Can the Warriors Help Save Oakland?

The Golden State Warriors just finished the finest season in history… by a team that failed to make the playoffs. In the epic Western Conference, G-State's 48-34 record was only good enough for a ninth best. But the team did see Monta Ellis emerge as perhaps the fastest, most dynamic person to step on a court since Johan Kriek. It saw Stephen Jackson improbably become a second tier MVP candidate (the team went 0-6 without him at the season's beginning) and an NBA universe weeping that the high octane crew from Oaktown won't be pulling off any playoff miracles this season.

While it's nice to see basketball matter again in the Bay Area, I had an entirely different kind of feeling last month when Warriors stars Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Ellis and the now-retired Chris Webber appeared at a "Silence the Violence" rally in their backyard at Oakland Tech.

Jackson, who's had his share of off-the-court troubles, said, "I've seen a lot of violence in my life, and it could have stopped me from being where I'm at today. If I can give some kids some knowledge that it's not all it's cracked up to be, then I'm willing to do that."

Oakland is a place where there are too many funerals--too many parents burying too many teenagers. As longtime community activist Todd Chretien said to me, "In the last five years around 700 people have been murdered in Oakland, out of a population of less than 400,000. About half of these murders have taken place within a two-mile radius of the fields and floors where the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland As and the Golden State Warriors play ball.

"What's wrong? Poverty and racism," he said. "Unemployment for young black and Latino men hovers between one-third and one-half. The cost of living is the highest in the country. The schools are underfunded and under attack from Bush's No Child Left Behind. In the last thirty years the ruling elite in Oakland have de-industrialized and taken their jobs elsewhere (and now they're taking the As with them)."

This issue hits close to home for me. Last fall, I walked into the Alameda County Juvenile Hall to talk sports with a room of about twenty-five 14- to 17-year-olds. It was part of a program called Write to Read, run by a remarkable librarian named Amy Cheney.

It was hard not to be struck by how much the Juvenile Hall resembles the high school where my wife teaches. There are inspirational posters that greet you on the outside and a metal detector that greets you on the inside. But it's not a high school. It's actually far newer, far cleaner and much better lit than many high schools. Another difference is that I was asked to take off my shoes when I went through the metal detector. I was told by the crew-cut police officer, "You could have multiple shanks hidden in the soles."

Before the session began, I was given a tour of the prison. It was a bizarre combination of the old and the new.

First the new: the inmates stay in a "pod" system. If you've seen Oz, you know what that means: plexiglas doors framed with reinforced steel and rooms that fit one person uncomfortably. If you have to go to the bathroom or do anything else, you can been seen by everyone around you.

The old aspects of the prison are many: the books in the library, and anything that might actually be enjoyed. There are also the murals depicting people like Malcolm X.

Ms. Cheney explained to me, "We are so desperate to get them turned on to anything."

When I met the young people, twenty-five of us sitting in a circle, the first thing I noticed was their focus. They amazed me. I thought they were more incisive, by far, than the college audiences I've encountered. Put them in an elite boarding school, and they'd be assessing whether Harvard makes more sense than Yale. Put them in law school, and they'd be fighting off job offers. Give them the skill sets to write a column like this one, and they'd make you laugh or break your heart.

When we talked about Michael Vick and his downfall, their insights reflected the streets, where dog-fighting is fairly common. When we talked about Muhammad Ali defeating George Foreman in Zaire, one young man told me, "I don't think you're here to teach us how to fight."

Everyone was laughing, jawing, giving more than their two cents about the sports world which they're viewing from behind Plexiglas. As I began to leave, I said without thinking, "I will talk to you when I come back." One young man looked up at me and said, "When you come back, I hope none of us are here."

On my way out, one youth counselor asked me if I got a good look at all their faces. I said of course. He said, "Good, because about one-third of them will be dead in five years." Christ, I thought, I hope not.

If Jackson, Ellis and the rest of the Warriors can do anything to put a dent in the epidemic of youth violence in Oakland, it's time that couldn't be better spent. But I would also like to see them not just go to the high schools but to the youth prisons in Alameda County. No one needs a hand more than the ones who are falling, or being pushed, off a cliff.

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Thanks

Thank you so much for covering this important issue. I am a Bay Area native and know exactly the talented young people you are talking about. The system is failing them. Who of your readers is willing to sponsor those boarding school educations, college scholarships, internships??!!!!

Most certainly....

I don't know how to feel about this article... I feel that it touches on the pervasive issues that face poor, colored inner-city communities...

I don't think that many of the basketball players or other athletes of today can and will make a difference in this battle for our youth...

It's time (and has been) for communities to come together w/o depending on the gov't for help... lord knows folks have been waiting on that for a long while....


Silence the Violence

If you're interested in supporting some people doing really good work on these issues in Oakland, check out the Ella Baker Center and their Silence the Violence campaign. They're also sponsoring legislation to improve family's access to incarcerated young people.

www.ellabakercenter.org

oakland


Hi Dave

You may find this interesting.

From the Centre for Disease Control , causes of death in the USA:

Deaths from gun violence in the United States
from 1981 to 2005:

827,000 ----- Eight Hundred and Twenty Seven Thousand people killed by guns in 24 years.





Oakland Ca

as a black teenager living in Oakland I really appreciate you writing about the bay areas Silence the Violence program. Violence is a serious problem in the bay area. In Oakland it is normal to see a murder but on the back page of the newspapers or in a small section somewhere. Its sad that having over 100 murders a year is normal in my town. The bay area has 2 cities in the top ten most deadly cities list in the U.S. Oakland is the 4th most deadly city and Richmond is the 9th. According to the 2007 FBI annual crime statistics report.
There is no simple answer to how to stop the madness thats going on. There is poverty in the streets and to kids there doesn't seem to be a way out but by selling drugs and joining gangs kids find a way to A)make money and B)find a family and people to guide them through life whether in in a good direction or not.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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