In this fifth installment, Obbie looks at a different side to victim advocacy in Los Angeles, one in which violence prevention, intervention, and treating trauma are the priority, rather than the traditional get-tough on crime movement that held sway in the state of California for decades.
But before we get to the latest chapter, here’s a rundown of Obbie’s first four installments.
Part 1 tells the story of a mother named Linda White whose daughter was raped and murdered by a pair of 15-year-olds. When White and her husband were first reeling with shock and grief at their daughters horrific death, they found some solace in groups like Parents of Murdered Children, which pushed for—among other things—tougher sentencing laws.
“Soon, though,” Obbie writes, “the meetings’ emphasis on punishment started feeling to White like a hollow promise. ‘I didn’t feel like anyone was talking to me about healing, about moving forward. It was just about getting even,’ she says.”
Obbie details how the groups the Whites joined initially were a part of the California victims’ rights movement that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, which worked for more respect for victims, but also joined with law and order advocates to lobby for more retribution when it came to sentencing.
But being a crime victim isn’t a one-size-fits all experience. Over the next few decades, many victims of crime became uncomfortable with the traditional approach, and looked for other forms of healing and reform.
In the beginning, Obbie writes, the traditional crime victim lobbying organizations pretty much marginalized anyone who didn’t toe the party line. But, in the last decade, all that has begun to change.
Linda White representative of that wave of change. Along with her husband, she pulled away from the traditional route. Instead, White finished her college degree, got a master’s degree in psychology, and found the concept of restorative justice. This, in turn, led to her decide she wanted to meet her daughter’s killer….
CONFRONTING MEN WHO COMMIT VIOLENT CRIME
In Part 2, Obbie tells of the daughter and brother of a murder victim, killed in a home break in. Both the daughter, Kelly Watts, and her uncle, John Sage, struggled painfully for years, like White, to find a method for dealing with their wounds.
Kelly got a doctorate in psychology, and now counsels patients coping with grief and trauma, including veterans.
John Sage found his own way of giving his grief purpose by starting a program called Bridges to Life, in which volunteers go into prisons and talk to inmates convicted of violent crimes to tell them of the effect of their actions, in an attempt to “awake in prisoners a sense of empathy for and accountability to their victims.”
What sets Bridges to Life apart from other inmate educational programs, writes Obbie, is its volunteer teaching staff, made up of many crime victims or, like Sage, murder victims’ survivors.
“These victim-counselors deliver a message of redemption through apology and atonement, using their own painful stories to drive home the devastating effects of crime on others.”
Bridges to Life is now one of the largest inmate program providers inside Texas’ huge prison system.
BILL OTIS, TOUGH-ON-CRIME’S TRUE BELIEVER
Part 3 is a story about William Otis, the very influential criminal justice expert who thinks that sentencing reform of any kind is a terrible idea. While conservatives with last names like Meese, Gingrich, and Koch are pushing hard to “pull back from the extremes that gave America its distinction as the world’s prison warden,” Otis, Obbie writes, has a simple but powerful message, “one that has held sway for four decades now.” It is this: Any retreat on harsh sentencing would be a threat to safety and an insult to victims….
VICTIM ADVOCACY MEETS POLICE REFORM: SUSAN HERMAN, THE NYPD’S NEW SECRET WEAPON
In Part 4 we learn that New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has created a new executive-level post inside the NYPD that he hopes will repair the department’s broken relationship with black New Yorkers. The position is deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, and its first hand-picked occupant is Susan Herman, a longtime advocate for crime victims with a progressive approach to policing.
“Solving police departments’ race problems, Bratton has declared, is ‘the issue of our times,’ especially among citizens feeling ‘overpoliced and underprotected’—those citizens, in other words, at greatest risk of both imprisonment and victimization.”
One way to get an idea of Bratton’s view of changing police culture and making peace with citizens in a racially divided city, writes Obbie, is to revisit what he accomplished at the Los Angeles Police Department. “His experience there also hints at what Herman might accomplish in her role under Bratton….”
CRIME VICTIMS WHO DEVOTE THEIR LIVES TO PREVENTION NOT PUNISHMENT
Finally, in Part 5 of his series on crime victims, Mark Obbie begins by telling the story of Laura Sanchez, a 34-year-old mother of four, who was killed in a drive-by gang shooting in 2007. The gangsters were aiming at somebody else. Actually, they had intended to shoot her eldest son, a 17-year-old honors student. The shooters were black, and were looking for Latino rivals. They didn’t know Sanchez’ son, but decided he would do.
Sanchez’s death had a fearful symmetry. Her own mother had been shot and killed nine years earlier in a drive-by shooting while waiting on the front porch for Sanchez and her family to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner.
Adela Barajas, Sanchez sister-in-law, a single mother, stepped in to help raise Sanchez’ children. (Barajas brother—Sanchez’ husband—was shot in yet another drive-by, but non-fatally.)
Barajas was the family member who fought with the city bureaucracy to get Sanchez’ kids and her husband family grief and trauma counseling. The services on offer were minimal—not even close to what the kids needed, especially the 17-year-old who’d watched his mother get shot in his sted.
In the hope of helping other victims get better treatment, Barajas started a community organization where she counsels grieving family members, and guides them in learning how to wrestle what they need from the victim services system, and gives teens a safe place to go after school. (At 5 a.m., Barajas goes to work in an office job. When she comes home in the afternoon, she does her volunteer work.)
She calls her organization Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts—--LAURA.
In the eight years since the murder of her sister-in-law, Barajas has focused her work for LAURA on two realities of her community’s condition: trauma and danger.
Trauma, she has learned, devastates families if they fail to overcome a natural reluctance to confront their traumatic losses and fears—a process that is often difficult to do without help. The second reality, which is a twin to the first, is the “relentless conveyer belt” delivering children to gangs, drugs, hopelessness and violence unless someone intervenes.
Barajas and her fellow volunteers attempt to help traumatized families toward healing, while also being that “someone else” who intervenes with neighborhood kids in whatever way is needed.
Barajas is one of a growing number in Los Angeles who are working toward those twinned endeavors.
There is, for example, Aqeela Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip who was one of the architects of the Blood-Crip truce of 1992. Sherrells was well-known for his violence prevention work by the time his son, Terrell Sherrills, who was home on vacation from college, was murdered in 2004 in a minor dispute at a party, where some young gangsters showed up unexpectedly. (WLA NOTE: A lot of people claim to have helped broker the 1992 truce. Aqeela is the real deal.)
Now Sherrills works for Californians for Safety and Justice, trying to bring additional intervention and prevention resources to Watts….
Along with Barajas and Sherills, Obbie profiles, The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement; Karl Cruz, an activist in a faith-based program called Victory Outreach whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community; and Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries (who, obviously, we at WLA know very well, and value beyond measure).
Obbie describes how Boyle started the jobs and intervention program that would eventually turn into Homeboy Industries when, as a young paster at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights he had to bury so many kids who were victims of gang violence.
According to Obbie, Father Greg says that one of his biggest frustrations is explaining to skeptics why he’s making such an investment in rehabilitating gang members, when there are so many victims of their violence that need help, too. “Boyle points out that gang violence itself is the product of victimization. ‘You look at those ASPCA commercials,” he says, “and they’ll have a picture of a dog who’s quite shaken and trembling and beaten up, and it will say, “Abandoned, tortured, abused.” And there isn’t a single gang member who’s ever walked through these doors—not one in 26 years—about whom you couldn’t say all three. Abandoned, beaten, and abused. And so that’s the profile of why somebody joins a gang: trauma, despair, and mental health issues.’
Obbie also writes that Boyle has little patience for politicians who proclaim, that they “stand with the victims.”
“It’s so dumb,” Boyle says. “How is this at odds with that? It just isn’t. It’s just the least sophisticated take on crime at its sources….”
“Americans are conditioned to see the harsh punishment of offenders as the best form of justice for crime victims,” writes Obbie near the end of Chapter 5. But Barajas, Sherrills, Boyle and their allies see things differently. They focus on both victims and offenders, addressing trauma care, crime prevention, and rehabilitation of former prisoners—-instead of police crackdowns and long sentences. And more and more they work with police, not at odds with them. They “wade into the messy consequences of violence, drugs, imprisonment, and chronic poverty resolved to replace a war on crime with a quest for peace….”