As millions celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday with family, dozens were forced to grieve after a loved one was killed in Oakland. From Wednesday through Sunday, Oakland police say six people died to violent crime bumping this year’s count to 115 homicides. On Friday, the number of homicides surpassed all of 2011’s totals when it hit 111.
While city leaders struggle with that number, some are crediting one man for invaluable work that may have saved many lives already: Kevin Grant. He left federal prison in 1989 for the last time, vowing to stay away from the life he knew growing up in Oakland. Grant switched gears, applying his perspective to helping the people who grew up in the same streets he toughed out as a kid.
In front of a couple dozen new parolees at a halfway house in Hayward, Grant spoke effortlessly about finding the right path in life. For him, it was redirecting his energy into helping out troubled youth and adults, with his outreach efforts into the hottest crime spots in Oakland – a journey that has lasted more than two decades. In 2004, after voters passed Measure Y, Grant became the city’s violence prevention coordinator, leading teams into neighborhoods to speak one-on-one with those on the verge of dangerous behavior and activity.
“Let’s say the average shooting times, bad times, are from 7 to 11,” Grant explained. “The team will show up at a little before 7, get their coordinates together and start the walking. They’ll engage people as they go and say, ‘Hey you guys all right?’”
Oakland police recognize Grant’s work as vital in connecting with people who otherwise might not trust someone approaching them in uniform. Captain Ersie Joyner, who said he’d worked with Grant for 12 years, added that “some of the work Kevin Grant and his people have done have been a way to bridge a relationship that needed to be repaired.”
For Grant, the relationship with Oakland police is a blessing, especially because officers don’t turn around and ask for Grant’s teams to squeal on the people they’re talking to. “We go in there, we don’t give out any information. OPD won’t even ask us for information.”
Akil Truso, 44, grew up in West Oakland and is one of Grant’s team leaders. “We just want to build a relationship with these guys so that when something is about to happen, by us having maintained a relationship with them, we can step in and try to bring our ‘guns down’ message to them. These guys admit it’s a tough job because much of it stems from random acts of violence, not gang activity.
“Oakland is a spontaneous city if you get in my parking spot today, that’s how simple it is, you will get shot,” Grant said. “You might be a gang member, I might be a gang member, but that wasn’t gang-related. You just got in my parking spot.”
Grant has had success with roundtables – face-to-face meetings set up after a week or two’s time between rivals to prevent any further retaliation and bloodshed. Grant believes they’ve been successful 75 percent of the time, holding these meetings three to six times every month. “I think the biggest thing that works is we let them know that neither one of you really want to die.”
Grant’s efforts have been recognized outside city limits, by the California Wellness Foundation, which chose Grant as one of three winners of its annual “California Peace Prize.” Though it comes with a $25,000 prize, Grant said the best part of the job is seeing actual change happen on the streets.
“The award [they’re giving] me is great, but what works better for me is when one of my loved ones sees me on the streets and says, ‘Kev, thank you man. I’m working now. I’m doing this, Kev.’”