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

Monday, May 14, 2012

In Oakland, a New Way Out?

Among their other efforts, Oakland's Measure Y Street Outreach team attends the scenes of shootings and killings. Their purpose is to identify anyone related to the victim -- friends, family members, members of the same gang or turf group -- and to persuade them not to retaliate. One violent act has already taken place, they work to prevent the next one, to head-off an escalation. It would be difficult to quantify the shootings and killings that don't happen because a street outreach worker has intervened, has found a way, even in the heat and passion of the immediate aftermath, to calm a person bent on vengeance. We should probably find a way to count that.

Still, by the time the Measure Y guys show up, someone has been wounded, or someone is dead, and the sad, painful, infinitely wounding chain of events that follows a violent act is already set in motion. A mother and father are devastated, a neighborhood is traumatized, a kid feels less safe, becomes more distracted. He can't focus on his schoolwork, but he can sense, in that way kids have, that his mother is jittery, that she is more reluctant than usual to let him go beyond the front gate. The kid knew things were bad, but now they seem worse; inside and outside, there are less peace and less hope than before.

Despite his certainty about how much violence his street outreach team prevents, Kevin Grant says he's tired of showing up after the fact. He wants to find a way to prevent the original blood from flowing. And so he has begun to formalize, as a Measure Y violence prevention program called The Way Out, a thing he and his team members have been doing occasionally, which is mediating between antagonists before a dispute erupts. It is tense and sometimes dangerous work, and it will require an effective and pervasive publicity campaign among the groups they hope to work with. Often there will be an urgent need for interruption and mediation. A guy on the street who feels a situation is on the brink will have to have a number, make the call, to someone he trusts. That person will need to be available quickly, and will have to know the stakes, intuitively. He will need to have some understanding of the emotional state, even the psychology, of the people in the room. He will have to know how to communicate.

As I've documented many times on this blog, it is a job that only certain people could probably do. Rare is the cop who could serve in this role. (See (New) Code of the West or Idealists with Wary Eyes) One can imagine preachers doing it, maybe, but only the kind you meet out there who, in a past life, had lived the life. Most, if not all of the members of the Measure Y Street Outreach Team have lived the life, some only recently escaped. Many of them have been shot, some have lost a loved one, or multiple loved ones, to Oakland's troubles. They are on a new path now, but they can speak the language; they can relate.

At a meeting to introduce the program, in a grungy clubhouse of an unkempt park in East Oakland, a kid in a wheelchair told us about getting shot nine times last February, about life in a wheelchair. Even though it was stuffy in the clubhouse, he wore a coat and a hat with flaps over his ears; probably he gets cold due to the blood circulation problems paraplegics suffer.

His voice was deep.

"Three months ago I was walking," he said. "Now I can't play football. Can't hurry. Can't play with my nephews. All I did was go to the store," he says. His one mistake? "I wasn't watching my surroundings." And he had another lesson to learn, while he lay un-visited by any of his friends at Highland Hospital: "Everybody I thought would be real to me, they turned out to be fake."

His mother talked with great energy and intensity about seeing her son bleeding at the gate to their apartment complex. He'd been shot in the back nine times, but he was conscious. "He said, 'Mama don't let me die.' All we did was cry and pray, cry and pray," she said.

She talked about life with a young son in a wheelchair. "He's paralyzed like I'm paralyzed. I'm with him, taking care of him 24 hours a day."

Violence prevention educator Caheri Gutierrez, of Youth Alive, talked about growing up in the Deep, about seeing her brother shot in the head, then pistol whipped, then abandoned by his so-called friends. She talked about the night she herself got shot, in the face, through the face by a hollow-tip bullet, while sitting at a traffic light on 98th Avenue, how she almost choked to death on the blood gathering in her throat. She talked about life with a different face, a scarred face. Gutierrez rose above it all. And she uses that experience now to convince young Oaklanders that violence solves nothing, but only presents new problems that are much, much worse.

Caheri Gutierrez speaking at Youth Alive 20th Anniversary event

Here is a story I wrote for San Francisco Magazine, in which she plays a key role -- No Escape, No Surrender -- as do Kevin Grant, and also Marilyn Harris, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence. And here is a brief relation of Caheri's story from the Almanac: I Might Have Some Hope Here; Here's Caheri's personal blog: Life.

A mother who'd lost her son last December spoke. I'd talked with her before the event. She was nervous. It would the first time she'd talked to a group about her loss, I said I thought this would be a good thing for her. She gave me a hug. Up in front of the the gathering, she teared up but wasn't self-pitying. She was emotional and powerful and you could almost begin to get a sense of her despair, and even just lightly brushing up against her pain for a moment was jarring.

"I'd like to be able to hug all of you. I can't hug Charles anymore."

Mayor Quan was there. She recalled brokering a series of demilitarized zones in Oakland, so that kids might get to school safely. Those zones disintegrated long ago. Programs come and go. At times during the event I stared at banners hanging from the clubhouse rafters. I wondered which if any of these programs still existed. The banners were wrinkled and curling and covered with dust. Here's how some of them read, verbatim:

Oakland P.A.L.
The Bond Between Cops and Kids
Lets Get To Kids Before They Get Into Trouble

Programs come and go. It's the going that's a problem. Some don't work, and they should go. Some take time to work, so-called leaders become frightened by the early appearance of failure, and the program is abandoned. This one will take time. To get the word out, to establish trust. Even if The Way Out is a success, still, sometimes it will fail. Will the City stick with it?

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