As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
Kevin Muccular is on the streets of Richmond, one of the most violent cities in California, nearly every day. He’s a tall, heavyset African American man who makes his presence known at community events with a navy blue hat emblazoned in silver with the name of his organization—the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS)—which is devoted to ending street violence, one shooting at a time. His work is dangerous. “We are here at risk; every day we are at risk,” says Muccular, whose official title is Neighborhood Change Agent.
Richmond is a city where a retaliatory shooting has broken out during Sunday church services and a 16-year-old student was gang-raped at a high school dance. Drive-bys have long been part of life here, evidenced in part by the bullet holes that dot houses near the railroad tracks dividing Richmond’s rival neighborhoods.
Muccular and his co-workers at ONS tackle the problem of shootings and retaliatory murders with an approach that seems counter-intuitive. While other cities are busy flooding high-crime areas with squads of armed police officers, who spend their days stopping, frisking and arresting young men for minor infractions, the ONS team seeks out high-risk Richmond residents—and offers them mentors and financial support.
ONS defines high-risk as young men—as old as 25 and young as 13—who have likely been involved in previous homicides and shootings. The organization then asks them to sign up for an 18-month-long program called an Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. Over a year and a half, fellows develop and follow a “life map”—concrete steps they’ve laid out to build a different kind of life. In exchange for an agreement that they will put their guns down, ONS helps them reach those goals, with assistance that includes a monthly stipend of up to $500 in the final nine months of the program for fellows who are following through with their plans. They also connect fellows to job opportunities and social services.
“They need structure,” Muccular explains. “They love someone to tell them, ‘look, you are not going to do that. You are better than that.’”
I first met Muccular at a community center in North Richmond, a neighborhood where the sound of bullets is almost as familiar as the honk of car horns. That day several would-be shooters from the neighborhood were landscaping together instead.
The outreach workers spend much of their time driving around the city to offer solace in the wake of violent crimes and develop relationships with young men like those on the landscaping crew. Though it may seem drippy and sentimental, the approach is actually ruthlessly pragmatic. The Richmond method pushes aside moral questions about who deserves help, money and public services and goes to the heart of the homicide problem with one goal: fixing it.
Richmond, a city of about 100,000 with a majority minority population, has attracted national attention recently as a progressive outpost. The city council famously proposed using eminent domain to seize underwater homes; it was one of the first cities in the U.S. to get a soda tax on the ballot; and this past Election Day, a slate of solidly progressive candidates trounced a slate of Chevron-backed opponents in a rare victory for scrappy activists over big money.
Richmond is also known for gunfire so common that most residents stopped reporting the sound of shots fired to the police. The city is historically working-class, but has long contended with deep pockets of poverty. Until recently, the homicide rate was routinely among the highest in California; the city’s 2009 homicide rate was about nine times higher than state and national averages for that year. As in other U.S. cities, poverty and gunfire go hand-in-hand, with murders most common in the most desperately depressed neighborhoods.
“The problems for a place like Richmond continues to be the lack of real economic opportunity,” says former Richmond council member Jeff Ritterman, an outspoken, longtime supporter of ONS and a member of Richmond’s Progressive Alliance, a political group that advocates for progressive causes and candidates. For young men growing up in this world, without rosy options and the hope that goes with them, the best bet can often seem like the alternative economy of the street.
Enter the Office of Neighborhood Safety. The city council decided to start a violence prevention agency in 2006 when the homicide rate soared so dramatically—to 42 out of 100,000 compared to a national rate of 5.7 out of 100,000—that residents and community leaders started camping out in parks in the most dangerous neighborhoods to try and establish safety and peace on their own. ONS’s official mandate was to serve “active firearm offenders who have avoided sustained criminal consequences.”
The agency began at a time when other Bay Area cities were using draconian measures to control crimes. In both San Francisco and Oakland, for instance, gang injunctions were issued without a criminal trial or hearing against people police identified as gang members. The injunctions—essentially restraining orders—forbid associations between people named as gang members and drew sharp criticism as a violation of constitutional rights.
Richmond, in contrast, requested help from progressive reformers, including DeVone Boggan. Boggan was CEO of The Mentoring Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to creating programs and policy to encourage the mentoring of young men of color. There he advocated for mentoring formerly incarcerated youth in particular. He was eventually tapped to be neighborhood safety director of ONS.
Under Boggan’s direction, outreach began in the spring of 2008 with four part-time workers, a staff that eventually grew to seven. All were Richmond natives and most had served prison time. They focused on cooling people down after gunfire, taking the edge off of anger and sorrow as a way to end the cycle of retaliatory violence.
“We have young men who lost their father 20 years ago to rival neighborhoods,” explains Boggan, who is 47 and a lawyer by training. He’s stylishly dapper and usually sports a houndstooth fedora pulled low on his brow. “Today, that young man will say, ‘those suckers killed my dad.’ It often is encouraged by some of the elders in the neighborhood, who say, ‘You know those cats over there killed your dad.’”
The outreach approach, as it turned out, had its limits. The agency began with an annual budget of about $600,000 and ONS’s citywide focus was spreading those resources thin. Meanwhile, Richmond’s homicide rate reached a high of forty-seven in 2009. That year, Boggan also discovered in a meeting with law enforcement officials that a handful of people—about seventeen young men—were responsible for most of the shootings in the city. So he decided to focus all of ONS’s efforts intensely on that group.
Though tensions have existed in the city for decades, and Richmond lived through the warfare of the drug trade in the 1990s, the kind of violence Boggan found his agency confronting—shooting people from rival neighborhoods as part of an ongoing retaliatory war—was a newer development.
ONS’s newly tailored approach drew on a strategy pioneered by Gary Slutkin after waves of youth violence started overwhelming cities across the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Slutkin, as an epidemiologist examining homicide patterns in Chicago in the mid-1990s, noticed that violence was actually behaving like an infectious disease. The patterns of shootings conformed closely to those of an infectious outbreak, clustering in specific areas. Like cholera or TB, Slutkin posited, the illness spreads from person to person, either because one infects another or because two people share the same environment. “The greatest predictor of violence,” Slutkin told me, “is exposure to violence.”
Boggan also turned to the work of Teny Gross, the executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence in Providence, Rhode Island. The institute’s outreach workers teach lessons in non-violence in Providence’s toughest neighborhoods. Their program relies on Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles and practices of non-violence, including understanding non-violence as a form of courage and celebrating reconciliation.
Drawing on these approaches, ONS understands violence as a public health problem and responds with strategies that encourage profound changes in the fellows’ beliefs and behavior. When Boggan launched the Operation Peacekeeper Fellowship in 2010, ONS asked twenty-five young men to come to city hall and consider joining the fellowship program. Twenty-one of them said yes, forming the first class of fellows. ONS is now on its third cohort of fellows, who attend classes offered by community-based organizations and other non-profits that teach everything from financial literacy to sex education. Boggan calls the process of going through the fellowship program “mainstreaming,” a way to connect fellows to different social networks and alternative resources for survival.
Essentially, the city agency with a $1.5 million annual allotment from Richmond’s coffers steps in where other social services have failed, connecting the most hard to reach and destructive young men to education, job training, counseling and offering a small wage to sustain them in making these changes. ONS has also raised substantial money from California foundations to match the city contribution; those funds are used to pay the fellows’ stipends.
This approach also means that ONS deals with acts of violence wholly outside of the criminal justice system, which has caused tension with the Richmond Police Department. ONS’s strategy, Boggan says, is sometimes understood as “hugs for thugs,” a softhearted approach that coddles criminals and rewards shooters for their deadly behavior.
Tensions periodically flare between ONS and the police department. In one notable 2011 incident, a fight between fellows from two rival neighborhoods broke out in the agency’s city hall offices and ONS staffers declined to identify the young men involved. A police report described questioning ONS staff as listening to a lot of “I ain’t seen nothin’.” When the report was leaked to the press, Police Chief Chris Magnus issued an open letter of apology for the unprofessional wording in the report. Boggan says that the most significant part of the altercation got lost in the dust-up: the fight ended with a few bumps and a bloody nose. No one was shot.
Such pragmatism underlies the public health approach. “The fact of the matter is, if you look across the country, not just Richmond, most suspected firearm offenders are walking our streets today,” Boggan says. This goes for many of the young men ONS serves; they may be under investigation by law enforcement, but police often can’t secure enough evidence for an arrest. “What would you rather do, leave them alone or isolated, depressed or enraged, where they are doing what they already know? Or try something different in changing their mindset and therefore changing a culture and therefore changing a community?”
Change is, however, both difficult and unsafe. The fellows agree to disavow gunfire with the knowledge that their violent past could catch up with them anytime. Boggan says they often see “a deer in the headlights look” when ONS first tries to convince them to put their guns down. “They say, ‘man, that shit y’all talking is going to get me killed.’”
Kamari Ridgle, a former fellow, told me he changed slowly. A charming and flirtatious 20 year-old with a constant smile, he is now a sophomore in community college. Ridgle was part of the second cohort of Operation Peacemaker fellows in 2011 and developed a deep friendship with his outreach worker, Sam Vaughn. When Ridgle earnestly explained to me that he only planned to sell drugs through high school and then go to college, Vaughn, who was talking with us too, groaned and put his head in his hands in mock despair. “You know what you just said makes no sense, right?” Ridgle laughed and tried to persuade Vaughn that his plan was doable. Vaughn shook his head. “You need some more classes, man.”
In 2010, the year that he started to connect with ONS staff, Ridgle was shot down as he was walking back to his house from a liquor store in North Richmond. The first round of bullets fired from a car missed Ridgle; the second round of bullets took him down. He left the hospital after a year, in a wheelchair he’ll be confined to for the rest of his life.
The shooting was one of several near-death experiences that convinced him to put his gun down. He’d always had a hot temper and he’s never tried to control it before. “I lived a fast life. I didn’t think about most of the things that I did. I just did them.” When he joined the fellowship program in 2011, he agreed not solve his problems with gunfire.
That was also the year that his cousin, Ervin Coley III, was murdered in Richmond.
“I just don’t see a point in it no more,” he explained. “After seeing how my cousin Ervin got killed, and his friend and my friend Macho, how he dealt with it, it just let me know, it’s not a point in it no more. It was very easy for Macho to send some people over there to find those people who shot Ervin. But he didn’t do that. He let it go. He just maintained.”
“So for me, when I seen that happen, it was just like, no,” Ridgle says. He decided to figure out how to deal with the trauma and the pain differently, a process he describes as ongoing, like murder and grief is ongoing. He remains actively involved in ONS as an ambassador and role model for younger fellows.
His friend, Lavonta “Macho” Crummie was not as lucky. An ONS fellow, he went on to become a well-known artist in the Bay Area hip-hop scene. He was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2013, two years after Ervin died.
Though the drive-bys and shootings have continued, the homicide rate in Richmond has dropped significantly since the fellowship program began in 2010. Shootings took the lives of 21 people in 2010, 26 people in 2011 and 18 people in 2012, a huge reduction from 2009’s record-high 47 murders. “We have evidence here, now, in Richmond, that says that people have changed,” Boggan says.
But how much of that success can be attributed to Boggan and his staff? Evaluating outreach programs like ONS is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process, one that ONS is in the midst of now. The evaluation of their fellowship program, funded by a California foundation, will take three years to complete. Evaluators in Richmond will face challenges teasing out the effects of ONS from other factors, such as increased gentrification and changes in policing tactics in Richmond, including a shift in 2006 to more community-oriented policing.
Boggan points to the successes of the young men who stayed with the fellowship until the end as a measure of what ONS has accomplished so far. Most important, almost all of the fellows are still alive (65 out of 68) and most have stopped shooting other young men (eleven have been arrested for gun violence since 2010). Richmond has had thirteen homicides so far this year and the police department suspects that five are gang-related. But, Boggan noted, no ONS fellows were involved in the shootings.
He dreams of the day when ONS will declare their mission accomplished and close their doors for good. “We believe we can interrupt and cure this disease of violence,” he says.
Cities have enormous potential to enact progressive change, former councilman Ritterman says, but ultimately the challenges of poverty may be too overwhelming for cities to overcome alone. “We have chosen to organize our system in a way where it is predictable that this will happen, whereas other rich industrialized countries have done a better job of caring for one other as a total community and not deciding that 15 percent of the country can be discarded, which is what we have done.”
Richmond is also facing a $20 million budget deficit, which will be reduced in part by cutting $580,000 from the ONS budget. At press time, Boggan had lost three of his staff as a result of the deficit. ONS now has only four outreach workers.
Despite the city’s financial problems, Boggan expects that ONS will continue to evolve. Their next step is to reach out to a much younger group of fellows. “We still have young people living deep in the cut,” Boggan says. ONS plans to take a preventive approach with the next fellowship and pull those young people into services and mentoring before they pick up a gun.
But Boggan is aware that the structural causes of violence—poverty, unemployment and insufficient education—remain firmly in place in Richmond. More social services directed specifically to those deeply in need, he says, are necessary to end the cycle of violence. Until those needs are addressed, ONS will continue to recruit new cohorts of fellows, comfort more parents who have lost their sons and say goodbye to more young people lost to gunfire.
This story was originally published on The Nation.