4:43pm

Wed September 4, 2013
Economy/Labor/Biz

Sights and Sounds of Bayview: Bayview elders take their word to the streets

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Having Pride rolls up to the plaza at Third and Oakdale with a mission: hit the bricks, and tell everyone they meet about the group’s job placement, food assistance, and GED programs.

But before that work starts, please remove your hats, they say, and join hands in the circle. It’s time to pray.

Here’s what drives H-P. Number one: Christ. These folks don’t just believe in Jesus. They believe that he’s given them a mission to go back into their communities, and serve. Fearlessly.

H-P President Randolph James explains their second motivator: “I love my people, and I hate to see us going down. So if i can make a difference, fine.”

When James says “my people,” he means black folks. The ones who live around him in Hunters Point are struggling with high unemployment, double digit homicide, gang violence, and a sense that this city doesn’t care about them anymore.

But these folks still matter to James and H-P’s other members. Most of them come from Hunters Point, or nearby Bayview. They all went to the same few grade schools together. And they still love the place where they grew up.

More than half a dozen H-P members fan out like a small platoon across the plaza, armed with Bibles, Christian tracts and business cards.

“Don’t y’all feel that it’s time for a change?”

Randolph James poses the question to a small crew of young men and women. They apologize to him for the faint smell of weed smoke. And, for the gold and ruby cans of Old English malt liquor tucked in paper bags.

Don’t worry about all that, Randolph says. But if you want a better, safer Bayview – where you own homes and have good jobs – that hard work starts now. James leans in.

“Think about it, touch your heart: you got kids? You want them to come up in today’s world, or do you want them to come up in a better world?” James asks. “We gotta make a change. And that’s coming from the streets. That ain’t from the word of god. that’s just from my heart. I see us, and we goin down the tubes.”

A lot of people would be too scared to do this heading into a neighborhood with a rough reputation, and walking right up to a group of young people, strangers, drinking and smoking.

But this place – it’s not strange to James. Just a few decades ago, he was here, too.

“I ran these streets, w/ dope fiends, killers, thieves,” James recounts. “If I considered myself to be tough back then, I can walk the streets anywhere. God told me he didn’t give me the spirit of fear.”

What god did give James, he says, was a second chance. A self-described former “hellraiser,” he was in gangs in the Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods. Doing drugs and drinking – a lot. The church and his first wife helped pull him out.

“But I’m reading about African Americans killing one another. and i’m saying, man, what are our people doing? I’m hearing people complaining, but who’s doin’ what? So then it came to me: ‘Why don’t you do something? Go back to your old hood, see if you can make a difference?’”

Several of the members, like James, were involved in gangs decades ago. Today their affiliations are their churches. But that gangster swagger – these O-G’s still have it. When they’re out on the street, they don’t walk, they stroll. The young people see that, and they’re respectful.

A few even stick around when an H-P member rolls his luxury car right into the plaza. He’s mounted four loudspeakers on the roof. Once he’s done preaching, another member takes the mic and floods the plaza with a song.

It might be hard to see how this bullhorn evangelism is supposed to convince young people to leave the streets, get their high school diplomas, find jobs, and fight the poverty and gun violence racking their town.

James explains H-P’s tactics like this: “It’s like playing a game of golf.”

For the first shot, H-P swings big and hard with its message. That’s the loudspeaker tack. Out of the thousands they preach to, they say, maybe one or two people will reach out, looking to change their lives. James calls these the “chip shots.”

“You know, it look it worked for him, maybe I’ll give it a try for me,” says James. “The chip shot is working until you get to the hole that you need to make.”

H-P gets its motto, “Iron sharpens iron,” from the Biblical proverb. For them, it means that a community’s members all work together to strengthen the whole. It’s apt – not just because this is a Christian group. Some of these guys were once actually ironworkers, plus longshoremen, carpenters, and electricians.

H-P works with the city to help young people find trade work. That’s where Oscar James comes in -- no relation to Randolph. The H-P organizer focuses on vocational training -- and he recruits heavily on San Francisco’s streets – down at the plaza, and up in Hunters Point’s housing projects.

As a teenager, Oscar ran with the Egyptians, and then the Vanguards. He calls them clubs, NOT gangs. Either way, serious business.

Today, Oscar’s a man of peace. His title with H-P is simply “organizer.” But back then, one of his clubs assigned him to oversee neighborhood battles.

“We would take our chains, meat cleavers, razors, and we would fight. and longshoreman hooks. We didn’t have guns. it’s be hand to hand combat,” Oscar James explains.

James is proud of this history. But he draws on the club wars of his day to press some points about the gang violence happening here today. Put down the guns. Fight for your families, and fight for your community.

“What I’m trying to do is tell these young people, there’s power in numbers. With the division that they have, they don’t have the power,” says Oscar James.

Again, it’s hard to know who really gets reached like this. These aren’t young men, the leaders of H-P. He might be from the streets, but this is 2013, not the Sixties, and these streets have changed a lot. H-P President Randolph James says showing up, telling his own story about growing up in Hunters Point goes a long way.  

This story is part of the Sights and Sounds of Bayview Project about people who live and work in the Bayview neighborhood. Find links to more stories below. 

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