Many Young Black Men in Oakland Are Killing and Dying for Respect

Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 2007v

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The body count is woven into the civic consciousness here—a number chased by homicide inspectors, studied by criminologists, lamented in churches, reported by journalists. Every mayor leaves City Hall on broken promises to quell the violence, and the killings continue. An additional 115 have been killed this year, putting Oakland on pace for another gruesome record.

In the last five years, 557 people were slain on the city’s streets, making Oakland the state’s second-most murderous city, behind Compton.

Most victims are young, black men who are dying in forgotten neighborhoods of East and West Oakland.

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Experts fear that the neighborhoods are only getting more violent. There are entire blocks without a single two-parent family, where drug dealers have become the predominant male role models, and children fend for themselves in crowded, chaotic homes where they are routinely exposed to drugs, sex and guns.

Criminal families are on their third and fourth generations. Grandparents—the ones who have historically stepped in to help raise fatherless boys and instill a sense of right and wrong—are dying off.

Back in the 1980s, drug dealers who first brought crack cocaine to Oakland used to hide their activities from their parents because it was shameful, but now it’s a full-blown family business, said Michelle Gandy, a private investigator who interviews murder defendants for Alameda County court-appointed criminal defense attorneys.

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Increasingly, the young murder suspects coming to the station for questioning seem to lack basic morality, said Sgt. Tim Nolan, who has been investigating Oakland homicides for 17 years.

“There are more and more families where there’s less and less structure,” he said. “Talking to these suspects day in and out, there’s a higher percentage today with no sense of right and wrong. It’s frightening, but we are creating super-criminals.”

All it takes is a look, a put-down or a lost fight, and bullets fly. Disrespect has become the No. 1 reason to kill.

Killings have been concentrated in these neighborhoods for so long that revenge killings continue for decades. There’s a six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon that happens after each death: The killers and their victims can typically trace a relationship through family, friends, schools or prison stints.

That’s why Oakland murders are rarely random. More often they are the result of historical battles between crews who hold Mafia-like influence on blocks and drug corners.

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Witnesses are cowed into silence because snitches have been known to disappear. Nearly half of all murders in Oakland go uncharged for lack of a willing witness, so a shooter knows he has about a 50-50 chance of getting away with it.

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Because witnesses won’t testify, certain Oakland neighborhoods have an abnormally high per capita rate of killers walking the streets. They are known, feared, and have an incredibly toxic influence on impressionable young boys aching for structure.

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For this report, The Chronicle conducted prison and telephone interviews with five convicted Oakland killers, reviewed the court files of 60 murder trials, listened to police interrogation tapes and talked with homicide inspectors, district attorneys, family members, criminal defense lawyers, forensic therapists and criminologists.

The inmates who spoke to The Chronicle hoped that their stories would dissuade younger generations from following in their footsteps. Their stories, and those told in the court files, show that Oakland killers share many characteristics.

They are young. Most killed before their 25th birthday.

A majority grew up without a father—he was either murdered, incarcerated or abandoned his children.

Mom is typically absent, too, either because she’s working several jobs for minimum wage or because she’s also lost to the streets through drugs, prostitution or prison.

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Inside the home is pure chaos. Typically, they live with a third-generation relative, an elderly grandmother or aunt, who also opens her home to several other wayward relatives. They all pile into one home, bringing their boyfriends and girlfriends and their children. There’s no particular person in charge, no house rules, and people come and go.

Often it’s in these houses where young boys first learn how to hold a gun, how to break a rock of cocaine into dime and nickel bags for sale.

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Teachers who work with these boys in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center say the first thing they do is stock their classrooms with food, to help their students concentrate. Young boys fend for themselves in the absence of structured mealtimes—grabbing what they can from a fast-food restaurant or a corner liquor store when they can scrape together or steal some money.

There is an equivalent of a mafia in Oakland’s ghettos. Some kids are born into families that “claim” streets. Children in these families are expected to put the family’s gang wars above anything else—they skip school when the turf wars heat up and the gang members are expected to stand out on the streets in a show of force.

“Everyone in my family was in the game—my mother, stepfather, brother, cousins,” said Donte Osborne, 28, who is serving a 15-year sentence in Corcoran State Prison for second-degree murder.

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In this world, challenges cannot be left unanswered. A boy who is jumped, robbed or insulted and doesn’t respond is labeled “soft,” or a “punk” or a “bitch.” He becomes prey. Once he is perceived as weak, the attacks keep coming. He loses not only his honor, but his friends and his personal safety, until he fights back and wins—sometimes via homicide.

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A majority of the men studied by The Chronicle had criminals in their families. Most had juvenile records, the majority for selling or carrying drugs. Many developed their own chemical habits and a little more than half dropped out of school.

Their role models are the drug dealers on the corner who have the cars, clothes, girls, money and most of all—respect.

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Respect is money, money is power and power is masculinity. Violence defines you as a man.

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Inmates told The Chronicle that it was the drug dealers who gave them their first sense of belonging. The gang on the block is the first group that wants them, that pays attention to their whereabouts, that asks what they are doing and what they think about things. Sometimes there’s a girl out there who thinks they’re cute. All of a sudden the neglected boy has a posse—the first place that feels like home.

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“You see these guys who are three or four years older than you, who are not doing kid stuff anymore, not playing tag football in the street. We watch him and all of a sudden he’s got a car, he’s dressing differently, and we want that too so we approach and say, ‘Wassup, man?’ ”

At first, the older guy will likely shoo the youngster away, telling the boy he’s not ready to get in the game.

Then one day he’ll ask the boy to ride in his car. It’s the moment that the boy has been aching for.

“You’re there, it’s nice, the music is playing, and he’ll run an errand. He’ll say ‘Here, hold this.’ It’s a gun or some dope. He’ll jump out and then jump right back and then he knows he can trust you. He’ll turn to you and say, ‘Hey, you hungry?’ and go get you something to eat. You are part of him now.”

Now the boy is loyal, even if caught selling drugs for the older dealer. The code of the street dictates never telling on the man who is providing for you.

“When you get out of jail, you’ve got street cred,” Spears said. “He sees you, knows you stopped him from going to jail, and he’ll respect you, take you and buy you a couple of outfits.”

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While this is a common strategy in court to claim self-defense, there is an element of truth to it. Many of the killers studied by The Chronicle killed enemies who put word out on the street that they were going to kill first.

In this warped environment, killing someone can actually protect you. It’s a way to keep others in fear.

Gun laws can’t reach places like East and West Oakland. Rarely do boys go get a gun and kill—the gun is already there. Guns are as common as cell phones. Friends give their friends guns for protection after losing a fistfight. Every day, drug addicts trade guns for a fix. Groups of boys share guns, keeping them hidden in abandoned homes, in empty lots, in the rain gutters and under their beds.

Boys don’t think they will live past 25, so they don’t live their life as if they will. None of the convicted killers told The Chronicle that they were worried about their futures or the consequences of their criminal lifestyle before going to prison. To be a square, to go to school, work for minimum wage and shun the “game,” takes an enormous amount of patience and personal risk in the middle of what is, in effect, a war zone. The payoff is too far off for someone who doesn’t plan for middle age or a career. At the time, the quick buck didn’t seem like a bad choice, inmates said.

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