One Woman's Battle Against Gun Violence In Oakland

Friday, October 3, 2014

We all read about the senseless killings of three small children in the gun violence that rocked Oakland in 2011.

But when Carlos Nava, 3, was killed in his stroller, Hiram Lawrence Jr., 23 months, in his father's arms and Gabriel Martinez, 5, in front of his daddy's taco stand, one Rockridge mother and grandmother acted.

Paula Hawthorn's thinking went something like this: "I have to do something. I'm retired. I first should do research because I know how to do research."

So Hawthorn turned her expertise (she holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley) to investigating the best ways to combat gun violence.

"I did a lot of reading and talking to people and going to lectures about what are effective violence prevention programs." She zeroed in on Operation Ceasefire after reading "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship" written by criminologist David M. Kennedy. His strategy targeted inner city street gangs in Boston in the 1990s and has been successful in other cities.

Hawthorn's synopsis: "You do an analysis of who is doing the shooting. You pull in the major bad guys. You offer alternatives such as job training. And you tell them: "If you do this again, the works is going to fall down on you.'"

Although the program had been adopted by the Oakland Police Department some years before, it had never been effectively implemented.

"I bought 40 copies (of Kennedy's book) and gave them to every member of City Council and every civic leader I could find," Hawthorn told me. "I take only a little bit of credit" about the OPD's recommitment to the program in 2013. "That has taken many hands, including mine and others."

Many consider Operation Ceasefire an important part of the declining murder rate in Oakland. Hawthorn is concerned that if Proposition Z fails in the November 4 election, its funding could be jeopardized.

Still, she hasn't put all her eggs in one basket. She and husband Mike Ubell - the new chair of the Greater Rockridge Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) - are on the board of Make Oakland Better Now.

Parents of two grown sons and grandparents of five, they often join the Friday night community walks through Oakland's high crime areas, where they've been among from 20 to 70 people to march and carry signs advocating "Peace in the Streets" and "Put Your Gun Down."

"When I can do it, I love doing it. I usually go to the East Oakland one," Hawthorn says. "People want to know that you care. They come out on their porches and wave and cars going by flash the victory sign." The mayor, she says, and chief and assistant chiefs of police are often part of the group.

She and Ubell are also advocates of the ASK (Asking Saves Kids) program, directed at parents as a way to safeguard their children when they go to a new friend's house to play. "You ask if they have an unlocked gun in their house."

Hawthorn brought the national program to Oakland with help from Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa. She has presented it at two NCPC meetings. Now she is trying to find other people to take it to schools.

"I've seen her presentations," Figueroa told me in a telephone conversation. "They're entertaining and to the point. In any interaction with Paula, you quickly get a sense of who she is and what she's about - bringing peace and justice to the community in so many ways."

The Oakland Police actually reached out to her for help. "She and a couple of people she brought along helped me re-think some of the strategies the OPD could use in tracing guns," Figueroa says. "She knows where to be and when to be there."

For instance, Hawthorn is president of Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE). Their work includes gathering at locations throughout the city to mark and remember where someone died as a result of gun violence.

"Paula has been steadfast in her activism on reducing gun violence in Oakland," Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb wrote in an email. "I've been extremely impressed with her on-going commitment to gun control, the Ceasefire program, and overall public safety advocacy in Oakland. We're all better off because of her work."

Her Kales Avenue neighbors experience Hawthorn's commitment and leadership firsthand. "We call Paula the 'Mayor of Kales Avenue,'" emailed Erin Flynn who lives up the block. "She is dedicated to developing community - on our street, in Rockridge and across Oakland.

"Paula organizes the neighborhood phone list, the email group, and every block party we've had (with help, of course). She organized our CORE training (Citizens of Oakland Responding to Emergencies) and encourages earthquake preparedness among our neighbors so we can help each other if there is an emergency. Paula knows that bringing us together as a community makes us stronger.

"Paula is whip-smart, engaged, dedicated, hard-working, friendly, and fun. We are proud to have her as our friend."

"She's wonderfully calm and unflappable," adds Mary Catherine Haug, another neighbor. Some years back, packages were regularly being stolen from neighborhood front porches. Under Hawthorn's leadership, the neighbors organized and were able to solve and stop the thefts, Haug says.

The week of our interview, the neighborhood was preparing for its 11th annual block party. "I started the block party," Hawthorn says, "because I felt like we should do something fun instead of just having meetings about crime."

As OPD's Figueroa said: "She brings peace and justice to our community in so many ways."

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