The 18-year-old spent the morning with friends in a park in West Fresno. They were not in school, but did drink beer and talk about their rivals and how much they loathe them. The disrespect was mutual, and both sides knew something was going to happen soon, their differences and anger were becoming too much to control.
These young men were in a gang, and later that night the teen drove home with some of his fellow bangers so he could grab what made him feel powerful and masculine — a gun that he was prepared to use. He would be ready to fire it on the streets of Fresno, at those rivals who wanted to do the same to him. If innocent people got caught in the middle, that was just collateral damage in this war being waged by young men who had few others telling them what promise and potential their lives held.
For some Fresno residents, that illustrative scenario is absolute reality. Some young men are growing up here without knowing there is more to live for than settling some score or controlling a territory for criminal enterprise. It is not a new story in Fresno, but it is an urgent one. Two shootings recently are proof: A 5-year-old boy was struck by one of 25 bullets fired at either his father or another man last Monday night; as of Tuesday, the boy was in intensive care at Community Regional Medical Center. And a 34-year-old man was killed and three others wounded when 58 shots were fired at a Fourth of July block party.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer ordered more special units of officers onto the streets as a means to quell the week of surging gang violence. Ironically, his order came as Mayor Lee Brand cut money from the new city budget for a program that would cost pennies on the dollar but be priceless in its ability to get to the root causes of gang violence and help young men turn from a destructive life path to one that is positive, and free of guns and gang violence.
The budget proposal, approved by the City Council, was to spend $200,000 for the first year of a program called Advance Peace. It pairs current gang members with men who were themselves convicted of gang crimes, but are now mentors working to show others there is a better way to live.
Fresno’s budget for the coming year is $1.1 billion, so the $200,000 expenditure was a blip on the financial radar. Brand’s explanation that it had to go due to budget constraints is shallow, to say the least.
The mentors work well with the gang members because they were there, too. They understand the adverse childhood experiences these young men have accumulated — like having dad in prison most of their childhood, or living in a home wracked by domestic violence. The mentors meet with gang members who agree to participate on a daily basis, and steer them first toward achieving a stable life, then toward educational, professional and personal goals.
Participants also get out of their daily routines to learn there is a bigger world: They visit universities and meet city leaders; they help the homeless and the elderly.
The program or ones similar to it already operate in Richmond, Sacramento, Oakland and Stockton. In Richmond, the average number of murders dropped more than 50 percent in the program’s first five years.
Part of the program’s funding would pay stipends to participants based on milestones they reach. Conservatives who have opposed the proposal, such as Councilman Garry Bredefeld, have criticized this aspect as paying a criminal not to commit a crime.
But the argument can be looked at another way conservatives should embrace: The savings to society to avoid a murder that does not involve police, legal system and social work costs. Some estimates have put the price to society of one murder at $1 million.
Dollars are one thing; the value of a life is priceless. Advance Peace is not about paying gang members, but about saving lives — those of innocent victims as well as young men who can offer much if they turn their lives around.
For that reason, the City Council should override Brand’s veto. Specifically, Councilman Paul Caprioglio should reconsider his initial no vote and this time support four other colleagues who think Advance Peace is worth giving a try. (It takes five votes to override a mayoral veto).
Gun violence is real, and it is a crime. But arresting, trying, convicting and locking up is not the only formula. It is worth the effort and expense to guide, direct and educate certain young men of Fresno that there is so much more to being a man than carrying a gun and exacting revenge or protecting turf.
They need to realize there are alternatives to handling disputes other than resorting to violence.