In one eight-hour stretch in late February, four Oakland residents were shot.
While none of them died, so far this year shootings across the city are up more than 60 percent. Most of those doing the shooting are involved so deeply in street life that experts say they have slipped into a kind of alternate reality in which the rules the rest of society lives by don't apply.
Their rules, in turn, wouldn't make sense to those who don't share their experiences. For many of these kids, the amorphous set of street rules that governs their behavior has a name: the Mack God.
Take Danny Samson, an Oakland teen who has been living by the code of the street since he was 13, when his mother kicked him out of their East Oakland home. (Danny's name has been changed at the behest of Rod Herbert, a Youth Alive case worker, who is concerned about his ongoing safety.)
He started robbing people at gunpoint that year. He broke into homes and began dealing marijuana. After a few stints in juvenile hall, he joined a violent East Oakland gang.
It all led to the moment last fall when he found himself on the ground, bleeding from a gunshot wound and staring down the barrel of an enemy's pistol. Click. "When they see me they shoot at me, and when I see them I shoot at them," he said. "We gotta retaliate. If we don't, they'll shoot us, kill us, and it's better them than us; that's how everybody should see life."
Danny's worldview is stark and uncompromising -- but it is also coherent in a way many people would not understand.
Danny and hundreds of other youths just like him believe an ordering force governs the violence surrounding them. Surreal as it sounds, the "Mack God" is as real a power as anything else in Danny's young and relatively brutal life. "The Mack God is in the streets, and the people doing bad things that live this life go by the Mack God," he said. "I love God, but I believe in the Mack God, and if you cross him, I believe he will get you."
Last year, Oakland had more than 500 separate shootings -- more than one per day, every day, for weeks and months on end. This year's homicide package profiles one victim of a West Oakland shooting, but hundreds more go unaccounted for, and unexplained.
Experts are taking note of how someone like Danny thinks, and say others should too.
Right and wrong
"It has a lot to do with notion of a social contract," said Christopher Layne, director of treatment and intervention development at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. "If the contract doesn't apply to you, what are the rules by which you rule your life and determine what is moral? What's right? What's wrong?"
Layne and others said they believe the unwritten rules of the street have created an alternate reality that is siphoning off a growing number of children each year. As more and more young men and women get sucked into the unforgiving cosmology of the Mack God, the harder it is for anyone else -- police, counselors, civic and church leaders -- to reach them. "If you stay in survival mode, you can't be a functioning member of society," said Bessel van der Kolk, director of The Trauma Center in Boston.
The Mack God sits at the center of this chaos, and while the name may be no more than a fanciful euphemism for the code of the street, the rules are anything but playful. Rapper E-40 talks about the Mack God in a video called "Mack Minister" in which several commandments are enunciated, including "do not snitch" and "do not playa hate." There are others, Danny says: loyalty to friends, common sense, more than a hint of misogynism.
"Mack" is a term that harkens to the 1970s, when so-called Blaxploitation films such as "The Mack" glorified the lives of pimps, drug dealers and gangsters who lived and died by the rules of the streets in exchange for the riches, glory and easy living that crime was thought to provide.
"The Mack God gives some order, to make everything right, to give some sense to this game," Danny said. Disobedience results in a kind of karmic vengeance.
It wasn't always this way.
"When I was coming up, you would never think about this kind of violence because of the consequences," said Rod Herbert, a case manager at Youth Alive, a Measure BB program that targets at-risk youth in Oakland. Herbert has worked with Danny, and he is worried that the rules of Oakland's streets are trumping the rule of law. "The police know who is doing this. But nobody is willing to talk," he said. "If you get the perpetrator, and the case gets to trial, the witness won't testify."
Oakland police complain about the consistent noncooperation among witnesses and victims of crimes. It not only prevents any kind of systemic justice from taking place, but also fosters a sense that at the end of the day the street will always be the final arbiter. Herbert agreed. "A lot of these guys, they're young, baby-faced guys, punks, but they're getting away with it," he said.
Herbert said he believes that as long as the community refuses to take responsibility for its youth, the violence will continue unabated. The Mack God, in other words, won't back down without a fight.
The problem doesn't just affect victims; parents, schools and police get swept into the Mack God's world. "The streets are not lawless and chaotic, no more than old West," Layne said. "These kids are growing up where the basic filial assumptions are not honored, where parents abuse or neglect them, and where the rules the rest of society live by don't apply."
Herbert said the more isolated children become, the less reach police, parents and teachers will have. "You can't blame anyone if you're not doing your part to help."
However, while the rules of the streets are real, the Mack God, others say, is not. "I doubt whether many people actually believe in the Mack God (per se)," says the Rev. Harry Williams, a pastor at Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church who is an author of urban fiction and an expert on contemporary youth culture. "Most people that I have met in the streets believe in a God who rewards good and punishes evil."
Williams cites the late rapper Tupac Shakur's spirituality, and his public questioning of an afterlife for a gangster. Harlem gangster "Bumpy" Johnson was also a supporter of a group of Harlem nuns, and was beloved by them. "The vast majority (of these gangsters) come from some type of faith background," Williams said.
The new generation
A 32-year-old former Sureno gang member in the Bay Area also confirmed the importance of street rules, but said he had never heard of the Mack God. "There are a street laws, and laws we're supposed to abide by them, but the new generation doesn't follow the rules," he said. "Jesus Christ is our God, even as a criminal, our God is God."
Even if the Mack God is a figment of the brain, it could mean the brain is dysfunctional, van der Kolk said. "If your brain is set to expect assault, you can't see anyone else," he said. "You're a potential predator."
As long as there's a game, however, Danny said he will continue to believe in the Mack God. "The game just keeps going and going," he said. "It's wild and out of control. People are just going crazy."