Healing 44th Street
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A tragic act of violence this summer seems to have galvanized one City Heights neighborhood, and those who lost the most are displaying the fiercest determination to solve the problems that playing 44th street. Megan BROWN prepared this story for KPBS. NEW SPEAKER: Three guys parked on the corner, a block away, and they walked up. NEW SPEAKER: They came, put up a gun, and it happened so fast. NEW SPEAKER: They tried to kill everybody they saw. NEW SPEAKER: He said hold up, I'm shot or something, and just stumbled and dropped to the ground. NEW SPEAKER: I'm getting text messages coming on my phone, I see in all caps, dead. BROWN: Rickquese McCoy was dressed in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn't the shooter's intended target. He wasn't caught up in gangs. His murder shock the 4,400-block of 44th street. Ricky McCoy senior is Rickquese's grandfather. He says the silence was too much to bear. NEW SPEAKER: For about a week or two, nobody would come outside anymore. And we're right across the street from an elementary school. BROWN: McCoy and grief counselors from the San Diego compassion project organized a community meeting. Hundreds packed the auditorium of the elementary school to talk about their fear and the frustration of seeing another black teenager gunned down. For pent up residents, the emotional release was the easy part. Then counselor Dana BROWN asked about solution. NEW SPEAKER: It was silent. And then an individual looked at me and said no one's ever asked us that before. BROWN: Residents spent the rest of the night brain storming solutions. Ideas ranged from installing surveillance cameras to hosting a sports tournament for rival gangs. Was stuck was to heal the community, they'd have to heal its individuals. They told BROWN that ultimately, the tension in their community stems from poverty and a lack of resources. NEW SPEAKER: There's homeless, there's dropouts, there's gangs, there's domestic violence, there's bullying, there's just about anything that is in the world that is painful is on this block. On the flip side, brilliant opportunities. BROWN: The meeting inspired Rickquese's grandfather to get to work. A sign he printed up reads "neighborhood meeting" in big block letters. NEW SPEAKER: I decided I would be, instead of being a product of my environment, I would have my environment be a product of me. And the only way to do that is to get out there and change something. Okay, okay. Put your name on something. Put your favor out there in the world. BROWN: Each week McCoy welcomes neighborhoods to the Court yard of his apartment complex. He calls it his outdoor conference room. Neighbors sit down to work on getting neighbors' help. NEW SPEAKER: We always give out resources every Sunday. BROWN: McCoy and his neighbors pass around job listings and fliers for post traumatic stress disorder workshops. They talk about finding a Spanish speaker who will help them share the resources with their immigrant neighbors. The conversation always turns to the police department. NEW SPEAKER: Now we have to draw the line in the sand and say look, you guys, the San Diego police department, need to step up. Step up and step out and get to know us. BROWN: Mid-city police say they're listening. They're working with 44th street residents to start a neighborhood watch, and they've even gone door to door with McCoy to introduce themselves. McCoy is cautiously optimistic. He says he's waiting for the officers to come around again, and he's anxious to reach Marine Corps residents, especially the young ones. Jim Clark has been a 44th street resident for 40 years. NEW SPEAKER: An unhappy kid will take unhappy ways. In other words, if I don't feel good, I'm going to get even. Or if they have been treated good, then they trust you. People trust this, they're happy, they want to give back happy. BROWN: Already things are changing on the block. On a recent Sunday, kids threw down their bikes to scramble for money. The ice cream truck was back. CAVANAUGH: And this is KPBS Midday Edition. I'd like to welcome my guests, Dana BROWN of the San Diego compassion project. You heard her in that feature. Hi, Dana. BROWN: Hi hello. CAVANAUGH: And SDSU professor Audrey Hokoda, she co-leads SDSU's youth violence lab. Professor, thank you for coming in. HOKODA: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Rickquese McCoy was not the only victim of that shooting. How many families were involved? HOKODA: Ultimately I would say hundreds. Steven McClendon, age 34, Rickquese McCoy, just turned 18, lost their lives. Tim walker also was shot and survived. However, it isn't thought the loved ones that were traumatized by what happened on June 30th. Hundreds of people, class mates that knew them, family and friends that knew them, neighbors that heard the shots, people around the block and the neighboring blocks. When you have helicopters flying overhead for hours and sirens, and screams. So ultimately hundreds. CAVANAUGH: Now, Dana, you go into communities throughout San Diego to council families after there's been a homicide. Often it's gang-related. Tell us what exactly project compassion does BROWN: San Diego compassion project is a group of volunteers. We call it wrap our angel wings around the grieving. We're trained by the San Diego police department, crisis intervention, and gang unit. And detectives. And we are individuals that when we're invited, we stay long-term. We never leave, literally. We started the end of December in 2008, and there were three homicides at that time in succession. And just a group got together and said we have to do something. So it is a collective group of hearts and souls that bring resources. We don't have any money. We're not an organization in that respect. But we have an abundance of love and unconditional support. And literally stay long-term. CAVANAUGH: And out of all those incidents, you say that's what happened in response to the violence on 44th street, how is that different? BROWN: The residents are leading this. It is purely 100% residence-driven, residence-led. And it's Phoenix rising out of the ashes. It is absolutely the community wrapping around the residents on this block, it's mobilizing the resources, wrapping around. And yet if the residents didn't own this and lead this, I really don't -- I mean, it's been 4.5 months. And we are in awe of what has been accomplished in 4.5 months, and that is because of the residents. Because of Rick senior, Rick junior, Jim Clark, are Kelly shields, some of Rickquese's friends: The youth are meeting every week also. So there is a transformation on that block from what was told to me at the beginning, this block is hopeless, now there is hope. And that is through the belief systems of the residents transforming and bringing hope and healing to this block. CAVANAUGH: Professor, let me get some of your expertise. As I said, you're a leader at SDSU's youth violence lab. Are the residents that we heard in the feature, are they right when they say that to stop violence, they have to improve the lives of individuals? HOKODA: Yes, absolutely. And mobilize, as they're doing. They're bringing together the youth and the parent leaders, and they're working alongside law enforcement, faith-based organizations, school, government. CAVANAUGH: What role have you found that poverty plays in youth violence? HOKODA: It's another trauma. This neighborhood as Dana says has poverty, racism, immigration problems, child abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, high crime. You put all that together, that's a lot of trauma and stressors. So that an incident like this that would lead to post traumatic stress disorder is more likely to be enhanced by all the different traumas. CAVANAUGH: I think people have a difficulty understanding how if you are not directly affected by losing someone, if you're not a direct witness to violence, how that trauma can actually impact you. How can it affect your life? Can you describe to us some of the ways that that aftereffect of violence changes people? HOKODA: Sure. The McCoys put it really nicely. The neighborhood shut down. They closed their doors, they wouldn't let the children go out and play. So the children are immediately sent a message that this is a really unsafe place. They go to school, they're expected to learn and concentrate, but they're thinking about their safety and their neighborhood. So they have been traumatized by hearing this, by seeing their parents' reaction, by all the cumulative traumas and stresses that they have been exposed to. Of CAVANAUGH: Dana, we hear about trauma workshops in the feature. What kind of training are residents getting? BROWN: On October 13th, the commission on beginning prevention and intervention in partnership with the San Diego compassion project hosted the first in the county trauma-informed symposium. And there are 164 attendees, and it was roughly 50% community members that had been impacted directly by a traumatic event. So the entire day was a direct partnership small group, think tanks, activities, learning, educational awareness of the physiological, biological, emotional response to your body when you are impacted by a traumatic event. When you're in a neighborhood with a multiple of risk factors, that becomes the norm and the condition, then it internalizes. And there's a myriad of dis-eases and challenges, you disconnect, you disengage, you're hyper vigilant. Our body is trying to protect us from these traumatic events. So we are striving, we don't have the next date of the next one, but we are striving very intentionally of this being another model of getting out this word and raising awareness on the impact of being trauma-informed. Virtually being informed about trauma. CAVANAUGH: Doctor, I heard that stories of people coming out of this trauma workshop basically saying I didn't realize that I was affected by this as much. I didn't realize that this event that happened years and years ago may have rippled down and affected my life in significant ways. Is that common? HOKODA: Yes, it is common, without therapy, without help and resources and an opportunity to process it. These kind of trauma have direct effects on brain development, influence, the way they think, how they can problem solve, how they react to stressors. But they don't know it. Of it's a natural reaction. We act maybe more fearful, more anxious or less anger-control than they would if they hadn't been traumatized. CAVANAUGH: Dana, I want to talk about one of the big missions we heard from Rickquese's family, to break down the barriers and distrust of police, and to sort of have a dialogue happening with the police and the community. Get police to step out and step up, what's been happening on that front? BROWN: Many, many pathways. Rick senior is meeting regularly with captain Jarvis of the mid-city police division, and captain McManis. We have officers that join us at the weekly Sunday meetings. Officer Renee morillo, the CRO for mid-city resource officer, walks the block with Jim senior and Rick Clark. 100% of everything in life is relationship building. That's where trust begins. That's where understanding evolves. That's where solutions rely. And it is beautiful the relationship that is evolving between the mid-city police division and the City of San Diego police department, and the residents on 44th street. CAVANAUGH: You use the word evolving, and I think you've really hit on something there. When you have a situation that has come from perhaps the police feeling threatened in a certain environment and the residents feeling harassed and disrespected, this is not something that happens overnight resolving an issue like that. BROWN: Absolutely. CAVANAUGH: And I was also going to ask you too, there's more to -- as big a problem as it is, dealing with the trauma of violence and dealing with trying to get some sort of good relationship between law enforcement, we heard talk of more resources. What kinds of resources are talked about in the meetings that happen each Sunday at 44th street? BROWN: Well, the solutions when the residents designed, what they wanted in the first neighborhood dialogue that Megan shared about, there were literally 15 pages of strategies. And we align those into themes, so it was activities, relationships, building relationships, information and resources, are safety and systems and policy change. Because ultimately any work that we do in any career that we have is to constantly be reevaluating our policies. Are our policies punitive? Are they about the people or about the policy? It is a caring, compassionate policy? So there is this movement that is evolving on 44th street with the residents on myriad strategies. So they are right now planning a neighborhood block party, they have already initiated their neighborhood watch and it's called Our Kids' Safety. Who wouldn't want their child to be safe? There's philosophies that are evolving, relationships that are building, are connections that are being made that are going to be lifelong at many levels. There's service levels coming to the home. So there's a policy shift there with resources that are provided in the community, bringing those to the community, that is one of the challenges for many people, transportation to get to the resource. So there's many, many strategies unfolding. CAVANAUGH: We're still very close to this tragic event. Only four months since these two young boys were killed and the third was seriously injured. Do you see this particular movement having the momentum to actually change things? BROWN: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is a model resident-driven community wraparound mobilizing with faith-based as an under pinning and embedding service models that come to the home, understanding the impact of trauma, ultimately creating restorative practices, which is healing, bringing healing where harm has been done to ultimately get to policy change so we can transform punitive systems. We believe it is a model for the world. Truly. We really do. These residents are deeply committed, invested in -- they're already being educated and trained in communication skills etc. They want to ultimately become resident leaders for the next block to teach them. It's called train the trainer, so that it will permeate out and be a ripple effect and ultimately a tipping point. CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for coming in and speaking with me.
By all accounts, 18-year-old Rickquese McCoy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He wasn’t the intended target of the three men who fired 40 rounds on his City Heights block on June 30, killing a second man and critically wounding another.
Rickquese's friends and family insist he wasn’t involved with gangs. They’ll admit "he was no angel" but point out that he had finally made the honor roll last year.
The murders shook the 2600 block of 44th Street, a community where residents aren't used to seeing violent crime up so close. Everyone here knows someone who knows someone who's been robbed, assaulted or killed, but usually those crimes don't happen right on the front lawn.
Residents on the block decided Rickquese would be the last of their teenagers lost. They had never been brought to the table before to talk about how to help their kids. Now, they're taking seats next to volunteers and police officers to find solutions, on their own terms.
"A lot of people have a sense of hopelessness because of what happened—because of what happens," Rickquese's grandfather, Ricky McCoy, Sr., said (emphasis his own). "Nobody has been addressing this to the point of making a difference."
The block sits four stoplights away from the Mid-City Police Substation, which was established in the 1990s to quell intense crime in City Heights.
Along with the rest of San Diego, overall crime in the neighborhood has since dwindled. But this year, City Heights and southeast San Diego—the city's poorest, most diverse communities—are shouldering an uptick in homicides.
The San Diego Police Department reported 41 murders from January through September of this year. That's up from 33 during the same time last year. City Heights and southeast San Diego account for more than 60 percent of those homicides. In City Heights alone, the number of murders tripled to nine this year from the previous year.
The numbers reaffirm City Heights' long-held reputation as a dangerous place to live. A 1998 San Diego Union-Tribune article calls it the "rotting core of America's Finest City." It's a reputation community members have railed against. They're not a cancer in the city, they say, and they're no more desensitized to loss than communities elsewhere in the city.
On 44th Street, Rickquese's death stunned neighbors.
When the police helicopter stopped whirring above, the block fell silent. Kids put away their bikes, opting for indoor activities despite the long, hot summer days. Chatty neighbors took their conversations from the lawn to behind metal screen doors. Even the ice cream truck stopped coming around.
For McCoy, the silence was too much to bear.
"For about a week or two, maybe even three weeks, nobody would even come outside," McCoy said. "I mean, we’re right across the street from an elementary school. It was eerie. It was horrible."
A man with 34 grandchildren, McCoy needed the noise back. And he needed his grandson's death to be more than a number. It had to be a catalyst. So McCoy took the lead on transforming his block. First, he wanted to get his neighbors out and talking again. Then he wanted to get them help.
"I decided instead of being a product of my environment, that I would have my environment be a product of me," McCoy said. "And the only way to do that is to get out there and change something, put your name on something, put your flavor out there in the world."
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He had a sign printed at the Home Depot where he works. It reads "Neighborhood Meeting" in big block letters and hangs on the bars surrounding his apartment complex.
Each Sunday this summer, he invited neighbors to meet in the courtyard of his building. They called it their "outdoor conference room." Residents pulled together a hodgepodge of patio furniture, dining room chairs and an Ikea armchair, then sat down to talk about stopping violence in their community.
Ideas ranged from installing surveillance cameras to hosting a sports tournament for rival gangs. For now, they've committed to hosting a block party, getting informed on trauma and conflict resolution, and starting a neighborhood watch.
McCoy and Jim Clark, a resident on 44th Street for 40 years, have also started going door-to-door to find out what people need, whether it's a ride to a job interview or the address of a local food bank.
The overall strategy for these neighborhood activists is to heal the community by healing its individuals. Tension here stems from poverty and a lack of resources. The median household income in City Heights puts most families at or below the federal poverty level. Many homes in the community are broken by incarceration or deportation.
"There’s homeless, there’s dropouts, there’s gangs, there’s domestic violence, there’s bullying," said Dana Brown, a volunteer counselor with the San Diego Compassion Project. "Just about anything in the world that is painful is on this block."
Brown goes into communities throughout San Diego after there's been a murder to help families cope with the trauma. She said she's never seen the kind of effort she's helping facilitate on 44th Street.
Mid-City Police Lt. Eric Hays agrees.
"Initially when an incident occurs, you get the crisis intervention response and things of that nature," Hays said. "But after the very first time, they’re left with this grieving process to deal with on their own."
Hays is working with McCoy and Clark to get their neighborhood watch going. He's also encouraging officers to get out and walk the block with the men.
One of the needs identified by residents at the meetings was a stronger relationship with the police.
McCoy and Clark, who together have seven decades on the block, said they never met their community officer before Rickquese's murder. African-American and Latino parents at the meetings said they're not sure they'd feel comfortable calling for help. Their teens have been pulled over too many times for petty infractions.
For Brown, the block's work with the police hints at something bigger than bringing resources to the underserved; it has a chance to change social systems.
Neighbors are tackling their immediate emotional needs, but they're also trying to change the institutions and ideologies around them that created those needs. Brown said that, in this respect, their work mirrors a social ecological model.
Clark puts it this way:
"An unhappy kid will take unhappy ways. In other words, if I don’t feel good, I’m going to get even. But if they’ve been treated good and they trust us, then they give back happy."
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McCoy is anxious to see the macro-level changes he and Brown talk about. But already, things are changing on the block.
On a recent Saturday, kids rode bikes in circles, neighbors chatted on lawns and the ice cream truck was back, idling on the curb.
"These things they’re having over here—the meetings—I think it’s nice," neighbor NeeNee Torbet shouted over the truck's cheery jingle.
"It’s very positive and it’s bringing the community together. We think it’s worth a try."