EVERY MORNING LAST JUNE, Alfred (Fred) Lawson woke at six in the narrow apartment he shared with his mother in Berkeley, Calif., put on black sweatpants, white Reebok running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt, then stood in front of a mirror on his bedroom wall. He was a sinewy 16-year-old, with dark skin and a slight fade to his short-cropped hair. A scar that slashed beneath his nose—the remnants of a surgically repaired cleft lip—made him appear menacing, as did his habit of punching his right fist into his left palm as he spoke.
This is an article from the June 30, 2008 issue
Staring at himself in the mirror, his hood up, Fred recited from memory the Pledge of Success, which had been recently introduced to him by a teacher at his high school.
Today is a new day, a new beginning.
It has been given to me as a new gift.
I can either use it or throw it away.
What I do today will affect me tomorrow.
I cannot blame anyone but myself if I do not succeed.
I promise to use this day to the fullest by giving my best, realizing it can never come back again.
This is my life and I choose to make it a success.
Fred would punch his palm one final time and head for the door, bursting into the California morning as hopeful as he'd ever been. These were his halcyon days, rooted in a dream common to boys his age: getting an athletic scholarship to college. That vision propelled Fred as he ran east through Berkeley. Because traffic was light that early, he often raced down the middle of the street, up Addison or Allston, where every few blocks the road bends around a flower-filled traffic circle.
Fred was running both from and through a troubled past that began in Oakland, where he was born, and continued after he moved up to Berkeley as a 14-year-old. He skirted Berkeley High, where he and a friend once fought the entire varsity football team. He crossed Shattuck Avenue, where he and another member of the On1 Boys, an East Oakland street gang, once hit a woman in the face with a recycling bin because they didn't like the way she looked at them. On Piedmont Avenue, after passing through the west gate of the Cal campus and cutting east across the grounds, Fred passed fraternity houses not unlike the one he was once caught robbing.
His final push came at Stadium Rim Way, a steep incline into the Berkeley Hills that put him at the eastern lip of Memorial Stadium. He always stopped at the top, looking out over San Francisco Bay and Strawberry Canyon and then down onto the field, where he imagined himself in a Cal uniform, dancing through defenders with a football in his hands like his idol, former Golden Bears running back Marshawn Lynch. Later he would say that seeing the field each morning "woke up my whole day because I knew where I was going. I knew what my future was."
IN A RECENT NEW YORK Times Magazine cover story, Alex Kotlowitz, the author of the acclaimed There Are No Children Here, about life in a Chicago housing project, suggested that the street violence gripping places like Oakland and, seven miles to the north, Richmond should be treated as a public health crisis, like an outbreak of tuberculosis. Few people who work with children in those places would disagree. In Oakland there were 127 homicides last year and 148 the year before, which was up 68.2% from 2004. In Richmond, a city with less than a quarter of Oakland's population of 420,000, there were 47 homicides in '07, the most since 1994 and the highest rate per capita in California cities of 100,000 or more. Gang violence in Oakland is so bad that last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed officers from the state's highway patrol to help stem the violence. One 18-year-old girl, testifying in '05 before a grand jury in a murder case, described what goes on in Richmond this way: "You hear the gunshots, you come outside, you see who is on the ground, see if you know them, and if you don't, you just go back on about your normal life."
Once, if you wished to insulate yourself from the drugs and gangs or, like Fred, turn your life around, your best chance was to dedicate yourself to a sport. In Oakland, NBA players Gary Payton and Drew Gooden, major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis, and, most recently, the Buffalo Bills' Lynch, followed that course. Ken Carter at Richmond High was the inspiration for the film Coach Carter, which showed what teens motivated by hoops can achieve.
But in the past few years, those who work with young boys in Richmond and Oakland have noticed a decline in kids' commitment to sports. And the youngsters who do play speak grimly of their chances of emerging from their darkened surroundings. It is as if each generation believes less and less in the saving power of Little League or youth basketball or Pop Warner football. "It used to be that if you played sports, everyone protected you," says Fredrick Pugh, the president of the East Bay Warriors Pop Warner football program, which includes 295 boys ages five to 15. "Now it is open season on everybody. The neighborhoods are that devastated."
Even more haunting: A number of well-intentioned athletes, those who did everything they could to stay away from trouble, have been killed or severely wounded in street violence in recent years. No one can say exactly how many of those murdered in and around Oakland played sports, but it is undeniable that many of the most promising youngsters—serious athletic aspirants—have died. More than one youth coach laments that he attends more funerals than games these days.
While coaches, parents and activists debate how to address the problem, few disagree on the date—Aug. 12, 2004—that the tide turned, the moment when kids began to doubt sports' saving graces. On that summer night 18-year-old Terrance Kelly was shot four times by a 15-year-old boy in a particularly violent area of Richmond known as the Iron Triangle. Kelly's murder (page 58) made national news because he was killed two days before he would have left to attend Oregon, which had awarded him a football scholarship, and because he had worked tirelessly to stay clear of the street culture.
"After Terrance died, my players looked at it like, If he couldn't make it, how are we gonna make it?" says Khalid Elahi, who was an assistant coach of the Richmond Steelers youth football team when Terrance was murdered. "You try to tell them, 'I know they took Terrance, but we still have to have hope,' but they think, I am going to do all this work, go through all the trouble, and I am still going to die."
THE SUMMER TERRANCE Kelly was shot, Fred Lawson left North Oakland to move in with his aunt in East Oakland, and took up the gang life. ¬∂ There are 20,000 active street gangs in America, according to an Attorney General's report to Congress in April, with approximately one million total members, and gang affiliation and violence continue to rise. The situation is more serious than those numbers suggest, as the report to Congress focused on larger national gangs such as the Latin Kings and United Blood Nation and ignored the numerous smaller and unaffiliated crews.
Most of the African-American street gangs in Oakland are not large or organized groups participating in vast criminal enterprises. They are not easily identifiable by tattoos or the color of their clothing. Members often align themselves based solely on where they were born, and many are related. "Most probably don't consider themselves [members of] a gang," says Mark Harrison, a former homicide investigator in the East Bay and a gang expert. "[The other members] are just their people, their family."
These groups may deal drugs and commit crimes, but the principal aim of most of the African-American gangs in Oakland (which is 30.3% black) and Richmond (28.5% black) is to defend their neighborhood from outsiders, even if the reasons that it needs to be defended are not always apparent. "They won't harm a little kid, but the problem for a lot of athletes is that they look older than their age because they are bigger," says Pugh, the East Bay Warriors president. "A 12-year-old will look 14, and that is considered old enough that he should know not to be caught in the wrong neighborhood. A boy might just be riding his bike to practice or have to change buses someplace, and that will be enough to get him killed."
The gang Fred helped found, the On1 Boys, consisted of about 40 members. In his old neighborhood in North Oakland near Bushrod Park, where former major league star Rickey Henderson spent his childhood days playing baseball, Fred was called Little Al by the older boys who lived there. In East Oakland he became On1 Fred.
On1 is a malleable slang term similar to hyphy, which is the name of one of the most prominent African-American gangs in Oakland (the Hyphy Boys) and can mean, among other things, dangerous or crazy. Asked why he and his friends named the gang On1, Fred struggles to explain. "It's a little phrase that, like, means a lot of stuff," he says. "If we were On1, we might be drinking and stuff. If we were On1, we might be knocking people out." George Knox of the National Gang Crime Research Center says that gangs like On1, for example, were not likely counted in the report to Congress because "they are what we call a Level 0 gang. They would be a pre-gang, more of a neighborhood prey group."
That Fred ended up in a such a group is not surprising. His mother, Lolita Nunn, was a drug addict (she says she has been clean since 2006), and his father lived in Oregon. His male role models were older boys in North Oakland and Pugh, 44, who's also a cousin. He tried to get Nunn to sign Fred up for the East Bay Warriors, but it wasn't until Fred was 11 that she agreed. "That might have been too late to reach him," Pugh says.
Playing for the Warriors, even if for only a few years, changed Fred. After one of his first practices, he came home and did the dishes without being told. A stunned Nunn called Pugh, who explained that all his players were required to behave at school and for their parents or they couldn't play. Fred was a gifted quarterback and followed the program's rules, but in eighth grade he moved to East Oakland, and the On1 Boys were born. The following year his mother moved the two of them to Berkeley so her son could grow up in a better neighborhood; when it came time to transition from Pop Warner to high school football, Fred chose the On1 Boys instead.
IN 2005, DURING HIS freshman year at Berkeley High, Fred and two other On1 Boys stole a bike from a house near the school. Stealing a bike is usually akin to shoplifting a pack of gum in Fred's world, but the bike he stole cost more than $2,500, and he went into the house to steal it, which amounted to felony burglary. The judge wanted to incarcerate him, but Pugh, with the help of a probation officer he knew, came up with an alternative: Rite of Passage (ROP), a rehabilitation program for at-risk youths. Fred almost ruined the arrangement when, a few months later, he and friends entered a Cal frat house during a party and started snatching purses. Pugh was ready to give up on Fred but relatives persuaded him not to, and Fred was sent to Sierra Ridge Academy, an ROP facility near San Andreas, in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Athletics are a big part of ROP's curriculum. In addition to regular academic classes and once-a-week meetings with a case manager/counselor, Fred played on the ROP baseball team and traveled with a group of kids to Colorado to compete in a triathlonlike event among all ROP schools. Fred felt safe and directed at ROP, and it was amazing how quickly sports worked its magic. He pleaded with ROP administrators to release him early so he could be back at Berkeley High for football season. "You should see me play football. That is my sport," he told other ROP students.
Fred was released from ROP in the fall of 2006 and reenrolled at Berkeley High as a junior. Because of his criminal record he was shifted to Berkeley Tech, an affiliated "continuation" school for at-risk students. Fred got several jobs through a city program called YouthWorks, including one at the public library and another at a recreational center, running the scoreboard and cleaning the gym. In February '07 he spoke at the East Bay Warriors banquet, explaining how he had lost his way and how he had reformed. The following month he participated in Berkeley High's off-season workouts as a 5'9", 170-pound quarterback and cornerback, and began running to Memorial Stadium each morning. That summer he went with the team to a camp at Cal. "He was very motivated, and you could see it was important to him," says Alonzo Carter, Berkeley High's coach, "[because] his peers were trying to bring him down."
Unfortunately, before Fred could suit up for Carter, he learned of a new policy that prevented Berkeley Tech students from playing for Berkeley High's teams. Fred's grades were good; he could have transferred back to Berkeley High. But his mother didn't want him to leave the continuation school. "I worried if he went back to Berkeley High, he would end up in jail or get kicked out of school," she says. "You have to be really focused to do well at Berkeley High. It's so big [3,300 students]. B-Tech is smaller [118 students], more family organized, and he had black, male teachers. It was a really, really hard decision, but I just felt Fred should stay at B-Tech."
Despondent, Fred spent more time with the On1 Boys and less working out. Soon he found a lifeline: He heard how many college football players had played at the junior college level first. He told friends, "I'll still get there, just by a different route."
TODD WALKER, THE coach of the Berkeley Cougars youth football program, believes that if his athletes aren't fully divested from the street life by age 11 or 12, they are lost. "That is when the hard head sets in," he says. "By then they've been to, like, 30 funerals. All that death, all that violence, and no one helps them deal with it."
Walker, who lives in Richmond, loses a few kids every year. In 2006 Jaee Logan, 14, was shot three times and killed a day after he led the cheer that ends every Cougars practice. Jaee was a "house kid," a term for children rarely let outside by their guardians, which in his case was his father and grandparents. "When Jaee joined the program at 11, he was the rare kid who I had to make tougher," says Walker.
Jaee was shot in Oakland while walking to a friend's barbecue, his only crime being that his dreadlocks looked similar to those of a boy the shooter sought. During the gunfire, two boys with Jaee ran sideways from the source of the shots, seeking the cover of buildings. Jaee raced up the street. "That made him an easier target," Walker says. "He wasn't a street kid. He didn't know."
After Jaee's murder, which remains unsolved, relatives and friends founded S.A.V.O.Y (Stop All Violence on Youth), which promotes awareness of violence against kids. The Terrance TK Kelly Youth Foundation, which his father runs, sponsors education programs for kids in Richmond and neighboring towns. Before that came the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence, formed by the mother of Khadafy Washington, a football player at McClymonds High in Oakland, who was shot and killed in 2000. That nonprofit helps families handle the aftermath of an untimely death, such as burial costs and grief counseling.
Young athletes die, foundations are formed, but nothing changes.
"We know we can't stop the murders," says Marilyn Washington Harris, Khadafy's mother. "But we still have to try to help."
WALKER TRIES BY scaring kids. He takes them on tours of the funeral home where he works as a mortuary specialist. He shows them the meat wagon and the embalming room. Funerals are often showy affairs, and Walker, who also volunteers as a grief counselor for the Khadafy Foundation, wants kids to see the hard truths about death.
Pugh tries by grinding every day. He has cleared practice fields of syringes and condoms (using latex gloves provided by the city); negotiated with an Oakland gang so it wouldn't deal drugs during his team's practice; stopped fights in bleachers and parking lots between fathers from rival cliques; and instituted a dress code for adults who wore such revealing clothing that it led to scuffles when one boy commented on the body of another's mom. "We even had an issue with nipple rings" among parents, Pugh says. "I put out a bulletin about not wearing tight clothing and showing off your piercings."
If parents continue to violate a team policy, their kids are suspended for a week, same as if the players had broken a rule. "Kids want discipline, structure, and their parents or grandparents want help, so you'd be surprised how they follow the rules," Pugh says. "They won't [adhere] to a restraining order from the police, but they follow our rules because playing means so much to their kids."
Pugh has a brother in prison for murder who grew up just as he did in city housing in West Oakland. He doesn't presume to know why some kids make it out and others don't, but he knows playing football makes children feel better about their lives. But as youth violence becomes more pervasive—Pugh estimates that 20 to 30 of the players he's coached have been murdered, mostly in the last few years—kids are harder to help. Even Lynch, the East Bay Warriors' most famous alumnus, got shot at in 2006, a year before being drafted in the first round. He was in Oakland for his sister's high school graduation, and his car mistakenly was targeted at noon by an assailant who was never caught. (Someone called Lynch's mother 20 minutes later, apologizing for the mixup.)
"It's like the churches. It used to be that people wouldn't shoot someone in a church or do a drive-by in front of a church, but now that happens all the time," says Pugh. "Back in the day, being an athlete spared you. Now, nothing does."
IN BERKELEY, SHATTUCK Avenue bubbles with college students and tourists and young professionals. But as Shattuck stretches deeper into Oakland, the sidewalks empty and the houses and buildings are dilapidated and dire. Fred Lawson stepped off a bus on a particularly grim stretch of Shattuck one night in April. It was an area you didn't venture into unless you were raised there, a place where you could get shot just passing through. Fred was there because at a party earlier in the night a girl had suggested they meet up later at her house. She lived in North Oakland, off Shattuck, and even though he knew it wasn't a place he should go, he was a 17-year-old boy and she was a pretty girl.
He stayed at the girl's home until 3 a.m. and then faced a long walk back to Berkeley. He made it only a few blocks before the pop of gunshots sounded and he was on the ground writhing in pain. One bullet hit his right thigh, another pierced his back, puncturing his right lung. Two bullets hit his right arm, another two his left. Two more bullets hit his scrotum. He doesn't know who found him, but he ended up in Highland Hospital in Oakland, registered under an assumed name because of the facility's concerns that whoever shot him would try to finish the job.
Unlike so many of his peers, Fred didn't die, but his athletic dreams did. His use of his hands is so restricted that he can't even zip his jacket or click the seat belt in a car. He may never recover the full use of them. He walks slowly, like an old man with war wounds that never healed. He doesn't know if he was targeted or a random victim, and he doesn't care.
On a recent weekday Fred sat on the couch in his mother's apartment in Berkeley. His high school graduation was a week away, and he had finished enough schoolwork to walk with his class at the Greek Theatre. He was excited about that milestone but also worried about what comes next. Grambling State accepted him as part of an initiative to enroll more at-risk students, but even with a full complement of financial aid he doesn't believe he can afford it. "I know I want to go somewhere," he said. "I need to get out of here."
Fred then slowly stood up and walked gingerly toward his bedroom. He had hung a sheet of crinkled white paper on his bedroom door, on which was printed the Pledge of Success. Seeming to notice it for the first time, he read the first three lines out loud:
Today is a new day, a new beginning.
It has been given to me as a gift.
I can either use it or throw it away.
He stopped abruptly. He saw no point in going on.
THE HARDEST LOSS
Terrance Kelly did everything he could to sidestep gangs and danger. But then a 15-year-old gunned him down, leaving other athletes wondering how they could avoid the same fate
THE MURDER of Oregon-bound football star Terrance Kelly on Aug. 12, 2004, not only demonstrated the cavalier attitude toward life in Richmond, Calif., but it also extinguished what should have been an uplifting story of a teen using sports to overcome adversity. Landrin Kelly, Terrance's father, was a drug dealer and a prominent Richmond street figure by the time he was 18, when Terrance was born. With Terrance's mother living in San Francisco, the boy fell under the watchful eye of Landrin's mother, Bevlyn, a stern woman who ran a day-care center out of her home.
When Terrance was a toddler, Landrin served six months in a work-furlough program for possession of narcotics with intent to sell, but he eventually turned away from the streets, finding purpose as the coach of Terrance's baseball and football teams. "It was hard to leave the life," Landrin says. "The lavish cars and the money, it was good and easy. But I didn't want to be like my friends, locked up with six babies and not part of their lives."
Kids from the neighborhood goaded Terrance regularly, provoking him into fights. They would accuse him of thinking he was better than they were because of the Catholic elementary school where his grandmother had enrolled him. When he was accepted to De La Salle High in Concord, and played for its heralded football program, the challenges intensified. "You think you are all that because you go to De La Salle," kids would say, to which he would answer, "No, you think I am all that because I go to De La Salle."
It was not only jealousy, Landrin says, but also a perverse logic that pervades Richmond's Iron Triangle and other harsh neighborhoods like it: Someone striving for a different life insults those who do not. "It's like crabs in a bucket," he says. "They don't want to see anyone get out of the bucket."
One of the crabs reaching for Terrance was 15-year-old Darren Pratcher. Friends said Darren had a beef with Terrance, perhaps over his team's defeating Darren's in a three-on-three community basketball tournament the previous year. Terrance's athletic success, his popularity with girls, the fact that his family lived in a safer neighborhood on the south side of Richmond might also have accounted for Darren's resentment. During Darren's trial, a prosecutor showed the jury a placard with a rap lyric that Darren had written: "If you ain't from our part of town, you're a [expletive] target."
According to grand jury testimony obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, Darren borrowed a .22-caliber Marlin rifle from a neighbor who made sure to wipe his fingerprints off the gun before handing it over. ("That's just how I was raised," the neighbor explained in court.) One of Darren's friends told the grand jury that Darren was concerned after the father of a girl he had shot earlier that day with a pellet gun had come looking for him. But it was Terrance Kelly who arrived in Darren's neighborhood at around 10:40 p.m. to pick up the son of Landrin's girlfriend.
Terrance, a 6'1", 215-pound Super Prep All-America outside linebacker in high school, had spent most of the summer at Oregon with his future teammates and was home for only a few days before returning for practice, at which he was expected to challenge for a starting spot as a safety. He pulled his father's white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in front of the son's girlfriend's house and used his cellphone to let him know he had arrived. Minutes later Darren fired the first shot from three feet outside the passenger door. When the car started rolling, he walked alongside it and fired at least three more times, working the bolt action on the rifle between shots. Bullets hit Terrance twice in the right cheek, in the head and in the back.
When Bevlyn arrived at the scene, she saw her grandson's body and yelled, "Landrin, Landrin, is that our baby?"
"Yeah, Mom, that's our baby," Landrin said.
Bevlyn collapsed and suffered a heart attack. Two months and seven days after the shooting she died in her sleep.
In the days after Terrance's death, some of Landrin's childhood friends offered to kill Darren or members of his family. "Usually what happens is there is retaliation from the family so that [Darren's] parents can feel how we do," Landrin says. "In our community, in most urban environments, that is how it happens. I thought about it, but I didn't want my son's name to cause a bloodbath."
Darren would eventually be convicted, as an adult, of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, but the damage he caused went beyond ending Terrance's life.
"A lot of kids gave up after Terrance got killed," says Landrin. "They gave up sports and turned to the streets. They stopped feeling they could make it. They said, 'Terrance had all the tools and went to all the right schools and look what happened to him. How am I going to make it out?'"