A fatal stabbing and a drive-by shooting bookend an hour in West Oakland Saturday night, but those who work these streets for Oakland’s anti-violence prevention effort are encouraged. The neighborhood is changing for the better.

The Street Outreach team members who are out every weekend have lived here long enough to sense the change, especially back in the not-do-distant past when each of the four team members had their own problems. They lived on these streets, did drugs on these streets, committed crimes on these streets and now they walk them with the simple message of hope.

“I could never give back what I took from my community,” team member Adam Mayberry said Saturday night. “I made two small decisions: Stop getting high, stop committing crime. That’s all it took.”

The team gathered Saturday on San Pablo and West 27th, having just returned from a fatal stabbing of a woman. Clad in bright white T-shirts and jackets with the Street Outreach logo on the back, the four team members – Mayberry, Carla Ashford, Ronald “Redd” Gage and Victor Pouncil — walked up San Pablo, chatting and greeting those they passed. At lease one of the four knew virtually every person they met, including some that hollered a greeting from cars.

The youngest team member, Victor Pouncil, 26, said his involvement has only increased his reputation on the streets he grew up on.

“Most people get it,” he said. “People blow at us and say, ‘You’re doing good work. Keep at it.’”

Gage, a spry 50-something elder statesman of the team, agreed. They see plenty of petty crime walking these streets, but they know their role. They aren’t the police and don’t want to be.

“Sometimes you gotta disengage,” Gage said. “We just ignore it. Everything’s respectful. You can’t save everyone.”

This is how Grant, the architect of the program, wants it. The program works precisely because they have been a part of the community, he said

“The streets belong to the those in the neighborhoods,” Grant said. “We respect that. We try to establish relationships.”

Ashford is the team leader. She is respected by the team members and apparently beloved on the streets. She gets and gives hugs on dark corners like a Sunday greeting in a church service. She is relentlessly upbeat and candid about her journey, which she discussed as she walked by houses where past drug deals were made. She pointed out a favorite place to get high — on a front stoop with few lights, pushed back from the curb. 

That was all insane. The insanity of the disease,” she said. “Those real simple decisions finally came to me sitting up in that cell. Stuff I used to sit on my bunk and dream about, now I’m out here doing it.”

Ashford had just returned from talking to a group of men shooting dice on the corner who don’t want to be bothered by the team.

They moved on to talk to a twenty-something man who goes by Rue about getting off the streets. They encouraged him to come to the office and learn about the services provided. Rue listened respectfully, rolling a joint all the while.

Before they left, Gage slid him a flyer with the same close-hand exchange familiar to both from passing drugs. They offered a final prodding of encouragement to Rue as they left.

“It takes time,” Gage said.

Time, Grant says, has established credibility. Consistency is now pushing back against decades of violent crime that earned West Oakland a reputation across the country for its danger, decay and violence.

“The community got used to us and that plan worked. If we had to do it another way now, it wouldn’t,” Grant said.

He likened the street outreach team to a fire truck driving down the street with sirens blaring and lights flashing.

“You don’t think they’re selling donuts. You know they’re putting out fires. Folks know what we’re doing,” Grant said.

The team later turned a corner on a mostly quiet night and nearly missed the blue and white lights of an Oakland Police cruiser parked in the middle of an otherwise dark street. While the team had been walking a couple of blocks over, shots had been fired. They altered their course and approached the crime scene.

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Oakland Police tape off a the scene of a shooting in West Oakland on Saturday, March 7.

Initially stopped by police, they were welcomed once they identified themselves. Oakland Police Officer Mullins told them the victim had been sent to the hospital. The street was littered with the debris of a shooting — glass, casings and blood.

“It’s a mess,” Mullins said.

“Is there family around we can talk to?” Mayberry asked.

“Nobody is here,” Mullins said. “They all scattered.”

Another drive-by shooting in the nearby West Oakland bottoms would injure two more later than night. Then Monday, the violence hit its peak with the death of Chyemil Pierce, 30, who was killed by a stray bullet while trying to protect her children.

By Monday afternoon with fatigue in his voice, Grant acknowledged that some of the violence may be connected, but much of the information remains unknown.

“This the drumbeat of Oakland and is a very typical first day,” Grant said. “The information that is out there, even on the streets, is very subjective. People don’t know the whole story. Often times it will take several days or even a month to get the whole story. We ride the wave.”

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Street outreach team members talk to Oakland police about a shooting that had just occurred in West Oakland.

Riding the wave, in part, means tracing all the connections of those involved. Grant said they work to see where “the branches” lead in the hope of curtailing recipricol violence. The work is just beginning in this “uptick” of violence in West Oakland.

But the change is also evident. Before the team left the crime scene Saturday night, Mullins said, “We appreciate all the work you do. It makes a difference. You all help out more than you know.”

The thought that these four would not only come toward a crime scene confidently rather than run away in fear was not lost on them. They admitted they still feel weird approaching police, but more than anything else on this night, it illustrated the changing nature of crime in West Oakland.

“That, right there, makes it worth it,” Mayberry said. “They respect us. You know it’s changing. We’re blessed, man.”

Each shooting victim will be contacted by both OPD and Grant’s case workers. Police will do their job, Street Outreach does theirs. Both have a role in the declining violence of Oakland’s streets.

“We have gone through the lessons so that we can support the right work,” Grant said. “We have the contacts and the relationships. Our table is established. They know the food they’re gonna eat when they come to it. We are blessed.”

Blessed in West Oakland. It can be surprising how often you hear it, but it’s the hope that keeps the mission moving forward, the steps on hard pavement and hands reached out in friendship and hope instead of selling drugs or pulling triggers.

One Response

  1. Simone Larson

    Really great piece, Andrew! Thanks for bringing our attention to such an awesome part of society.

    Reply

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