Pastor Billy Dixon Jr. leaned forward in his seat. “Do you know what 26 seconds of solid gunfire sounds like?” he asked. He placed his cell phone on the table, and started a timer.
“Bang bang bang … !” he cried repeatedly, as a table full of Oakland North reporters, students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, looked on in silence.
Dixon wasn’t joking. As co-chair of the Oakland Ceasefire program and a longtime resident of Oakland, he too often has been an eyewitness to the violence that has torn his city apart. As a pastor and a corrections officer, he also has seen the importance of giving gang members and violent youths a second chance.
Oakland is regarded as one of the more dangerous cities in the country for gun violence: 126 homicides were reported in 2012. As of this posting, there have been 69 murders in Oakland in 2013, down from 80 from this time last year.
“Knock on some wood, right?” remarked OPD Public Information Officer Johnna Watson.
Operation Ceasefire is a national program designed to reduce gun-related crimes by offering suspected perpetrators a support network of educational, vocational and health care professionals — if they put their firearms down. The program, which originated in Boston and now operates in a over a dozen cities nationwide, has been shown to cut rates of youth homicide and gun assaults by as much as 63%. Ceasefire is “the chief and the mayor’s number one crime-fighting strategy,” Watson added.
“I looked at Oakland and said, ‘Enough is enough,’” Dixon said.
Oakland’s Ceasefire has come under scrutiny after law enforcement authorities initially refused to release the names of eight men arrested on August 14 and 15 in a joint operation between Ceasefire and OPD.
Criticism of the police and faith community’s joint program continues. But it hasn’t stopped Pastor Dixon and his Ceasefire colleagues from continuing their work, which includes Friday night neighborhood walks, in which they stop to talk to anyone interested in disarming or, at least, willing to discuss it.
Asked if he felt unsafe on these walks, Pastor Dixon responded that his grown daughter wept about it. “I may be in danger. If I die,” he added, “then so be it.”
Recently Dixon was preaching to an East Oakland faith organization when a succession of pops rang out. Then he got a phone call: there was a shooting in the neighborhood. Would he go talk to the family? In these moments, he said he needs to get inside a circle of angry youth before he can pray with the injured.
Such incidents are nothing out of the ordinary for the pastor of the 100-member At Thy Word Ministries, who was reared in West Oakland near corners where pimps and prostitutes hung out.
“I graduated [high school] and I couldn’t write a complete sentence,” he admitted. A devout family insisted he learn by reading the Bible. Strong parenting kept him from succumbing to the violence of West Oakland.
After a stint in the Navy, he landed a job as Santa Clara County corrections officer where he saw “men who looked like me, who had the same swag.” He became an active churchgoer and later — after a push from his clergyman father — took up preaching. Many of his generation met a different fate: in his high school class of 323, only about 150 graduated, and he said most are “dead or incarcerated.”
Reeling off names of friends from Little League, high school baseball and basketball who were shot and killed in their teens, his eyes were red and his voice cracked, his tone numbed by seeing too many friends die.
Scorning public servants who reside in the suburbs, Dixon said he chooses to live where he works — in the midst of the troubled zone served by Ceasefire.
On International Boulevard, where Dixon’s church stands, he said, “There isn’t a corner that you can’t have a party on.” His house is on 108th Avenue, in a neighborhood where most buildings have bars on the windows and big dogs in the yards. Dixon refuses to barricade his residence.
The problems elude easy fixes. The pastor acknowledged that street youth might mistrust ministers who are aligned with the Oakland Police Department.
He also cautioned against assuming that all youth, even those persuaded by Ceasefire to put down their guns, are necessarily ready to transition easily into a new crime-free, drug-free life.
“Not all of these guys are job-ready,” he said. “Is Clorox going to hire this guy who’s going to be high the next day?”
“We don’t promise them jobs,” he added. “The only thing we promise them is, ‘You’re going to go to jail if you start shooting.’” To his way of thinking, treating underlying issues in the community — drugs, poor education, absent parenting skills – takes second place to his singular mission of ending the bloodshed.
“I don’t care if you’re selling dope — at least you’re not dying,” he said. “I can get you to stop selling drugs, but I can’t bring a life back.”
Dixon, however, sidestepped the question of whether it is Operation Ceasefire’s responsibility to work in schools to stem the nihilism that plagues inner-city youth. He acknowledged that inadequate parenting and poor education leave youth vulnerable to the lure of easy drug money, and more likely to pick up a gun.
Offering youth a path to avoid poverty, disenfranchisement, and death by gunfire is the job, not just of law enforcement and the ministry, but the entire city, the pastor said, adding, “It takes a village.”
While he admits that no single intervention is a panacea, he holds out hope. “We know Ceasefire works,” he said. “It saves lives. It keeps men from being incarcerated. They’ll say: ‘I’m on the radar now. I’m hot now.’ It gives them an out.”