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What lessons can Baltimore learn from the Bay Area’s success in reducing homicides? We speak to two Oakland-based experts ahead of our June 18th town hall in Baltimore

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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

So far this year, there have been more murders in Baltimore than New York, a city with twelve times the population. And while Baltimore seems more eager to focus on criminalizing “squeegee kids” who wash car windows for tips, other regions are making gains in lowering their homicides. The San Francisco Bay area, known for its extreme housing prices, wealth disparity, and high homelessness, saw a thirty percent decline in gun homicides from 2007 to 2017, according to The Guardian. We’ll talk more about this in the next installment of Real Talk Tho, our live town hall series on June 18 at Ida B’s Table.

But for now, we go to the Bay Area to discuss this with two experts. Ricardo Garcia-Acosta is an Intervention Manager for Youth Alive, supporting their Hospital and Homicide Response Network. And Sikander Iqbal is the Deputy Director of Urban Peace Movement and has been focusing on leading violence prevention initiatives in Oakland, California for the past eleven years. Thank you both for joining us.


RICARDO GARCIA-ACOSTA: Thanks for having us.

JAISAL NOOR: So we wanted to get your thoughts and your response to a number of recent reports, including one in The Guardian, that have been highlighting the complex issue of gun violence. And they say it’s down in the Bay Area. They attribute this to a variety of issues, but one thing they highlight is a commitment to non-law-enforcement, evidence-based programming like the kind that you’re involved in. You both live and work there on these issues; what do you make of these reports? Do you think these reports are accurate and are they telling the whole story?

RICARDO GARCIA-ACOSTA: One thing I appreciated about the article was highlighting the community-driven efforts that are going on here in Oakland. As we know, across the country, there’s many strategies that combine both law enforcement with community-driven efforts. And here in Oakland, we really have found a way to couple those two efforts in a way that respect one another and work in a parallel process with each other. Now, I’d definitely like to tease that a little bit more as we go into this interview, but I do think that this is one of the unique things, specifically here in Oakland. Sikander has a lot of experience throughout the Bay Area as well, but there’s many different micro-communities within the Bay Area. We’re talking about San Francisco, Richmond, San Jose, Oakland, Vallejo, Antioch, all the way up to Sacramento.

And so, the strategies look a little different in each of those communities, but one thing that has been a common denominator across those efforts and in a lot of these cities that I’m speaking of is the community-driven strategy and having community folks that are indigenous to the communities, that are closest to the violence, to really be able to lead their efforts to stop some of these cycles. Of course, there’s the law enforcement and ceasefire strategies that exist in these cities as well. And so, a lot of the work that I’ve been involved in has been how are you bridging those two worlds and how do you have common understanding and draw respectable divisions and professional understandings between those two entities to work towards a common cause? But definitely within the article, really appreciated how things were highlighted from a non-law-enforcement end and really highlighting community-driven strategies.

JAISAL NOOR: And Sikander, I wanted to get your thoughts on these reports that have been coming out. And when people hear that, “Oh, gun violence is down in the Bay Area,” I think a lot of people, their gut reaction is, “Well, that’s because it’s so expensive, working people can’t afford to live there anymore.” And that probably is a big part of this. What are your thoughts on that?

SIKANDER IQBAL: Well, I think that–like Ricardo mentioned at the very top, we definitely have dealt with massive amounts of gentrification over the past twenty years. And we do see rising levels of violence happening in the areas where people have been gentrified out too. I mean, gentrification is part of the issue, but the bigger issue that we are tending to focus on here–and I think even what Ricardo’s speaking about–is how are we as organizations, how are we addressing inequality? Inequality is really the driver of a lot of the violence that comes up in these communities. Even as we’re doing work to support community-led efforts, a lot of the focus is on how we are addressing inequality. There are also parallel efforts that are focusing on how to stop the violence that is happening now. So a lot of it is all the product of inequality.

So as we’re seeing efforts to do street outreach, to hire people who are from the neighborhood, hire credible messengers from the communities that go out and identify the highest-risk groups, the highest-risk individuals, in order to quell some of the conflicts that are coming up–and we know that if we want a long term strategy, we need to continue to support community-led efforts to really dig into the issue of inequality in the Bay Area. And we don’t see that coming from the top down. It’s really the bottom up. When we think about gentrification, what I really see is rather than addressing some of the issues, there is a large part of the issue of inequality that is being displaced, which is why we’re seeing rising levels of crime and violence in those cities.

And the thing that’s scarier out there is that in Alameda County, in San Francisco County, in Contra Costa County–or at least West Contra Costa County–we’ve been dealing with these issues for some time. When we go inland, it’s a newer issue for them, and hopefully they’ll be able to learn from some of the lessons from the counties on the West in how to address the inequalities. Because when people are moving away from here because it’s too expensive, when they’re out there, the prices are lower, so they can’t lean into gentrification to help solve those issues. So eventually, we’re gonna have to buckle down and address inequality from all sides, and not just from the bottom up and not just from the community level. But we’ve been doing this work in the communities for over twenty years, and I definitely would accredit a majority of the success to community organizations and community-led efforts like those that myself and Ricardo have been involved in for the past ten plus years.

JAISAL NOOR: Ricardo, we know that every community, every city is unique, and different things are going to work in different places. But talk about what you’ve learned through your work, what some of the best strategies are that are working, and also in terms of resources. How are you able to secure funding? That’s a big issue here in Baltimore. It’s a city that spends more per capita on policing than any other city of its size, and people are looking for a different direction here.

RICARDO GARCIA-ACOSTA: Yeah, absolutely. As Sikander mentioned, just to piggyback on what he was saying, we’ve been on the frontlines for quite some time, developing leadership, developing communities to have indigenous solutions to their problems. But lots of times in this work, especially in the intervention field, it feels like you’re putting out fires fires. And really the progress and the gains that have been made over these last five to eight years, I would say, was really on a systemic level and on a policy level, and having folks at the top really investing and championing the work that we’ve been bringing up from the bottom. And I say that to say that we could do interventions, we could do mediations, we could help get people on a path. But to Sikander’s point, if there’s not economic opportunity, if there’s not career pathways, those are the things where it stops.

And so, within the Bay Area, whether it’s been San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, cities have been innovative in trying to figure out ways to develop and really champion the work of the community-based organizations and the work they’ve been doing and really reinforce them with some type of meaningful economic pathways to be able to present to the clients and communities. And even then, it’s not nearly enough. It has just been a drop in the bucket, especially with the rampant housing crisis here in the Bay Area and the rampant rises of just the cost of living. And so, it’s really been a parallel process. We’ve been trying to keep up in putting pressure both on the state legislature and on a national level to be able to continue investing in our communities and continue investing in real pathways and alternatives so that we can start undoing some of these years and years of just despair within these communities.

I think when it comes to things that I know on the ground that have been working, it’s really looking at true city and community partnerships and having folks–and when I hear Sikander talk about equality and inequity, it’s like how do you build up both community-based organizations that have a smaller capacity that are doing great work, and really give them a voice as well too, and have them as an equal partner at the table on a city level, making decisions and coming up with new innovative practices to move the work forward? And so, a lot of the work and focus that our organizations have been doing is really trying to figure out how do we band together, come up with these creative solutions, and have cities really champion and put some real resources behind that?

And so, that continues to be a challenge. Here in bigger cities like Oakland, we have a little bit more resources than the smaller cities around the Bay Area and in the Central Valley. Oakland is blessed to have a public safety parcel tax. That is a property tax that taxes homeowners here in Oakland that generates about twenty million a year. Eight million goes back into the community, and that funds a lot of our public safety efforts, and in a way, it also carves an avenue for both city and enforcement efforts to really align their work with the community-driven strategies, while still maintaining a division within how their approach is. And I say that because it’s always very important for our community-based efforts really to be grounded in community and not be seen as an enforcement or a city effort.

And so, with that, it has been on the forefront of our struggle to get city and law enforcement also to recognize and champion and really allow us the breathing room to do the work in the community as well too. And so, with this parcel tax and with this funding and this investment, it really gives us an opportunity to ramp up the service, to develop the next generation of leadership, and to keep on trying to move forward and chugging along and trying to undo a lot of these systemic issues that have been around for ages now. And so, it is really difficult, it’s generational, and we’re just trying to move one individual, one community, one city at a time to really uplift everybody and try to get everybody on the same page in that regard.

JAISAL NOOR: And Sikander, we’re almost out of time for this segment, but we want to definitely keep following up with both of you. But I wanted to give you a chance to answer this last question. So when there is violence in a community, a lot of people’s gut reaction is sort of to like bring down the hammer, “let’s get more police,” and they want to focus on enforcement, which is understandable in that moment. But what’s your message to folks that say–in Baltimore, for example, we’re already spending the most per capita on police, but people want to spend even more on police. What’s your message to them?

SIKANDER IQBAL: My message to them on that is–I mean, I think we’re fortunate enough to be at a place now where I think we’ve always had the data, but now the data is harder to ignore. And we have people in places who are highlighting a lot of the data to say, “Where has increasing policing brought down violence?” And I don’t think that there’s a lot of good answers you’re gonna get from that. We could also look at the facts to show that crime is dropping and incarceration has gone up, and really trying to get people to focus on “where is the real violence?” Because we talk about violence in our communities and we think about the homicide rate, but we have to try and help refocus people to where the real violence is. And I think that’s to what Ricardo was focusing on in saying that these are issues with the system, and that’s the real violence. Lack of housing and lack of housing security, lack of access to healthy foods, lack of access to decent education, police brutality, police misconduct.

These are the things that are really violent that are coming from the system, that are producing more inequality, that are producing a lack of trust in the system, that are forcing people into these situations where we really have to fend for ourselves and kind of take matters into our own hands. And we know firsthand that it has to be a multipronged strategy to where we are having credible messengers, people who are from the neighborhoods, from the communities, that understand the place going in and trying to intervene in the violence is happening. But we also have people on the other side who are going in and trying to undo the systemic violence to make sure that this is not just a solution that lasts six, seven years and then we recycle once all the people in the police department and in the elected offices get promoted to the next level and then we restart the cycle.

For us, it’s the people that live in these communities, the people that work in these communities, those of us who have lost numbers of people in these neighborhoods; for us it’s important to end the cycle. We want this to stop. Our ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of work. And I think if you look anywhere, probably even if you talk to folks out here in law enforcement that are actually doing the work in the Ceasefire program, I think there’s an article that’s come out from one of the leads of the Ceasefire program, and he’s talked about how for twenty years, he thought that bringing the hammer down was the process. He was, I think, the number one top cop or something, shutting down all these operations.

And he’s very open and adamant about how that was the wrong way and it didn’t produce the results that he was told they were going to produce. And now he’s leading this initiative and he’s seeing more success with community-led, community-driven efforts where people can get services and support. He’s seen more success in the last five to seven years than he’s seen in his entire career in police. And so, for those people who want to do that, I think that it’s usually because they don’t really understand the condition. They don’t understand the context. And I think oftentimes they fall into the media’s trick of dehumanizing the people that live in those neighborhoods and not understanding that for real solutions, we need a proper analysis of the problem and we have to take a more realistic, data-driven approach to the solutions.

All right. Well, I want to thank you both for joining us for this very enlightening conversation. It’s good to hear success stories and to hear things that are working in other parts of the country so we can learn from it here in Baltimore and around the country. Ricardo Garcia-Acosta, Intervention Manager for Youth Alive, supporting their Hospital and Homicide Response Network. And Sikander Iqbal, the Deputy Director of Urban Peace Movement. He’s been focusing on violence prevention initiatives for the past eleven years in Oakland. We’ll link to both your organizations and we hope to keep this conversation going. So thank you so much for joining us.

RICARDO GARCIA-ACOSTA: Thank you for having us.

SIKANDER IQBAL: Thank you for having us. Thank you very much.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.