By Nik Bonovich
Brian Contreras, a former gang member and founder of a youth program in Salinas, Ca., knows first hand how hard it is to break the cycle of gang violence. Gangs, Contreras says, are like families for troubled youth who often come from broken homes and and are not involved in school sports, clubs or extra-curricular activities.
“The kids I work with don’t fit in anywhere and they jump at the chance to get recognition when someone in a gang tells them to go rob a store,” said Contreras, founder of Second Chance. “They are getting rewarded for the negative behavior.”
To break the violence, law enforcement, government and community leaders have come together to stop the bloodshed with a program known as CeaseFire. The program provides services, counseling and support for gang members, bringing them out of the cycle of violence by giving them room to breathe and become functioning members of society.
“I think for a long time law enforcement has overestimated people’s ability to step away from a violent lifestyle,” said Kelly McMillan, Salinas Deputy Police Chief. “They need to be assisted and it has to be meaningful and it has be more than words.”
Gang activity starts at a young age. Gang members are exposed to it as children in their community and are easily wrapped up in it by the time they are teenagers.
“I didn’t think of myself as a good person, because everyone would tell me I was a bad kid and I would get in trouble all the time and I thought I was a trouble maker. I just knew that I was,” said Oscar, 23, a participant of CeaseFire. “I felt better with my friends in the gang. I felt loved with my friends. That’s why I did the stuff I did. My mom was there when she could be, when she wasn’t working. But that wasn’t enough for me. I needed attention. I wasn’t getting it at home.”
Oscar, who didn’t want to reveal his last name, is still a member of the gang, but no longer participates in its activities. He said as a teenager, older gang members warned him not to get involved in the gang, but he did not listen.
“In my mentality I don’t care what you tell me because I want to live my life so I can learn for myself,” said Oscar. “All those things that those guys told me is true, but for me, I am a knucklehead, but if I would have took the advice they told me I would be in college now like my other friends.”
“It was like a drug addiction. I am recovering from that addiction,” said Oscar. “Sometimes in my head I think I want to go with the homies and go drink a beer. You know what, I am older now and I got things to take care of. I got to pay the rent. Those are the things I think about. I am tired of working all day and I want to just get home and sleep.”
CeaseFire focuses on ending the violence and not necessarily all gang activity, including crime and drugs.
“We are not trying to get rid of all gangs, but make communities safe without sending all men to prison,” said Stewart Wakeling, Project Director at the Public Health Institute in Oakland. Law enforcement does not allow crimes to go unaccounted for, but the first and foremost focus of CeaseFire is ending violence and saving lives.
“Are you concerned with stopping gangs and drug deals or (getting) the violence to go away? It’s an interesting question,” said McMillan, in Salinas. “My immediate goal is to stop the violence. But the problem with dealing drugs is it creates violence. The primary source (of money for) gangs are the drug deals and taxing of drug deals in gangs.”
In order to pinpoint gang activity, CeaseFire relies on data and analysis. Creating a blanket daytime curfew in a community won’t necessarily solve the problem because most people in the community have nothing to do with the violence.
“There is this perception by lots of important partners, sometimes law enforcement, that most of the men of color in poor neighborhoods are involved in violence,” said Stewart Wakeling. “In San Francisco, it’s less than 2 percent in the age group 18-30 year olds, and not all are active at one time all over the city. They are only active in a small geographic area. You could pinpoint it almost.”
By focusing on the small percentage of violent offenders, the resources of law enforcement are concentrated, and results can be quick. Since the number of violent offenders is so small, law enforcement can go talk to them directly.
In Salinas, CeaseFire has been quite effective. Shootings are down 49 percent, and there has been an 86 percent reduction in homicides compared to last year. In CeaseFire meetings, which provide an atmosphere similar to an intervention, men on probation or parole are brought into a meeting with faith leaders, police officers, a U.S. Attorney, community leaders, ex-gang members and victims of violence. The meetings are held in community locations such as churches and city halls with everyone forming a circle to facilitate a discussion.
“Law enforcement comes in and tells them we are going to lock you up for the rest of your life if you continue this violence. Then the law enforcement leaves,” said Contreras. “I get in my schpeel. I bring it down to the street level and I use slang. You may be getting tired, you have kids and we care about you and we are tired of children getting shot and its gotta stop. We ask them to basically stop and we’ll help them any way possible. We don’t make them quit the gang, or be rats, or snitches. Just stop the violence.”
“I heard of the cease fire meeting from my parole officer and it was a mandatory meeting that I had to go to,” said Oscar. “I went and I saw a lot of people from the streets I knew. I didn’t want to see these people and I was really frustrated. A lot of them went because they had to go and they aren’t doing things that they were supposed to do. They are back in prison and they didn’t care about changing their life.
“They started talking and at first I wasn’t paying attention because I didn’t want to be there and I wanted to go home, but then I started listening to them about all the programs and what they could do to help me. It felt good for once that a cop wasn’t yelling, that they care what happens to us and they care what is going on with us in our city. Then I thought maybe I would try this just once and see what happens. Now I have a full time job and I can do what I want and I feel better. I would recommend it to everyone; for them to go and hear it out.”
In order to keep gang members on the right path, CeaseFire helps to connect them to jobs and social services. Many of the gang members don’t have skills transferrable to a job, so there is no reason they would want to leave the gang.
“They didn’t hook me up with a job,” said Oscar. “When I went to the program I heard about this job and I went and checked it out and I learned a lot from that job.”
It takes time, effort and dedication by members of the community to help give these men the skills they need to get a job and learn to enjoy their family, friends and neighbors alive, not dead. Each man goes through an individual intake process, discussing his interests, skills and what type of work he is looking for.
Following the CeaseFire meeting there is follow up with the clients, which includes home visits, assistance with resumes, job searching, rides to interviews, and assistance with rent.
“They have never filled out a resume, never had a job and it’s our job to hold their hand and get them though all the bureaucratic mess. It includes giving them rides and finding services that they need to help them out,” said Contreras. “It’s such a bad economy now they have to decide whether to pay rent or put food on the table. We try to get every possible thing that they might need and bring it to the table.”