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Fred was running both from and through a troubled past that began in Oakland, where he was born, and continued after he moved up to Berkeley as a 14-year-old. He skirted Berkeley High, where he and a friend once fought the entire varsity football team. He crossed Shattuck Avenue, where he and another member of the On1 Boys, an East Oakland street gang, once hit a woman in the face with a recycling bin because they didn't like the way she looked at them. On Piedmont Avenue, after passing through the west gate of the Cal campus and cutting east across the grounds, Fred passed fraternity houses not unlike the one he was once caught robbing.
His final push came at Stadium Rim Way, a steep incline into the Berkeley Hills that put him at the eastern lip of Memorial Stadium. He always stopped at the top, looking out over San Francisco Bay and Strawberry Canyon and then down onto the field, where he imagined himself in a Cal uniform, dancing through defenders with a football in his hands like his idol, former Golden Bears running back Marshawn Lynch. Later he would say that seeing the field each morning "woke up my whole day because I knew where I was going. I knew what my future was."
IN A RECENT NEW YORK Times Magazine cover story, Alex Kotlowitz, the author of the acclaimed There Are No Children Here, about life in a Chicago housing project, suggested that the street violence gripping places like Oakland and, seven miles to the north, Richmond should be treated as a public health crisis, like an outbreak of tuberculosis. Few people who work with children in those places would disagree. In Oakland there were 127 homicides last year and 148 the year before, which was up 68.2% from 2004. In Richmond, a city with less than a quarter of Oakland's population of 420,000, there were 47 homicides in '07, the most since 1994 and the highest rate per capita in California cities of 100,000 or more. Gang violence in Oakland is so bad that last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed officers from the state's highway patrol to help stem the violence. One 18-year-old girl, testifying in '05 before a grand jury in a murder case, described what goes on in Richmond this way: "You hear the gunshots, you come outside, you see who is on the ground, see if you know them, and if you don't, you just go back on about your normal life."
Once, if you wished to insulate yourself from the drugs and gangs or, like Fred, turn your life around, your best chance was to dedicate yourself to a sport. In Oakland, NBA players Gary Payton and Drew Gooden, major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis, and, most recently, the Buffalo Bills' Lynch, followed that course. Ken Carter at Richmond High was the inspiration for the film Coach Carter, which showed what teens motivated by hoops can achieve.
But in the past few years, those who work with young boys in Richmond and Oakland have noticed a decline in kids' commitment to sports. And the youngsters who do play speak grimly of their chances of emerging from their darkened surroundings. It is as if each generation believes less and less in the saving power of Little League or youth basketball or Pop Warner football. "It used to be that if you played sports, everyone protected you," says Fredrick Pugh, the president of the East Bay Warriors Pop Warner football program, which includes 295 boys ages five to 15. "Now it is open season on everybody. The neighborhoods are that devastated."
Even more haunting: A number of well-intentioned athletes, those who did everything they could to stay away from trouble, have been killed or severely wounded in street violence in recent years. No one can say exactly how many of those murdered in and around Oakland played sports, but it is undeniable that many of the most promising youngsters—serious athletic aspirants—have died. More than one youth coach laments that he attends more funerals than games these days.
While coaches, parents and activists debate how to address the problem, few disagree on the date—Aug. 12, 2004—that the tide turned, the moment when kids began to doubt sports' saving graces. On that summer night 18-year-old Terrance Kelly was shot four times by a 15-year-old boy in a particularly violent area of Richmond known as the Iron Triangle. Kelly's murder (page 58) made national news because he was killed two days before he would have left to attend Oregon, which had awarded him a football scholarship, and because he had worked tirelessly to stay clear of the street culture.
"After Terrance died, my players looked at it like, If he couldn't make it, how are we gonna make it?" says Khalid Elahi, who was an assistant coach of the Richmond Steelers youth football team when Terrance was murdered. "You try to tell them, 'I know they took Terrance, but we still have to have hope,' but they think, I am going to do all this work, go through all the trouble, and I am still going to die."
THE SUMMER TERRANCE Kelly was shot, Fred Lawson left North Oakland to move in with his aunt in East Oakland, and took up the gang life. ¶ There are 20,000 active street gangs in America, according to an Attorney General's report to Congress in April, with approximately one million total members, and gang affiliation and violence continue to rise. The situation is more serious than those numbers suggest, as the report to Congress focused on larger national gangs such as the Latin Kings and United Blood Nation and ignored the numerous smaller and unaffiliated crews.
Most of the African-American street gangs in Oakland are not large or organized groups participating in vast criminal enterprises. They are not easily identifiable by tattoos or the color of their clothing. Members often align themselves based solely on where they were born, and many are related. "Most probably don't consider themselves [members of] a gang," says Mark Harrison, a former homicide investigator in the East Bay and a gang expert. "[The other members] are just their people, their family."