Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




July 2, 2009

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 so often overlooked by both the hip hop youth themselves as well as 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 we will bring that 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 often 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 in “Imagine” from 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

Or Oakland’s progressive hip hop poet and prophet, Ise Lyfe, who penned a fiery rap calling for direct action following the police shooting death of Oscar Grant (“Hard In The Paint”), earlier speaking 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
Allright 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 into 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 rides 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. It is not so much that their suggestions were not adopted by the city. It is that the youth input was never taken seriously. An opportunity was lost, and the city continues to pay, with an ongoing estrangement between the young people and the elders, 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 the 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. That 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 were on either parole or probation.

But even more important than hearing the voices of those who have made it out of prison are 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 twenty 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 (no guards were visible, or even bars, from the meeting room), 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 decided chill through the room of those not used to being in the company of incarcerated men, perhaps even more so when, in talking about the Lovelle Mixon murders, Mr. Morris said that “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 Mr. Mixon, not as the infamous killer of four police officers, but as someone who they used to see “up on the tier” in San Quentin, and who 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 Hunters Point young 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.”

So many lives lost, on both sides of the violence line. Or, as the old slaverytime song used to go, so many thousands gone. Official discussion centers around how we can defend ourselves from these men. Inside San Quention, they are discussing how these lives—both of the victims but also of the perpetrators—can be saved.

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. They know how to do this preparatory work. We’ll talk about their program more, at another time.

But more important, these men of No More Tears know the nature and the character of East Bay street violence far more 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 just as with the young people of our community, we should add them.

In what way, and in what forum? That, we will discuss, on another day. Today, we only have time to talk about some of the others who should be at the table. A lot of other people are out there making noise, and they have important things to say, things that are relevant to the issues that we say are important. But are we listening?

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