TODAY’S TOPIC: Youth Gangs Fight Bus System Vandalism
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ ″Mugsy,″ Vernon and Jose rule the turf from 16th Avenue to 105th, rough East Oakland neighborhoods that not long ago featured drug deals, assaults and vandalism on public buses.
The three say they grew up terrorizing the buses for fun. With other gang members, they sold marijuana, beat up and robbed riders and attacked drivers who interfered.
″We used to ride the bus with nothing to do, and just like Halloween, oohh, boy - put our masks and stuff on and just ride the bus and terrorize and have fun,″ Jose Huntley, leader of the 85th Avenue gang, recalled nonchalantly.
″That’s how we made our name,″ bragged Vernon Lewis, leader of the 90th Avenue Lovers.
After a driver was shot to death during a 1980 drug deal, AC Transit tried everything, said Robert Shamoon, assistant general manager for operations of the 758-square mile transit district that operates 850 buses in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
There were cameras on buses, more two-way radios, increased security, police surveillance and the inevitable community committee.
Problems persisted until Shamoon engineered a program he says cut in half the $1.2 million-a-year vandalism and curtailed drug dealing and assaults. He hired leaders of gangs largely responsible for the damage, paying them to convince their followers to stop.
This year, AC expects to pay about $482,000 for vandalism repairs - and $140,000 to operate Bay Area United Youth.
″Some people call it ‘protection’,″ admits Shamoon. ″I don’t care what you call it - it works.″
Shamoon dropped by a meeting of a community subcommittee of youth early in 1981. He listened to the burly Lewis, angrily complaining that East Oakland youth had been cheated of recreational activities promised by civic leaders.
They agreed their problems boiled down to a lack of money for recreation and no jobs, Shamoon says.
″These are valuable people,″ says Shamoon. ″You look at them, and they’re good-looking youth, and just going to waste because they had to resort to crime to survive.″
He called a conference with about 45 gang leaders, resisting advice to take police along. Dressed in a three-piece suit and talking tough, Shamoon says inside he was quivering.
He recalls telling them: ″If we don’t strike a deal here, if we don’t get this stuff taken care of, then I am going to bring enough muscle and police to plow it under and plant okra in here.″
He says now, ″One of the things they thought was this guy’s either crazy or he can do what he says, and they weren’t sure.″
While they mulled it over, he told them their bus behavior wasted community tax money, and repair contracts sent funds to out-of-town companies.
″I’ll give you jobs to clean the yards and stuff, and to keep vandalism out,″ he told them. ″It will last as long as the vandalism is down.″
About 200 youths have been hired at various times during the four years the program has been in effect. Lewis is the group’s president; Huntley its publicity director; Willie ″Mugsy″ Bradley of the High Street gang runs the work crews that clean bus maintenance yards.
″Vandalism stopped real quick,″ says Huntley. ″It took us about a minute to get the graffiti under control because there were a lot of little kids watching us as they were riding the bus doing something, saying, ‘Oh, I want to be like Vernon or I want to be like Mugsy.’ That’s when we started going into the schools and stuff, letting them know what we were all about.″
″It’s like if you want to be with us, you got to do what we do,″ says Lewis.
Some young workers have avoided jail or juvenile hall in return for service.
″Do they play a leadership role in the community?″ asks AC spokesman Mike Curry. ″You bet.″
Huntley was first arrested at the age of 6 for shoplifting and later spent two years in prison for attempted murder. His 26-year-old cousin recently was arrested on a drug charge and Huntley says, shaking his head, ″He’ll never see daylight. What good does it do?″