus included in the stats).
In so far as TRU has impacted gang-violence, it’s just hard to say. As I suggest in my story, it’s possible to look at the company and see that it has both created jobs for people who have a tough time finding employment (good), but also that those jobs became a kind of turf that the rival gangs fought over leading to more violence (bad). I guess my biggest takeaway is that it’s important to avoid simple determinations about complex phenomena, like gang violence, particularly when profit motives are involved.
TA: Did any program’s supporters offer a reasonable bar by which to judge its efficacy?
CB: Not really. TRU’s supporters—and Taylor himself—mainly just pointed to crime stats when they looked good. They tended to take credit for any short-term statistical decreases in violent crime metrics—like their weirdly specific claim that TRU deserves credit for an 82 percent decrease in gang violence in Wilmington during the summer of 2017, when the company barely existed.
But when those same numbers subsequently tick back up, they distance the company from that shift. I will say that I agree with Taylor in his insistence that the company should ultimately be judged on a longer time horizon—say, five years—rather than overnight. Of course, by Taylor’s own admission, he aims to sell the company before that amount of time has elapsed.
Another thing Taylor would point to as a measure of the good he’s done—as he did on “Good Morning America”—is that his employees all have their own homes now. As Korry Tyson’s tragic story shows, that’s just not the case. Weeks before Tyson was murdered, he was desperate to find somewhere safe to live. Unable to do so, he texted a friend that he was “homeless.”
TA: It seems like Molson and other stakeholders didn’t do much digging into TRU or George Taylor’s claims, or pay a lot of attention to the actual operations. How did they fall for it?
CB: It seems like there was a minimal amount of due diligence done by TRU’s corporate investors. I know that Molson sent someone to Wilmington to visit the brewery, and that Taylor had his team prepped for that. I think that Taylor correctly understood that, following the nationwide unrest of the summer of 2020, corporations were especially eager—perhaps even desperate—to get involved in initiatives purporting to help marginalized communities.
A former TRU employee actually told me that George Taylor “wanted to capitalize on the state of the country after George Floyd.” Taylor is, by all accounts, a gifted salesman who knows his angles. So is it really a surprise that, in Molson’s case, a billion-dollar company might toss a few million dollars at a fledgling brewery targeting gang violence without a whole lot of skepticism or even curiosity about its approach?
One Molson representative told me, in surprisingly clear language, shortly before we published our story, “This was a piece of that puzzle to enhance our D.E.I. efforts.” You can almost hear the box being checked on the company’s annual report.
TA: What was the relationship like between Taylor and the employees? He comes off as being… let’s say, far removed from the experiences of these younger, Black gang members.
CB: Yeah, I mean, Taylor—through no fault of his own—comes from serious intergenerational wealth, dating back to slavery, which has helped him launch various businesses, both successful ones and flops. His admitted interests, until a few years ago, were basically fast cars and alcohol and figuring out how to make money from them.
None of that necessarily undermines his potential attractiveness to members of Wilmington’s gangs. It may have endeared him to some. But what’s clear to me is that—while some of his employees were believers in Taylor’s idea, at least at first—most of them came to dislike him and the way he ran the company. On a few occasions, I heard Black former employees say that they felt like “statistics” to him, and that their lives felt secondary to selling beer. There was a feeling of expendability.
Current employees were more inclined to play down any such issues when I asked about them. I ended up not leaning on their accounts as much, in the piece, because ex-employees had told me that doing favorable press was compulsory “in order to get paid.” Taylor denied this just as he also denied having ever had any serious disagreements with employees—even the ones who, he acknowledged, had quit.
TA: What do you think will happen with TRU?
CB: Hard to say. I mean, we haven’t talked about the product itself, which will have at least some small bearing on the future of the company, right? It doesn’t seem to be flying off the shelves. So if the beer isn’t a home run, and the marketing feels shallow or suspect, it’s easy to see the DEI funds and puff pieces drying up at some point.
That said, maybe the local violent crime stats will consistently turn in Taylor’s direction, and he can make a stronger case for TRU’s impact, which could help him to expand. Expansion poses its own thorny questions, of course. It’s tough to imagine scaling this business without compounding additional risks and increasing the likelihood of bad headlines involving TRU employees.
Ultimately, though, I think it’s an interesting story because there’s no real precedent for it, and because it involves the muddling of opportunism and altruism, cynicism and hope.