By Scott C. Johnson
Ben McBride, director of City Team Oakland, a key OCO partner with our Lifelines/Ceasefire campaign, was featured in this excerpt from “Oakland Hot Spot,” an ongoing series from the Oakland Tribune about the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
When Ben McBride first started trying to understand Oakland’s violence he spent some time with kids who were deeply involved in it. This was around 2006, when Oakland had over 140 homicides. McBride wasn’t living in Oakland then.
“I met one young guy and I asked him, because I was really curious, I said, ‘Would you really kill somebody?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I would, I’d shoot ’em, if they disrespected me, yeah.’ And I realized these guys were so calm, so nonreactive. But outside of that conversation, the conversation about disrespect, it was something else entirely. They were enthusiastic kids, like any other kids. But they were hurting, and so one of the things we’re trying to do is restore their invisible humanity.”
I met with McBride today downtown where he works. For the last several years he has lived in East Oakland. After he started digging into what was wrong with Oakland, and after the above conversation, he moved his family here, right into the so-called “kill zone.”
Over the last couple of years McBride has been pretty deeply involved in getting the Operation Ceasefire program up and running. I’m going to be going out with him and his team this Friday.
“A lot of the young guys on my block, they just don’t have a picture of what hope or community even look like,” he told me. “Fixing this is going to take a long time. And there has to be a recognition that these are real people, and you have to be willing to say, I’m going to walk alongside you if you get healthy — or even if you don’t.”
For the better part of a year McBride and about 15 other people from a variety of disciplines started meeting to hammer out the details of how Ceasefire would work. As in Boston and other cities where Ceasefire had been implemented, Oakland’s planners agreed that they needed to entice violent offenders in with a simple message: We recognize you are in pain but that can’t mean pain for everyone else.
McBride estimates that there are roughly 1,000 people involved in a serious way in violent crime in Oakland at any given time. Of that, roughly 200-300 are what he and others have identified as “high volume shooters.” These are people, says McBride “who shoot multiple times a year and they’re shooting at people multiple times.” Looking at the numbers, he says he realized that while the problem was bad, the scope was also entirely manageable, if handled correctly.
Though it’s still early, he believes Ceasefire is having an effect. Homicides are down so far this year 38 percent, according to the latest OPD figures. Shootings are down 6 percent. These figures could change quickly but so far the trend is looking good. The big question will be if it can be sustained over the summer.
A big part of this involves targeting people McBride says are the real power brokers in dangerous neighborhoods. These are people who seem to know everyone, whose families have lived there for decades, who have influence and sway.
Ceasefire was begun six months ago this month and in that time authorities have concentrated on the streets in Deep East Oakland, around 80th and 90th avenues, since that’s where most of the violence has been taking place. The shooters don’t necessarily live there.
McBride says his goal is “to have hundreds and hundreds of people walking through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.” He says the plan is an intermediate step to ending gun violence. The longer term plans will require much more community participation, family regeneration and education. But it’s a first step.
The work hasn’t always been easy. Many people in McBride’s community have expressed fears that Project Ceasefire is just a way for law enforcement to gather intel on violent offenders — a sort of Trojan horse program that would allow them to pursue the people they want to nab and, as McBride put it, “arrest their way out of the problem.”
But most people have embraced it.
“As long as you recognize their invisible humanity,” he told me. “I’m optimistic.”