Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trauma Cache, Part 2: Oakland's Moneyball Approach to Public Safety

Castro Street, West Oakland
There are plenty of veterans of Oakland’s troubles -- survivors of assaults, survivors of the killed, formerly-incarcerated Oaklanders making amends -- out there addressing our abundant, sometimes hidden hoards of trauma.  (See Trauma Cache,Part 1: The Calendar and the Killing.)

Some are with city government, others work out of nonprofit organizations dedicated to violence prevention and supported in part by Measure Y, the city program approved by a public vote, which funds anti-violence efforts among Oakland’s youth. 

In Oakland, even as the dark urge wins battle after battle, the number of police officers continues to diminish, down now from just over 800 in early 2010 to fewer than 700 today. 

And so, as I heard Police Chief Batts say at a fundraiser early this year, the work of non-violence organizations to inject the idea of peace into a community accustomed to violence has become more crucial than ever, more crucial than planned.  Meant to supplement, to complement police work, meant to lay a seed of peace for the future, the non-violence programs, whether they know it or not, whether they want it or not, are taking on a far more urgent role in protecting Oakland than originally envisioned.

Leaning house, West Oakland
Because they are undervalued, because they are accustomed to supporting themselves through fundraising, because they have lower overhead than a police department, and because the salaries of non-profit workers are far lower than police officers, broke Oakland can afford to support non-violence organizations.  

Think of it as the Moneyball approach to public safety.

(See the trailer for Moneyball, the movie, starring Brad Pitt, coming this September) 

Baseball's Version
Moneyball, as most who read this will probably know, is a term used to describe the Oakland A’s method (emulated by a few similar organizations) of fielding a competitive team despite its own penurious (think: Scrooge) ownership and despite the need to beat rival teams willing and able to pay unimaginable salaries to numerous superstar players. 

Theoretically, in addition to finding and developing its own younger, and therefore cheaper, talented pitchers and position players, the A’s seek out “undervalued” veterans: seemingly mediocre players with particular, undervalued skills; good athletes with a history of injury whom they gamble will finally stay healthy for an entire season; or superstars at the ends of their careers who might have one good or great season left (see Frank Thomas).  All this in the hopes that some combination of these affordable, undervalued players will become a winning team. 

To an extent, the approach worked, culminating in an appearance in the American League Championship Series of 2006.  All through the early Oughts, the A’s fielded fun-to-watch teams who won a lot of games, including, of course, a record-breaking twenty-in-a-row in 2002.

No championships, though, and in recent years, the downside of Moneyball has become evident, as injury-prone players get injured, once-great veterans fail to recapture their youth (see Mike Piazza), and the A’s organization seems incapable of drafting and developing its own superstar position players.  Although they are still very good at identifying and developing pitchers.  No question they know pitching.

Intersection, Oakland
Life & Death & Moneyball
Think of the police as the superstars who make a lot of money, and why shouldn’t they?  Pretty hard job they do.  Danger every day.  Elaborate training required.  Lots at stake.  (Of course, the current dispute between the City and the police is not over salaries, but over how much the officers organization should pay into its own pension plan.  Absent a 9% payment, the City says it can’t afford to hire more officers.)

Non-profits, like YouthAlive!, in Oakland, tend to work where they can find cheap or donated space, often their equipment is old computers, metal desks, flip charts and magic markers, thumb tacks and their own cars.  Usually they do get reimbursed for gas.

Diet Rite Cola sign, West Oakand
Training Comes with a Bullet
You might say that non-violence work requires less training than police work.  Technically, perhaps. 

But training also comes with a bullet. 

Working in Oakland programs that deal with the various stages of a life touched by violence, there are victims of drive-by shootings, mothers of the killed, even formerly incarcerated gang members. 

Gutierrez & the Kids
Caheri Gutierrez, who lost her face in a drive-by shooting in 2008, works, with her colleague Robert Watts III, in a program called Teens on Target, where high school students in violent Deep East Oakland learn to cope, where they learn how to tell the stories of their lives and their community.  These students then go into the middle schools to work with younger kids exposed to violence, to share stories and ideas about coping, about finding solutions other than violence. 

The idea is to give these kids an alternative to the path of the gun, to the path many of the adults and many of the older children, in their neighborhoods and families have been taking for decades now.  Sometimes it is the only path, and violence the only solution, these young people have seen.

(Read the full Caheri Gutierrez story, I Might Have Some Hope Here)

Grant & the Gangs
For those who have entered the life already, there is the Measure Y Street Outreach team, led by Kevin Grant, who committed crimes in Oakland and got sent away to Federal prison for 17 years, only to become, in the years since his release, one of the most persuasive and compelling voices of non-violence in California. 

Grant and his colleagues take to Oakland’s most dangerous streets at the most dangerous times of the night to engage young people who have the potential to do harm.  He approaches them with an insider’s instincts, a gang-veteran’s credibility, and a passion for peace in their lives.  When he talks to them about the failure of the life of the gun, he tends to make a lot of sense.  They tend to listen to him.

Dan Simmons & the Returned
Some do, anyway.  Others don’t hear or don’t heed the message Grant brings.  They get arrested, get sent away.  Many, probably safe to say most, who return after a period of incarceration are unskilled, uneducated, unwanted.  A return to the kind of life that got them into trouble might be the only choice they see. 

As part of Oakland’s prisoner re-entry program, city-employee Dan Simmons, a veteran of incarceration, now with a masters degree and a mission, and his colleague Emilio Vann, along with Grant, work to introduce people out on probation or parole to the possibilities of a lawful, peaceful existence.

Simmons works with the OPD and Alameda County Probation and Parole offices to coordinate Call-ins.  Call-ins are meetings between, on the one side, the police, the DA, the United States Attorney and other law enforcement organizations and, on the other side, Oaklanders identified by their records and affiliations as most likely to commit violence in their communities. 

(Read an in-depth report on an Oakland call-in: A Violent Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

These meetings, held at City Hall, are business-like and even polite, but very intense.

First, the police and the government attorneys promise vigilance.  We are watching you, even the FBI is watching you now: commit more acts of violence, and you will be sent far away for a very long time, we promise. 

Then Grant talks to the participants (read about Grant's talk in "It's over, you lost").  He shows that he understands their lives, then helps them imagine a different path, all the while acknowledging the difficulties they face in trying to leave behind the life of the gun. 

Then the law enforcement people leave the room, and Simmons invites representatives of local non-profits and local businesses to speak.  They offer job training, legal and spiritual aide, actual jobs. 

Then case manager Emilio Vann works tenaciously for months to keep the participants on track.

Tammy Cloud & the Shot
Shots are fired anyway.  220-plus shootings so far this year.  Last year we had an average of three per day.  (See: even I can’t resist the urge to compare years. See, again:,Trauma Cache, Part 1: TheCalendar and the Killing.)  On one particular day last year, there were eleven incidents of gunfire reported.  Guns are aimed and triggers are pulled and people are wounded.  Many survive.  

Intervention Specialists like Tammy Cloud, from a program called Caught in the Crossfire, meet the victims, often when they awaken at their hospital bedsides.  They do two crucial things: first, they encourage the victims and their friends and family to consider foregoing violent retaliation, to consider breaking the bloody cycle; secondly, they don’t leave.  Instead, they work with victims for the long-term, to help them deal with the emotional trauma that comes in the wake of an assault, and to make their way back into a life not dominated by anger, by fear, or by confusion and depression. 

(Read about Cloud at work in Until We Bleed & Youth, Alive

Miss Marilyn & the City
Some die.  Mostly in East Oakland.  But not exclusively.  Many die in less-populated but long-besieged West Oakland.  Some make it to Highland Hospital before they die.  They leave behind in their loved ones an emptiness, something bottomless, an absence of hope, of reason, of whatever current runs through us that urges living and survival. 

Into this grim void step Marilyn Harris and Fabian Martinez of The Khadafy Washington Project.  Harris started the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence after her only son was shot dead in the summer of 2000. 

You might remember a series of jarring billboards, 31 of them, visible off of Highway 580 and all over West Oakland, where Harris lives and where Khadafy was killed.  On the billboards, alongside a large picture of her handsome son, who had just graduated from McClymonds High School, blared the stark, confrontational, resonant question: Do You Know Who Killed Me?

For going on eleven years now Harris has spent her days, and often her nights, and sometimes into the early mornings, at homes, at hospitals, at fresh crime scenes, bringing comfort and the very beginnings of healing to the parents, the spouses, the children of homicide victims in Oakland. 

I’ve written a lot about the work and impact Miss Marilyn has on lives in Oakland, so I won’t go into great detail here about all she does for the families of the lost, all the practical things, how she provides a clear eye during their time of shock, all the heavy lifting of the spirit, how she comes to them with an example, with the promise that life goes on.   

Read about her work here, and here and here

The Hope
At first glance, the work of Harris and Gutierrez and Cloud, and of Simmons and Grant and Vann seems to speak to a grim reality: hatred and the hopelessness of the gun are part of us.  And certainly each of them is a realist.  They have seen too much to be otherwise.  But what they’ve seen, what they have endured, has not made them cynical.  The energy and even joy you often see in them as they work indicates their hope. 

For sure each of them works in the moment, the urgent, frightening, depressing moment, but always with an eye to a more peaceful future Oakland.  More than any numbers that rise or fall, they carry on their shoulders the despair of the city and demonstrate the real hope we cling to. 

If they are less a fiscal burden to the city than the police, they are also undervalued, like a light-hitting first-baseman with a high on-base-percentage.  Still, even if the Moneyball approach makes sense for a cash-strapped baseball team trying to win games, I’m not sure it will work for a cash-strapped city trying to save lives and to change lives. 

And this worries me too: the best of the A's Moneyball teams were fun to watch, and they won their share of games, but, again,  they never won a championship.

Empty chair, abandoned station

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Trauma Cache, Part I: The Calendar and the Killing

Backwards graffiti, 16th Street Train Station, West Oakland

The human urge to squeeze the trigger never checks the calendar.  Perhaps grasping for hope when they’re down or out of morbid shock when they’re up, like now, we tend to pay too much attention to the daily and weekly violent crime numbers in Oakland.  We assign them too much meaning.

Quan’s Objection
Certainly politicians and the newspapers do.  Precisely one year ago, then-mayoral-candidate Jean Quan reacted defensively when I suggested to her that violence should be a priority of the next mayor.  “We’ve brought the murder rate down,” she said.  

That was in June 2010, and so far there had been 37 homicides in the city, six fewer than June 2009, a modest number, and a more seemingly significant 24 fewer than June 2008. 

The Calendar and the Killing
The calendar year 2010 ended with 13 fewer homicides than the year before -- 100 vs. 87.

But what does it indicate, that in the twelve months since Quan’s objection to my suggestion -- mid-June 2010 to mid-June 2011 -- there have been 100-plus homicides, at least six more than between mid-June 2009 and mid-June 2010?

What does it mean? 

Nevertheless, in daily news reports of homicides, reporters habitually insert the current year’s number of killings-so-far alongside the total from “this time last year.”  These numbers shouldn’t bring readers much hope, as in 2010, or, in the case of June 2011, when we have already suffered 51 homicides, deeper despair. 

Portraits of the Barely Living
Notwithstanding that unhelpful habit, there is some really fine coverage here of Oakland’s violence and its impact; there is plenty of good writing and reporting and people should read it.  Scott Johnson’s Oakland Effect blog always delivers a good combination of hard reporting and even harder witnessing of the toll of violence on the living.  Recently, the Bay Area News Group has had its reporters go beyond the daily litany of shooting, death, community silence, “Police request anyone with information call Crime Stoppers,” to put together a valuable series describing in part what happens after the violence, and what life is like for the survivors of the killed in Oakland.  It amounts to a necessary, cumulative portrait of what the killing does beyond the sudden, brutal taking away from us of one person at a time forever.  

What the Survivors Find
The killing keeps on killing.  As I’ve written elsewhere, that bullet that kills it also ricochets.  The lasting impact of violence comes in the years of grief and pain and bitterness the living endure, in the trauma we cache away, that seeps out like bad medicine from some malevolent time-release capsule.  The lasting impact comes also with how those angry, despairing, lost walking wounded affect the community, or worse, the next generation.  If we ignore them, we ignore ourselves.

Not much the police can do about that, even if they had as many officers as they would like to have. 

Addressing the impact of violence and loss on the living is an imprecise, necessarily intuitive, always difficult process.  There are no templates for healing a grieving our wounded person.  There are no definitive checklists of symptoms of their grief, no precise timelines or confident prognoses for their recovery. 

For many, faith and family help.  

But many survivors get no outside help at all.  Fortunately, some find great stockpiles of fortitude inside themselves; they discover strengths they’ve never needed before and likely never imagined they’d possessed.  In these strengths they find the resources to make their own comeback. 

What I’ve witnessed in covering the aftermath of violence in Oakland is that those victims who go on to help and comfort subsequent victims usually seem the most healed themselves. .

Empty chair, abandoned station, West Oakland
Coming up: Trauma Cache, Part 2: A Moneyball Approach 
to Public Safety 

Undefined Hatred in Oakland and Ireland

Then: Irish party fight

In early 19th Century Ireland rural farmers and farm workers, generally referred to as "peasants" in those days, would form secret societies, or parties, which sometimes would turn to violence for the purpose of resisting abuse by Protestant landlords.  Sometimes they fought each other, sometimes for no apparent reason.  In some ways, they were like the gangs and turf groups of Oakland and other urban places in America today.

Here, a character in a contemporary story by Irish novelist William Carleton describes the problems with the parties, with the vagueness of their mutual hatreds, the senseless violence they commit, and how they passed their hatred from generation to generation.

The writing is a little old-fashioned, but clear, and the joke of the title of the story, "The Party Fight and Funeral," is that whenever there's a party fight, inevitably follows a funeral.

I read it last night, and it reminded me of what many thoughtful people in Oakland have told me about the nature and depth of our own troubles:

I believe you would find...difficulty in ascertaining the cause of the feuds from the factions themselves. I really am convinced they know not, nor, if I rightly understand them, do they much care. Their object is to fight, and the turning of a straw will at any time furnish them with sufficient grounds for that.  I do not think, after all, that the enmity between them is purely personal: they do not hate each other individually; but having originally had one quarrel upon some trifling occasion, the beaten party could not bear the stigma of defeat without another trial of strength.  Then if they succeed, the onus of retrieving lost credit is thrown upon the party that was formerly victorious.  If they fail a second time, the double triumph of their conquerors excites them to a greater determination to throw off the additional disgrace; and this species of alternation perpetuates the evil.

These habits, however, familiarize our peasantry to acts of outrage and violence -- the bad passions are cultivated and nourished, until crime, which peaceable men look upon with fear and horror, lose their real magnitude and deformity in the eyes of Irishmen.  I believe this kind of undefined hatred between either parties or nations is the most dangerous and fatal spirit which could pervade any portion of society.  If you hate a man for an obvious and palpable injury, it is likely that when he cancels that injury by an act of subsequent kindness, accompanied by an exhibition of sincere sorrow, you will cease to look upon him as your enemy; but where the hatred is such that, while feeling it, you cannot, on a sober examination of your heart, account for it, there is little hope that you will ever be able to stifle the enmity which you entertain against him.
                                          --William Carleton, The Party Fight and Funeral, 1852 

Now: Oakland crime scene

Thursday, June 16, 2011