Grave concerns

Sacramento’s anti-gang campaign crosses the border of decency and good taste

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Obsessive-compulsive bottom feeder R.V. Scheide is always on the lookout for new signs of the race to the bottom. If you’ve seen anything, e-mail him.

What we have here, hovering over the corner of Broadway and La Solidad Way in Oak Park like an image from a recurring nightmare, is a failure to communicate.

There’s no doubt sound motives drove the masterminds behind the city of Sacramento’s recently launched anti-gang advertising campaign. Youth violence, gang- and non-gang-related, is a lethal, seemingly intractable problem, particularly in the city’s most impoverished areas.

The Sacramento Police Department, the Office of Youth Development and Project Safe Neighborhoods, the agencies leading the anti-gang campaign, have vested interests in helping solve that problem.

Unfortunately, even the best intentions can go wildly astray. Such is the case with the anti-gang campaign’s initial effort, an outsized poster of a gloomy graveyard plastered over billboards in Oak Park and south Sacramento, underlined with the message, “Gangs have a special place for your kids.”

At first glance, it’s tempting to presume the billboards are directed at minority youth, since “gang member” has become a synonym for “young male minority,” and the two signs that have gone up so far are in minority neighborhoods. That presumption would be erroneous. No matter what color they are, you can’t scare kids who’ve got nothing left to lose with banal threats of death, as the campaign’s marketing gurus are well aware.

Their mothers, on the other hand, are a different story.

As anyone who has worked with at-risk youth can attest, the quickest way to the kids is through their mothers, who due to cyclical poverty, crime, violence and incarceration, are often the only adult role models in their children’s lives. Indeed, these women are the intended recipients of the billboard’s macabre message.

“We can help,” the billboard promises them. “Call 311.”

Exactly who will be helping whom is not immediately made clear by the cryptic message. Call 311, and a live operator informs you the city offers a variety of employment, mentoring and after-school activity programs for endangered youth. If you think your son may be in a gang, the operator can provide a handy guide to recognizing gang attire. If you know your son is in a gang, they’ll even connect you to the police department. That’ll be helpful.

While the programs offered are not new, reminding the people who need them of their existence is wise public policy. But surely there must be a kinder, gentler way of creating public awareness than further terrorizing the mothers of at-risk youth.

The graveyard scene on the billboard is all too familiar to them. Ask the mother of Derrick Foster, a young man shot and killed in 2006, right across the street from where the Oak Park billboard now stands. Ask the families who’ve attended services at the two funeral parlors within easy walking distance of the sign. Ask the congregations at the churches immediately down the street, where youth violence is a frequent topic of discussion.

In fact, stakeholders from all the communities affected by gang violence were involved in the process of developing the advertising campaign. It’s doubtful the billboard’s creators were unaware of the pain the image of a graveyard might inflict.

With at least five more billboards going up soon, that leads to two possible conclusions, neither of them good. Perhaps Sacramento plans to continue blaming the behavior of at-risk youth on bad parenting, instead of the primary cause, lack of opportunity. Or maybe the city is so keenly aware of the shortcomings of its programs, it felt fear tactics were the only way to get people to buy into them.

Either way, it all chalks up to one big colossal failure to communicate.