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Lead to Life plants seeds for an Oakland without gun violence

on February 26, 2019

brontë velez was 13 years old when she first encountered a gun. While revisiting a neighborhood in Atlanta, where she used to live, she went to a party at a house she had played in as a child. Time had passed, people had moved out, others had moved in, and she now found herself in a basement of a so-called “trap house”—a house used to sell drugs.

The party went as they do—people were drinking, smoking and talking. What has made it linger in her mind until now was the presence of a gun. “I just remember us wielding the gun around, taking pictures like it was nothing,” recalls velez, who uses lower case letters for the spelling of her name.

Although she recalls being scared back then, too, today she is 25, living in Oakland, and her attitude towards guns has changed significantly. She lost a friend to gun violence in December, 2013. It was shortly after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a former neighborhood watchman, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, velez has thought a lot about trauma, working with youth, and about the 14-year-old boy who took her friend’s life and received three life sentences as a punishment.

But where velez took her story from there is not where everyone would. She could not shake her thoughts about the excessiveness of three life sentences for a young boy. There must have been better options, she felt. velez realized she had no wish to avenge her loss. It was deeper than that, she thought. Life sentences didn’t feel like they would heal anything.

Two years ago, velez met Kyle Lemle, age 29, who describes himself as an artist with a bent towards justice. He is an environmental activist and directs a gospel-inspired social justice choir. “It fills the role of the church for folks that are not religious, but want to come together and feel rooted in a community,” Lemle said.

Lemle spends a lot of time thinking about healing, too. The pace of climate change is becoming more rapid, he said, and people are alienated from the earth and from one another. “I live with the question of what is going to propel a cultural movement for ecological healing,” he said.

Together, the two have made Lead to Life: It’s an art project, an activist group and their offer for a better world. The artists transform guns into shovels, which are then used for ceremonial tree plantings at sites where people have been affected by violence. It’s a reference to the famous biblical encouragement to “beat swords into plowshares” and “learn to war no more.”

By melting and fundamentally transforming something that causes death into a tool that helps create a new life, they aim to show, in a practical manner, how everyone can change something. “People have the power to take back our own relationship with each other and our own relationship with the earth,” Lemle said. It’s also a storytelling project in a way—deadly weapons and the places people associate with tragedies get a new ending written for them.

Most of the guns come from the San Francisco Police Department, and were likely used in the commission of some part of a crime. Or they come from organizations hosting gun buyback programs for those who are ready to disarm. Then the weapons travel to the artist James Brenner, who melts and shapes them into triangular handles attached to shovels with the words “As we decompose violence, may the earth again be free” inscribed on them.

The art—and the group—is a way to shape rage and despair into something that will end up serving the communities affected by violence. “We need a policy shift and, at the same time, we need to come together, to memorialize folks we’ve lost, to grieve. A lot of times our resistance movements don’t allow us to have that kind of pause, to have that kind of play,” velez said. It seems to her like there’s a failure of imagination to envision new, better, ways to live.

Invitation to live a dream

On January 20, velez and Lemle helped organize a ceremony at Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in East Oakland, on land belonging to the indigenous Ohlone tribe. Members of the tribe had a big vision for their small piece of land: They wanted to build a pathway and the first ceremonial arbor on their land in over 250 years. Lead to Life members brought their guns-turned-tools. About 500 people arrived, ready to help with anything they might need.

One of their acts was to plant an oak tree. Although just one tree, it was symbolic, said velez, because they returned a species of a tree that used to cover large swaths of Ohlone land. It felt “like the prayer of returning oaks to Oakland,” the artist said. This day of action was part of Lead to Life efforts to honor and commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Lead to Life

On the next day, the group hosted another ceremony at Frank Ogawa Plaza at Oakland City Center to honor the memory of Oscar Grant, whose killing by a BART police officer 10 years ago was captured on phone cameras and ushered a new digital era of awareness of police brutality. At the ceremony, mothers who have been affected by gun violence gave speeches. There was an opportunity for people to surrender guns, which will later be melted into a furnace and cast into a constellation of stars like those in the night sky when Grant was killed.

The ceremony, however, was not only about mourning, Lemle said—they were not looking to engender even deeper feelings of anger, but rather a new will to act, to imagine something radically different. He sees ceremonies like these as a collective liberation tool, and a way to “invite people into spaces where we’re creating a vision of the world we want, and to live it,” Lemle said. To create a feeling of a dream space, Prescott Circus, a black youth circus troupe, and Oya Nike Botanica, an Afro-Puerto Rican dance, drumming and music group, performed.

The group expects to arrange more tree plantings in April.

Last fall, researchers from Northeastern University and Rutgers University released a study showing that gun violence has decreased in Oakland over the last several years. They found a 31 percent drop in gun-related homicides since 2013, and a 48 percent reduction in gun violence overall between 2011 and 2017, the period covered by the study. The researchers attributed the change to Oakland’s Operation Ceasefire anti-violence program.

Yet velez and Lemle are working at a time when gun violence has reached a peak nationally. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2017, almost 40,000 people died due to firearms, more than ever recorded before, with nearly a thousand more deaths than in 2016. About 60 percent of gun deaths are deaths by suicide.

These figures are what the Lead to Life artists want to pay more attention to. “There’s something significant we want to explore more there, around the stories of loneliness, and pain and mental health in the country,” velez said.

The pair said they don’t approach the work they do with a belief that they will fix it all. They simply want to try to do something—whenever they feel like they should. “I don’t even know if I have hope. But that does not really matter. I don’t have a choice in my own life about ways of showing up that I believe are necessary. Even as the world is dying, I’m going to be planting trees, because that’s what you have to do,” Lemle said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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