|Mayors Against Murder
June 27, 2005
With the addition of two homicides last night, Richmond’s annualized rate has climbed to 39.18, edging out 2003 as the second highest on record in the last 10 years, but hopefully far below the decade’s record of 52 in 1994.
Media attention continues, focused on posturing of mayoral candidates for the race of 2006 (running for mayor on murder?). I liked Gayle McLaughlin’s Guest Commentary on Sunday, wherein she took up the torch for taxing Chevron fairly to pay for programs that could be productive in the fight against violence. I’ve been preaching that for a long time, and it’s nice to finally have at least one echo on the City Council. After unsuccessfully introducing several pieces of legislation over the years to right the Chevron utility user tax inequity, I’ve pretty much worn myself out on that one. Keep an eye on Gayle; she may be the next to unofficially announce for mayor.
Not being an active candidate for mayor (been there, done that – still trying to recover a $30,000 campaign loan) we focused on the world outside Richmond (There actually is one!) and spent a mellow three days at the 10th Annual Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival at Wavy Gravy’s Black Oak Ranch (commonly known as the “Hog Farm” up north of Willits. There were about 3,000 very laid back people there, including at least one Richmond resident, a woman victim of crime who had her guitar stolen but ultimately returned after a friendly crowd first donated the money to replace it.
Following are excerpts form the West County Times during the weekend:
Two nights before Father's Day, Oscar Solis, 27, was shot and killed in front of his 7-year-old daughter by two men who tried to rob him. The same weekend, a 14-year-old middle school student named Dante Bonner was fatally shot in the head as the car he was riding in pulled out of a gas station.
In what can only be described as bitter irony, eight people, as of this writing, had been murdered in street violence since the June 4 Richmond Black on Black Crime Summit. The town hall-style meeting was organized by community leaders to discuss ways to stop the killing that has plagued Contra Costa County's second most populous city for far too long.
It is the highest monthly total for homicides in nine years and has further traumatized a community that was already on edge.
Given the seriousness of the situation, it was disappointing to witness the political grandstanding among Richmond's elected officials attempting to outdo one another in their public show of responsiveness to community concerns.
City council members John Marquez and Maria Viramontes called a press conference to declare that the city was in a "state of emergency."
Their purpose appears to have been to promote interim Police Chief Terry Hudson's $2 million public safety plan -- most of which will be funded by Measure Q tax revenues.
However, the council members' use of the nebulous term fueled hysteria among residents. As a result, some people were afraid to leave their homes.
Without a doubt, the homicide rates in Richmond are unacceptable. The city has the unfortunate distinction of being the most dangerous in California.
The reality, however, is that despite the recent spree of killings, there hasn't been any significant change compared to last year.
In other words, Richmond has been in a "state of emergency," if you will, for more than a decade. Suddenly throwing that term around now to get media attention was irresponsible and all it did was scare people.
As Times reporters Karl Fischer and Rebecca Rosen Lum have reported, Richmond would most likely not qualify for disaster assistance under state criteria, so declaring a "state of emergency" effectively means nothing.
Not to be outdone by Marquez and Viramontes, Mayor Irma Anderson issued a press release announcing a "violence suppression initiative" and gave an interview to the Richmond Globe newspaper declaring a "War on Violence." She offered nothing we hadn't already seen before in the crime package that Hudson had put forward weeks earlier.
One can't help but wonder, with all of the jockeying, whether we are witnessing a warm-up for the 2006 mayoral race.
This, however, is not the time for playing politics.
Richmond's elected officials need to focus on the fact that young men are being shot dead on the streets with alarming frequency, rather than on their own political aspirations. All of the time and energy wasted on preening for the television cameras would have been much better spent looking for real solutions.
The underlying social and economic problems behind the violence are numerous and complex. The drug epidemic continues to rage, destroying families and communities. Youths selling drugs shoot each other over turf. Other times the violence is more random and less easily defined.
There are no one-size-fits-all, quick-fix solutions. If Richmond is to break the cycle of poverty and violence, it will take a sustained, multi-pronged effort by elected officials, law enforcement, church, business and community leaders.
Instead of insisting that their problems are everyone else's fault, Richmond residents must also be willing to accept responsibility for what is happening in their community.
The crime summit, which the Times co-sponsored, generated momentum. It was a good start, but it was only a start. It is time now, to move beyond the rhetoric to finding concrete solutions.
The City Council took an important first step Tuesday by voting to approve the $2 million public safety plan. That will put more police officers on the street and pay for an enforcement program targeting nine high-crime areas.
The summit organizers say they will meet this week to begin drafting a three-year plan of action for reducing homicides. If they are to capitalize on the momentum generated by the summit, they must complete the job quickly.
In the meantime, community and church leaders would be well advised to tone down the emotionally charged language.
It's one thing to motivate people to take charge of their communities and their lives. It's quite another to whip them into a mindless frenzy by scaring them senseless. That may burn off steam but produces very little in terms of long-term results. Controlled, channeled anger is what fuels lasting, meaningful change.
What Richmond residents so desperately need from their elected officials and community leaders during these tenuous times is strong leadership, not political posturing.
VORDERBRUEGGEN: TIMES POLITICAL EDITOR
Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson put the brakes on her rivals' race to place the frightened city in a state of emergency, but some wonder whether it's her own political career that could stall.
The city's fiscal woes and a shocking murder rate in June has left Anderson vulnerable and emboldened councilmembers Maria Viramontes and John Marquez.
Neither councilmember has publicly declared himself or herself a mayoral candidate but the buzz around town over the pair is screaming like a chainsaw in a log cabin factory.
The unofficial start to the 2006 mayor's race dates to May when City Manager Bill Lindsay asked staff for recommendations on how to spend the proceeds of a new sales tax that voters endorsed in November.
Police Chief Terry Hudson prepared a $1.5 million request that under normal circumstances would have competed with the city's other needs.
But June unleashed hell on the streets of Richmond as eight people died from gunshots in three weeks. The killings followed a tumultuous spring during which a string of assault-weapon shootings on the city's south side packed council meetings in April and May.
The pressure-cooker gained steam after the Richmond faith community held a Black-on-Black Crime Summit on June 4 and demanded swift action.
The religious leaders intentionally excluded city councilmembers from the summit planning in the hopes it would depoliticize the already emotional issue.
But Anderson and her rivals quickly raced to get out front of each other with press conferences, dueling initiatives and shouting matches.
It's "Politics 1-A," said professor Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.
"Incumbents get saddled with the failures of leadership whether they had anything to do with it or not," O'Connor said. "If you are running against an incumbent and something this big comes up, it's a good opportunity to try and take leadership."
Here's how it unfolded in the days following the summit:
• Week of June 6 -- Viramontes and Marquez meet with Hudson and present their crime-fighting plan, which largely matched the chief's proposal plus $500,000 for surveillance cameras and other programs.
• June 8 -- In the Richmond Globe, a weekly paper, Anderson declares that she will personally lead the city's campaign against crime.
• June 15 -- Anderson upstages her rivals' press conference scheduled for the next day with a release that voices her support for an anti-violence initiative that roughly mirrors Hudson's request.
• June 16 -- In a widely publicized press conference that drew both cheers and jeers, Viramontes and Marquez call for a state of emergency in nine or more neighborhoods, the adoption of a Firearm Violence Action Plan and allocation of nearly $2 million for fighting crime.
Marquez said he went public because the chief failed to respond to the pair's June proposal.
"The people were asking us, 'What are you going to do about the violence?'" Marquez said. "We wanted to tell the public that we had a plan and we were trying to address their concerns."
• June 17, 18 and 19 -- Three more people die, including a man killed in front of his young daughter, and a 14-year-old boy. It launches an already explosive situation into the stratosphere.
• June 21 -- Hundreds show up to a Richmond City Council meeting, where they watch Anderson and Viramontes repeatedly shout each other down before an emotional audience. (The council ultimately rejects the state of emergency but gives police $2 million to fight crime.)
So, will it be Viramontes or Marquez on the ticket?
"I haven't decided about that yet," Marquez said via cell phone from New York, where he was on business. "But in politics, you never say never."
Viramontes remains equally elusive, although most Richmond political observers believe the two won't run against other because it would split the Latino vote. (While Latinos typically vote in lower numbers, they comprise a quarter of the population, up 12 percentage points in the past decade.)
On the surface, Marquez is the obvious choice because he won a four-year council post in November. If he loses, he still has a job.
Viramontes' term is up in 2006, which means she must choose between the council seat or the mayor's race.
Marquez, on the other hand, came in dead-last in a field of four when he ran against Anderson for mayor in 2001, a poor spot from which to stage a rematch.
Viramontes is in a far stronger position to challenge the incumbent. She's a woman. She's articulate. She's strong on policy.
And while critics called her role in the press conference a publicity stunt that tarnished Richmond's already troubled reputation, others laud her as a crusader willing to stand up for terrorized neighborhoods.
It's also an open question where the black community will spend its political capital. But at least one prominent black preacher, Rev. Andre Shumake, has openly panned the African-American mayor and others could follow. (Blacks have lost ground in Richmond in the past decade, sliding from 43 percent of the population to 36 percent, but they still wield considerable clout.)
Of course, neither may run and others could step forward. This is a mercurial city where the only predictable thing about its politics is its unpredictability.
But one thing remains constant: Richmond people care and they will hold their elected officials' feet to the fire even if it occasionally produces a foul smell.
Whomever ends up on the ballot had better invest in some serious shoe leather.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen writes on politics on Wednesdays and Sundays. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or email@example.com. You can also reach her through her on-line forum at www.contracostatimes.com. Click on "Talk to the Times."
IN THE GUEST commentary of June 11, Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson reflected on the June 4 Black on Black Crime Summit held in Richmond. This event was organized by African-American Christian and Muslim ministers to readdress the endemic problem of violent crime that has decimated Richmond for at least 25 years and cost hundreds of young lives.
In her commentary, the mayor pledged to support youth programs, citing an upcoming initiative funded by private contributions that will give 200 young people part-time jobs for the summer.
More recently, other members of the council have called for a "state of emergency," insisting that only a larger police presence will solve the ongoing violence problem.
I respectfully disagree with my fellow city councilpersons. We are not currently going through a violence "crisis" in Richmond, but continuing to suffer from chronic violence, several decades in the making.
Richmond's chronic street violence is largely drug- and/or gang-related. The availability of drugs to be traded and the use of guns to secure turfs are key causal factors.
Even deeper roots lie in our decimated educational system and lack of jobs, which create a giant surplus of desperate and angry unemployed young men. When young men in the drug trade are confronted, countless times they tell us: "You want my gun? Give me a job!"
I profoundly believe that most of our troubled young men would chose a better life if given the right opportunities and the appropriate guidance.
How do we make significant and long-lasting opportunities exist for alienated and underserved young people?
Not through greater police repression. Mayor Anderson's summer job program is certainly well-intentioned, but it is insufficient, and the impact of such a small program on Richmond's street violence will be, I believe, minuscule.
Mayor Anderson and many of my colleagues on the Richmond City Council would love to have the money to invest in youth employment and education-strengthening programs.
Let us be clear: the money is within reach, but most of my city council colleagues are unwilling to pay the political price to access those funds. I refer to closing the corporate loopholes that allow multibillion corporations like Chevron to get away without paying millions of dollars of taxes to the city every year.
Repealing the utility users' tax cap granted to Chevron more than 10 years ago would generate millions of dollars of revenue to support Richmond youth programs.
The cycle of violence in Richmond also has another difficult mechanism: the fewer resources we use to prevent violence with employment and education, the more dangerous is the job of repressing the local violence, and police and firefighters officers expect more compensation for the work they perform.
The public safety unions swallow the bulk of the city's budget, and take the lion's share of any new initiative that the citizenry may vote into effect, such as Measure Q.
Chevron and the public safety unions directly influence the decisions of the Richmond City Council. Chevron spent approximately $150,000 in the last elections to support its candidates. The "Keep Richmond Safe" PAC of the Richmond Police Officers Association and the Richmond Firefighters Association spent close to $120,000.
It is very hard for Richmond elected officials to ignore the weight these powerhouses exert on their political futures.
The special interests will attack anyone who questions their priorities and calls for a fairer distribution of resources. And so, youth programs are chronically underfunded, and the cycle of violence continues.
The city of Richmond needs to remove the utility users' tax cap and collect the millions in additional dollars due to our city. The city needs to allocate millions of dollars every year to a year-long youth part-time employment program that hires, trains and educates several thousand young residents.
The life of one Richmond child is certainly more valuable than the profits of Chevron stockholders, and infinitely more valuable than the political careers of any city council member.
McLaughlin is the first Green ever elected to the Richmond City Council.