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

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


Anonymous said...

Akil Truso and Kevin Grant are remarkable men and factors in our city, Oakland. We are definitely blessed to have these men and others that are dedicated to ceasing the violence in Oakland

Bridget Reshanda Gates said...

My name is Bridget Gates and I am from Tupelo,Mississippi. I met Mr.Truso in Febuary of 2012. After establishing a wonderful friendship with Mr.Truso, I begin to see the kind of person he was and share how he became who he is. Mr.Truso and I had alot in common. He became the kind of person that was always the first to know of any new accomplishments or progress concerning my life.
I'd like to think of him as a man of mystery. No one would ever know what he was up to next. If anyone knew him, you'd love that part about him because everything was always and must to be effective. I sit with him many days and nights and watched him work the streets and the heartfelt concern's of others. His main concern was failing to make a change or difference!! He'd always say, "It's got to be done, someone has to do it and I am going to find a way!!"
I'll never forget the warm handshake received from Mr.Grant. But the seed Mr.Truso planted here will NEVER fail to produce. Mr.Truso took his personal time and effort to educate me on exactly what meant: A second chance at a first class life. Here in Mississippi I brought back the tools practiced and strategically exercised viligently, that started my new journey in 2012,of October 2nd. That was the last time I saw him. Having kept contact I grew to stand on my own.