Members of the Assembly Select Committee On Youth Violence Prevention brought their third and final hearing to Oakland last week, hearing hours of expert testimony before an overflow crowd at the Port of Oakland boardroom on Friday on strategies that have been used to address and attack one of California’s most pressing problems.
Hearings had previously been held in Los Angeles and Salinas.
In addition to being charged with production of a “tool kit” of what Committee Chair Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) calls “successful, tested approaches that have been effective in reducing youth violence,” the committee is rushing to make recommendations requested by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez to be included in the fiscal year 2007-08 budget. Caballero said Friday that one of the goals of the select committee “is to align state resources with local resources, and to get targeted resources into the neighborhoods that need them the most.”
The Oakland hearing was hosted by Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland), one of two local members of the Select Committee. The other local legislator on the committee is Berkeley Assemblymember Loni Hancock. Several national, state, and local lawmakers were in attendance to hear the testimony, including Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).
Lee told the gathering that “the lack of a support system for our youth leads to a life of violence in many cases. The shootings at Virginia Tech got a lot of national attention, but you and I know that shootings go on in our communities every day, and go unnoticed.”
The congressmember said that the national government is setting a bad example for youth, saying that “unfortunately, when our young people see their own government using violence to solve problems around the world, they believe it’s correct to do the same thing in their neighborhoods. Our young people have to see our government using diplomacy and conflict resolution itself in order to know that there are alternatives to violence.”
Lee also accused the Bush administration of “being downright hostile to the needs of youth,” citing the fact that the administration has steadily eliminated funds for education programs. With the election of a Democratic majority in Congress, she said that “we are now slowly beginning to undue the damage done over the last 12 years.”
Swanson said that “we have to show it is unacceptable to spend $10 billion on the state prison system when we can spend less and put that money into prevention strategies.” Swanson called the situation for many youth in the area “terrifying.”
And Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson called Oakland “unfortunately, the epicenter of youth violence. We are only scratching the surface of this epidemic.”
The four-hour Oakland hearing had a far different atmosphere from Assembly or State Senate hearings on bills held in Sacramento, where testimony is often rushed through while committees seek to pack in votes on several pieces of legislation in one session.
At the Port of Oakland session, committee members appeared to be more interesting in gathering information than in finding out the “for or against” positions on specific legislation, and expert testimony was often interrupted as legislators asked for clarification.
Most of the people testifying either talked of recently growing up in violence-plagued communities themselves or gave long résumés of working in youth violence-prevention programs.
The most memorable exchange came during the first panel on violence prevention strategies in early childhood education, parent education, and after school programs when Angie Darling, Coordinator of the Alameda County Childcare Planning Counsel, said that neglect and abuse of children at an early age begins a downward spiral that can lead to a life of violence, making the startling revelation that the yearly rate of expulsion of pre-school students in the State of California is three times the K-12 expulsion rate.
That prompted Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), a committee member, to Darling with a startled look on her face and ask, “What did you just say?” Other committee members appeared startled as well.
When Darling repeated her statement at the request of Caballero, the committee chair asked, a little incredulously, “in our state it’s possible to expel a child from pre-school? I’m flabbergasted. That’s a prescription for failure, to tell a 3-year-old ‘you don’t belong with the other children.”
And Congressmember Lee, to the applause of others in the room, broke in, “Let me just say one thing, there should be a law against that.”
One solution was advanced by Demetria Hutson, Program Director of the Peacekeeping Team of Youth Uprising, who talked of growing up on Seminary Avenue, calling herself “an authentic Oakland girl.” She said the background of the five-member Peacekeeping Team “who know the streets and are known on the streets; all of us have street handles and know everybody else’s street handle,” is crucial to their success. “Somebody can come up and tell me that Bo-Bo got into a fight with Cee-Cee, and I can say, yeah, I know Cee-Cee’s cousin. I can talk to them.”
Hutson said that the Youth Uprising five-member Peacemaking Team concentrates on intervening in potentially-dangerous neighborhood or family disputes before they get out of hand. “Homicides in Oakland are not happening because some Hannibal Lector character is jumping out of the bushes with a knife and stabbing people to death. It’s happening largely because of conflicts in ongoing relationships that have not been resolved,” she said. “Sometimes the victims live right across the street from the perpetrators.”
Hutson said the situation in some of Oakland’s most violent neighborhoods is so volatile that “sometimes these conflicts escalate from zero to 60 in a moment.”
Other testimony was provided by local organizations and agencies, including the Prevention Institution, Fight Crime: Invest In Kids, Youth Alive, Project Re-Connect, Girls Justice Initiative, the Alameda County Probation Department, the Alameda County Board of Education, the Cypress Mandela Training, Acts Full Gospel Church Men of Valor Academy, Oakland Community Organization, the Ella Baker Center, the Oakland Police Department, and the office of San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.
A full report and recommendations from the committee is expected later this year.