Just weeks into the new year, crime statistics in California are on the rise—with Oakland projected to surpass the record-breaking property and violent crime rates of 2019, which were more than 200% higher than the national average.
In a place where rising costs of housing, food, health and mental care outpace many paychecks; where 1 in 10 high school students drop out before graduation; where 2 million of the 6 million adults with severe mental health challenges go without help; where more than 170,000 people are without housing; it may be as good a time as ever to look at the interconnectedness of these stats and consider solutions that go beyond policing.
George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, and Gina Crowder, director of National Alliance for Mental Illness California and founder of Black Minds Matter, understand how these complex systems of struggle feed directly into the cycle of incarceration for which California is outnumbered only by Texas. At the moment, nearly 100,000 Californians live behind bars and some 39,000 are on parole. Both Galvis and Crowder agree that the cyclical nature of these numbers shows that police, prisons or the threat of incarceration aren’t the solution when it comes to curbing crime; community is.
“Between 60-75% of youth in the juvenile justice system live with mental illness because they’ve experienced adverse childhood experiences,” Crowder says. “The trauma, in some cases, makes it challenging to regulate emotions, and in some cases can be related to crimes. But if we can think beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and figure out how not to cage people and [instead] get them the support they need, we’d come a long way.”
After noticing the high frequency with which Black and brown people in mental health crises ended up either harmed or killed when interacting with police, Crowder formed Black Minds Matter. She also set out to normalize the acts of seeking help and partaking in community healing, while removing the stigma of getting support. This is partly why Crowder says it’s so important for Oaklanders to gather with friends, family and loved ones of Oscar Grant III at Fruitvale Station every year to grieve and remember in solidarity.
“So many communities stuff their feelings and don’t talk about it,” Crowder says. “We need to use our voices so that we’re not inwardly venting with internalized anger, self-medicating with alcohol, medication or isolating. Here at Fruitvale people have the chance to come together to acknowledge what happened to Oscar and others who were killed by police or community violence.”
Crowder calls on lawmakers to be thoughtful when responding to the rise of crime and the number of people on the streets struggling with mental health issues. “I can appreciate what our governor is trying to do as he readies himself to run for president, but decisions about mental health community resources shouldn’t be made from armchairs,” she says. “They should be made by those of us who are on the ground doing the work.”
Galvis and his colleagues at CURYJ envision closing what they call “youth prisons” by 2030 and replacing them with youth leaders. Like the youth CURYJ serves, many of the staff members have experienced incarceration and the foster care system, and most endured adverse childhood experiences.
“We’ve strategically named our space the Oscar Grant Youth Power Zone at Fruitvale Station because he represents the people that we work with,” Galvis says. “He was a 22-year-old youth and they tried to weaponize the fact that he had previously been incarcerated to rationalize the irrational and defend the indefensible. We say, ‘Never forget,’ and ‘Never again.’”
Galvis says that as crime rises, places like Oakland need to rethink how they allocate resources. The fact that as the policing budget has gone up 30% in the last four years in Oakland, crime has also risen, is an indicator in Galvis’s estimation that it’s time for a fresh approach.
“Right now we see people who are fearful because there’s a rise in crime,” he says. “We understand people are fearful, but what I want to point out is that police don’t make us safer. The safest communities don’t have the most police. They have the most resources. We saw crime go up under former pro-cop Mayor Libby Schaaf. And now we’ve got people coming for our DA simply because she had the audacity to say that she would hold criminal police accountable.”
Galvis’ hat is emblazoned with the slogan, “Dream beyond bars.” “We say close prisons, build leaders,” he says. “When we do this, the Oscar Grant Youth Power Zone of Fruitvale Station will be a demonstration model of what it looks like when we divest from systems that have perpetuated harm and trauma of our youth, and invest in community spaces to allow them to heal, grow and thrive.”
Above the youth power zone Galvis describes is an 181-unit affordable housing building, which Galvis says is one of the largest affordable housing developments to come to the area in decades. Next to it are 120 affordable units for seniors.
“What we’re doing is creating mixed-use developments here at Fruitvale for what it looks like when working-class families live in close proximity to transit,” he says.
Several of the streets leading up to Fruitvale are filled with bumper-to-bumper makeshift homes made out of campers, abandoned vehicles and tents. How does Galvis stay hopeful when there’s so much despair all around him?
“Everybody has the fundamental needs for food, clothing and shelter,” he says. “If we can divest from the things that don’t work, we can reallocate resources into things that do. You can’t police or incarcerate your way into public safety any more than you can bomb your way into peace.”
On that note, Galvis points out the irony of how the U.S. spends its money. “Our tax dollars are part of the billions of dollars going to Israel,” he says. “Israel has 100% affordable universal health care. Our tax dollars help subsidize their health care. They don’t have a homelessness problem the way we do. And our tax dollars are supporting a campaign of genocide against our Palestinian relatives.”
Galvis adds, “We know the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] is also involved in training local police departments on how to suppress activism in Black and brown communities. These are systems about maintaining white supremacy, not about public safety. So we need to change that.”
Galvis says that when we empower people and give them resources and pathways to success, communities like Oakland will be happier and healthier—and safer.
“Let’s invest in housing for all, health care for all, mental health for all, jobs for all,” he says. “That’s how we’ll get a safer, healthier Oakland for everyone. The power of people can move mountains.”