Ruby Thomas is 63, too damn old to be dropping to the ground like a soldier in a firefight, too old to crawl in a blind panic across the ground, trying to stay lower than the bullets punching holes in metal and plaster — and, yes, people.
But Thomas had no choice the night of Aug. 16 when three men in a pickup rolled up in front of her daughter’s house on Donna Street and started shooting.
“We were sitting out in the front yard talking, getting ready to go home,” she said.
One man got out of the cab. Two more jumped from the bed of the pickup.
“There were three,” she said. “They tried to kill us.”
* * *
Of the 101 gang-related and likely gang-related shootings in Bakersfield last year, 45 occurred in a 2- square-mile area bound by California Avenue to the north, Brundage Lane to the south, Washington Street to the east and Chester Avenue to the west.
In this sprawling city of 143 square miles, 44 percent of gang-related and likely gang-related shootings in the city occurred on a chunk of real estate representing less than 1 ½ percent of the city’s land area and less than 5 percent of the population.
For the purposes of this story, we’ll call this square of land the neighborhood.
* * *
“It’s an eerie feeling sometimes,” said Michael Redd.
The 56-year-old father and grandfather moved out of the neighborhood years ago, but comes back regularly to help care for a rental home on Ninth Street owned by a family member.
This section of the neighborhood, west of Pershing, is attractive and well kept, and is the pride of many who have lived here for decades. And rightfully so.
But in January, less than a block away, witnesses told police two men in a vehicle fired several shots, striking a house and a car containing two kids, 8 and 10. Fortunately, the children were not hit.
Three months later, on April 12, three men were wounded just down the block when a gunman in a green vehicle opened fire on T Street. And 11 days later a 41-year-old man was shot dead near Eighth and T.
While residents of more affluent neighborhoods may not think twice about taking a leisurely walk after sunset, or playing with a grandchild in their front yard, people who live on Fourth Street or South Robinson, or Texas Street or Potomac Avenue, may be more likely to plan an indoor activity.
“I’m not going to let the grandkids just take off or walk down to the store,” Redd said. “It’s not happening. Not without an adult.”
But as a black man, Redd feels calling the police, even as the reporting party, can a double-edged sword. Your name ends up in a cop’s notebook, or on his radar.
“You call police, you get labeled,” he said. “I encourage the females to call. The guys don’t do it.”
* * *
In June, in an effort to reduce gang violence, build collaborative partnerships within the community and improve the often-strained relationship between police and residents of this central and east Bakersfield neighborhood, the Board of State and Community Corrections awarded a grant of more than $517,000 to the Bakersfield Police Department and several community partners.
Elements of the grant include police officers and neighborhood residents training together in such concepts as procedural justice and implicit bias. Implicit, or unconscious, bias is the bias in judgment or behavior that results from subtle attitudes and stereotypes that often operate at a level below conscious awareness.
One goal of the grant is to establish expectations within the community of its own participation and involvement in law enforcement.
But goal No. 1 is to reduce the number of gang-related shootings in the city, especially in this 2-square-mile neighborhood that has seen more than its share of terror and bloodshed for far too long.
Titled “Cops, Clergy, and Community,” the grant is ambitious in concept, incorporating alternate forms of policing and behavioral health training to benefit those in law enforcement and the community who may be experiencing mental health issues. It will focus on helping community organizations provide peer mentoring, parenting skills, and mental health training in an area suffering from low opportunity, poverty and what Bakersfield Police Lt. Joe Mullins calls “toxic stress.”
Mullins, a longtime veteran of the department who oversees the BPD’s gang unit and helped apply for the grant, is under no illusion that a half-million dollars in one-time grant funding is going to fix a complex problem that has existed for three or four generations.
The grant funding is a good start, he said. “It’s not a solution.”
Still, Mullins is hopeful the funding will open new opportunities to heal the rift that he acknowledges exists between police and many in the black community. And if the two-year effort can measurably reduce gang violence, it will have all been worthwhile.
* * *
Pastor Touré Tyler of Cross Christian Church — whose congregation meets each Sunday in Theater 7 at Maya Cinemas —- met with a reporter on a recent summer morning in the parking lot of Aneese Market, at the corner of Gorrill Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Known as one of the epicenters of gang activity, the corner seemed a fitting place to talk about the partnership formed between Cross and other churches to support an unconventional but proven strategy to curb the cycle of violence.
Cross Church, Compassion Christian Center on Fourth Street and Saints Memorial Church have formed a collaboration known as Body of Christ, which has been active in supporting a community effort known as violence interruption.
Based on a strategy employed by the alternative policing program Operation CeaseFire, violence interrupters are former gang members trained to go into trouble spots to defuse conflict before violence erupts.
They may be able to talk someone down from plans for a revenge shooting. They may ask a gang banger to hand over his gun until emotions cool. Because of their background, violence interrupters have a measure of “street cred” that others do not.
“We want to show the people how to respond vs. react,” said Tyler, who has also driven to scenes of shootings or even auto accidents where crowds gather and emotions run high.
“We come in,” Tyler said. “We might start a prayer circle or a conversation that brings down the level of hostility and violence.”
“I’m not red or blue,” he said, referring to gang colors. “I’m a black pastor.”
But Tyler, who is originally from the southside of Chicago, insists that the underlying conditions of poverty and need must also be addressed before true and lasting change can take place.
He cites the New Testament, James 2:16, to make his point:
“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
Similarly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he said, teaches us that people must have their basic requirements like food, shelter, safety and security met before they can devote time and energy to education, higher thinking and self-improvement.
Tyler hopes the grant funding and partnership building can improve the relationship between the community and police. And he believes gang violence can be reduced. But much more work needs to be done for a community that is urgently in need.
Like a house afire, the neighborhood is in an extended state of emergency.
“If there are six houses on a block and one house is on fire, you know where the water needs to go,” he said.
* * *
The 2 square-mile neighborhood — the grant refers to it as the Area of Concern, or AoC — suffers the highest rate of gun violence in the city. Last year, the neighborhood saw 36 percent of the city’s gun homicides, 30 percent of the city’s shooting victims and one-quarter of all weapon firings.
According to the grant research:
“These shootings occur in gross disproportion within the African-American community; 55 of the 63 gang shootings in 2015 were known to involve African-American street gang members as victims or suspects.
“Much of the gun violence is attributed to the criminal street gangs that claim the area as their home turf… This 2-square-mile area is, by multi-generational tradition, home to black gangs such as the East Side Crips, West Side Crips, and Bloods, as well as Hispanic gangs like the Varrio Bakers and West Side Bakers.”
* * *
Two-year-old Ka-Mya Robinson didn’t have a backyard to play in, but her mother felt the toddler and her twin sister were relatively safe playing behind the chain-link fence in their front yard. It was April, one of the nicest months in Bakersfield, and the weather seemed ideal for a pair of 2-year-olds to be 2-year-olds.
As three young Hispanic men walked past the Robinson home, likely unnoticed by the girls, someone in a passing Chevy Suburban called out, “Hey, where you from?”
According to an anecdote included in the grant application, the gunshots that rang out moments later missed their intended targets.
“Instead, one of the large-caliber bullets pierced Ka-Mya’s side, smashed through her right lung and her diaphragm, grazed her liver and severed her spine,” the application reads.
The little girl was dead in seconds, a victim of one of Bakersfield’s 67 gang-related shootings in 2012.
Two years later at the sentencing of the shooter, Ka-Mya’s mother told the convicted murderer in open court that she forgave him. But could she forgive herself?
“A lot of times I can’t get up and go out the door, do nothing,” Katie Jordan told the court that day. “Work, school, nothing.”
The shooter, a member of the Varrio Bakers gang, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to a story in The Californian. He showed no reaction in court as he was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutor Ken Russell said Jordan was “destroyed” by what happened. She left Bakersfield after the shooting and lived in a car for a while before she was able to put her life back together. But she will never be the same.
Asked recently why he included Ka-Mya’s story in the grant application, the BPD’s Mullins was succinct.
“That one’s personal,” he said.
* * *
City parks are meant to be peaceful places, quiet, tree-shaded islands of green carved out of urban landscapes.
But Lowell Park at Fourth and P streets in central Bakersfield has a history that hasn’t always been peaceful.
On May 5, in broad daylight, 19-year-old Damien Wafford was shot to death in the park, which is situated directly across the street from Emerson Middle School. Emerson and nearby McKinley Elementary both were placed on lockdown, adding stress and potentially disrupting the educational process for hundreds of students.
Three suspected gang members were charged in connection with the killing.
“I grew up going to this park. Now I’m afraid to sit in it,” said Latoya Rufus, 38, who cares for her 2-year-old daughter and 13-year-old niece in a home near the park.
“We get scared just walking to the store.”
Rufus said she isn’t concerned that she or the kids would be directly targeted.
“It’s stray bullets,” she said. “They can go anywhere.”
She’s also afraid for teen boys in the neighborhood who sometimes get mixed up with gangs.
“That’s what I’m trying to keep my nephew from doing. We’re trying to keep him in football, keep his mind occupied.”
* * *
The group of mostly African-American men were escorted through a locked door and down a flight of stairs to the basement. They drew some curious looks from uniformed officers of the Bakersfield Police Department as they turned a corner and were led into a large room with a multi-media screen at the front. Several uniformed officers stood nearby, ready to assist in the discussion.
“The fact that you came down here today --- I don’t know if you would have 10 years ago,” Lt. Mullins said to his guests. “I don’t know if we would have invited you, and I don’t know if you would have come.”
But the fact that both groups were there, speaking with that sort of unvarnished honesty, said much about efforts on both sides — Bakersfield’s communities of color and the department — to keep lines of communication open, even in these tension-filled times when police departments locally and nationwide have been facing tough questions about racial justice and use of deadly force.
Present were Patrick Jackson of the NAACP; Walter Williams of Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance; David Williams, a certified violence interrupter and the founder of the nonprofit National Brotherhood Association of Kern County; Gina Cervantes, who was not there representing a particular organization; Tyler of Cross Church; and others.
On the agenda was an incident that occurred the previous weekend at Rising Star Church in southwest Bakersfield, where a repast was held following the funeral of a young man killed in what Mullins said was a DUI crash.
The family expected gang members to be at the funeral, Mullins said, and requested a police presence. When officers arrived, one of them began using a cellphone to shoot video of the large crowd gathered outside.
Mullins said it’s a standard practice at any event where known gang members are expected to be present, although he acknowledged after questioning from the group that overtly filming guests at a funeral or repast could be viewed as a form of disrespect.
At one point, a young man began filming the officer, which was completely lawful — until he got in the officer’s face. He was immediately taken to the ground and officers attempted to handcuff him.
The crowd immediately began yelling and surrounded the small group of officers, closing in.
It was clearly a volatile situation. And all of it was shown on two video clips Mullins played for his guests.
Although officers were pushed, which is considered an act of battery, no guns were drawn, no skirmish line was formed, no batons were pulled and no additional arrests were made.
Clearly, a potential disaster had been avoided.
To a person, the guests in the room were impressed.
Walter Williams complimented officers for using “great restraint.”
Jackson echoed Williams’ comment.
“I do want to compliment the officers for keeping their cool,” he said.
As discussion continued, David Williams challenged the group, and the larger community, to do more to stem the flow of violence in affected neighborhoods.
“If you’re active in the community, they know who you are,” he said. “If you have activist pastors out there you can keep it (the violence) down.
“We can’t keep throwing it to Lt. Mullins. We can’t keep throwing it to the officers. What responsibility do we have? We all need to do this.”
But many in the community remain reluctant to act as witnesses, to provide crucial information to investigators.
“There is a very small segment — a very violent segment — that will punish you for cooperating with the police,” Mullins said.
But the silence goes beyond fear of retaliation. It’s cultural, and it’s not confined to any one group.
“Is there a code of silence in the police department? Absolutely,” Mullins said. “Is there a code of silence in the black community? Absolutely.”
Despite the progress being made, despite the encouragement, Mullins is not about to predict any major victories. On the contrary. He’s a veteran cop and a realist.
“The grant funding is going to provide for (cops and people from the neighborhood) training together. We hope that’s going to help us to have conversations about what we can expect from each other,” Mullins said. “Right now I think both sides have low expectations.”
* * *
When the shooting stopped, Ruby Thomas lifted herself up off the ground. She heard the sound of screaming. Three people had been hit in the hail of gunfire, although miraculously, none of the wounds was life-threatening. An 18-year-old girl, a 3-year-old toddler and Thomas’ 34-year-old daughter would all be treated and released from the hospital.
Bullet holes now pepper the home’s stucco front and a pickup parked at the curb has three holes in a tight pattern.
“The house is shot up. Yeah, they sprayed it real good,” Thomas said. “We’re lucky to be alive, lucky more people weren’t hit.”
For people who live here in this neighborhood, it’s easy to lose hope, or become apathetic. Or maybe realistic. It’s easy to conclude, after years of seeing nothing change, that nothing will change. Or if it does, it’ll only get worse.
Thomas doesn’t have high hopes.
“The outcome?” Thomas said. “The outcome will be nothing.”