As Violence Escalates, Impact Felt in Oakland Church
In the coming days and weeks, Oakland police and elected leaders will debate a number of crime-fighting strategies as they struggle to curb escalating violence in the city.
Local religious leaders are also weighing in. Damita Davis Howard, assistant pastor at First Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in East Oakland, says she sees the effects of the city's soaring crime rate first-hand every day.
When Howard went to her church this past Sunday, the weekend's violence was well underway. Four people had been killed, several others shot and wounded, and there would be more shootings later that evening. Host Stephanie Martin talks with Howard about how members of her congregation and community are dealing with the escalating violence.
STEPHANIE MARTIN, HOST: Reverend Howard, when you went to your church this past Sunday, the weekend's violence was well underway. Four people had been killed, several others shot and wounded, and there would be more shootings to come later that evening. What was it like that day in church?
DAMITA DAVIS HOWARD: It was somber. We had children ages 9 to 13 expressing themselves about what they felt regarding the violence that had occurred in the 48 hours before our service.
MARTIN: And what were they saying?
HOWARD: One young lady who has an older brother, who’s an African-American male, was afraid that she may wake up and he may be a victim just because he happens to be a young man living where he lives.
MARTIN: And what did you say to your congregation?
HOWARD: We said that Oakland is preparing itself through the CeaseFire method to engage in stopping the violence, that we all have a place in the efforts to reduce violence in Oakland. We should be talking to our friends and our family members and telling them that we’ve got to do something to reduce the gun violence that exists.
MARTIN: You mentioned your involvement in the city’s CeaseFire program. My understanding is the way it works is that community members like you work with local law enforcement officers to identify potential victims and potential shooters and you talk to them and try to direct them to services that might help. Given what’s happened in recent days, are you frustrated? Do you feel like this program is working as it should?
HOWARD: I’m not frustrated; I’m hopeful. The one thing I know as a pastor is that things don’t happen overnight. If you’re committed to something and you believe in something, then you have to stick with it. You have to be patient and know that it will work.
MARTIN: Police chief Howard Jordan said officials know who’s involved in a lot of the recent violence. Have you come in contact with these people?
HOWARD: I don’t know. I reach out to my community. I come into contact with the woman who lives on the corner, or the young man who lives up the block. I don’t know if they’re participating. Statistically, they tell me that any one of them could be participating, but we look at our community. And I think that that’s key to help folks who might perpetuate violence – getting them to stop – for them to know and understand that they don’t live isolated.
MARTIN: And when you talk to troubled members of the community who may, you feel, be potential perpetrators of violence, what are they telling you? What’s their motivation?
HOWARD: It depends on where they are on the continuum. A lot of them are living in fear for their lives because they just understand that life is violent, maybe because of something else that happened in their life. So this young man said that, you know, that another kid brought a butcher knife to school. We don’t know why that kid brought a butcher knife, but it made him feel afraid, that maybe he needed to arm himself to protect himself – just this vicious cycle.
MARTIN: I spoke to Councilman Noel Gallo, who’s the chair of the public safety committee, and he said he’d like to see curfews enacted. Do you think that would be helpful in places like East Oakland?
HOWARD: Curfews? Personally, I’m not speaking on behalf of any organization, I don’t know that curfews have worked anywhere. So I have not had any detailed debates or research into curfews either.
MARTIN: Anything else you want to add before I let you go?
HOWARD: Just that we love Oakland. Oakland is our beloved city, and we’re not going to give up on it, and the people who live in it are our sisters and brothers, and we love them also.