Undercurrents: Finding Other Lines of Discussion About East Bay Crime

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:57:00 AM

One of the iconic call-and-response chants of the hip-hop world comes when a rapper shouts out to the audience, “Somebody make some noise!” It’s a phrase often overlooked by both the hip-hop youth themselves and any adult observers who might come across such an event while flipping channels, but it has a deep and profound meaning. Almost every human born to this world wants to be noticed, wants to make some noise. In many cases, that is all they ask of society and the people around them. And when they cannot get recognition for their place in the world in the accepted ways, they find other—less acceptable—means to make the point. 

It is a point so often overlooked in human relations, as we pointed out in last week’s column, when we said that the discussion of violence in the East Bay was running on two distinctly different and parallel tracks, the official discussion on one line, the one by the area’s young people on a second. There is actually a third line running, which I will bring up in a moment. 

Despite the fact that they constitute the largest group of victims of violence in the East Bay, youth of color are largely left out of the official discussions of the causes and cures of the epidemic. 

It’s not as if these youth are indifferent. In fact, if spoken word and rap lyrics are any key, the effect of the East Bay’s violence appears to dominate a good part of their thoughts. While the young people of my generation spoke of racism and the Vietnam war, the young people of this generation speak of the funerals of classmates and relatives and neighborhood friends shot down in the East Bay’s bloody street wars or confrontations with police, the inevitable incarcerations, or the plaintive wails of spirits lost amidst our neighborhood’s clutter and broken family structures: 

Oakland spoken-word artist Donnie from the Poetry & Prison Project from Youth UpRising begins, in “Awake On The Streets.” 


6:38, God, and I ain’t been sleep yet 

Gotta get my mind offa’ shit I been thinking 

I ain’t been drinking so what the hell wrong with me? 

Gotta be my mama on my mind cause I can’t sleep 

I remember how she left me when I 

was only about three. 

Fuck! Bad memories coming back, 

They trying to haunt me 


And “Imagine” by Yung16, also from Youth UpRising, gives a haunting portrait of jail, the revolving-door destination of many of the area’s youth: 


Close your eyes and imagine sitting in jail 

Close your eyes and imagine living in hell 

Close your eyes and think, is it worth it or not? 

Ask yourself a question, is these jails working or not? 

The jails ain’t helping us, they ain’t want to see us succeed 

They want us to be failures, they just trying to breed 

More and more each year, more and more each day 

They want us to retaliate, why you thinking we can’t wait 

And they don’t even care about our mental aid 

That’s why we go in okay and come out insane 


Oakland’s progressive hip-hop poet, Ise Lyfe, who penned a fiery rap, “Hard in the Paint,” calling for direct action following the police shooting death of Oscar Grant, spoke directly to the area’s homeboys, asking them to “Imagine Peace” and to stop shooting themselves: 


I mean, we use our imaginations to create so much 

We imagine a new dance and make it real 

Take a bucket and imagine it on paint and rims 

Imagine ways to get money and hustle for real 

All right then, let’s imagine the day when all the killing ends 

Make that day for real 

Make that day bright as them rims, and as important as them ends 


These are not voices or ideas that are being suppressed. You can hear them by wandering into one of the many spoken-word venues around the area, or tuning to a Davey D radio broadcast, or doing a simple Internet or YouTube search, or, for that matter, riding the back of a 1 or a 1R bus as it goes down International, or even waiting for the bus at the Broadway plaza near 14th, across the street from DeLauer’s. The voices of our youth talking about violence are everywhere. They are not just spitting rhymes. They are also analyzing and thinking up solutions. But in official Oakland, they are being overlooked or, worse yet, pointedly ignored. That was most evident during the Oakland sideshow showdowns of a few years back, when young people offered their expertise early on as to how the street confrontations could be stopped. The problem is not so much that their suggestions were not adopted by the city, it’s that youth input was never taken seriously. An opportunity was lost, and the city continues to pay, with an ongoing estrangement between young people and elders that causes a nagging unrest in our streets. 

But there is another set of voices that ought to be brought into the common discussion on the causes and prevention of East Bay violence, and that is from the people who have been convicted of perpetrating that violence themselves. 

Organizations like All of Us or None and Critical Resistance have been advocating for ex-offenders for years, and their views have begun to get some traction during these Dellums years, with the hiring of Isaac Taggart as Re-Entry Specialist, a euphemism for running a program that seeks to overcome the hurdles of former penitentiary inmates re-entering society while keep themselves from being drawn back into the world of criminal activity. This is an especially important issue for a city like Oakland, since California parole rules dictate that parolees most often are placed back in the county in which they committed the crime or crimes that put them in prison in the first place. Recidivism—that is, the commission of a new crime by a person released from incarceration for a previous crime—is high, with Oakland’s Measure Y website noting that 75 percent of California’s juvenile parolees end up re-incarcerated. And the Alameda County Violence in Oakland study showed that 48 percent of the identified suspects of Oakland homicides are on parole or probation. 

But even more important than hearing the voices of those who have made it out of prison is listening to the people who are still in. 

One set of those voices comes from an organization called No More Tears, which its website says began seven years ago when “watching the revolving door of the prison system from the inside, a group of concerned inmates came together at San Quentin and formed [the organization]. With the support of community members and partners, they are building a program that assists inmates to implement transformative change in their own lives and become mentors for positive change in their communities.” 

But that hardly tells the story. 

For several years, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson has been acting as a liaison with the men from No More Tears, bringing in public officials, community activists, and journalists to attend organization meetings on the prison grounds. I went to one of those meetings last month, along with Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks (a regular attendee and No More Tears supporter), State Senator Loni Hancock, and a few other familiar faces, including former Oakland City Councilmember and now American Friends Service Committee official Wilson Riles Jr. Some 20 of us—many of them women, a good portion of them white—sat on metal folding chairs in a dingy meeting room intermixed with the incarcerated men—mostly African-American and Latino—dressed in various aspects of prison garb. 

It might have been a typical West Oakland or North Richmond community meeting, except for the “accepted” way—that is the only word I can use to describe it—that the San Quentin men described their own history of violence. Lonnie Morris, the frail, bearded, bespectacled, cane-carrying co-founder of the group, was talking about the beginnings of the group, almost in the tones of a community college professor, when he remarked—almost in passing, with no change in tone—that he had been in San Quentin for more than 30 years “because I killed a man.” There was none of the bravado that you hear when such things are said out in the streets, certainly not in the movies or in television shows. He said it without the tone of a man with anything to prove, either his “manhood” or his regret. But the remarks sent a sobering chill through the room of those not used to being in the company of incarcerated men, perhaps even more so when, talking about the Lovelle Mixon murders, Morris said, “I’m not against police. We need police. The kind of predator I was when I was out on the streets, the kind of mentality I had, regular society couldn’t have stopped me. Only the police could have stopped me. I didn’t care about nothing.” 

Even more sobering was the fact that several of the men talked about Mixon not as the infamous killer of four police officers but as someone whom they used to see “up on the tier” in San Quentin, and whom they regret they didn’t turn around before he was released. 

But perhaps the most sobering moment of the day came during a talk by a 19-year-old, a baby-faced, husky Hunter’s Point man who looked like he should still be playing halfback on a high school football team. He told the group that he had artistic talent, but even if he was back out in the street, “having fun” would probably interfere with his pursuing an artistic career. “Why can’t you do both, have fun and be an artist?” one outside participant asked him, thinking, perhaps, that the “fun” involved some weekend partying and inability to get up and get to work in the weekday mornings, something that a little discipline would cure. “Well, maybe you and I have a different idea of what ‘fun’ is,” the young San Quentin man answered, in a quiet voice. “See, for me, fun was hanging with my boys and seeing somebody walk down the street with something we liked, and putting a hurt on them.” Asked if, when he got back on the streets, he could make it without carrying a gun, the young man said, “I don’t know. I’d try, but I don’t know.” 

The men of No More Tears are actively working to prepare inmates from the inside, so that they are ready to turn their lives around and meet the challenges of the world when they get on the outside. We’ll talk about that more, at another time. 

More important, the men of No More Tears know the nature and the character of East Bay street violence far better than most of us could ever know—know its nature, know its perpetrators not as mug shot faces on a television screen but as neighbors and partners. They want their voices added to the discussion on how to prevent that violence. And like the young people of our community, we should add them. 

In what way and in what forum? That, I’ll discuss, on another day. Today, we only have time to talk about who should be at the table.