Marek Warszawski

Besides more lives, what do we have to lose? Fresno should pony up for Advance Peace

Gang-banging in Fresno no longer pays. Because of this most gang members, including those who commit the bulk of the city’s shootings, can be steered onto a different path.

That’s my takeaway from a conversation with Aaron Foster, a reformed gang member (“One of the most violent people you’ll ever meet”) who’s now a community organizer for Faith in the Valley.

“Those guys live with their mom – they don’t have no money. They don’t have money for bullets half the time. See them on their mugshots when they get arrested? See what they have on? They don’t have nothing that looks promising,” Foster said.

“Cops used to catch these guys and they’d have $10,000 or $15,000 in their pocket. Now they’re going to jail with $10. Ask a cop. The funding isn’t there.

“They’re only gang-banging because they have nothing else to do. What’s the second option?”

Foster is among those trying to provide a second option for Fresno’s most trigger-happy citizens. Its name is Advance Peace, a program for reducing gang-related gun violence that Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno City Council must find a way to fit into the 2019-20 budget.

In fact, I’d argue city leaders can’t afford not to. Not for $300,000 per year, part of a five-year, $1.5 million commitment. Which is matched by the organization’s own private funds.

Aaron Foster is a southwest Fresno community advocate and a program called “Advance Peace” aimed to curb gun violence through one-on-one mentoring. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

In Fresno, as in many American cities, the majority of all homicides and shootings involve a gang member as suspect or victim. Fresno police Lt. Mark Hudson estimated that number “at 55% to 60%, depending on the year.”

What’s more, the gang members who pull the trigger are often known to police. But the space between knowing who did it and being able to prove who did it leads to unsolved crimes and more shootings.

Advance Peace plan

Advance Peace takes a radical approach to breaking this cycle by extinguishing it at the source. Over the course of 18 months, program mentors directly intervene into the lives of the city’s most violent young men.

“What I’ve come to learn is the individuals who are at the center of firearm activity aren’t being engaged by any public system or community-based system of care, and that’s become problematic,” said DeVone Boggan, the program’s founder and CEO. “By leaving them alone, allowing them to be idle, this only feeds into the perpetuation of gunfire.”

What makes Advance Peace slightly controversial – and draws most of the negative headlines – is that those enrolled are given financial incentives to stay out of trouble. (The total stipend is $1,000 per month over nine months and comes from private funding.) In truth, the money is only a small part of the equation.

“Fellows” are given daily engagement by mentors. This can come in the form of education, informal counseling or just friendly conversation. To get them out of the ‘hood, they take group trips to San Francisco or Los Angeles and sometimes go out of state and even abroad. (Again, no taxpayer money is used.)

A trip might consist of a meeting with a mayor or university president and spending an afternoon on campus auditing a class. It might involve feeding the homeless, working with the elderly, talking to kids at a youth center or visiting an amusement park.

Then there’s what Boggan calls “restorative justice exercises.” Which essentially means bringing together those responsible for gun violence in their cities with the families and friends of victims from other cities.

“They can hear the pain, the anguish, the fear, the rage and even the hope that many of these folks have for them,” Boggan said.

Richmond example

A precursor of Advance Peace began in Richmond in 2010. It proved so successful in reducing that Bay Area city’s rate of homicides and shootings that Sacramento and Stockton each hopped on board. According to Boggan, 43 other cities have “reached out.” Advocates in Fresno, with 22 homicides so far this year, were some of the first.

“The reason we leaned in to looking at Fresno, even considered it, came from the community,” Boggan said. “These folks have been relentless. Following me around. Knocking on my door. Texting me. Calling me. Emailing me. They have been relentless in their pursuit to do something different to help curb the significant gun-shed you all have had in that city.”

Faith leaders and community organizers like Foster made a passionate case for Advance Peace during Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting. After hearing their pleas, Councilmember Miguel Arias indicated he will move to appropriate $300,000 for the program at Tuesday’s budget hearing with revenues from legal cannabis as the future funding source. Councilmember Nelson Esparza also spoke in favor.

Arias told me afterward he believes he has the necessary four council votes, plus Brand’s support.

Let’s hope he’s right.

It would be naive to think Advance Peace will halt, or even drastically reduce, gang-related homicides and shootings in Fresno. But what if it prevents a handful of shootings, or just one homicide?

Hard to argue that wouldn’t be worth $300,000 in a $1.187 billion city budget.

Besides more lives, what do we have to lose?

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.