Part 1: “Welcome to the call-in!”
In mid-August, in a meeting room at City Hall, eight young men from Oakland’s Ghost Town neighborhood were confronted, in a civilized fashion, by cops and prosecutors, by survivors of the dead, by parole officers, members of the clergy and other witnesses of the aftermath, for the violence they have perpetrated or are expected to perpetrate in the city. In a strange marriage of tough love and the Great Society, they were threatened and comforted, promised severe punishment if they commit another act of violence, or dedicated aid in the form of jobs, job training and placement services, and substance abuse counseling, in building a more peaceful life, should they chose that path. These meetings, which, for more than ten years, cities across the country have been adapting to deal with their own peculiar violence problems, are known as “call-ins,” or sometimes “forums.”
City Hall. Not just any city office building, but City Hall. I wonder what they think when they read that on the summons.
Off the bus at 12th. 11 in the morning and the streets of downtown Oakland are barely alive, barely peopled. Last time I was walking this block was the evening of the Mehserle verdict. So many streets were blocked by police cars that the 18 could only go as far as Franklin. It dropped me in front of the dirty, olive green Salvation Army building. That night, the city streets had a kind-of Christmas Day sparseness. Anyone out, if not headed for the rally, was totally disconnected. In the windows endless portraits of Oscar Grant, like the blood of the lamb at Passover, a signal to the angels of destruction to spare this address.
This morning, uncharacteristically, on the two-block walk to City Hall, I find myself feeling intimidated by the few people I do encounter. Everyone on Broadway seems threatening. Right here in the heart of downtown, walking the narrow sidewalk between the 12th Street BART Entrance and the front of venerable old De Lauer’s Newsstand (“Paper Backs (sic) for sale”), handshakes are drug transactions. Eye contact is an offer, a solicitation. Looks are threats. This isn’t like me. I can’t explain it.
On the benches in front of City Hall, two men, each apparently homeless, each apparently mentally ill. But the sky is gloomy this late morning. I feel like a fucking idiot for sitting here looking at it all and writing about it, writing it down. Note the details, they tell you, note the details. There are high-rises in Oakland but no skyscrapers. The grassy square is lined with green street lamps.
Dan Simmons walks past. Slender, always neatly dressed, beige dress pants and a striped shirt. Long braids. Face a careful etching in hard, polished wood. Whites of his eyes always red. He’s pushing a cart along the sidewalk. On the cart: his black work bag and a case of bottled water. The mundane preparations for what to me will be an extraordinary meeting. But I’ll only be watching the confrontation. Already, each of the Participants, as the young men are called, is on probation or parole, or both. They have been summoned here as a requirement of that.
If arresting people has failed to significantly decrease the killing in Oakland, if incarceration has failed, if longer incarceration has failed, if gang task forces have had only minimal impact on the rate of murder in Oakland, maybe direct appeal will succeed in convincing our violent neighbors to take a more peaceful path, to live a more traditional life.
Some might say they have chosen a traditional life already, or one that follows in a rooted tradition of West Oakland, that whatever other life you might be talking about, whatever life you think of as normal, is a kind of life they have never known, a life that is utterly alien to them, that there is no normal in West Oakland, as you define normal.
As of the day of this call-in, more than two weeks into the month of August, along with July and March, among the most deadly months of the year, we have had zero homicides. Oakland is nearly ten killings behind where it was last year at this time. Call-ins can’t be the only reason for this. And the year is far from over.
The Horseshoe is Forged
There is no longer money in the budget for food at the call-ins, Simmons tells me, but it’s important to have something for them. It gives the organizers time to prepare them before, Boom. So he’s come up with some sandwiches and chips, but only for the “Participants,” which is how those summoned here are referred to.
There will be nine speakers given approximately three minutes each. There will be no Q & A, no give and take. This is to be a series of short and not necessarily sweet lectures. Simmons refers to it as an “information sharing” session. He’s hoping five or six participants will show up to listen to the nine speakers, but as I said above, it turns out to be eight of approximately fifteen who were summoned. In the bland first floor hearing room that looks out onto 14th Street, the tables are already set into a large square horseshoe.
At the open end of the horseshoe there is a gallery of maybe 20 to 25 chairs for guests. In them will sit the owner of a local scrap metal recycling yard with jobs to offer, two or three uniformed officers of the Oakland Police Department, a representative of a child welfare agency, a former gang member who now works for a city jobs program, four visitors from the Sacramento Police Department, where they are planning their first call in for early next year, and me.
Simmons and I are the first to arrive. Before obtaining his two masters degrees, before coming to work for the city of Oakland in its parolee re-entry program, Dan served time. He says you never stop serving. That it is always there, on job applications, loan applications, whatever. He jumped through years of impossible, and costly, legal hoops in a quest for a pardon, only to be denied by Governor Schwarzenegger.
A few weeks ago, when I’d asked Simmons if he had been in a gang, he’d balked. Depends on how you define gang, he’d told me. Today’s meeting is referred to the agenda as the “Ghost Town Call-In,” so I ask him if the invited guests are members of the Ghost Town gang, or just potentially violent residents of the dangerous Ghost Town neighborhood, which runs, approximately, from 25th Avenue up to 36th , along Martin Luther King Boulevard in West Oakland. Usually, on maps and in city literature, it is referred to as the Historic Foster-Hoover neighborhood.
(26 men were arrested in a Ghost Town police sweep in March, and I’m wondering if any of today’s Participants are on parole from that police action. Dan doesn’t know. Last night there was a shooting in Ghost Town. Just a mile or so east of the room where we’re in this morning, two trials are going on, one for the killing of a member of the Ghost Town gang by a member of their West Oakland rivals from the Acorn neighborhood, and another one for attempted murder by a member of the Ghost Town gang.)
Simmons insists that, in Oakland, the definition of gangs, especially African American so-called gangs, is “fluid.” They do not see themselves as a gang, he says, but only as long-time friends who grew up in the same neighborhood. There’s not necessarily any one person calling the shots.
“We don’t have Crips and Bloods in Oakland,” says Simmons. But there are ways to identify, through your criminal activity, whether or not you belong in this room.
He begins to place name cards around the table: alternating, Participant, speaker, Participant, speaker. Some of the cards read: Clergy; Stephanie Kaplane, Highland Hospital; Community Member; Alameda District Attorney; Kevin Grant (a Measure Y Gang Intervention Specialist, and an entity unto himself); United States Attorney.
Speakers and observers are arriving. I keep going out into the hallway to watch for the Participants to appear. Apparently one of them had called and asked to “re-schedule.” This got a laugh out of the DA. The first one I see is an African American kid, short, with shoulder-length braids. He looks 19 to me, but who knows. When the rest of the Participants are here, they are herded into a nearby kitchen by Simmons and a parole officer, where they will be told the nature of the meeting.
Before they’re brought into the hearing room, there is a rehearsal for the speakers, and a reminder to focus on the participants, to ignore whatever signals of irritation or disdain they might give off, that whatever harsh warning you might have for them, to try to bring things back to this opportunity they are being given, this extraordinary warning.
A representative of the Public Health Institute has coordinated the meeting. Just before the participants are brought in, she calls the room to attention:
“Welcome to the call-in. Please remember that they (the Participants) are the most important people to get this message across to. Be respectful, ignore their body language, be honest, be clear, let it sink in. I’ve been told this is not a happy bunch. All right. This is going to be great! I can feel it!”
Part 2: “There’s a void, there’s a hole”
The eight African American men at the gang call-in, or forum, I attended last week were, I’d say, between ages 20 and 30. They were clean-cut, nice-looking young guys.
I had a sense, as they were brought into the Oakland City Hall hearing room and directed to their chairs, interspersed among the day’s speakers at three long tables assembled into a horseshoe, that they were on display, or that they were meant to feel displayed. There was an audience, after all. I was in the audience, along with, among others, members of the Sacramento Police Department, who are in the planning stages of their first attempt at a call-in.
Their supervised entrance also had the same tense, anticipatory feeling as the appearance of a defendant at the beginning of a day in court. I always get the sense that the accused has been waiting in some courthouse green room with bars.
What the Participants (which is how the gang members are referred to for the purposes of a call-in) knew about the nature of the meeting is hard to say. People summoned to the first Oakland call-ins had no idea what was in store for them. Some brought along their moms and even their kids.
It seems likely that by now at least a few of those who are summoned have heard something about the call-ins, have some idea of what is about to happen. But maybe not. Today, one of them has brought his two-month-old baby boy and the baby’s mother, who take a seat in the gallery, to my immediate right; the baby is quiet, drinks from a bottle, sleeps, grunts a few times, sleeps some more. The baby’s father is nicely dressed, in a bright polo shirt and a small, sleek, light-colored fedora. Not flashy, just sharp.
Two of the Participants wear the exact same kind of sneakers, with black tops rimmed in red. They might be Air Jordan 12s, but it’s hard to say. The point is, I’m watching, and I feel awkward about it, even apprehensive. I make no eye-contact. I feel like my watching, my observing, is a provocation.
But there seems to be little worry among the speakers about provoking the Participants. There is too much at stake, there is life and death in the offing, and too much blood has brought us to this moment for anyone to mince words. The message must be clear, blunt, personal, even intimate. And it must be driven deeply in: We are here to inform you that you need to stop the killing. Toward that end, know this:
We know who you are, you perpetrators of violence. We know where you live. We know what you look like, we know where you hang out, who your girlfriends are.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney John Creighton steps into the horseshoe’s void. He’s a very tall man with longish gray hair and, like all lawyers, he wears a suit. We have a binder with all your info in it, he tells them: your date of birth, your Social Security Number, even your tattoos. He waves a black binder before them. Is it a prop? Does it matter? I suspect it is the real thing.
Assistant DA Creighton says he lives in Oakland and that he is tired of the violence in his city. He says it in a business-like tone, but the important thing is that he is clearly not afraid of confronting the Participants. He’s got the numbers. While they are stuck in their seats, he can roam about. He owns the void. He approaches some of the young men, towers over them. It is early in the call-in, and they are sitting up fairly straight, watching him, if showing no discernible reactions.
But the nature of the meeting has very quickly been clarified, and it’s not about the services, at least early on. It’s about the threat. If you commit one more violent crime, Creighton tells them, the DA’s office will come after you with everything we’ve got, and if we convict you, you’re not going to nearby San Quentin, but to a far-flung California prison: Folsom, Tehachapi, Pelican Bay. And we will work with the U.S. Attorney, who’s up next.
Maureen Bessette is a confident, petite woman in a navy blue suit, hair black and gray. Thee United States Attorney is also completely business-like and approaches the Participants without a trace of nervousness. Our involvement, she tells them, means two things that ought to get your attention: First, federal prosecutors work with the FBI, who now have a file on each of you. Deliberately slumped and stone-faced, I catch two of the Participants blinking excessively. Only their eyelids move.
Second, federal prosecutors send convicted criminals to federal prisons. Federal prisons are not in California, they are in exotic places like Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas. You will know no one there, and no one will come to visit you, either. Already in Oakland we’ve convicted and sent away two men -- one for 70 months -- who were arrested after attending call-ins. Our conviction rate is in the high 90s. Do yourself a favor: take advantage of this warning. You’re the lucky ones.
Next are two parole officers. The first is bland and brief. The second is proudly eccentric. Tattooed, burly. Bearded and bald. His waist is wrapped in weapons. He’s a bandolero. His tone is mildly unctuous. He reminds the Participants that, since they are on probation and/or parole, law enforcement can come to their homes without warning to search for anything that might put them back in jail. His task force uses GPS systems to track his charges. It’s called “enhanced supervision.” If you spend the night at your girlfriend’s house, we know it, and you get arrested. If you let the GPS battery expire, you will be arrested. This is high-tech stuff, he says. This is the future.
Next a woman from Highland Hospital steps into the void. Stephania Kaplanes is urban-exotic, a statuesque Coptic, her dreadlocks swirled on top of her noble head. She is pregnant. She is the first friendly face, a seeming respite from the stern demeanor of the prosecutors and parole officers.
All gunshot wounds in Oakland are brought to Highland. She tells them, calmly, that the worst case scenario if you end up at Highland is surviving. Surviving a gunshot wound is the worst thing that can happen. It only takes one bullet in the spine and you’re a quadriplegic. No movement, no sex, someone has to wipe your ass. No one comes to visit you because no one wants to see you like that. I become your only friend, she tells them. She approaches the sharply-dressed Participant, points over toward the baby. Is that your baby? Is that your queen holding the baby? He nods politely. He’s looking her in the eye, looking up at her. You want that baby to see you paralyzed, with tubes coming out of you, with a colostomy bag? Imagine that. This is not rhetorical, it’s a demand. Imagine it. This right here today, she tells them, this is a blessing. Because you are alive and free.
The Community Member talks the longest. She has been initiated into this very particular and fraught community through the violent deaths of people close to her. Her nephew and a friend were shot dead on the same day in March. I haven’t confirmed this, but it’s likely she’s talking about a double-homicide that happened on a Friday afternoon, in late winter, out near the edge of Ghost Town. The police say it was a gang-related shooting, but innocent, beloved, 56-year-old John Jones just happened to be standing next to the 29-year-old target. The speaker is middle-aged, African American. She has the darkest circles under her eyes. Her voice is powered by despair and anger, but steady. She stands at the outermost edge of the void, close to the opening of the horseshoe. She moves very little. She talks less about her own pain -- no need to, it is in her voice -- than about the sorrow-filled life of the mother of the victim. She forces them to see what she has seen.
Her message: You think you can just kill someone and it’s over, but it doesn’t end there. The pain only begins there. There’s a void, she tells them. There’s a hole. One of the Participants shakes his head in sympathy. She implores them. It’s got to stop. It just has got to stop.
I can’t even take notes while she speaks. It’s the steadiness of her voice that is most affecting.
Part 3: "It's over, you lost."
First, An Update on the Year in Homicide
It’s mid-October and the weather and especially the light in Oakland is autumnal. A seasonal haze hovers over the bay, softening the view in all directions. It’s beautiful, but casts a melancholy spell, and not just on me. Physiologically, these autumn blues are likely the effect of diminishing sunlight. Also there’s the weighty awareness of the shorter, darker days to come, and the rains that last a week at a time. Not that the short days and the days of rain are not beautiful or welcome, in their way. The rain turns everything now brown and gold a vibrant green.
By this time last year Oakland had suffered more than 80 homicides. By mid-October 2008, the number was 101. In October 2007, 105. This year, with the recent killings of Carolyn Howard and Darryl Florence, the number so far is more like 66. We’ve even had a number of blessed three-week stretches with no killings. This is an improvement, but brings with it the prospect of a common human folly: that we will too-quickly consider our problems solved and become complacent. Other cities have done this and regretted it. Boston. Chicago. It’s like when you’ve had a bad flu, been sick and housebound for two weeks, and then comes a day when you feel better and you’re elated. You’d done so much to take good care of yourself, to let yourself heal. You’d wanted so desperately to feel normal. And after being weak and alone and bored for so long, you can’t help but immediately re-enter life with a vengeance. But it’s too soon, you’ve jumped the gun, and a couple of days later you’re back on the couch watching re-runs of horrible sitcoms or, worse, the Game Show Network.
I’ve been asking everybody for their theories about what has caused the drop in the rate of homicides here. Surely it is the result of a combination of things: good police work, bad weather, and the urgent work of a community that springs to action each time a violent act occurs. I think of them as the defusers. Often a shooting or killing acts as a fuse to a bomb. And people like Kevin Grant, Marilyn Harris and the specialists at Caught in the Crossfire step right up to the ominous sparks. They can’t put the fuse out themselves, but they possess the moral authority to ask others to put it out. They also happen to have the persuasive skills to convince angry and violent people to consider peace over the gun. They have contributed much to this slowing of the homicide rate.
As have the skills of the medical professionals at Highland Hospital. Ample experience has taught them how to save the lives of gun shot victims who twenty years ago would have increased the number in the homicide column. I have had a bad habit this year of not paying enough attention to non-fatal shootings, many of which could very easily have become homicides. Shootings are down from last year, too, but look at the number so far this year: 340 according to the OPD. That’s more than last year, and a lot of triggers pulled in anger or fear or greed or just plain evil in Oakland. How many of those victims could have died had a gun been aimed differently, had the shooter, as allowed by the new code of the west, not been firing from a moving vehicle, had the doctors and nurses at Highland not known how to save that life?
It’s likely the weather has played a roll in the drop in homicides, as well. It was a cool, foggy summer here, with few of the week-long heat waves we usually endure. Apparently long, hot days can be the most violent. Marilyn has told me August is the deadliest month; police statistics say it is earlier in the year. (August is the month in which her son was gunned down, in 2000.) Still, I’ve heard that police like rain and snow and bitter cold that keep people inside. We had none of those things this summer, of course, but it was consistently foggy and cool, and that has probably preserved a few lives. And now we are safely in chill, damp fall.
More and more I’m convinced that the Oakland Police Department call-ins, or forums, as they are sometimes referred to, are having the most profound effect on our homicide rate. The theory of the call-in or forum, in part, is that, while a rash of violence, especially fatal violence, can have a broad impact on a city, it tends to be perpetrated by a small group of people. We have had 66 homicides this year. That means that we have fewer than 66 killers in a city of 400,000. Even if you look at the shootings, the proportion of violent people among us is low. The police know who many of them are, even if they can’t always arrest them for the violent acts they’ve committed.
But they can call them in, in handfuls, to directly address them, to promise them that they are being monitored, promise them a dire future if they commit more violence, to confront them with the emotional, physical and civic effects of their behavior, and, finally, to offer them help on a path to a more peace-filled and gentle life.
I attended one such meeting over the summer. Parts 1 ("Welcome to the call-in!") and 2 ("There's a void, there's a hole") of my write-up can be found on this blog. This is the conclusion:
A Shattering Wake-Up Call
Each of the eight young African American men summoned to appear today in this bland first floor hearing room at Oakland City Hall is on probation or parole. Their crimes were varied: narcotics sales, weapons possession, robbery... Each of them had been arrested most recently during a two-day police action in the Ghost Town neighborhood of West Oakland where they live. The sweep netted 47 people on charges that included homicide, shootings, weapons possession (including an assault rifle), and narcotics dealing.
These eight guys, each of them under 30, some well under, are neat, thin and tense. They have been identified as among the most violent or potentially violent residents of the neighborhood, and as members of the Ghost Town Gang, which is likely small, a turf group. They might not even think of themselves as a gang, but just as a group of guys who grew up together and got folded into the life of the street organically.
Two weeks ago, at the request of the Oakland Police Department, each was sent a letter by his parole or probation officer summoning him to this meeting. Oakland has been holding these occasional meetings with these isolated groups of violent offenders for two years now.
For the Participants, as the invitees are called, it will be a shattering wake-up call, a stark and pointed warning, followed by an offer of aid in one last chance to turn their lives around.
A Moment of Empathy
For the meeting, three long conference tables have been assembled into a square horseshoe shape. The Participants have been interspersed in chairs among the day’s speakers. So, young troubled men from Oakland sit on either side of accomplished and mature prosecutors, a police captain and two parole officers. Everyone is facing the middle of the horseshoe.
The Participants are here to listen, not to speak, and in the first forty-five minutes or so have been lectured by an Alameda County Assistant District Attorney, the OPD captain, the two parole officers, a United States Attorney, a staff person from the Oakland hospital where most gunshot victims are treated, and a woman from their neighborhood who, in a moment in March, lost two people close to her, lost them to the gun. One, a 29 year old man, was the target, apparently. The other, a neighbor, just happened to be standing there. (See Pt 2: “There’s a void, there’s a hole”)
Up to now, it’s these last three speakers who seem to have created the strongest impressions. I’ve been watching the Participants closely to see if I can detect and interpret any kind of reaction they might give to the information being presented to them; mostly they have appeared attentive, but also still and inscrutable, and I keep reminding myself of something Dan Simmons told me. Simmons coordinates the call-ins as part of his job as manager of the city’s parolee re-entry program.
“You get all type of different attitudes around the table,” he’d said. “Some people are listening intently, some people are like [makes mock-gesture of disinterest]. So you get all that. But, you can’t tell by looking around the table who’s gonna take advantage of these services. That person rolling his eyes, that might be the first person to jump in line for services, whereas the guy sitting up here like this [makes mock gesture of attentiveness], he might be doing that because his parole officer’s sitting right next to him.”
Still, when the federal prosecutor informs them that they are now on the radar of the FBI, at least two of them blink hard. And not because there is dust in their eyes. Next, the graphic and depressing descriptions of gunshot victims given by the woman from Highland Hospital causes one of the young men to look away, as if the speaker herself were mercilessly intubated and covered in bloody gauze. And the quietly powerful, moving and courageous way in which the survivor confronted them has also caused at least one of the Participants to shake his head, either to deny his involvement or, to my mind, in a moment of real empathy.
But it is the last speaker of this phase of the call-in who grips them and holds their attention the longest, who gets a few laughs, who causes a noticeable fear in their eyes.
Some of them probably already know Kevin Grant, although they might not know much about his history. They will have seen him on the street, on a Thursday or a Friday or a Saturday night, with his crew of gang intervention specialists, city employees who walk Oakland’s most violence-prone neighborhoods at their most violent hours, in order to engage the potential perpetrators of the violence, to keep the peace, when they can. Sometimes, in the hours after a killing, Marilyn Harris, who guides survivors of the killed toward healing, might be inside a house offering help to the family, while Grant is outside the house, trying to calm angry friends with an urge to retaliate.
Today, Grant’s first task is to dismiss the law enforcement personnel from the room. Now that the Participants have been warned in no uncertain terms that they are on the crumbling edge of a cliff made of the churning pain and sorrow of the city, and that one more act of violence from any of them will bring down a law enforcement slap from which they will not recover, there are representatives of a half-dozen social service agencies ready to offer help with jobs and job training, drug rehabilitation, child support issues, and the soul.
But before he sends the lawyers in suits and cops in uniform out the door, Grant asks them to assemble at one end of the hearing room, behind the closed end of the horseshoe. He lines them up -- prosecutors, parole officers, police captain, three uniform officers who have been sitting in a small gallery, alongside myself and the social workers and a few other observers. I look at them, eight very serious, even menacing-looking professionals, a wall of aggressive law enforcement, and I am certain that I, personally, will not be engaging in any violent acts any time soon.
Even in conversation, Grant speaks with great energy and force, but also with warmth and a certain vulnerability. Ask him why he does this work and he will say, first, that he is blessed and second, that he is selfish.
“I like to feel good,” he told me once, “and often times when you get a chance to help somebody, you feel good. You learn. It’s tough stuff, but it becomes second nature, like anything in life.”
In a world of criminals, full of half-truths, of lies, of excuses, where the fruit of all the failures of the parents and schools and politicians and the human soul rots, Grant is a rare person who no one seems able to doubt. Even when he consistently refers to the gang members he works with as his “loved ones,” he sounds genuine, where someone else might sound insincere or contrived.
His frankness and sincerity, the accessible rhythm of his speech, the sense he makes, and especially the personal baggage he unpacks for the Participants, draws them in like no future adversary, no prosecutor or police officer could. They have no reason to resist, or to pretend to resist, Grant.
The Feds Talk in Months
And so the Participants are listening. They look less protected. They look to be coming out of themselves. All eyes are on the speaker.
“Take a look,” Grant tells them, and points to the law enforcement people. “Take a good look at that group. You’re lucky. You get to see this free today. Enjoy it. Because if you guys don’t stop, the next time you see all that, it’s gonna be in a courtroom, and you’re going to be at the other table. Next time it’s gonna cost you. And believe me, you do not want to see them in court. They are good at what they do. Stop giving them work.”
Grant should know. He spent 17 years in, all tolled, 11 federal prisons. He is of slightly below average height, has close cropped hair, favors over-sized t-shirts and jeans. Grant grew up in besieged West Oakland, near the very terminus of the residential city, in the shadow of a towering and noisy freeway, under the toxic cloud of its commerce. Beyond that freeway were the warehouses and factories that cling like mussels to the sprawling Port of Oakland.
Grant was in a gang, the old kind of Oakland gang, violent, but with a more formal structure, so he is original gang, OG (“older gentleman,” as he puts it), and this he tells the Participants. He got arrested for selling drugs, for robbery, he tells them. He drives home a point the federal prosecutor had made earlier: federal time is different. It is worse. Much, much worse than any jail or any state penitentiary you might have experienced.
Dan Simmons, who also did a fair amount of time in jail, before getting his masters degree and coming to work for the city, had told me, “The Feds don’t talk [about sentences] in years, they talk in months, and you can see the wheels spinning, you see the guys sitting up and thinking, ‘This guy just said 120 months, and how much is 120 months...’”
Grant makes another point: Federal prisons are far away. Grant spent time in Marion, Illinois. He spent time in Leavenworth, Kansas. He got released from Terra Haute, Indiana. The first time he saw his son was during weekend visiting hours. The mother had to struggle to raise the money to come. She placed the infant in his arms. He was so excited he showed the baby to the guard. He pauses. It’s a tolerable moment of his incarceration, we think.
“That’s nice, Grant,” says the guard, “now give it back. One hug when they get here, one when they leave.” We can all identify with the bitterness of the moment.
Still, the atmosphere in the room has lightened just a touch with the pending exit of the law enforcement people. Before they leave, Grant uses them one more time, as an example. To the Participants, he says, “You don’t have to be somebody else than who you are, but you are going to have to do something different with who you are. That’s what I did. I’m the same person, the same hustler I was before, only I do something different with it now. Before, these police and prosecutors, they put me away. Now we’re friends, we’re colleagues. When my mom died last month, the DA emailed me, the police captain called me. I have their respect now.”
It’s Over. You Lost.
“But you, you just have their attention. Because you lost, it’s over. You thought you were going to be living the fast life, but your not.”
He sounds like a surgeon bringing bad but irrevocable news to the waiting family. “It’s over. You lost,” he says again, in a tone that simply assumes no argument will be forthcoming. It’s not just terminal, it’s flat-lined.
This is the one thing Grant says that I wonder about. On the one hand, I truly do not believe he would say it if he didn’t think it were true. On the other hand, the current state of gangland Oakland is creating chaos in certain neighborhoods. Gangs have changed in Oakland, particularly African American gangs, which have grown smaller, and more violent, and less predictable in their affiliations and their purposes. Violent crime is down, for now, but the police are struggling to adapt to the liquid nature of gang identity and activity.
Grant’s larger point is that the life they thought being in a gang would give them, the fast life they thought they saw the old gang members, maybe even their brothers and fathers and uncles, living, never came.
“The gang life is over. You do nothing but chase money now. And unless you stop, you’ll be like I was. I didn’t get to know my son ‘till he was a teenager. How many of you have kids?”
I count six raised hands. One has brought along his baby and the baby’s mother. Another says he has eleven kids, which brings laughter as the first response of the room, laughter which in me gives way to an instant of despair.
“You got kids,” says Grant, “but how many of you even have a key to the place you’re staying? How many of you own a car? Everyone in this room who has a key to where they live and their own car, raise your hand. See that? See whose hands are up? It’s the squares. They got everything you want.
“Let me ask you this: how many of you have a tattoo with the picture of a friend and the letters RIP under it? And I’m willing to bet the last time you pointed a gun at somebody, he was in the skin you’re in.
“But, you are the lucky ones. You’ve been called-in. In a few minutes you will be offered help to find jobs, homes, to get treatment for drug or alcohol problems.
A Way Out
“Better yet, you can now go back to your neighborhood and say to the people who expect you to make trouble, ‘Sorry, no way, they got a binder on me, the FBI has a file on me, I got two strikes already, they’re going to send me to Leavenworth if I get into any trouble now. I’m out.’ Or you can say, ‘Sorry man, I can’t be doing that, I’ve got a job to go to tomorrow.’
This might be the Participant’s toughest task, leaving the life. And Grant had emphasized to me the importance of what a call-in provides them:
“It allows these guys -- because the street don’t allow it, their neighborhood don’t allow it, our culture don’t allow it -- but it allows me to go home” he’d told me. “And when you come up to me and say, ‘Kev, we gotta ride on that fool,’ and I can say, ‘I just been to a meeting, those folks got my picture in a book. You do it. I quit.’ It allows them a way out of a gang that doesn’t have a way out. The gang gotta accept it. They’re watching our neighborhood, the feds are involved.”
A Tough Nut
The prosecutors and police have left the room and Grant begins introducing the service providers. Each gives a brief presentation of what they can offer. Job training. Legal aid. Transportation. Spiritual advice.
The truth is that money for programs is more limited than it has been in years. Jobs, of course, are few. Oakland’s unemployment rate is near 12%. Most or all of these young men have never had a job. They have no marketable skills.
Before the meeting began, I’d spoken with a woman in the room whose family owns a big, successful scrap metal yard in East Oakland. They are committed to offering jobs to parolees. She says that many of the men they’ve hired are perfectly good workers, but they have bad habits. One worker began to disappear in the middle of the day, only to be found asleep in a remote corner of the warehouse. When they advised him that this was unacceptable, he took offense and quit.
Dan Simmons had told me that even though most of the call-in Participants want help with jobs first, they often have more urgent problems that need to be addressed.
“If I get you a job,” he said, “and you’ve got a substance abuse problem, and you get your first check, and you say, ‘Man, I’m just gonna take me a quick hit,’ you may not show up at that job again. But you need to deal with that issue or start dealing with it before you can go to a job every day. And sometimes that’s a tough nut to crack.”
It is impossible to say for now what the Participants have learned, or what will sink in for them in the coming days. It has looked to me like a few punches landed and left them stunned. But they'll come-to. After the meeting, out in the corridor, a couple of the Participants talk and laugh loudly with Grant and Simmons. Up the hallway, I see the federal prosecutor admiring another Participant's baby, chatting amicably with the parents. It's a strange scene.
Back out on Broadway, I see one of the younger Participants, and I want to know what he’s thinking about all this, but decide to let it go, for now. Grant has told me he will be able to introduce me to some of them later. The marine layer has burned away. I walk through Chinatown to catch my bus, but first thrust my hungry body out of the light and into a dark cafe, which I choose because it is busy at 2 p.m. I have no idea what country I’m in, but the women are beautiful. The soup they’re serving assaults my nose. At the next table: a petite girl wearing high leather boots, black tights and a short skirt. My guess is 14. With her an extremely unappetizing old man with brown spots on his skin and black teeth who can’t keep his fork in his hand or his food in his mouth. I wonder why no one has given him chopsticks.