Every week, between 10 and 30 men meet for hours at the Rainbow Recreation Center in East Oakland. These are the Men of Influence — mostly ex-convicts who have transformed themselves into respected neighborhood elders, intervening when violence is imminent on the Oakland streets. Their goal is simple: to reduce the shootings and homicides that have so plagued Oakland over the years.
These men are using the organizational skills most of them developed working on criminal enterprises to make a life-and-death difference at street level. With about 18 core members, each man is responsible for a five-to-10-block area. When they get wind of a dispute, they go to work on a mediation plan before violence breaks out.
Photos by Deborah Svoboda
Glen Upshaw started the Men of Influence in January after his 15-year-old neighbor was killed by a stray bullet. Born and raised in Oakland, Upshaw served time in prison as a young man for robbing a grocery store, and as an adult for domestic violence. Now he works as a violence interrupter for California Youth Outreach in Oakland. He has three adult sons, all incarcerated, two on murder convictions. Those stemmed from a gunbattle in which a young innocent bystander was killed. That boy was the son of an old friend, and his death affected Glen deeply. He says his greatest hope is that the boy’s family will forgive his sons.
Gerald Lampkin is the product of a long legacy of violence. His grandfather was murdered before he was born, and when he was 1 year old his father went to prison for homicide. Nineteen years later, it was his father who visited Lampkin in prison — he was doing time for attempted murder. Lampkin spent 12 years in and out of jail. During a stint at Pelican Bay, he says, he saw a man two weeks from his release fatally shot. It wasn’t the first time he witnessed a man murdered in prison, but he resolved it would be the last, and that he would never return. Lampkin hopes Oakland can reduce its homicide count from 131 in 2012 to 80 — though he says 50 would be better.
Richard Shaw started dealing drugs when he was 15. He joined Oakland’s notorious Broadway Hustlers gang, selling cocaine to sailors passing through town, then working his way up the organization. After several stints in prison, he made a lot of money turning coke into crack, earning the nickname “Richie Rich.” In the mid-’80s, he became a fugitive, was eventually caught, and sent back to jail. After he was released: back to the streets. In the mid-’90s, he went to jail on a felony charge of indecent exposure related to an argument with a woman in a bar. He then lost everything – drugs, cars, money and even the legitimate businesses he had built up. Now he says he’s applying the same lessons he used in the drug-dealing game to start a house-painting business.
Lamar Allen is one of the few Men of Influence who has never gone to prison. He attended college at California State University, Long Beach, where he majored in African American studies. Allen’s parents were career drug dealers who were teenagers when he was born, and he was raised by his grandparents. Allen, born and raised in Oakland, says playing baseball kept him from selling drugs — but that was rare among his friends. When he was a teen, one of them was murdered. Allen was the first in his family to go to college, which he says inspired some of his relatives to apply.