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Guns Down. Don't Shoot.

James O’Brien | September 22, 2014 | Story

They are, according to the Oakland Police Department, the city’s most violent or potentially violent men. All are on probation or parole, having been convicted of robbery, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and a litany of other felonies. Some were summoned here by a letter received in the mail; others had the letter hand-delivered to their home by a probation officer with a police escort. When the authorities knocked on the door, “people were nervous, ready to go on the run,” says Malik, one of the parolees who was paid a visit. Better to flee and ask questions later, the men believed, than to open the door and leave in cuffs: “If they catch me,” Malik says, shrugging his shoulders, “they catch me.”

As a peace offering, the OPD is now making these visits with a pastor in tow, a signal that nobody will be getting arrested—at least not today. The “invitations” the messengers bear order the men to attend a meeting, or “call-in,” where they won’t get to talk, where they will be, essentially, the audience for a series of speeches delivered by cops, preachers, prosecutors, emergency room staff, social service providers, and family members of people killed on the streets of Oakland.

Each of the invitees—there are 15 here tonight—has been summoned to take part, however unwillingly, in Oakland’s current violence reduction campaign, Operation Ceasefire. One says “current” because the city has a history of rolling out strategies to curtail violence, only to summarily discard them for newer ones. Then-chief Anthony Batts gave Ceasefire a chance back in 2009 and 2010, after which it was abandoned by the department in favor of gang injunctions—a strategy that soon bogged down in legal challenges and community protests. Murders climbed 40 percent between 2010 and 2012, prompting Batts’s replacement, Howard Jordan, to reinstate Ceasefire late that year. He quit the force himself in 2013, but the current chief, Sean Whent, remains committed to the program—for now.

A revolving door of leadership is but one of the stumbling blocks that have afflicted Ceasefire. Another is the inherent complexity of its makeup. It’s a sprawling partnership among groups with little history of mutual affection: law enforcement agencies, Oakland’s Department of Human Services (DHS), local churches, academic researchers, service providers, and former perpetrators and victims of violence. For funding, the program relies on a share of the $6.7 million earmarked for violence prevention from the voter-approved Measure Y parcel tax, which passed in 2004 and will lapse at the end of this year. A replacement, Measure Z, is on this November’s ballot, but its passage remains in question.

In Oakland, Operation Ceasefire takes many shapes—community walks; police training; group call-ins; “custom notifications” in which at-risk individuals are directly approached by police; legal assistance; health consultations; GED tutoring; even modest cash payouts to gang members who are meeting specific requirements. But all of its efforts circle back to one goal: stopping gun violence. And not just any gun violence, but specifically those shootings and killings involving a victim or suspect who is a member of a gang or group. (Some prefer the word “group” in Oakland, because its gangs, especially those involving African Americans, are not what they used to be. Lacking structure and leadership, they are often just a collection of guys who grew up together, claim a block or neighborhood for their own lawless activity, and are willing to protect that claim with blood.)

Conceived by Harvard academics and first implemented in Boston in the mid-1990s, Ceasefire’s methodology has been documented and debated ever since. Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the UC Berkeley law school and a former president of the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, is not a believer. He calls Ceasefire “a shiny little Christmas ornament that diverts our attention away from the real problem, that the system is failing these guys.” In his opinion, the program relies too much on threats of enforcement and offers too little in the way of services and real help to inspire change. He adds that there have been few solid academic studies of Ceasefire’s impact: “If we had a room full of the last 20 presidents of the American Society of Criminology, and I said ‘Ceasefire,’ they’d roll their eyes.”

Still, the strategy has ardent supporters, both in Oakland and in other cities where it’s been attempted. These defenders point to assessments indicating that the approach has reaped real dividends—reducing youth violence in Boston by 63 percent, homicides in Indianapolis by 34 percent, and recidivism in Chicago by 30 percent. Anthony Braga, a professor of crimi- nal justice at Rutgers and a research fellow at Harvard, has written that to be effective, Ceasefire requires a strong network of cooperation among local law enforcement agencies. In successful cases, he says, those agencies not only worked closely with each other but also developed partnerships with the community, city agencies, churches, service providers, and residents of the most-affected neighborhoods. Crucially, this larger community–law enforcement coalition was able to gain trust among the potentially violent individuals and groups that are the strategy’s focus.

Trust between the cops and the community, perhaps more than funding or organization, has long been a missing ingredient in Oakland. And so a major goal of tonight’s call-in is to build an honest rapport between parties more likely to think of themselves as combatants than allies. The Ceasefire partners’ message to the gang members will be clear, urgent, and visceral. Speaker after speaker will intone variations of the same message: The pain and chaos that your violence inflicts on our city is personal and profound. The city will no longer abide that pain. And so we have banded together to give you one last chance to change and to offer you help if you do. We understand that it won’t be easy.

Despite the message’s harsher elements, organizers insist that it is rooted in preserving the men’s dignity. The participants will be offered help from a galaxy of service providers, many of them here in the room: case managers, GED tutors, drug abuse counselors, job training specialists, and even potential employers. “The undercurrent of this strategy is about love and respect,” says Ceasefire director Reygan Harmon. “It’s why we use direct communication as a tool. We know that most of these men respond to love, but they also respond to, and understand, respect.”

Some, like Malik (whose name, like those of the other gang members interviewed for this story, has been changed), are ready to hear the message. “The timing was excellent for me,” he says. “I’m just fed up with the crowd, just fed up with all of it.” Others don’t want to hear it no matter how it’s delivered. Of the 152 men contacted as part of Operation Ceasefire since October 2012, 13 have been rearrested; 2 of them have been murdered.

The Killers and the Killed

There can be no question of the importance of Ceasefire for Oakland, a city 40 years into a seemingly incurable plague of violence. Since the OPD began tracking homicides in 1969, Oakland has suffered an average of 108 murders per year. Even as violent crime across California and the country has decreased in the last two decades, Oakland has stubbornly defied the trend. In the United States, homicides dropped by 49 percent between the early ’90s and 2010; in large cities, killings have gone down by nearly a quarter over the last nine years. But not in Oakland, where it remains perilous to be young, African-American, and male, where no matter how you break it down—over 3, 5, 10, or 40 years—the number of homicides stays staggeringly high. The bloodshed that peaked in 1992 with 165 killings can still reach numbers that shock: 145 in 2006, 120 in 2007, 126 in 2012.

Now it is Ceasefire’s turn to treat this open wound, and the urgency has rarely been greater. The program’s dismantling after 2009 and 2010 may well have cost lives. There were a relatively low 194 killings in Oakland over the two years when call-ins were last taking place. In the two years after Ceasefire’s suspension—2011 and 2012—the number of homicides rose to 230. But despite an encouraging drop in violent crime over the past 18 months, Ceasefire’s continuation is anything but guaranteed. Mayor Jean Quan remains a supporter but is facing a tough reelection in November. Among the top half dozen candidates opposing her, some have spoken favorably of the program, but others have been less forthcoming. No one knows for certain what a new mayor—or his or her police chief—might do should murders begin to rise again.

At the outset of tonight’s call-in, held in a cavernous, unadorned hall at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, Pastor Jim Hopkins tells the gathering that hosting this meetng is perhaps the most important thing his congregation has ever done. (San Francisco gained exclusive access to this call-in, and to a smaller meeting with participants a week later, in exchange for promising not to identify any participant or gang member interviewed.) After a short nondenominational benediction, the pastor speaks briefly about his hope that his two-year-old grandchild will grow up in a more peaceful city.

Hopkins’s church is in Crocker Highlands, an upper-middle-class white neighborhood that may be the most neutral gang ground in Oakland. Previously, such meetings were held at sites in East Oakland, closer to most of the city’s gang activity, but some participants felt unsafe entering or crossing enemy territory to attend.

Early in the evening, before taking their seats at tables arranged in a large, unbroken square, the participants mill about. A strong scent of propane pervades the room as burners warm barbecue to be served when the meeting ends. Thicker than the fumes is the tension in the air, inevitable when uniformed officers and men with long criminal records are forced into close proximity. The 10 or so uniformed cops talk among themselves; the gang members, many looking clean-cut, even dapper, stand around awkwardly, stiff and watchful. Surrounded by “all the known officers in Oakland,” Malik says, some attendees expect to be arrested at any moment. Many are accompanied by family members whom they fear they might not see again for a while. “Somebody brought their baby mama,” Malik tells me. “She was pregnant!” Others are joined by their mothers or sisters. Clearly, says Malik, “there’s fear going on there.’’

Ceasefire operates under the now widely accepted notion that although violence affects an entire city, it is committed by a relatively small percentage of residents. In Oakland, research shows, that percentage comprises about 50 violent groups with 1,200 potentially violent members, or about three-tenths of one percent of the population. What the Ceasefire partners know about the lives of the men they call in is documented in an extraordinary, deep-dive analysis by Stewart Wakeling and the California Partnership for Safe Communities, an Oakland research group with experience implementing Ceasefire programs in other cities. Working intensively with the OPD and the Alameda County Office of Probation, the CPSC studied each of the 171 homicides that occurred in Oakland between January 2012 and June 2013, focusing on who was killed, how it went down, and who the suspects were.

In Oakland, the data show, most of the violence happens in the east, on a largely residential stretch between High Street and the San Leandro border, along International and Foothill Boulevards, on Bancroft, 86th, Seminary, and San Leandro. In 2012, to use just one year as an example, 60 percent of the city’s killings took place within these eight square miles. Unsurprisingly, Oakland’s suspects and their victims often have nearly identical histories. On average, both the victims and their accused killers had been arrested 10 times. An average of 7 of those arrests were for felonies. A high percentage of the offenses were violent. Both the victims and the suspects were young, but not juveniles. The average age of a victim was 30; of a known or suspected killer, 26. None of the 15 young men at this call-in appears older than that—some are so slight that they look like children.

Malik knows why he was called in. It’s not just that he has a record, which he says is limited to drug-dealing arrests—he was shot on Seminary Avenue earlier this year. When I meet with him a few months after his Ceasefire call-in, he is initially diffident, but eventually the words tumble out. “I am my family,” he tells me. “My momma died in ’89. I’ve been in foster home and foster home and foster home. Tupac said it best: ‘Group homes and institutions prepared me for jail.’” Eventually Malik found himself with a foster mother who at least made sure that he was fed and clothed. But with her own kids to worry about, she didn’t have time to protect him from the vagaries of the street. “So I chose to do otherwise, shoot dice, smoke a little weed, hang out,” he says. “Who you hang out with is who you end up being. Eventually I’m gonna have to do something that that crowd does, just to hang around that crowd and keep up with it.”

It’s that crowd that the Ceasefire partners, both law enforcement and service providers, seek to pull men like Malik away from. After two years, six call-ins, and 48 custom notifications, their efforts may be having an effect: Shootings and homicides have declined significantly since the program’s rebirth in late 2012. That year, there were 126 killings. In 2013, homicides dropped to 92. As this summer faded, Oakland found itself on pace for even fewer homicides (there were 48 as of August 31), not to mention fewer shootings, burglaries, and robberies, than occurred in 2013. Indeed, in this, the second full year of the second iteration of Ceasefire, there have actually been surprising periods of quiet on Oakland streets: three consecutive weeks in March during which homicide took a holiday and no murders occurred, three weeks in April when there was only one, and two more weeks of peace in early May. Of course, shootings often come in clusters as gangs erupt in violent retaliation—four killings occurred in the second half of May, four more before June was half over.

Correlation, however, is not causation, and it may never be known if Ceasefire is to thank for the dip in violence. It will also take years, possibly even generations, to learn if the violence has permanently abated. But members of the Ceasefire partnership are certain that their efforts are inseparable from the current downward trend. “I believe it has a lot to do with Ceasefire,” says OPD lieutenant Laronne Armstrong, who acts as liaison between the police and Ceasefire’s community partners. “Sixty percent of our homicides in 2012 were gang- or group-related, which means that it was the groups that we’re focusing on that were engaged in shooting one another. We believe that what helped our decline in 2013 was our intervening in those confrontations and our ability to make some quality arrests on individuals that we know were engaged in violence.”

"We Love You"

“You have been called here,” says Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa after the pastor’s brief welcome, “because you or people within your group or gang are actively engaged in violence right now.” The hall is bright, speakers and participants intermingled at the tables. Each speaker is given two minutes to make his or her point—most remain seated. “You have the attention of every law enforcement agency,” Figueroa continues. “Not just the OPD, but the Department of Justice, probation, parole.” Still, he says, “our goal tonight is to keep you alive and out of prison. We are all part of the same community, and we care about you, and that’s why we are intervening.” Next, Figueroa says something to the gang members that I’m sure no one in the room expects to hear: “We love you.”

I look up from my notes. Everyone looks up. Figueroa tells me later that his intent in speaking these words was to convince the young men that “we are all in this together.” But love from the OPD is a tough sell. Generations of resentment between the police and the people of East Oakland, where the Ceasefire strategy is focused and where the police are often seen as an occupying force, will take more than one overture or one meeting to overcome.

Later I ask Ruben, a 24-year-old Latino gang member, what he thinks of the profession of love from an Oakland cop. Quickly, as though to cut off all debate, he retorts, “They don’t love us.” Handsome, serene, and soft-spoken, Ruben is a double felon, having been convicted twice of strong-arm robbery. He says that he was shot up with heroin for the first time when he was 15 and got hooked while snorting it on a regular basis. But selling drugs while on drugs was a bad combination. “I was never really a great drug dealer,” he says. “I would have money enough to maintain, buy a car, look like I’m making enough money on the street, buy some guns. But you can’t do your drugs and sell them at the same time.”

Ruben doesn’t entirely buy what the cops are selling at the call-in, nor is he comfortable with their numbers here. “I don’t like the police,” he tells me a few weeks later over lunch. “I don’t like being around the police. Why are there so many police officers [at the call-in]? Shouldn’t they be on the street?”

The OPD tries to gain credibility with call-in participants by introducing them to officers who themselves have deep roots in tough Oakland neighborhoods. When Figueroa was a kid in East Oakland, living near dangerous High Street, his best friend’s father was killed in crossfire. Figueroa says that his tight-knit block suffered a depression that lasted for years. Armstrong grew up in West Oakland, in violent Campbell Village. When he was 13, his older brother was shot dead in the halls of Oakland Tech. His family, he says, was lost in a fog of grief for 10 years. Both men exude compassion, but even they know that in this room, “love” doesn’t necessarily translate. “Obviously, it’s always tough for them to believe that,” Armstrong tells me when we talk in his office at OPD headquarters, “because they believe that we want to arrest them.”

For his part, Chief Whent insists that all members of his force, top to bottom, are sincere in their efforts to connect with these young men. “Catching bad guys is a great thing,” he says, “but preventing the crimes from happening in the first place is even better. If somebody gets called in and they actually listen to the police or listen to the community or listen to the service providers, and they say, ‘I think I want to make better choices with my life,’ and they do that, that’s wonderful.”

The call-in’s conciliatory message becomes a bit harder to digest when Alameda County district attorney John Creighton steps up to speak. Dry and world-weary, seemingly from a different planet than the participants, Creighton nevertheless gets their attention: When he points out that they are being watched not just by him but by the FBI, heads visibly snap up. He tells the men that a United States attorney is here tonight and that the law enforcement community shares among its agencies copious personal information on each one of them. “We know where you live,” he says, “where you hang out, who your girlfriends are, what tattoos you have.”

A slide is projected onto the wall: prosecutors, OPD detectives, and probation officers all sitting around a table, poring over binders. It looks staged, but its implication for the participants is clear: The authorities are talking about you. Commit one more act of violence, Creighton tells them, and you’ll be sent away for as long as possible “to places in Texas I’ve never even heard of.” Soon more slides flash for all in the room to see: photographs of Oaklanders who were called in but did not change their ways, labeled with their names, their crimes, and the lengths of the sentences they are serving—or will be soon if convicted. “They didn’t listen,” says Creighton darkly. “You are here and free at this meeting. Don’t be on the wall at the next.”

How to Stop a Plague

After the cops and prosecutors give their presentations, awkwardly mixing expressions of love with threats of jail, another speaker rises and moves to the center of the room. Kevin Grant has perhaps the toughest job here: to bring the night’s somewhat discordant messages into a kind of harmony. Now a gang intervention specialist, Grant spent 17 years in 11 different federal prisons, some of those years for crimes committed on the streets of Oakland. Now, he is a strong advocate for peace in the city, one of the few voices to which both the cops and the street give heed. Grant speaks honestly and vividly of homicide scenes he has attended, about the blood of the young victims, the wails of their mothers. Then he invites all the cops in uniform and all the prosecutors in suits to gather at one end of the room. They make an intimidating tableau. To the young men, Grant says, “Take a good look. Next time you see them, it’ll be in court. Is that what you want? Or you can make a change, you can accept the help others in this room are offering you.”

Grant’s delivery is forceful and convincing. Watching him capture and keep the participants’ attention, it’s easy to imagine Ceasefire having an impact on Oakland. But if the program is indeed working, which part of its message is most effective? Recent research from groups as disparate as the American Probation and Parole Association, George Mason University, and the Pew Charitable Trust indicates that traditional models of incarceration and probation fail to lower recidivism rates. In response, states and counties are beginning to implement goal-oriented, community-based supervision of newly released felons. Studies have shown that rearrest rates fall by as much as 42 percent when this kind of intensive supervision replaces the traditional threat-based probation model.

In nearby Richmond, felons who meet their educational, employment, and good behavior goals are being rewarded with money. Berkeley criminologist Krisberg says that what gets felons to quit is giving them something to lose: cash in their pockets, but also services, healthcare, someone to talk to. “They have nothing, and they have nothing to lose,” he says. “If they had something, then the potential of losing that would matter.” Deterrence, he is convinced, is a less effective tool. “You’ve been to prison five times,” he says. “How come that didn’t affect your thinking already? Because you are entrenched in chronic violent crime: ‘I’m not gonna get caught. It’s not gonna affect me.’”

Of the 104 men who have attended call-ins since late 2012, just under half have signed on for some kind of social service, but that number appears to be on the rise. Ceasefire director Harmon says that at the most recent call-in, for the very first time, every attendee signed up for at least one service. Legal support is the most sought after, followed by job training, healthcare and mental health services, GED training and adult education, housing help, and substance abuse support.

The delicate process of bringing these men into the fold begins just as the call-in ends. The preachers and social workers, even some officers, mix and chat with the participants over plates of barbecue and bottles of water or soda. This is when Emilio Mena, a DHS case manager funded by the soon-to-expire Measure Y, begins his work: helping the men develop a plan for a new life, connecting them to appropriate services, and encouraging them to believe in a different future. Mena is known for taking calls from his clients any time of the day or night, picking them up, and taking them where they need to go. “Ten o’clock at night, I can call Emilio,” says Malik. “If I run out of gas at three in the morning, I can call Emilio. Emilio’s gonna get out of his bed and come and get me.”

Mena has the unshaven, slightly disheveled look of a person who does such things, one who probably cares more about other people than he does about himself. He manages a small budget from which participants are given monthly stipends to buy clothes for an interview or pay for transportation. Despite a recent one-time infusion of funding from the city council, the stipends are still pitifully low: a total of $1,400 for each participant, doled out monthly in roughly $200 chunks when he meets specific goals set in cooperation with his case managers.

Near the end of tonight’s call-in, two people offer the participants jobs right then and there: a woman from Volunteers of America and Derreck Johnson, longtime owner of Oakland’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. Johnson has been hiring Oakland men with a record for over a decade. It’s a noble effort by Johnson—who still employs managers who first came to him years ago, fresh out of jail—but the work is hard and the pay low, and some critics believe that its overall impact on the city is slight. “If you’re serious about people changing their lives,” says Jeff Wozniak, an attorney who has defended call-in participants, “offering them a minimum wage job at the waffle shop isn’t going to do it.” On the other hand, he reasons, “if you’re throwing drugs on the street corner, you’re not making much money. These guys would be happy to work somewhere for $15 an hour.”

Every Ceasefire participant to whom I speak tells me that drug dealing is no longer the lucrative business that it was 10 or 15 years ago. “Everybody used to be able to come out here and make money,” says Ruben, “sell crack, sell heroin. Now the people who are making money are very few. Now people are starting more toward pills, prescription pills. There’s money in that, but people aren’t as addicted to that stuff.” According to Malik, home invasions are up as a result. “That’s a quick hustle for a lot of people,” he tells me.

Even if there were more jobs, these men, with their criminal records, lack of skills, and scant education, would be difficult to employ. Over dinner, one gang member tells me that he quit school after the fifth grade. He’s 22, has done one stint at San Quentin and another at Santa Rita, and is the father of three children by three different women. “These guys need additional academic support,” says Lieutenant Armstrong. “They need help receiving just the normal things that adults have, like driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, all these different things that have an impact on employment. They need the time to receive proper training on how to behave in a work environment.”

Wozniak, whose clients have gone through some of the training programs offered, says that while the programs can be helpful, they take months to complete and often don’t provide a link to a job. “I know that some of the Measure Y folks have had to go themselves door-to-door to get guys jobs,” he says. “What you don’t see is a very coordinated effort to actually find real employment opportunities for people.”

For now, Malik, Ruben, and other clients from the call-ins meet with Mena at least once a week and go over their plan. If they have met their goals, they receive up to $225 each month. “It doesn’t make or break me,” says Ruben. “But if I was in that position where I had nothing, zero dollars, can’t go shopping, a felon who can’t get a job, 200 bucks is better than nothing.”

Several people to whom I speak, including the OPD’s Armstrong, Figueroa, and Whent, mention the possibility of a larger, more life-sustaining stipend for call-in participants, a kind of bridge from one life to another. But that would mean more funding for Ceasefire at a time when less funding seems just as likely. A $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will expire at the end of 2014. July’s allocation of $280,000 from the city council may or may not be repeated. And then there’s Measure Z, which will have to overcome strong voter misgivings about its predecessor, Measure Y, if it is to prevail on the November ballot. Ceasefire staffers are aggressively seeking other sources of funding in case Measure Z fails, but for now their hopes hinge on Oaklanders trusting their city’s current approach. The question, then, is not whether Ceasefire can help more people in Oakland survive, but whether Ceasefire can survive Oakland.

A City Divided

Indeed, there’s a sense of growing impatience among voters over the city’s response to its crime problems. And it’s not the murders that many Oaklanders say they are most concerned with; it’s the prevalence of home burglaries and assaults afflicting neighborhoods far outside of the Deep, as East Oakland is known. These concerns are reflected in the comments of Councilmember Noel Gallo, chair of the city council’s Public Safety Committee, whom I meet at a restaurant in the Fruitvale neighborhood, just off International Boulevard—several miles west of where Ceasefire is focused. Although he begins by telling me that he is supportive of Ceasefire, he also verbalizes the anxiety that many Oaklanders currently feel. “There’s a lack of trust and confidence in public safety,” says Gallo. “I call 911, you call, you get no response, so why do I need [the police]?”

Gallo speculates that people on this stretch of International, like those in many neighborhoods in Oakland, might be more inclined to spend their money on private security than to vote for a new parcel tax measure. And while Ceasefire may be bringing down homicides, Gallo believes that lesser crimes are of greater concern to most Oaklanders and that such offenses offer a gateway to violence. If Ceasefire’s singular focus on violence causes the police to neglect other crimes, he says, then the program—and the city that funds it—is asking for trouble. “Right now, I have to respect the police chief,” he continues. “He does this for a living, on a daily basis, so I have to respect that he believes it’s perhaps a great strategy for Oakland.” But, Gallo says, the program is not currently addressing the main concerns of the citizenry. “I think Ceasefire down the way should be able to move and transform into something that perhaps addresses the crime of the time.”

In his big, bright office with his chief of staff at his side, Chief Whent, stiff in a blue uniform, says he is keenly aware of the widespread complaints about his department’s inability to respond to 911 calls, particularly those for burglaries and robberies. Currently the OPD has just over 650 sworn officers (down from 776 in 2010) and a growing reputation for not showing up promptly when certain kinds of nonviolent crimes occur. “The reality is that we have a force that really can’t meet all the demand that exists,” he says, “so we really have to prioritize. I don’t see any way that you can prioritize anything higher than human life, so that’s what we have chosen to focus on.”

Whent believes that Ceasefire is directly responsible for a drop in nonviolent crimes. “Those groups and gangs that do violence upon one another,” he says, “they make their money doing other criminal activity, so by focusing on those groups, not only have we seen the shootings and homicides go down, we’ve seen the robberies and burglaries go down, and also seen that citywide.”

Still, Gallo suggests that Ceasefire may have to shift its focus, presumably to nonviolent crimes, once the homicide rate declines. Asked if he considers the killings in Oakland today to constitute a crisis, he responds that people who have lived in Oakland all their lives grow inured to the homicide rate—it becomes just a fact of life. “We get accustomed to seeing it, watching it,” he tells me, “and after a while, you’re numb to it.”

The Invitation

One week after the call-in, back outside the church on neutral ground, Emilio Mena is watchful. Like a nervous father whose troubled son has promised to come home, he is three parts hopeful, one part dubious that the men called in last week will reappear at this smaller, less formal follow-up dinner, a relatively new addition to the program. At last week’s meeting the participants, whether feeling threatened, frustrated, or, perhaps, grateful, had been forced to sit and listen—but tonight, they will get to speak their minds. Standing in the falling dusk, Mena says that he just spotted one of the invitees from last week lingering far up the block, probably looking for cops. But there will be no police here this time: only Mena, Kevin Grant, and some service providers and other DHS staff.

In the end, about half of the participants from the call-in show up, forming a talkative, articulate—and frustrated—group. One man objects to the slides shown at the call-in because a friend of his was named and pictured. Grant listens, sympathizes. He knew the friend too, he says, confessing that he teared up when he first saw that slide and adding that he has tried to help the man during his incarceration. But then Grant goes on: “You are angry at the messenger. You feel targeted, maybe unfairly. Well, fair or not, you are being targeted, or at least you have a target on you. Whether anything is done about that target is up to you.”

Implicit in the Ceasefire message is an invitation to join the broader community, but the young men have little reason to put stock in such an entreaty. It’s easy to reject a society that has, in their eyes, already rejected them, one filled with schools and churches that have failed them, parents who have abused, neglected, or simply abandoned them, and a police force and a criminal justice system that have persecuted them. Now that same set of antagonists wants to embrace them? It requires a kind of faith that many of these young men simply cannot muster.

Still, there’s no question that some of those who were called in are working to erase the target. Malik has two jobs now, one a late shift washing dishes, the other an early shift walking dogs for a dog groomer. He has his own place, a studio in East Oakland where he remains during the day, sleeping or playing video games to avoid the hookers and drug dealers who work right outside his door. “Just got to stay focused,” he says, “two-jobs focused—there’s no room for error.”

Ruben works as a line chef at a top Bay Area restaurant. He was recently offered a position there as junior sous chef, but might not accept it because he wants to start a food truck business. It was Ruben who catered a recent call-in, serving horseradish mashed potatoes, asparagus with Swiss chard, rotisserie chicken, and budini for dessert. The meal went over so well that one attendee hired him to cater an event two days later.

Meanwhile, even in a relatively peaceful Oakland summer, young people continued to die by the gun. Among them was Omarde Martin, 22, killed early on a Saturday morning in August at 86th and International—right in the heart of Ceasefire turf. But Martin had never been called in. He received a different kind of summons.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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