A year after being expelled from high school in 1988, Sherman Spears was shot and lost the use of his legs. In 1994, he founded Caught in the Crossfire, a hospital-based peer intervention program.
ColorLines: What was your life like before you got shot?
Sherman Spears: I was a very high-profile violent type of person. I had this theory in my head that if I had enough fights, people would be scared of me and leave me alone. I lived up to that image. I was willing to fight for the smallest things. My plan for staying safe was to be as menacing a figure as possible. The more people were scared of me, the safer I felt.
CL: What changed how you thought about violence?
SS: Getting shot, really. When I woke up in the recovery room, no one was there for me to tell that I was scared, or that the bullet hurt, or that I didn’t know how to live now that I was in a wheelchair. The only message I got from my friends and family was, “Let’s go and get the person that shot you.”
CL: How can that kind of violence be addressed? Whose responsibility is it?
SS: It’s all of our responsibility. I hear adults saying that the “youth of today don’t want anything, and don’t care about anything. They’re a lost generation.” But adults have to remember that they led us here. These situations were set into motion a long time ago. We are actually cleaning up the mess that our ancestors have left for us. But we have to look past that and get to the point where we can lay the groundwork for the generations that are going to follow us.
CL: What are the main factors contributing to youth violence?
SS: High accessibility to guns, alcohol, and drugs. There are other factors that are important and need to be worked on, but these immediately cause death in our communities.
CL: Do you think that race or racism is a factor?
SS: When I lived in San Bernardino, race was on my mind constantly because it was a suburban white town. In Oakland I’ve never had a fight with anybody other than African Americans. I’ve had many verbal altercations with people of different races—never anything physical.
CL: Why is that?
SS: I think that you are more likely to hurt people you feel you know or identify with. People are 43 times more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger. I have counseled youth who have gotten into fights at parties because of racial differences, but mostly what I see is one race hurting its own.
CL: What kind of work do you do at Caught in the Crossfire?
SS: When I got shot, there were very few resources to help me deal with my injury on a personal level. I wanted to fill that gap. Crossfire is a response team that goes into the hospital and works with youth, ages 19 and under, who have been recently admitted for violence-related injuries. We counsel the youth and help them set up a life plan so when they leave the hospital they can get connected to resources within their community. But our underlying goal is to talk them into talking to their friends about not seeking retribution for their injuries.
CL: You started the Caught in the Crossfire program after you got shot. How else did the shooting change your life?
SS: The shooting really made me look at myself, and my surroundings. I knew that violence was a problem in my life, but I never really saw myself as being a person to do something about it. I would see a story in the news where someone got shot, and I would think to myself, “Man, it’s really crazy out here—someone needs to do something about this.” But I always overlooked the fact that I was somebody and that maybe the somebody that needs to do something about this was me. When you just stand by and let things happen, you silently condone it. So, I guess my shooting just catapulted me into the fight for violence prevention because I don’t want to see anyone else get shot.