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Hood Ride

book cover
Gary Rivlin deconstructs a murderous situation for which all share responsibility

By Michael Mechanic

THE PEOPLE SPOKE, and the politicians listened. Fed up with crime, Californians wanted vengeance, an eye for an eye. And they got it--a state that spends more on prisons than schools; more on guards than teachers; three strikes, and you're up the river for good.

On March 26, the voters spoke again, this time to approve overwhelmingly a ballot initiative that allows prosecutors to ask for the death penalty for those convicted of murder in drive-by shootings. Dismissing the moral arguments of death-penalty opponents and the high pecuniary toll of the public-sponsored death countdown, those casting their ballots voted from the gut, rather than the intellect.

Had the law-and-order diehards bothered to pick up a copy of East Bay journalist Gary Rivlin's Drive-By, they would have met their adversaries face-to-face. They would have learned something of the lives and families involved and, perhaps, begun to understand the complex anatomy of a seemingly pointless killing that leaves an innocent young man dead and three others rotting in prison, as kids in bad circumstances trade in their Nintendos for Tec-9 semiautomatics. It might have even changed their vote.

Rivlin introduces us to several East Oakland extended families whose lives become intertwined by a fatal drive-by shooting. To avenge an assault and bike theft that happened the previous day, a trio of older boys shoots at a group of middle-school kids that includes one of the assailants, killing an innocent boy and injuring an innocent teenage girl in the process. The young killers swear they hadn't set out to shoot anybody--only perhaps to confront or scare them.

While the Bay Area's newspapers typically report on such murders as daily crime-and-punishment stories, Rivlin shows us that the real story isn't the crime itself but an understanding that emerges from an in-depth recollection of the societal circumstances and social histories that make such meaningless crimes not only possible, but likely.

Rivlin provides a thorough context for his real-life plot, painting a picture of a forsaken city that could have been--and indeed once was--a haven for working-class families. But recession, business flight and neglect of the poorest neighborhoods by city leaders--compounded by the introduction of a devastating new drug called "crack" during the 1980s--allowed East Oakland to deteriorate into a frightening place to raise a family.

EVEN AS WE get to know the relatives of the murderers and their victims, and the kids themselves, we can sense public schools and communities crumbling under their feet and the well-intended government housing projects around Oakland turning into cauldrons of tension and despair.

Rivlin recalls the massive flight of large canneries and engine manufacturers from East Oakland during the 1970s and '80s, taking with them thousands of blue-collar jobs.

He also chronicles the postcrack flight of retail businesses in the Elmhurst neighborhood of East Oakland during the 1980s--reporting that nine of 11 banks vacated the area between 1982 and 1990, while the number of check-cashing outlets--which charge up to 5 percent to cash a paycheck--had quadrupled. Small businesses and supermarkets closed, leaving only overpriced, poorly stocked mom-and-pops for groceries.

"Twenty years earlier, a teenager just getting by in school could have found work at one of the hundreds of factories in East Oakland," Rivlin reports. "By the mid-1980s, East Oakland's sole growth industry seemed to be drug dealing. Even a job as a bag boy was out of the question because the nearest supermarket was now miles away."

Drive-By could have just as easily been written about parts of New York, Compton or East Palo Alto--as similar lives and circumstances have been played out again and again in all of America's crack-ravaged cities--but Oakland was a natural for Rivlin. As a staff writer for the East Bay Express, a Berkeley weekly newspaper, Rivlin had already chronicled the rise of crack cocaine and watched Oakland rack up record numbers of homicides during two successive years in the early 1990s. In 1992, Rivlin dissected the accidental murder of 2-year-old Jerod Anthony Jones--the city's 98th victim that year--in a West Oakland drive-by shooting.

The resulting story was perhaps the best piece of community journalism Oakland had seen in years. While daily papers slogged through one killing after another, Rivlin jumped into the trenches with detectives, convicts and families of the victim and convicted, and emerged with a far broader perspective of the problem.

In Drive-By, Rivlin applies similar reporting methods to another murder, this one taking place in a portion of East Oakland dubbed "The Killing Zone" by cops and residents. It is a stretch of neighborhoods where most school kids have been acquainted with at least one murder victim and where "grinding" (street dealing) is a rite of passage for many adolescent males.

Here lives Tony "Fat Tone" Davis, a small-time crack broker, neglected by his junkie mother and abandoned by his father--leaving him to grow up under his grandmother's apathetic watch. We also meet Ann Benjamin and her son "Junebug," a bright youngster who would have flourished in better circumstances but was dragged down by his surroundings.

We also meet the Reed family, who, despite their struggle for a better life, end up with a son dead at the hands of Fat Tone, who believed he was being loyal to Junebug. Also involved was Junebug's pal Aaron, who probably never thought he'd end up driving a murder vehicle. Rivlin carefully explores the events leading up to the murder and the grief, remorse and soul searching that follow it. In addition, he explores his own attitudes and his relationships with those involved.

So who was to blame? Was it the trigger man, Fat Tone? Or Junebug, who was goaded by his peers into seeking revenge in some form? Was it the absentee parents? The government? The drug suppliers? The whites that abandoned the neighborhoods at the first signs of decline? The businesses that fled, making drug-dealing one of the few viable economic options for youngsters? Rivlin makes us aware of the complexity of these questions.

If one conclusion emerges, it is that we are heading rapidly down the wrong path by addressing the symptoms rather than the root problems of our ills. Our priorities are askance. State government has gutted after-school programs and job training for teens. In 1994, Rivlin reports, California was dead last in student access to technology and had the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation.

And California's solution to crime--more cops, more prisons--is clearly failing. "The irony--the tragedy--is that while the state's inmate population increased more than sixfold in the 16 years prior to 1994, the crime rate continued to follow its usual pattern of rises and dips," Rivlin writes.

For those living in the comfort of ignorance, Drive-By is a wake-up call, a thoroughly researched revelation of how a bad situation can spiral out of control when few with political clout care enough, or are willing to dig in deep enough, to battle the root causes of inner-city violence.

By Gary Rivlin
Henry Holt; 271 pages; $25 cloth

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro's Literary Quarterly

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