"You Can't Change the Streets" 

Stopping gang violence is harder than just saying you want to

It's been less than a year since David Muscadine's brother was shot to death by a rival gang member -- and now seventeen-year-old David's in jail, accused of slitting the throat of a kid wearing the wrong colors. What's strange about this scenario is that in the eight months in between the two killings, David tried to do something to make a difference, to get out of gang-banging, to stop the violence. In neighborhoods like Oakland's Fruitvale district, where the pressure of omnipresent drugs and violence are a seductive lure away from crowded schools and dead-end jobs, it's a lot easier for teenagers to talk about getting out of gang life than to actually do it. But this is the story of a few who thought they could.

Early March

Oakland's Norteño gang kicks it on "Quince," their name for a corner of East 15th Street just a block away from the fast-food joints and discount markets of International Boulevard. The streets that make up the residential neighborhoods behind International are broad and flat, lined with low-slung apartments and crumbling Victorians. Souped-up cars roar past, ignoring stop signs, and Norteños flash their red hats and belts, throwing up their signs: fingers twisted to form an "N." It's the first week of March, and the night still falls early; in the dark, the flick of lighters creates eerie shadows. The kids on the corner deal heroin, crack, sometimes cocaine.

A block down the street is the Black Dot, a community arts collaborative hidden inside a squat, unassuming building. Fliers stapled to a dark alcove along the side mark the entrance. Inside, very young black kids are finger painting with a patient woman in a turban; in a windowless room beyond, community organizers Josh Parr and Favianna Rodriquez are leading a meeting of a handful of Norteños who have come saying they want to stop the violence. About a dozen kids are sitting on plastic desk chairs and a nubby old couch, girls in denim miniskirts and sandals, boys hiding behind dark glasses. They look like, well, teenagers; there's little to their clean, bright faces to indicate that these fifteen- and sixteen-year olds are frequently locked in violent combat over Fruitvale's grimy streets and few dusty parks; that a few of these girls harbor nightmare memories of being pinned and raped by members of the rival gang.

Parr starts the meeting with a dark version of show-and-tell: Each teen in turn describes someone they've lost. "Yeah, my brother was killed by a bullet to the head; and I lost my cousin too," David says.

"So, like, were you there when that happened?" someone butts in. This is no grief-counseling session. This is just life. "We lost my homegirl to a heroin overdose," adds a quiet girl in the corner. "And then there are some who are dead in their hearts -- I mean, they're just straight dope fiends."

Parr is an activist for Youth Together, a well-established citywide nonprofit that runs leadership training programs for students in a dozen East Bay high schools. For Youth Together, Parr works organizing students at Berkeley High. Here in Fruitvale, Parr is volunteering his own time; this group of Norteño kids -- many of them high school dropouts -- are much more "at risk" than those with whom he spends his days.

Once a journalist who filed stories for an English-language paper in Korea and then here at home for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Parr has also worked counseling kids in juvenile hall. Although his Japanese-American grandmother suffered internment during World War II, Parr describes himself as "just a white boy," but while his own background has little to do with the harsh world of the urban ghetto, Parr's laid-back style and easy way with street lingo make him an instant hit with most of the teens -- especially the girls, who like his winning smile and long dark ponytail. A young father himself, he's dedicated and genuine, driven to seek out the youths who fall through the cracks; his vision of social work has a lot more to do with grassroots empowerment than with concrete goals and established systems.

That's a sentiment echoed by Parr's partner for this project, Favianna Rodriguez, another consummate community organizer. "I have a big problem with how nonprofits operate," she says. "What the nonprofits do is a quick Band-Aid approach: Give them a job, train them. But you never attack the roots of the problems." Rodriguez grew up in Fruitvale; she says she herself was tempted by the gang life but found a different outlet when she joined a Latino activist group that led mass student walkouts to protest the lack of ethnic studies classes in the Oakland schools. Since then, Rodriguez says, she has pursued "self-sustaining" employment so she can spend most of her time organizing youth through art. She now supports herself doing independent Web design work. Her home office, in the basement of the Fruitvale house she grew up in, is decorated with brightly colored Latino art and shared with her three pet dogs. It also serves as a home base of sorts for the many students Rodriguez meets through additional part-time work as an arts instructor for schools and for nonprofits that serve young people. A striking, energetic woman who talks a mile a minute, Rodriguez has an overwhelming list of projects-in-the-making (she also meets with kids from Norteño rival gang the Border Brothers), and adding one more effort didn't faze her.

But what exactly is this project about? Everyone tells a slightly different version of the story of how the group got started last November -- did the kids ask Parr and Rodriguez to help organize it? Or did one of the organizers suggest these meetings, and the kids agree to try it out? Everyone does agree that the project grew out of David's reaction to his brother's killing. Rodriguez sought out the Muscadine family after the murder, she says, because "as much youth as gets killed in this area, it should still never be commonplace." As she explains it, being confronted with his brother's death and the birth of his own child led David to an abrupt about-face: "I remember the first thing I said to David after his brother died was, 'This is not about [gang] colors,'" Rodriguez recalls. "'This is about what we can do with our power, and you as a gang member what you can do with your people to help them understand that [your brother] can't happen again.' I remember he looked at me and said, 'I been thinking a lot about what you said, and when my brother died, I wanted to kill myself, because I knew that fuck all the colors -- my brother got dead in front of me.' I remember him saying, 'I think I can do it.' After that, David never again got into a gang confrontation. He actually stopped kicking it -- when they would sell drugs, he stopped going. It was like, 'I see this other world, and I want to be a part of that.'"

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