Much can be learned when calm breaks down and angry words fill the air. During those tense moments when tempers flare, order is lost, and a push for calm rises above the din, the glimpse offered of deep-seated differences comes clearly into view.

Such was the case during a March meeting in West Oakland in the heated aftermath of the tragic shooting of Chyemil Pierce. A tense meeting covering a panoply of topics spilled into open hostility over one particular point: humanizing the men who fire the guns.

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Police Chief Sean Whent addresses West Oakland residents in the aftermath of the shooting death of Cheymil Pierce in March.

A teacher at McClymonds High School sparked the debate when she said the meeting sought only to villainize West Oakland youth without considering solutions that offer alternatives to crime. What about jobs? she demanded. What opportunity?

It’s a question that virtually everyone connected with Oakland’s push to reduce violent crime is asking, with far fewer direct answers provided than needed for Ceasefire, the city’s crime prevention strategy, to ultimately succeed.

Ceasefire offers the proverbial carrot-and-stick approach, giving those who want to leave a life of violence behind a wide array of support and services to assist in the transformation, while maintaining aggressive prosecution of those who commit crimes. Such was the case in the death of Pierce, where five men were promptly arrested and face lengthy, if not life, prison sentences. Emilio Mena and his colleagues at Oakland Unite hope others are taking notice and will join the hundreds who have already sought the help they need to get off the streets.

“We can’t just arrest our way out of this situation,” said Mena, an Oakland Unite case manager.

The program has begun to show effectiveness. Violent crime in Oakland went down a bit at the end of 2013 and continued to decease in 2014.

“It’s been a slow dance, but good things have happened,” Mena said. “But it’s also been a learning curve.”

That learning curve, according to near unanimous agreement of the more than a dozen interviews conducted, shows the process must result in a job. Without that, all the other work to help a person break away from crime can fail.

“The jobs are the whole thing,” said Donald Williams, transportation and site manager for Healthy Communities, who is also a native of West Oakland. “I believe that if you go into the Ceasefire call-in and meet with the case managers, with the completion of all that, there should be a job waiting.”

Yet, no such clear path exists.

“One of the hardest things about my work is the whole employment piece,” Mena said. “You’re talking about young men that have been in the system for many, many years, and honestly, the system has failed them, whether it be slipping the cracks in education or a foster care situation or the legal situation. It becomes survival of the fittest.”

In late March, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf joined Rotary Club leaders and other officials to discuss the merits of employing those with a criminal past, including tax breaks and federal grants.

“A mindset of decent jobs is integral to our economic plans and a way of being there for the community,” Schaaf said. “People need the hope that the jobs will be there for them.”

Oakland Unite, the city’s social services organization, has tried to bolster its relationship with potential employers, according to program analyst Sara Serin-Christ. Serin-Christ said Oakland Unite is coordinating with employers like Caltrans to hire clients for work crews and cultivates opportunities with small business owners.

“There is never enough jobs, especially for Ceasefire clients,” Serin-Christ said. “They need a lot of prep and support to be ready to go into a job situation and succeed.”

Street outreach workers from community-based organizations agree with Williams that job potential is a prime motivating factor for someone to change.

“You hear this all the time: ‘We need a job,’” said Adam Mayberry, a case worker for Healthy Communities’ West Oakland violence prevention team. “We’re not gonna lie. We don’t have a lot of jobs. But we give them perspective and some steps along the way. We give them hope.”

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Street outreach workers Victor Pouncil and Adam Mayberry speak to police after a West Oakland shooting in early March.

Hope is fine, Williams says, but not enough. “Folks want jobs,” he said.

Street outreach worker Victor Pouncil knows how hard it can be for a young person swayed by the fast rewards of criminal activity. He recalled as a teen looking up to those with nice cars and plenty of cash, regardless of how it was obtained. Now he’s trying to convince others to take a longer view.

“We spend a lot of time doing the work to help them become employable, things other folks take for granted, but it can be hard for a kid on the streets whose parents are using or locked up,” Pouncil said. “You feel me? The small things that add up really help.”

Williams believes the process could work if, and only if, they build a network of jobs.

“They don’t have a direct pipeline that says if you stop doing this here, you can be doing this and that in a set time. They don’t have that, but they need it,” he said.

Mena, whose job entails eventually helping his clients get jobs, knows how badly that pipeline is needed.

“The lack of opportunity for young men of color with criminal records is alarming. But the city of Oakland, the beautiful thing is, we do fund re-entry programs and have connections with employers that care about these people to give them an opportunity.”

Williams insisted a “healthy skepticism” remains. “If they see a guy standing on the corner one month and then the next month they see, hey, this guy is going to work. When they see that, they’ll start to believe.”

One Response

  1. Len Raphael

    I’ve come around to supporting Ceasefire because it has attracted a group of smart highly motivated people in the non-profit, government, and private sector trying their best to make it succeed.

    But to state as you have “The program has begun to show effectiveness.” because ” Violent crime in Oakland went down a bit at the end of 2013 and continued to decease in 2014.” is feel good nonsense. It is way too soon to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of CF in reducing violent crime here. Doing so sets up false expectations that could lead to prematurely discontinuing CF when violent crime goes up again.

    Richmond took a different far less ambitious approach to their similarly narrowly targeted anti-violence program, which has much stronger data backing up it’s effectiveness. Couldn’t do Richmond’s program here because of the much larger number of people here. When Richmond can’t find jobs for program participants, they flat out pay the participants monetary stipends to stay out of trouble.

    Convincing employers to hire mostly men with minimal education and skills who have served time is extraordinarily hard sell. I sat in that Rotary audience and talked to some employers who totally got the message about the benefits of hiring people in the CF program but had to balance that against the risks to their business.

    With their permission, you might list the employers who are participating so people can support those businesses.

    Len Raphael, CPA


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