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The Lifesaver 

Shawn Richard got the city to give jobs to alleged gang leaders. If anyone can make such a program work, it's ...THE LIFESAVER

Wednesday, Feb 2 2005
Shawn Richard is pacing the polished floor of a fluorescent-lit room in the basement of City Hall, about to address a group of people who, in all statistical likelihood, will be murdered. All of them are black men between the ages of 18 and 25 who live in inner-city neighborhoods. This demographic, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will find homicide as its most likely end. That likelihood is even stronger among the men in this room. Most of these young men are considered by beat cops and neighbors to be "shot callers" -- i.e., the people who make the decisions -- in areas torn apart by the most notorious gangs in southeast San Francisco: Double Rock, Big Block, West Mob.

It's the beginning of summer 2004, a season that will see the most violent crime in the city in more than a decade, in the middle of a year that will prove to be the deadliest here in almost as long. After some carefully worded press conferences and carefully posed photo shoots, Mayor Gavin Newsom would tap Richard to do something unprecedented to curb the gang violence that plagued the area: offer up city jobs for changed behavior.

On the first day of the first class in an eight-week program Richard designed called Project Redirect, the message to his students is clear: If you want to live, stay; if you want to die, you're free to leave. The point might sound overstated, but by the end of the year, two potential students who chose not to enroll -- 19-year-old DeAndre White and 19-year-old Ronald Allen -- will have been killed in what police believe to be gang-related slayings.

This morning, at 7 a.m. in the City Hall basement, it's the tension that seems most deadly. Richard's students aim wary looks at their classmates, and their eyes dart around the room. Many of these young men have ongoing disputes with others in the class, and there is a palpable air of apprehension. Most have rap sheets that sound like résumés for burgeoning criminal careers -- drug possession, possession of stolen property or illegal firearms, theft, battery -- and all of their names are on a list eyed closely and circulated up the city's law enforcement chain, from patrolling officers to the District Attorney's Office.

But these 18 are in a unique position. If they show up to this classroom every day for the next eight weeks and follow the directions of the class leaders to the letter -- which include maintaining a spotless attendance record and staying out of trouble with the law -- they will be guaranteed a clean slate from the cops and a steady paycheck from the City and County of San Francisco.

The 36-year-old Richard initiated Project Redirect -- which he authored using $300,000 of government and private funds -- by promising city positions to so-called gang leaders if they took part. The program is hardly the first work-rehabilitation effort in San Francisco, but it has been, so far, the most successful in recent history. It succeeds where others have failed because of Richard -- a former gang member and San Quentin prisoner, current small business owner, and founder of the youth violence prevention program Brothers Against Guns. His close contact with the community, credibility as a role model with his students, and uncompromising vision are making this unlikely initiative work and, in turn, changing the dynamic on the streets of San Francisco.

Welcome to Room 34.

After Shawn Richard padlocks the gate in front of his athletic jersey shop in the Portola District, he climbs into his mostly blue, partly rusting Honda Accord and heads down San Bruno Avenue with 106 KMEL, "The People's Station," playing a nearly ceaseless rotation of Lil Jon, Lil' Wayne, and Snoop Dogg through the speakers.

"Hang on," Richard says, interrupting a story about Project Redirect's first class to respond to the beep of his cell phone. "Brothers Against Guns," he answers. "Yeah, tell him I'll be right up there. I'm just comin' up from the shop right now." Three seconds go by before the phone beeps again. "Brothers Against Guns," Richard answers.

On the six-minute drive from the humble storefront to the Milton Meyer Gymnasium on top of Hunters Point Hill -- where weekly sessions of Brothers Against Guns' dynamic "Street Talk" meetings are held -- Richard's cell phone, a device constantly tethered to his belt, rings eight times.

Sixteen years ago, Richard was a very different person. After losing a partial basketball scholarship and getting kicked out of Fresno State for "bringing [his] hood mentality," he spent his time running with and from various gangs of the Fillmore District -- the Fulton Street Mob, the Flave, the Ave -- and peddling a small-scale pharmacy to customers in his neighborhood. That life abruptly ended when a cousin turned him in to cops and Richard was sent off in 1989 for three years in San Quentin.

When I ask him about that time in his life, something he preaches about frequently to the students in his programs, he responds, "It's nothing that I'm ashamed of. It's just the truth, it's how it was, it's my life. I'm not a gang member now." But he's also quick to mention that his personal understanding of gangs and drugs lends him a degree of credibility with his charges.

The most important touchstone with his students, however, is something else he covers often: the death of his younger brother, Tracy, who was 20 when he was killed on the sidewalk near his home in early 1995. The night his brother died, Shawn Richard picked up a gun and took to the streets of San Francisco vowing to avenge Tracy's death.

"I thought nothing could stop me," Richard says one night during a "Street Talk" session, recalling the hours after his brother was killed. "And I fell down on my knees and asked for the hand of God to help me."

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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