It's almost 2 p.m. on a weekday in early October, and nineteen-year-old Cyrioco Robinson has just awakened. He says he skipped his thrice-weekly GED class because he "wasn't feeling it," but actually, he'd stayed up late the night before recording tracks for a hip-hop CD. One thing he doesn't skip, however, is a trip to Youth Uprising, the nonprofit teen center in East Oakland.
Cyrioco and a friend walk the six blocks from his aunt's home to the MacArthur Boulevard youth center. Since he first started coming here about a year ago, Cyrioco has become an almost daily presence at Youth Uprising. He spends up to eight hours a day working on rhymes in hip-hop class, laying down tracks in one of the recording studios, surfing MySpace in the computer lab, or just chatting with other kids. He also likes talking to the administrators. While Cyrioco ostensibly goes to the center to mentor younger kids, it's his refuge too.
Everyone notices his arrival. Dressed in supremely baggy jeans, a long-sleeve camouflage shirt, a puffy black jacket, shiny stud earrings, a long necklace of silvery stars, and a brown knit cap over his chin-length, ruddy-tipped dreadlocks, Cyrioco exudes street cool. He shakes hands with the boys gathered under a tree outside, then makes his way into the student-run cafe. There, he hugs a couple girls eating french fries and watching Maury Povich on TV, and two boys wearing sweatshirts bearing "RIP" logos above photos of teenagers who've been killed. With his confidence, style, and presence, Cyrioco clearly stands out. Those very same qualities can also get him into trouble.
Just a few minutes later, he is shirtless and walking aggressively toward the street with a group of boys close on his heels. On his way to the center, a boy he once fought with in high school drove by Cyrioco looking, as he put it, "hella hard." Now, after venturing out to the parking lot to pick up the shrimp burrito and lemonade a friend has dropped off for him, Cyrioco encounters his old antagonist again. This time, the boy keeps looking.
"What are you looking at, dawg?" Cyrioco asks.
"Dude, I'm looking at you," the boy replies.
Not one to back down, Cyrioco strips off his shirt and threatens to "take it down the street." That prompts the other boy to drive off. As Cyrioco recalls the details for a cafe worker who has come outside to see what's going on, the air is electric with tension. The other boys chime in with their own versions of the event. Then Cyrioco calms down, aware that the others seem ready to throw punches if only he gives the word. He puts his shirt back on and even hugs a clearly concerned adult.
Back inside at the cafe, now hyperalert, Cyrioco sits down with a friend to eat his lunch while scanning the parking lot and passing cars. He is nonchalant as a girl wearing a baseball hat and a black jacket decorated with the Playboy bunny leans over and takes a bite of his burrito.
"He thought he was going to get out of the car and punk me," Cyrioco says. "Once he saw that I had heart, he got scared and walked off. ... When everybody started gathering around I'm going to chill, 'cause I know exactly what's going to happen. ... That right there, that's how people get killed."
Some of the boys come inside and linger around Cyrioco's table, and three take turns eating his burrito. Cyrioco gets up and reenacts the scene once more, boasting how his mother taught him to never let an enemy come within arm's reach. But there's an uneasiness in the air, stemming from everyone's awareness of what could have happened.
Cyrioco knows the potential consequences better than most. Since age fourteen, he has been in and out of Alameda County Juvenile Hall ten times. Those trips were followed by four adult visits to Santa Rita Jail, and a stint at San Quentin federal penitentiary for selling heroin.
To understand why it's important to pay attention to youths like Cyrioco, one need only look at Oakland's surging crime rate. The city is facing its highest homicide rate in ten years, with 129 murders as of press time, claiming numerous teen victims as young as fourteen years old. Meanwhile, juvenile crime appears to have spiked. Oakland Police Lieutenant Kevin Wiley said the majority of the city's criminals are sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Moreover, he said, their crimes have become increasingly violent.
Although only Cyrioco is responsible for his own actions, his extensive interactions with Alameda County's criminal justice system certainly haven't kept him from a life of crime. His punishment has typically consisted of short periods of detention at juvenile hall, followed by a single, promising stint at the Camp Wilmont Sweeney residential treatment program. Home monitoring, informal probation, and community service were additional attempts at deterrence.
Courts often threatened to send Cyrioco to prison, but never followed through. Nor did a more holistic approach get him to walk a different path. Instead, juvenile hall became his primary refuge from the streets.