John Jones III, the director of reentry and violence prevention at BOSS, outside of the organization's East Oakland hub on MacArthur Boulevard and 90th Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Two years ago, The Oaklandside published a deeply personal essay by John Jones III, who shared his experiences with gun violence as a young Black man growing up in East Oakland. Interwoven with local history, his story sought to help make sense of an increase in killings in Oakland and other U.S. cities at the onset of the pandemic.

Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. There have been 114 homicides in Oakland so far this year, according to police, compared to 121 last year. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 74. At the same time, the reported number of all violent crimes committed in the city, including homicides, aggregated assaults, robberies, and rapes, is down by 8%.

With homicides continuing to occur at an alarming rate, we circled back for a conversation with Jones, who currently works in East Oakland as the director of reentry and violence prevention at BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency), one of the community-based organizations working in partnership with the city’s Department of Violence Prevention, which was established in 2017 and received a 50% boost in funding in the city’s last two-year budget that was approved in 2021. We spoke to Jones about how the department is working with community groups, what the role of traditional policing should be in reducing violence, and his takeaways from Oakland’s recent election. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Oakland’s homicide numbers remain high, but violent crime appears to be trending down overall. Do you feel anything has changed meaningfully since you wrote your story for The Oaklandside two years ago?

Yes. On the positive side, City Council provided funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, which in turn wisely recognized the need to partner with community-based organizations that also provide resources, because the issue of gun violence is a multifaceted problem. 

So for me, that’s the most exciting piece—that there are people on the ground, violence interrupters, from the community, who are actually out there playing a vital role in reducing the retaliatory aspect of gun violence.

Let’s talk more about that strategy—violence interrupting—which is being embraced by the DVP and its community partners. To my understanding, it entails building relationships with people who’ve been harmed by violence to persuade them not to retaliate, aiming to break the cycle. As someone directly involved in that work, why do you feel it’s effective?

I think it’s important to start by saying that folks see triple-digit homicide numbers, and they’re like, are folks doing anything? Are they doing their jobs? At the risk of generating fear, I can assure you that the number of homicides would be significantly higher, by dozens, if it wasn’t for violence interrupters. 

It’s also important to note that violence interrupters are credible messengers. What I mean by that is, folks are actually from the neighborhood, who the people involved in that lifestyle know and have relationships with. It’s one thing for someone who means well to say, “Turn your life around,” but it’s something different when they recognize that you once also walked that path and you’re able to demonstrate what change, what transformation, looks like. 

Lastly, I don’t get caught up in the pros and cons of police, but the truth is, a lot of people in the community have a deep distrust of police for a number of real reasons. Unlike the police, violence interrupters don’t have the power to prosecute or arrest. Witnesses feel safe to share information with us because they know it’s not going to lead to arrest, and they know that we’re confidential, so it’s not going to lead to any backlash on them.

You’re currently doing this work as the director of reentry and violence prevention at BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency), a community-based organization in deep East Oakland. What does your day-to-day look like there?

I supervise a team that responds whenever there’s a gun-related incident in the city of Oakland. Around the clock, 24 hours, two days out of the week, and on certain weekends—we’re on the scene, we respond within an hour, and we assess for retaliation. We look for folks that we know. And if we don’t know them directly, someone within our network does. And we also look to provide timely resources. 

“I can assure you that the number of homicides would be significantly higher, by dozens, if it wasn’t for violence interrupters.”

John Jones III

That last element, resources, is key. This pandemic created all kinds of havoc. It made things worse that already existed—it exacerbated these socio-economic conditions, right? So anytime we’re in a position to help people who are literally in the middle of asking themselves, “Do I pick up a gun and rob somebody, or do I just starve to death?”—we’re able to support them with jobs, and we can support people with emergency relocation. 

That’s important because Oakland is very small, and a lot of these folks that are having conflicts went to school together. There’s no safe space if you’re caught up in that, and a lot of violence has happened as a result. Anytime we’re in a position to support families, entire families, not just the individual, to relocate, that also lowers the homicide rate. 

How is BOSS collaborating with other local organizations?

As a lead agency, we’re currently contracting with other amazing organizations who are on the ground, doing the work day in and day out, day and night. 

With this collaborative, it’s not just addressing gun violence through the lens of Black and brown men. There is an increased number of incidents related to commercial sex trafficking in Oakland. So we’re partnering with folks in a gender-based violence network to make sure that women and survivors of sex trafficking are not left out. 

Is there a direct connection between sex trafficking and gun violence in Oakland?

Absolutely. Sex trafficking is impacted by COVID in the same way other elements of the underground economy are, so I think it’s important to start there. When the pandemic happened, the streets dried up. So when your clientele is no longer able to work, the ability to make money is dramatically reduced. In the sex-trafficking world, we’re seeing an increase in gun violence because these guys who have the women out there are threatening to kill and are actually shooting them to keep them in a lifestyle because they’re trying to hold on to their cash flow. 

Other pathways and avenues of making money in the underground economy have been shrinking for decades. Marijuana was one of the last vestiges of the underground economy until it was legalized in California. Now there are cannabis clubs, right? So the only thing that’s really left, in addition to sex trafficking, is gun trafficking and robberies. For several years running, Oakland was considered one of the robbery capitals of the country, with people targeting laptops and cell phones. 

The same thing is true in different parts of the underground economy. When a person’s ability to purchase things—and we’re talking about people buying sex—when there’s a reduced revenue, you’re going to reduce the trips you take out there to buy sex, and it’s going to have a ripple effect.

In addition to the violence interruption work, how else are you and your organization approaching violence prevention?

When gun violence happens, the focus is typically on reacting to it—whether it’s a policy, whether it’s a need for more prisons, or policing. We believe in prevention. What can we do to prevent someone from being harmed, shot, or killed? 

One thing is to hold community events in the neighborhoods where folks are from. For example, the city of Oakland has something called Town Nights, which we were a part of—they have four events in the winter and five in the summer. We hosted ours at Sunnyside Park, right in the heart of deep East Oakland. 

When you get young people showing up to an event in a park that folks don’t normally utilize because they don’t feel safe there; when you see kids; when you see three and four generations of residents gathered in a safe space with food and all the things that really constitute a community—it begins to restore that sense of network.

John Jones III leads a team at BOSS that responds to shootings in Oakland and attempts to interrupt cycles of violence before retribution occurs. Credit: Amir Aziz

You alluded to some critics of the DVP in the early going, just given that homicide numbers have remained high. In the long term, what do you feel the department will need to succeed?

More funding and continued expansion. Folks have to realize that at the onset of COVID, a couple of things in play were very real. First of all, the DVP itself wasn’t really sufficiently staffed, which isn’t unique for anyone who follows Oakland’s government. Departments are notorious for having vacancies, and I’m talking about extended periods of time. 

Then, you add the reality that a lot of the third-party entities that also serve the population we work with have been shut down due to COVID. So when you have a decrease in not only safe spaces but service providers, it made the problem grow worse, like a cancer. By the time we got to a place where we began to open up [from the pandemic shut-down] somewhat, the conditions for gun violence were already laid.

The Department of Violence Prevention relies mainly on community-based organizations and civilians and is often presented as an alternative to increasing police funding to address violent crime. What role do you feel the police can or should be playing in the city’s overall strategy to reduce gun violence?

The first thing OPD needs to focus on beyond anything else is getting from under federal oversight. Because they cannot play their role in the community dealing with the deep distrust if they don’t hold themselves accountable. Not to mention the taxpayer dollars, the millions of dollars spent, whether it’s for the federal monitor or these lawsuits related to police brutality. That’s the most important thing. If they don’t do that, it doesn’t matter who is running that department. 

But does OPD have a role? Yes. I’m gonna say this—they play a certain element that serves as a deterrent. Typically, with gun violence, if group A shoots someone from group B, as long as the person who did the shooting is still on the streets, if [member from group B] can’t get that person, then they go after the family members or people close to that person. 

But if that person is arrested and taken off the streets, more often than not, that typically puts an end to the retaliation piece. Not in all cases, but in a lot of cases. So long story short, do I feel there’s a role for OPD? Yes. Specifically, solving the homicides, because that’s the one thing that they have the power to do in a way that private residents can’t.

But we’re spending a disproportionate amount of money on policing, and it’s just not efficient. It’s not effective. It’s like if I send my kid to school, and he’s not wearing adequate clothing, and he catches a cold. Instead of me investing in proper warm clothing, I’m buying him cough syrup to treat the symptoms. 

You described Oakland’s police spending as disproportionate. I was looking recently at a list of the top 10 highest-paid employees in the city of Oakland—some of these jobs have annual salaries approaching half a million dollars—and 7 out of 10 were police positions.

Exactly. So if you look at it just from a business standpoint, are we truly getting the bang for our buck? And I want to be very clear: I’ve had my own adverse experiences with OPD. So I grew up with that mindset of, you know, hating the police. But as a grown adult, a taxpayer, and a voter, my position is that I want them to hold themselves accountable. 

At the same time, some officers on the force care, and I’ll give you one example. A young man was murdered in East Oakland about two months ago on a Monday afternoon, at 1:30 p.m. This young man is 19 years old. His life is bleeding out, literally, on the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. And guess who was the only person there trying to save his life? A police officer. So I get that in the activist and organizing world, that would be a talking point that lot of people wouldn’t want to use. But for me, I want to be very clear that gun violence is an all-hands-on-deck situation. Just like illegal dumping, just like poverty.

That said, I’d be remiss if I don’t make this one thing clear: Violence interrupters, including the BOSS organization, do not work with law enforcement. We choose not to because it’s important we gain the trust of the community and the folks at risk. And by that, I mean the people who are carrying guns and even those who are using them. 

That’s also important for our own protection because we’re not armed, and we don’t have bulletproof vests. It’s important to make that distinction. On a personal level, I don’t get caught up in either singing their praises or bashing the police. I see a world where, hopefully, the community is resourced enough to where we can do it ourselves. 

You’ve told me in the past that people have misperceptions about gun violence in Oakland. How so?

When you say “people,” are you talking about residents or decision-makers?

I would say both.

It’s important to ask because there is a real distinction. During the most recent Alameda County District Attorney race, for example, you had one candidate saying a majority of the violence and crime in Oakland is committed by a few people. That is all the way false and a horrible myth to push because that is not the reality. 

The reality is, if you’re talking to folks who live here and are witnessing the violence, it’s just a combination of things that I’ll place under the umbrella of mental health or mental well-being. A lot of people are not operating at their highest self. And then you couple that with substance abuse, you couple that with easy access to firearms, and you couple that with a sense of true hopelessness and despair. You can see it on the faces of people—it’s almost like some people are zombies. 

The violence is spreading over into areas and spaces that are unique when you compare it historically. That’s the part I think is challenging and scary. Back in the 1980s and 90s, most of the violence was centered around the drug trade. So at the end of the day, if you were not involved in that lifestyle, for the most part, you were good. Nowadays, it’s more sporadic because the underground economy is not place-based; it’s not just hanging on this corner. It’s transient, and so are the elements that contribute to gun violence. 

The last thing I’ll say that’s important for folks to understand—and we know this and it’s on record—is that a lot of this violence is not committed by Oakland residents. People have been coming into Oakland within the last few years, bringing their troubles and disputes over into our beautiful city. Same thing with the folks who dump trash here. Same thing with people who come in to buy sex and the same thing for people who do sideshows. Most of them are not from Oakland. [Editor: The Oaklandside has not seen crime data verifying this. But Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong in October said that people coming to Oakland from nearby cities is partially responsible for recent crime surges here.]

What do you think makes Oakland a magnet for these things?

The first thing is the reputation of Oakland historically. In the street culture, you’re considered cool if you go to Oakland because that’s the big bad place. So a lot of these suburban kids love to come to Oakland on Saturday night, Friday night, they go to a sideshow, then they go home and say, yeah, I was in Oakland, and they get respect for that. 

The second piece is displacement. There was a point in time when you couldn’t just come into Oakland. For example, when the Crips and then the Bloods left L.A. to distribute crack, they were operating in every large city with the exception of Oakland. But due specifically to the displacement—and I’ll add incarceration and murder—of Black men, in particular, it created what I’ll call an open door. The streets are now open. The streets don’t have the ability to lock it down in a way people would have, even as recently as 2008.

So there’s a number of things, both historical and new. That’s why I think it’s important for folks to understand what’s driving the violence now and not have the same mindset from 10 years ago because it was not the same.

We just had a big election. We’ll have a new mayor next year and several changes on the City Council. How do you think the election stands to impact violence reduction efforts in the city?

Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. But I will say that the mayor-elect, Sheng Thao, is someone I’ve known and someone I have respect for. The thing I will caution about, however, and it has nothing to do with her aptitude, is that the things that we’re dealing with are deeply embedded, and a simple changing of the guard, as it were, is not going to alleviate it. 

There are always changes in government. For example, Oakland’s city administrator just announced that he’s transitioning out. It takes time when anyone is new in office to become acclimated and build up their team. But as they’re taking that time, what’s also real is that people are suffering. 

Sometimes when people vote, they feel like voting alone signifies a change. So the message I want to deliver to people in Oakland is: Do more than vote. Actually support whoever is in office, because again, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. 

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

When I look at this historically, I feel like we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The only true solution I’ve seen is focusing on the question of how we can rebuild community. 

The family unit, to me, is like the atom in a human body—it’s the smallest particle that retains the same characteristics as the larger unit. How do we repair the family unit? How do we rebuild the neighborhood? Because historically, especially for Black people, that’s what got Black folks through a lot of tragedies. When people talk about the Montgomery bus boycott, that was way bigger than Rosa Park and Dr. King, no disrespect, and may they rest in peace. It was Black women who joined the lawsuit, and it was Black women who organized those carpools. 

The last thing I’ll say is that transformation can only occur from close proximity. That’s why I always strongly encourage anyone with a passion for this to educate themselves on the history and the policies impacting our communities. Because it’s one thing to go and ask the government to fix it. But my perspective is, they don’t have the answers. If they did, they would do it. So we’ve got to educate ourselves, and we’ve got to come together. We need education and unity. Absent of that, I don’t see any other way.

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.