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

Friday, May 31, 2013

New Oakland Unite (formerly Measure Y) Violence Prevention Evaluation Released

Resource Development Associates of Oakland has issued its most recent evaluation of the effectiveness of Oakland's civilian violence prevention programs funded by Measure Y, now housed under the city office known as Oakland Unite. Spending money on these programs can be controversial. Some think all crime-fighting money should go toward a bigger and better OPD. Some like to say, "Well, you can't arrest your way out of our problems." Some say both a community-based violence prevention approach and a stronger police force are needed.

Prevention can be difficult to quantify. You can't necessarily count up the things that didn't happen, the retaliatory shootings that were prevented by Caught in the Crossfire, a hospital-based intervention program that works with young people wounded in the city's violence, or the turf group wars that didn't flare up because of the intervention of the Oakland Unite Street Outreach teams, which walk the city's most dangerous streets at the most dangerous hours trying to keep the peace.

One thing is for sure, civilian violence prevention is cheaper than more police. In the past, I've called it Oakland's Moneyball approach to public safety

Anyway, it's all in the evaluation's summary, posted on Oakland Unite's web site, right here. I'll give it a closer look and write more about its findings if I can get over this feeling that no one cares if I do or not.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sound of the Oakland Front Lines

Prior speakers at Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf's valuable Safe Oakland series had tended to be academics advancing their theories and brands; I had skipped their appearances. It's an attitude problem I have, but I admit that I'm a snob for the voice of the streets. For the information and tone that emanates from the front lines of the violence. It's a voice that's sharp, confident, sometimes exasperated but never hopeless. It has a sound that cuts through the echo of self-interest and fear you so often hear around her.

So when I saw that one of the speakers this week was a member of Kevin Grant's Measure Y Street Outreach Team, and that another was the leader of Youth Alive's Caught in the Crossfire program, I figured I could learn something about Oakland. So I joined the hundred or so other mostly middle-aged, extremely white people from the hilly part of Schaaf's council district (I actually live in Noel Gallo's nearby district, but I have no idea what he's doing) who, to their credit, had made the trek up to Holy Names University on a soft May evening.
For two hours that night, tucked away in the hills in seeming safety, in the well-built but sterile performance center at Holy Names, two toilers on the front-lines of Oakland's violence spoke with utter frankness about their work, their successes and failures, about what they see and hear on the streets of Oakland and in the hospital rooms of the wounded at Highland and, nowadays, Children's.

They spoke, each for about 20 minutes (before participating in a long panel discussion), without notes, without much self-consciousness, without agendas of self-promotion or even necessarily of promoting their own programs. (Although I admit that I might be a little naive...) They were the farthest things from politicians you could find at this kind of public event, and so you could learn things from them that you could trust. I'll write about Kyndra Simmons of Caught in the Crossfire next, but first, here's what I got from Akil Truso of the Measure Y team.

I'd seen Kevin Grant, the leader of Oakland's Street Outreach program speak many times (I've written a ton about Grant. Here's something here: No Escape, No Surrender), but tonight the team was represented by Truso, in the oversized white t-shirts he and Grant favor, this one advertising Grant's Way Out program. (See my write up of its introduction last year: In Oakland, a New Way Out?)

Truso is leader of the seven-man team that walks the streets of West Oakland on the statistically most dangerous nights of the week -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- at the statistically most dangerous hours of the night, in a non-violent effort to keep the peace, to douse any possible sparks of violence, to engage the young people they find on the corners, to offer them alternatives.

Here's the kind of thing you learn from listening to guys like Truso:

Frisk the Bushes
An official "stop and frisk" policy in Oakland probably won't find very many illegal guns, because most guys hide their guns around the neighborhood, in bushes, under houses. They don't necessarily carry them with them in cars. Until, of course, they're needed. (At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who participated in the panel discussion after the talks, made the good point that with 200 fewer cops than we are supposed to have, OPD really doesn't have the manpower to be stopping and frisking people for rather vague reasons, anyway.)

Turf War
Truso said there's a war going on right now between groups in the McClymonds area and the Acorn, which to me had always meant pretty much the same thing. They are adjacent and kind-of flow into and out of each other. I always think of McClymonds High School as being pretty much in the Acorn. It was on the campus of McClymonds that my friend Marilyn Harris' son was killed in August of 2000. She's lives and is a manager in the Acorn development. (I've written quite a bit about Miss Marilyn, too, if you're interested.) Just goes to show you how geographically specific Oakland's turf groups can get. (Me on the turf groups: A Violent Thing.)

Heroin Demographics
A high percentage of customers coming to San Pablo Ave to purchase heroin are white. One of them felt cheated and brought a bunch of buddies back with him to confront his dealer. He got his money back. In terms of racism, said Truso, down there, I don't really see much discriminating going on. 

Paying for Help
Truso has come up with a new approach the Measure Y teams are using to try to change things on the street. For years they have been offering gang members help finding jobs, but there are so few jobs, and they're not great jobs, and so lately the team has been, in a sense, hiring some of the gang members to work with them, paying gang leaders stipends to help them reach out to other gang leaders, to act as ambassadors in the gang world, to draw others into the conversation about alternatives to violence and the Game.
Like Measure Y's Kevin Grant -- like Truso, as well -- many of the outreach team members grew up in the neighborhoods where they now work. Like Grant and Truso, many of them got in trouble in those neighborhoods. And like these two men, some of them served serious time for their crimes.

Truso said he was in and out of prison for 18 years. Grant spent 17 years in 11 different federal penitentiaries. Unlike some who go through the corrections system, at some point, both experienced a profound change, if not in who the were, then in the direction in which they wanted to take their lives. On Wednesday night, Truso searched for an answer to what caused the change in him, and finally said it was the change he'd seen in the streets, the chaos that had led to so many wounded and killed children in Oakland. That was too much for him. He'd gotten the opportunity to work for change in the city and had grasped it.

He said that many of the guys he runs into through his work, the ones he's trying to keep calm and peaceful, still see him as he was in the old days, still call him by his nickname from back then, which I noticed he declined to share with the audience; it was absolutely not the person he was representing tonight, and so irrelevant to us.

But it is that old identity that allows the guys on the streets to trust Truso, to hear his new message in a way they might not hear it from anyone else, from a cop, or a preacher or a professor of criminology. When Grant or Truso give them the "guns down" message, when they offer stipends to help the outreach team communicate with other gang leaders, these are acts no one else could credibly engage in, and the conversations that result are ones no one else could generate. 

Hope against Hope
"I truly believe there's an answer," said Truso, pleading for city-wide engagement, "but it's gonna take everybody. If we don't jump right in, the violence is going to get worse and worse."

When an audience member said every member of her family had been a victim of crime in Oakland, and that after 56 years living here, she was feeling hopeless, Truso said if you're feeling hopeless, look at me, there's a miracle sitting right up here in front of this room.

by James O'Brien
twitter @icecityalmanac
author of Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story, a Kindle Single, available at Amazon ($0.99)
"Captivating" -Vision Hispana 
"Gutierrez is an unforgettable subject" -San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, May 20, 2013

Read about today's killings, then forget

Two killings this weekend in Oakland. (After two late last week following the Warriors' final game.) But it was the bare bit of information in today's news about yesterday's killings that struck me. As we learn more, it may change, but for now, these seem to be precisely the kinds of killings we hear about, then ignore. They occurred, with a depressing balance, in precisely the places we expect them to occur. One in Deep East Oakland, at 92nd and International, one on West Street in West Oakland. 

There's no description yet of the West Oakland victim, but the East Oakland victim is described as a 27-year-old male, shot "shortly after 4:30 a.m." 27. Don't know yet if he was African American, but for sure his age of death lands him right in, as I have referred to it in the past, the wheelhouse of urban murder. That is, most homicide victims in Oakland are African-American men between the ages of 17 and 39. And ultimately, their murders are shrugged off by the majority of the city. 

I remember being in the ICU with the family of Daryl Starks back at Christmastime 2010. Starks had been shot on a Friday night at 78th and Bancroft, a popular area in Oakland to get shot. Starks was 26, a dangerous age for a man in Oakland. He was in a coma. I remember sitting in the Highland waiting room (see the wonderful documentary about the Highland waiting room, called The Waiting Room) talking to his younger sister, 16, who herself had been shot the year before, in a park at Seminary and E. 14th, another hotspot in the dangerous Deep. Her shooting had made the TV news, but I knew Daryl's wouldn't. The details would seem too common. 

Daryl was shot while driving home from the store, which if he had been white in Montclair, or if he had been, say, 16, his story might have gained some attention. But given his age, his race and the location of the shooting, there was I believe a tacit citywide conclusion that his death was run-of-the-mill for Oakland and that, if he did not necessarily deserve to get shot and die, then likely at least he had done something wrong to put himself in position to get shot and die. And whatever that wrong thing was, it was a type of wrong thing, a type of mistake different from any mistake we might have made in our lives, worse than any wrong thing we had ever done ourselves. It had led to his death. So while we might be mildly sorry for him and his family, we weren't going to nurture our sympathy or cultivate some outrage. We weren't going to march for peace because Daryl died, or petition the government for new gun laws, or write about his murder or think about it much. (Ultimately Daryl's death did get a little publicity, as his family agreed to donate his organs.)

2010 was a relatively sane year for homicides in Oakland. There were 10 fewer killings than in 2009. Not one single homicide victim that year was white. But Daryl, who died five days before Christmas, wouldn't be the last murder of the year.

These two as yet unnamed homicides from yesterday, May 19th, 2013, bring the year's number of killings to 39. Some have generated publicity and hand-wringing. Even arrests. What was the difference between those killings and these? Between those killings and the killing of Daryl Starks? Is one life worth more than another?

by James O'Brien
twitter @icecityalmanac
author of Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story, a Kindle Single, available at Amazon ($0.99)
"Captivating" -Vision Hispana 
"Gutierrez is an unforgettable subject" -San Francisco Chronicle