Kahmaria Adams, 15, listens to gospel music on her commute to school through the harrowing streets of East Oakland. She takes two city buses to get from home to Piedmont High School. She’s got the hour-long routine down, but there’s one stretch of the bus ride that gets to her.
“I always have the feeling that something will happen. On the bus I feel like I need to stay alert and watch out for troublesome people around me,” she said.
Jordan Williams, 15, always carries mace with him wherever he goes. “I don’t really feel any danger,” he starts when asked to describe his daily commute. “But, you know, the kidnappings and things like that. That’s kind of scary. So, you know, I keep an eye out, looking back every couple times to make sure, like, nothing strange is going on around me.”
He travels from his home on Seminary Avenue in East Oakland to Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo.
“I keep my mace just in case something happens, like someone tries to come up and do a sneak attack.”
“I have a lot of registered sex offenders in my neighborhood and they’re creepy, so I stay away from them. So I catch a bus, and if I miss the bus, I catch another bus,” she explains. Still, she doesn’t always feel safe. “Sometimes a car will follow me to the bus stop,” she said.
Life in “Deep East” Oakland is dangerous for anybody. In a city that FBI data ranks as having the third-highest violent crime rate in the nation, this neighborhood has the highest incidence of homicide, gunshots and forced prostitution, according to City of Oakland crime reports.
In the month of April, for instance, the area that stretches southward from 73rd Avenue along International Boulevard to beyond Oakland’s borders into San Leandro, and east to the other side of MacArthur Boulevard, had the highest number of reported gunshots and Shot Spotter detection of gunshots. Within that area, the zone between 82nd and 98th Avenues had the highest number of gunshots. Citywide, there were 10 homicides during April and 52 assaults with deadly weapons, according to the City’s Shot Spotter Report.
For teenagers coming of age in this neighborhood, the constant threat of violent crime means they must check the freedom that comes with being 16, 17 and 18 with the reality of the streets.
“Around my neighborhood, it is kind of dangerous,” says Marisa, citing robberies, hold-ups, sex trafficking, and the road accidents that come with being near a freeway. But she feels no safer once she is on the bus to or from school.
“It’s hard, because it’s like I want to go to sleep, but I know I can’t go to sleep on the bus because I don’t want somebody to take my purse, or anything to happen,” Marisa said about her commute to an after-school program at the East Oakland Youth Development Center from school at San Lorenzo High School. “There could be a shooting on the bus or some kid robbed on the bus, or something could happen. I just accept the fact and watch my surroundings as I go.”
Kahmaria, Jordan, and Marisa, along with Lakiesha Harris, are Oakland Local’s partners in its Educational Voices project funded by the California Endowment. They’ve helped us explore violence in the lives of teenagers while we’ve helped them learn some journalism skills. We gathered twice a week at the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) from from mid-April to the end of May. They will tell their stories on these pages. Look for their bylines.
Being a teenager, by definition, means dealing with stresses: friendship dramas, pimples, homework, raging hormones, getting into college, boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. Add to those pressures the worry that the route to school might involve life or death decisions.
Kahmaria recalls one of those decisions. “I saw a gun in a young man’s jacket, inside his pants, but he had his jacket over it,” Kahmaria said of her scariest bus ride yet. “He had one hand holding the bottom of it.” She had to decide how to stay safe. “Part of me was telling me ‘get off the bus! get off the bus!’ but I had to be somewhere and I was running late. So I stayed on the bus,” she said. Luckily nothing happened. “I moved to the front with the driver,” she said. “My heart was beating really hard.”
One day, LaKeisha burst into the East Oakland Youth Development Center flushed and nervous. There had been a fight on her bus. When she calmed down, she explained.
“I got on the bus and there was this lady in about her 50s and this young teenager. She had accidentally stepped on his shoes. He hit her in the mouth and her mouth was bleeding,” LaKeisha said. She described a lot of “screaming and yelling” adding that “a lot of people were scared. I was scared, too.” LaKeisha got off the bus and waited for another one.
These teenagers have all become habitually wary. They are active students: all are participants in the Pathways to College program at the EOYDC, while many of them also play sports or hold down after-school jobs. They need to travel around Oakland and its surrounding towns.
Jordan interviewed several of his friends about their routes to school and whether they feel safe. The boys he interviewed all said they feel safe, and the girls said they do not. But each described changing their route, from time to time, as a safety strategy.
“Do you feel safe walking to school?” Jordan asked his friends. “Yes,” said Devante Morris who attends Lighthouse Community School. Asked if anybody helps him feel safe, Devante said no, he relies on himself. When asked if he tells an adult if he has any concern about his safety, he said, “No, because I’m old enough to handle my problems.”
Kianne Johnson responded that she feels safe on her route to San Lorenzo High School, but she always takes the precautions of “walking with a friend and having my phone.”
Alexander Robbins was more direct in her response. “I feel threatened if I see gang members hanging out or walking to school also,” she said. She, too, makes sure she walks with friends and always has her phone with her, charged.