Scid Howard III grew up on the streets of East Oakland, so he knows what it’s like to be a teenager in a city where some young people are lost forever to gun violence and others live on, scarred physically and mentally. Howard himself was shot at age 19 and witnessed the shooting death of his best friend at age 17. He now counsels young people for several support organizations in Oakland to save them from a similar fate.
“My job is to figure out the math of it and try to solve it,” Howard said. “And I love these kids.”
In a city where 1,077 shootings were reported in 2011, no one is affected more than the city’s young people—city and community leaders say shootings of minors are not only particularly tragic but deeply affect them for years to come. Of the 1,594 reported shooting victims in Oakland last year, 143 were 17 years old or younger, according to data from the Oakland Police Department. Of these, six shootings were fatal. Some—including Howard—say the danger of gun violence among the city’s young people is increasing. “Today you got men teaching their children, “He gonna be the next me, he gonna be the next killer,’” Howard said. “It’s getting worse.”
Data compiled by the Urban Strategies Council—which works with, and collects data for, agencies like the OPD—shows the overall number of reported shootings rising in recent years, from 869 in 2009 to more than 1,200 in 2011, the highest since 2003, the earliest year for which they have data. Homicides—which are by and large committed by people with guns—have followed a similar trend. As of early December, 2012, the city had already seen 117 homicides, soaring past 103 for last year and perhaps reaching the highest total since 2008 police say, when 124 people died.
While the final statistics for the number of shootings in 2012 will not be available until early 2013, Oakland North reporters worked with the Oakland Police Department to obtain citywide shooting statistics for 2011, the most recent complete year on file. The data gives a unique snapshot of gun violence in Oakland. In particular, Oakland North analyzed shootings in which minors were victims to provide a better picture of gun violence in the city.
In all, Oakland police received reports of 1,077 shooting incidents in 2011, with 1,594 shooting victims. About 140 of these were minors, and among these 40 were 16-year-olds, the largest subgroup. The overwhelming majority of these shootings were concentrated in East and West Oakland.
While not all shootings are fatal, in 2011 the city saw 91 deaths as the result of gunfire, out of which six people were under age 17.
The data also shows that the majority of both shooters and victims were African American. Most shooters were male, by an overwhelming 1,065 to 482 margin. Among minors, these numbers were 109 to 34.
Using shooting data collected from the Oakland Police Department on December 12, 2012, Oakland North has produced a map showing how many shootings there were in Oakland based on each police beat. The map also displays the number of victims shot and their age, race, and ethnicity. (For information about Oakland’s overall homicide rate in 2011, and a map of where these incidents occurred, see Oakland homicides in 2011: A statistical breakdown.)
“Any shootings or homicides or deaths of anybody, adult or otherwise, is tragic and upsetting to the family and the whole community,” said District 2 city councilmember Pat Kernighan, chair of the public safety subcommittee. “But when it is a child, it’s just particularly awful.”
The number of youth shootings pointedly highlights Oakland’s overall problem with gun violence, Kernighan said. “I think it’s been relatively constant at percentage,” she said of the number of young victims. “But just the total amount of shootings have been going up over the last two years.”
Some say that the number of reported young shooting victims, while already high, may actually be higher. Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth Uprising, a non-profit leadership development group in Oakland, believes the actual number of shooting victims under age 17 might be well over 300, but, she said, people have become reluctant to report incidents to authorities as relations between police and some members of Oakland’s community have soured. Police-involved shootings, worries about being implicated in criminal activity and fear of being seen as a “snitch” by other community members are just a few of the reasons why people turn away from police in the aftermath of crimes.
“People would rather be shot than talk to the police,” Simmons said.
On November 28, 2011, a shooting at the corner of Willow and 7th Street became an exclamation mark near the end of a year of violence, when 1-year-old Hiram Lawrence Jr. was shot in the head as aggressors opened fire at a group filming a music video outside a liquor store. The shooting sent the baby to Highland Hospital, where he stayed for 11 days, clinging to life before his family agreed to turn the life support machines off.
“It’s surreal. It’s just unbelievable,” Annette Jointer, the baby’s aunt, said of the shooting as the family continues to grieve a year later. “It’s horrible. It feels like a nightmare daily.”
Police have said that the perpetrators—a 16-year-old boy was charged as an adult with murder for Lawrence’s death—were members of the Acorn gang and they shot into the crowd, hitting Lawrence Jr. and six other individuals, including a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old.
The baby was not an intended target, and neither are many of the young people who are shot in Oakland. On August 8 of that year, a wayward bullet from a drive-by shooting killed 3-year-old Carlos Nava at the corner of International Boulevard and 64th Avenue. Months later, 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr. was killed near a taco truck his family owned very close to where Nava was shot.
Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is one reason why young people can become the victims of gun violence. But it is not the main one, Simmons said.
In youth shootings, just as in all shootings, the shooters are overwhelmingly male and so are the victims, with 109 male victims to 34 female victims under the age of 17 shot in Oakland in 2011. Most often, they shoot each other during disputes over girls, Simmons said. “You’re not at work and you’re not at school. What are you doing?” Simmons said. “It’s all about sex.”
After that, she said, comes pride. Small insults become big personal injustices, quickly escalating into shows of power. “You disrespected me, you stepped on my shoes,” Simmons said. “Who cares? But if you don’t have something to live for, you’ll die for everything.”
Young people who don’t have a strong family structure or access to a good education aren’t taught that people gain respect from being good parents or achieving in school, agreed Sikander Iqbal, director of youth leadership and civic engagement for non-profit leadership development organization Youth Uprising. Instead, he said, they perceive gaining respect through shows of power or pride. Carrying guns and pulling them out when confronted is one way kids judge each other, particularly when there’s a lack of academic or athletic opportunities that would allow them to compete in other ways. “It’s one of the ways that you get judged out here,” he said. “It’s just become a manner of how you’re seen.”
Anne Marks, executive director of Youth Alive, a group that works to reduce gun-related injuries and retaliatory violence among young people, said one of the reasons smaller issues like fights over relationships or small insults escalate so quickly to gun violence is the widespread availability of guns, which are constantly trafficked into Oakland. “They are way too freely accessible,” Marks said.
Marks also said many young people who are victims of gun violence have had repeated exposure to gun violence in the past, which has traumatized them and instilled a “fight or flight” mentality. When they are confronted with a possible conflict, they react—or sometimes overreact—she said. “You perceive threats everywhere,” she said.
Marks said being an older teenager itself is a “major risk factor” for gun violence. The 2011 data shows 40 16-year-old victims and 38 17-year-olds, the largest subgroups among minors. The rate was much lower among younger adolescents, with only 1 victim among 12 year olds and 6 victims among 13 year olds.
Additionally, said Iqbal, poverty, a lack of access to quality education, and the public perception of young people as troubled misfits encourage violent situations. So does the pressure of trying to put food on the table when you have very few work opportunities. “Everybody is just trying to find a way to make it,” he said.
“Where do people see opportunity? How do people operate in an environment where there’s a such low amount of resources? It almost becomes a ‘taking what you can get’ [situation], almost like a survival mode,” Iqbal continued. Young people in Oakland are “not more violent than any other people, they’re not more dangerous than any other people. They’re just under different circumstances.”
Scid Howard III took a bullet in the leg—a sudden, burning sensation, as he describes it—in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco when he was 19. But that wasn’t his first experience with gun violence. When he was 17, his friend walked out for a cigarette, was hit by bullets from several shooters, then ran inside the house, where he lay in Howard’s arms before dying.
“He’s trying to joke about being shot so I wouldn’t panic,” Howard recalls of that moment. “It was so traumatic I can’t remember everything he said.”
Howard said his experiences make him and others like him the most effective deterrents to gun violence among young people. Howard, who now counsels for Oakland-based Leadership Excellence and 100 Black Men of Oakland, two organizations that provide scholarships and mentoring for African American young people, says he knows how to knock teens out of lifestyles that increase their risk of getting shot, and how to urge them to turn their lives around, because that’s what he did.
He encourages kids to seek an education and do something positive for the world. Violence and crime are not a sustainable lifestyle or in their best interests, he tells them.
“What I’m trying to do is expose the stupidity of it,” Howard said. “I just basically speak the language that they’re speaking out there in the streets.”
Iqbal, said that he, too, tries to get young people to consider the futility of violence. “When I get in deeper conversations with young people, it usually boils into how pointless it is and how unnecessary it is and how really deep down people want it to stop,” Iqbal said.
Several organizations are working in similar ways to bring down the level of gun violence among minors. Oakland’s Measure Y dedicates about $5 million annually to programs targeted at young people, some specifically at youth violence prevention. In part, this money funds street outreach workers—people who have experienced violence, some who have been to prison—who go to violent areas in the city at night and attempt to curb crime, said Priya Jagannathan, interim manager for Measure Y programs for Oakland.
Youth Alive is one such Measure Y-funded organization. It runs several programs, including providing counseling for young people who have survived being shot. “We intervene at the hospital,” Marks said, where counselors visit victims, driving them to and from their doctor’s appointments, and generally just spend time with them to give them someone to talk to after a traumatic experience. Along the way, they urge the victims not to retaliate against their attackers.
Marks says that young shooting victims have a nearly a 50 percent chance of being shot again and a one in five chance of being killed, partly because of retaliatory violence, as those shot seek to get even.
Other Measure Y funded programs included a crisis response team that provides counseling for family of recent homicide victims, a family violence prevention program, and programs focusing on restorative justice, which seek to fix the problems caused by crime instead of solely focusing on punishment. Jagannathan said that different Measure Y funded programs are increasingly working together. “We found that coordination is really, really important,” Jagannathan said.
Oakland’s recent Ceasefire initiative—which involves some Measure Y coordination but is not completely funded by the measure—targets known gun offenders who are parolees or on probation in East Oakland. Community groups will offer job support and training for the former offenders if they agree to refrain from violence. If they don’t, law enforcement will use harsher prosecution methods, increased patrols and other measures to put pressure on the violent groups. Officials hope this program will bring down gun violence as a whole, as well as prevent the death of young people.
Collectively, these programs hope to drive down the gun violence rate by attacking many of the fundamental problems beneath the city’s crime rate—a lack of jobs and educational opportunities, a retaliatory street culture, a need for positive role models for young people.
But some observers say that ultimately change has to come from the city’s residents, not just its programs. For Annette Jointer, whose nephew was the youngest Oakland victim of gun violence last year, the solution rests with the people of Oakland themselves. “I think as a whole, the community has to come together and take a stance on violence in general happening around them,” she said.