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Menace to Society: Why Many Young Black Men are Accused of Being in Gangs 

Wednesday, Aug 8 2012

Illustration by Shout.

Shots fired at Oakdale Avenue and Baldwin Court.

It was Nov. 8, 2008, nearly four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. The two plainclothes police officers reporting to the scene saw a public housing security guard following four black teens along the 1000 block of Oakdale, a corridor of project buildings halfway up a hill overlooking Candlestick Park and the Hunters Point shipyard. The officers pulled up in an unmarked car and detained the teens.

One of the kids was Jacori Bender, then a lean 17-year-old with thick eyebrows on a round face. He'd just moved back to the neighborhood after living in group homes since he was 10, when his mother — who now lived in Texas — decided she could no longer take care of him. As he looked for a job, he crashed at his grandmother's, his auntie's, and his godmother's.

The officers released the boys after a few minutes, then searched the area for evidence of a shooting. All they found was an empty gun magazine hidden in a crawl space some 200 yards away from where they stopped the teens.

At the Bayview precinct a few hours later, Officer Reginald Scott typed up an 11-sentence report. "It should also be noted that these above mentioned suspects are up and coming future (OAKDALE MOB GANG MEMBERS)," he wrote (caps and parenthesis his). "All of these suspects have similar tattoos, loiter together, and flash gang signs."

Bender's only tattoo was of his mother's name. But to the San Francisco Police Department, Bender was Oakdale Mob now. The tag would stick to him, over the next years, as prosecutors and policemen interpreted his every action to fit their conclusion: that he was guilty of being a gang member, just like the miscreants behind the "explosion of gang violence" — as the San Francisco Chronicle put it — that hit the city's southeastern quadrant this summer. He didn't have to sell drugs or rob a liquor store. Spending time in his childhood neighborhood with his childhood friends was enough to get him in the system. Bender went into the day just a teenager on the streets, and came out on the fast track to High Desert State Prison.

For Bender and his friends, the basketball court on Oakdale's 1000 block was a go-to kick-it spot. Enclosed within a 9-foot-high green fence and partially hidden behind a row of skinny evergreens, the blacktop offered a sense of privacy missing from the Hunters Point courtyards and street corners. At least five youths were hanging out by the court on May 28, 2010, the night Bender caught his first felony charge.

By that time, Bender had reached a degree of stability in life. The summer before, he'd gotten a job at City of Dreams, a local nonprofit focused on counseling at-risk youth, housed in a building adjacent to that Oakdale basketball court. He did janitorial work, some administrative tasks, and a bit of tutoring. He'd also started taking classes at San Bruno's Skyline Community College.

He'd moved into his godmother Kim Justin's house eight months back, then relocated with her to Fairfield. She commuted each day to the city, where she worked in Wells Fargo's files department. Bender often tagged along, getting dropped off in his old neighborhood to see his grandmother and friends.

He hadn't completely kept out of trouble, though. In the year and a half since the police first labeled him an "up and coming future" Oakdale Mob member, Bender had been shot at twice, catching one bullet in the leg. And he now had a rap sheet: After a verbal altercation with a housing project security guard in September 2009, Bender pleaded guilty to making criminal threats. Seven months later, he spent five days in jail for venturing within 50 feet of the guard's post on Oakdale's 1000 block, breaking the stay-away order that came with his misdemeanor.

That's not too shocking a ledger for an 18-year-old who grew up in group homes and hung out around housing projects in one of California's most violent neighborhoods.

Things got worse for him on the blacktop that May night.

About a hundred yards away, Officer Luis Gonzalez, Sgt. John Hart, and three other officers patrolled the housing project, a complex of rectangular two-story buildings connected by paved walkways. These police walk-throughs were common to the block, which Gonzalez later described in his police report as "home turf of the Oakdale Mob criminal street gang" and "well-known to us for its high volume of gang-related violence."

From 2007 to 2009, 52 percent of San Francisco homicide victims were black, despite the fact that black people only make up 6 percent of the city's population. The SFPD attributes this to gang activity in the Bayview, Western Addition, and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods, not necessarily the most rampant in California by their assessment — just the most disproportionately black. According to the CalGang database — a statewide compilation of local law enforcement stats that the Attorney General's office calls "the best source of information currently available" — as of 2010, 59 percent of San Francisco's gang members were black. By comparison, less than 20 percent of all gang members in California were black. No other county had a proportion higher than 29 percent.

The policemen were on high alert as they marched through the housing trails, informally known as "the cuts." Quickly approaching the basketball courts, they still couldn't see Bender and his friends. It was 10:15 p.m.

"Police in the cuts!" somebody shouted.

Sneakers pitter-pattered. Bender and two friends ran, weaving around trees and slicing into an alley. They popped out onto Palou Avenue and cut south toward Griffith Street.

A flashlight beam landed on Bender. Gonzalez later reported that he saw Bender throw a pistol into the street. Gonzalez drew his own gun and arrested the teens. In Bender's pocket, he found "a small amount" of weed and an ecstasy pill.

"Bender is a known Oakdale mob criminal street gang member," Gonzalez's report stated. "He does not live or work in the area. There is no reason for him to be in this area other than to hang out with other known Oakdale Mob criminal street gang members and to conspire with them to possess handguns, drugs, and commit violent crimes."

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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