The Community Responds
By Henrietta J. Burroughs
East Palo Alto Today
Posted on December 11, 2008
With nine shootings in the city in five days, the Mayor of East Palo Alto and the city’s Police Chief Ron Davis held a joint meeting to discuss East Palo Alto’s disturbing spike in violence. Those who attended the meeting were so passionate in their responses to what they heard during the Wednesday evening meeting that even Davis said, “This is an emotional meeting.”
One person blamed the impassioned remarks on the warm temperature of the room and asked that cooler air be circulated. Eventually, the room's doors were opened and the room temperature cooled.
But even with a cooler room, the audience was insistent in wanting an end to the rash of shootings. In one of the shooting incidents that occurred on Thursday, December 4, a woman and a 6 year-old child were shot as they sat in a car parked on an East Palo Alto Street.
During the evening’s discussion, Davis said that there are five to 10 people in the city who are behind the crime surge. He said that if these people were arrested, then the crime throughout the city would drop by half. He acknowledged that the police know who these people are, but don’t have the evidence to arrest them.
“We have to stay with them 24 hours a day to let them know that we know who they are,” he said.
“We’re dealing with bitter, angry teenagers who have no regard for human life,” said Rev. Clifton Bennett, who heads the Walls of Faith Ministries in East Palo Alto. “We have a responsibility to help our loved ones,” he said.
After outlining programs that were put in place during his administration, like the Parole Re-entry program, which will provide jobs for parolees and the ShotSpotter system, which detects the location of gunfire, Davis emphasized that the police can’t end the violence alone.
He said that there is a balance –- enforcement, intervention and prevention -- and the community has to do its part. Even with the current outbreak of shootings, Davis pointed out that the city is ending the year with four homicides, the lowest rate it has had since 1999.
He said homicides are down over 40% and crime is down over 20%. He pointed out that the spikes in crime show that the roots of the crime are still there. “We have to stay the course, to be strategic in our approach. We can’t let the spikes deter us. We cannot let our babies be shot,” he said.
Davis told the audience that his department would receive assistance from the California Highway Patrol and the San Mateo County Gang Task Force.
As some people requested that the police department do more, East Palo Alto’s Vice Mayor David Woods placed the responsibility for the continuation of the violence directly with the audience. “The biggest difference is going to be people sitting in these seats. The crime is not being committed by outsiders. It’s the homes that we have to reach to stop the violence. We can’t point to everyone else to solve the problem. We have to do it.”
Gail Ortega, the executive director of Built to Last, a youth tutoring program in Menlo Park, mentioned the importance of the winter school break, since it is a time when more students are at home. He said that they they need to be given jobs and recreational activities.
Lorraine Holmes, an East Palo Alto resident for more than 50 years, said that the winter break is a prime time for the gangs to recruit young kids. “It’s not winter break for the students anymore. It’s recruitment time for the gangs,” she said.
Throughout the meeting, speaker after speaker talked about the importance of everyone in the audience working with each other to end the violence.
Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, the executive director of One East Palo Alto, an East Palo Alto nonprofit, said, “This is going to be a community wide effort. We want to get involved in every effort that is going on.” McNair-Knox referred to several current efforts within the city led by such groups as the Bless the Block Live in Peace, a movement by, for and about the Community of East Palo Alto; the upcoming Proactive “Pray24EPA” Prayer Vigil, and the East Palo Alto Town Hall Committee, among other local events and groups, working to stop the violence.
Speaking for the Live In Peace movement, Heather Starnes, the executive director of For Youth, By Youth said that there are 10 to 15 people committing the violence and the community should not be held hostage. “We have to remind ourselves that violence is not normal. We are a people who love each other. Live in Peace – what if this became a slogan throughout the community?” Starnes said it would make an enormous difference, “if we could send this message out.”
Khabral Muhammad, Health Educator for JobTrain, formerly known as OICW, passed out Live in Peace fliers during the meeting. Muhammad said, “I am here because something has to be done. “We’re here to save lives, to build our community, and to live the way other communities live.’’
While the entire meeting was held to discuss the subject of violence, the meeting, itself, ended on a note of love. “We need to take back what belongs to us,” said Marina Latu, a community activist. We belong to each other,” she said.
Shortly after her comments, the meeting ended with all of the attendees holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer. The prayer was led by Rev Mary Frazier, pastor of the Bread of Life Evangelistic Outreach Church in East Palo Alto.