This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting and www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-hotspot for updates from the Oakland Hotspot.
I spent some time recently with a couple of young kids from the neighborhood. Joseph was 15, John was 18, both were African-American. (I'm going to keep their real names private for various safety considerations.) In different ways, these two boys are grappling with challenges that are both unique to their neighborhoods and their families but also common to many of us.
Joseph was a relative newcomer to Oakland. He moved here from another state, one with a far lower homicide rate and, generally, a more peaceful atmosphere. It was a hard adjustment to make. In Oakland, he found, people seemed to be fighting all the time -- in the streets, at school, wherever he turned. "When I first got here, I was afraid to walk anywhere. I had this knot in my stomach the whole time," he told me. "I didn't understand how it worked."
He told me that he used to be nervous much of the time because his new neighborhood had rules that he didn't understand, colors and signs and codes that he hadn't yet learned, a language of the streets he hadn't had time to adopt.
"I was just scared all the time," he said.
But then he started to adapt. Part of that adaptation has meant spending time with his cousin, whom Joseph describes as being "in a gang." I asked him what kind, and he told me the gang's name. It's really more like a clique, but it had the usual three-lettered acronym you find so often in Oakland: My Other Brother, back in the day, or more recently, Money Over Bitches.
I can't, or won't, repeat it here, but I will say that it translates basically as: Killing African Americans. Gruesomely. It was a crude and brutal appellation, one that seemed to me to reflect a view that life itself, in fact, is short, rather pointless and ultimately not worth much.
Joseph told me that while he himself wasn't in a gang, his cousin's participation in it created a weird and uncomfortable situation for him. He wanted, needed, to be accepted; it was part of that process of adaptation. But he didn't want anything to do with the rest of what the gang was all about: drug-dealing, shooting, killing. He said these things matter-of-factly, but the tension about the choices he faced was clear, and painful.
He explained that his cousin was a "general" and that the gang had a "CEO" and a "President."
"It's not like I'm in the gang, when they do stuff I don't do it," he explained. "But I'm kind of in it too, though, just because I'm, you know, around."
But, I thought, if you're 15, trying to fit in, simply being "around" in a neighborhood where gangs were, in Joseph's words, "dealing, shooting, killing" then one wrong choice, one wrong move, can mean the difference between going to prison or going to college.
John, I learned, had a different set of challenges. He was raised in a particularly tough part of East Oakland. He was by nature shy, reserved, studious. His father wasn't around, so he lived with his mother and took care of his two younger siblings. John had never struggled with being in a gang. He was college-bound already. But he was also the father figure to his younger siblings. When I asked him what his biggest challenge was, he talked about his siblings. Raising them was hard, he said, because he didn't know how to protect them from the sorts of things that he, somehow, had been able to avoid -- perhaps the same kinds of things he saw Joseph grappling with on a daily basis: gangs, random shootings, just being outside at the wrong time of day or night.
I met with both Joseph and John at a community meeting of sorts where they were talking about some of the challenges that kids like them face in their neighborhoods.
Joseph said that he felt ashamed when he saw women on the street shy away from him or grab their purse closer to their chests while walking by.
"It's like they see a young guy like me, and they automatically think I'm going to rob them," he said. "I'm not, but they think I am. That's what they see when they see me."
The other boys nodded in agreement.
What about shootings, I asked. It was an issue, they agreed, but it was also something to which you grew accustomed. It was random, everywhere, but it was also unavoidable, and you learned how to take care of yourself.
My take-away from these encounters was that these kids are grappling with adult-level decisions. How do they do it? How do they know how to do the right thing? Who is keeping them on track? Their parents, sometimes, sure. But not always. It's a worrying thing when you're 15 and you have to worry about whether the next time you see your cousin, you're going to be corralled into committing a class A felony. Or, if your only parent dies, whether you'll be left alone to raise your younger siblings. But these kids are making the right choices so far. That's good. And they should be recognized for being ahead of the curve.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.