In Oakland, Trying to Stop Violence Before It Starts

Tange Harris found herself in the middle of a bad situation a few months ago. When she stopped by her mother’s house in East Oakland, her nephew was out front with two of his kids.

Then a group of people showed up. They were there to beat up Harris’ nephew.

"It was like 13 people against my nephew," she said.

"Peace is not the absense of tension," mural in downtown Oakland. Muralists throughout Oakland have tackled police brutality and local violence. (Keoki Seu/Flickr)
"Peace is not the absense of tension," mural in downtown Oakland. Muralists throughout Oakland have tackled police brutality and local violence. (Keoki Seu/Flickr)

Harris knew he couldn’t take on the group alone. She joined in the fight.

"I’m no stranger to a fight," she said. "I’m totally, totally no stranger to a fight. I feel like if you’re in a fight, you fight till the last -- till the end."


They fought hard enough to send the group away, Harris said. But retaliation escalated back and forth. Harris said she worried someone would end up dead.

Then an unknown man began casing Harris’ mother's house.

But Harris did not call the police. She called Glen Upshaw.

Using Influence to Prevent Violence

Upshaw runs a new network of neighborhood elders called Men of Influence. The group seeks to connect with Oakland youth and prevent violence before it can start, both by mediating disputes and serving as role models to the often fatherless kids.

He jumped into action when Harris called.

"We got on the phone. We started making contacts with people who did know this person," Upshaw said. "They got into contact with the person who was going to be the shooter, and we were able to resolve that incident."

In East Oakland, as in many rough city neighborhoods across the country, gun-related crimes happen daily. Citywide, police recorded an average of 11 gun incidents a day last year, from armed robberies to killings.

It's easy to add up the crimes, but it is much harder to get them to stop.

Men of Influence believes it takes those who know the streets to make them safer.

Upshaw banks on his reputation in East Oakland when he works to diffuse a potentially violent situation. He knows it's vital he remain fair and patient when others are hot-headed.

And he is looking for others to join him -- men who know the streets, men who’ve gone to jail. Most importantly: Men who do not snitch.

"It’s a code of honor out here," Upshaw said. "It’s a big thing for a person to get in trouble and go do their time, and do it like a man, without telling. ... That means a lot to the streets."

Upshaw is trying to recruit people every five or 10 blocks throughout the toughest parts of Oakland. That way, when the Men of Influence hotline gets a call about a dispute, Upshaw already has someone lined up who knows the neighborhood.

Harris said she believes this could work.

"If there’s a murder on 96th, and you want to stop the violence on 96th, where do you go? You go to 96th, you go to where the problem is," she said. “You don’t walk around the problem. You have to go right in there -- if you walk into danger, you walk into danger. If you wanna stop the violence, then you have to allow yourself to walk into danger."

So far, Upshaw’s core group has grown to 18 men.

Now the Men of Influence has moved on to phase two: going deeper into neighborhoods.

'OK to Approach?'

Early one morning, eight men fanned out across Oakland’s Seminary neighborhood. They picked up trash and handed out flyers. This small act of community service is their way of cautiously introducing themselves to people and recruiting new members.

"How you doing? Is it OK to approach?" Upshaw asked a man sitting on his front porch.

Upshaw walked up to him. They chatted for a bit.

"So, if you see any violence or anything of that sort, you can call our hotline, and we’ll get right on it and try and resolve anything," Upshaw told the man.

"That's nice," the man said.

Upshaw plans to introduce his group to a new neighborhood every month. But first, he said, the men need permission. Otherwise, neighbors might take offense.

"Some people might take it ... disrespectful, and they might want to shoot at you," he said. "It’s no telling. So it’s a sensitive matter with the way people think nowadays."

The Dumping Ground

Diapers, rotting food and takeout containers spilled out of ripped-open trash bags at East 16th Street's dumping spot.

Richard Shaw, one of the Men of Influence, shoveled garbage there. Cleaning the streets sends a strong message, he said: These blocks are ours.

"We definitely gonna police our own neighborhoods, that’s what it is," Shaw said. "No one else is policing."

People figure, "'Oh, this is garbage neighborhood, we can kill somebody, we can do some dope right here. Cause that’s no man’s land,'" Shaw said. "No, no. It ain’t no man’s land no more. These are neighborhoods where real people live, and real people wanna keep on living."

The 'Coolest Cat,' the 'Godfather,' the Mediator

Jimmy Dennis, who lives around the corner from the dump, called Men of Influence for help recently.

"Peace and love" in Oakland. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
"Peace and love" in Oakland. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

An argument between two friends spiraled out of control. It started over money, but when one of the guys showed up at Dennis’ house with a gun, bent on revenge, Dennis locked the gun-wielder inside the gate to his yard and called Upshaw.

"Upshaw is like the coolest cat to me," Dennis said. "When he drives up, he gets out. He doesn’t even really respond -- he doesn’t wave and acknowledge us. He sort of looks around, see where everyone is at, and he sees me and the other guy in the gate, and he see the other guy just roaming around the yard like a pit bull just trying to get out."

"It didn’t need to go into gun play," Upshaw said. "We could resolve this with a handshake, if he was willing to do so, because they had came up together. And whatever the reason was, I wasn’t taking it lightly, but they could overlook that and start a new today."

He mostly just listened to each side, Upshaw said. And after a few hours, he was able to convince them not to shoot each other.

Dennis said mediation worked because both friends have known Upshaw all their lives. They have respect for him.

"Once the father figure got there—when the godfather showed up, it was like OK," Dennis said. "Everybody get humble, get respectful."

To really be effective, Upshaw said, he needs to recruit men the younger generations look up to. He needs fathers, uncles and older brothers. He needs men who have influence.

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