The chants and whistles pierced the Saturday afternoon air, alerting the entire neighborhood that a mass of people waving signs was not far behind.
Mothers pushed children in strollers, teenagers rode bikes and older people leaned on canes to march to Frank Ogawa Plaza—the meeting ground for a rally to protest gun violence in Oakland.
Several blocks behind the action, where the cheers faded away to silence, Cheryl Paige, 61, reflected on those in her own life who had been killed by violence.
An Oakland native, she once moved to Sacramento for work. But multiple funerals for young people from her church—the young men she worked with in the Acorn projects who attended Paige’s Bible study, the girl who was shot while standing on the street for a prayer vigil—kept bringing her back home.
Few of these shootings are solved by police, because witnesses rarely come forward.
“There’s a street mentality of being a snitch,” Paige said. “If that kind of street mentality continues, there won’t be anything to put to justice.”
Paige’s church, True Vine Ministries, was just one of the 50 churches, community organizations and other supporters that marched from five locations throughout Oakland as part of the Celebration of Life Peace March. About 300 people attended the rally, which included multilingual prayers, dance and music performances and pledges of action from public officials.
Mayor Jean Quan and council members Pat Kernighan, Libby Schaaf and Rebecca Kaplan were all in attendance, along with Oakland Police Captain David Downing, and members of the school board and Peralta Community College District. They were asked to work with the community to speak to higher state officials about the violence in Oakland. Officials were also asked to simplify the process for new businesses in the city as a way to increase jobs and decrease crime.
“I’m a real believer in the ceasefire model for stopping violence, particularly gun violence,” Schaaf said. “Events like this are a very important part of that strategy where the community unites and sends a very clear message that we will not tolerate violence anymore.”
Many participants in the march had personal connections to the city’s violence. When a speaker at the rally asked attendees to raise their hands if they had a family member killed by gun violence, a sea of upraised palms rose from the crowd.
The effort was coordinated by Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, a community group that encourages neighbors to speak out against the violence in the city and take a non-violent stand against murder.
SAVE was started by Pastor Zachary Carey of True Vine, after the murder of his family member Leon Wilson on November 17, 2010. Wilson had been on parole following five years in prison, and was attending a GED course at the Allen Temple Baptist Church when he received a phone call. He went outside the church to meet the caller and was shot. The shooter then escaped in a car.
Since Wilson’s death, SAVE members have gathered weekly in the locations of recent murders while carrying signs and chanting slogans at events they call “stand-ins.”
“We’re tired of the violence in our city and the surroundings,” said Deacon John Edwards, 70, who is part of True Vine and has lived in Oakland for 50 years. “We’re tired of losing our young people.”
Saturday’s march was part of a Weekend of Peace that started Friday night, with dozens of simultaneous prayer vigils at churches across the city.
Members at True Vine faced the open street, held hands and prayed aloud for safety in their community and in their families as the sun set. They “threw their peace signs up” at passing cars, showing the community that they were tired of the violence, said Nathalio Gray, youth minister at True Vine.
“The citizens have to say it’s intolerable,” said Lynette McElhaney, who is executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of East Bay as well as a member of True Vine and a candidate for Oakland City Council. “We must demand action. We must agitate our city council to ask for more.”
Their efforts are starting to take root. Gray said children in the congregation are “throwing peace signs up” at school during recess, possibly changing the way they respond to adversity.
“The Bay Area has a history of addressing the needs of the community,” Gray said. “There’s a tradition of speaking out.”
Just this past week, a sleeping 11-year-old boy was shot when assailants opened fire on his East Oakland home. Luis Duenas Hernandez was hit in the chest, and the bullet lodged in his liver. He should be released from the hospital within a few days.