Beating Swords into Plowshares in East Oakland

a table with gardening tools, along with a vase of red and orange flowers
Photo by Cara Meredith.

The popular biblical phrase, “swords into plowshares,” is often used to describe turning weapons of destruction to something for everyday use. 

Led by Paula Hawthorn and Cara Meredith of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s social justice ministry, the spirit of this idea settled like the early morning mist at last Saturday’s local Guns to Gardens (G2G) buyback hosted by At Thy Word Ministries in East Oakland. 

“Just as guns take lives, you get a garden tool to make and enrich life,” Mayor Sheng Thao told Oakland Voices after a press conference that kicked off the event. “This is also an educational, healing process, people banding together to make our neighborhoods safe. We’re working on creating another gun buyback, hopefully in a different location. I do understand that it has to be accessible. Not everyone has vehicles.”

From late morning to early afternoon, volunteers guided community members to surrender their guns along a line of red cones leading to the church’s lot at 89th Ave. 

a group of police, a Hmong American woman mayor, and volunteers stand for a press conference
At Thy Word Ministries in East Oakland held a gun buyback event in June. Photo by Howard Dyckoff.

Forty-two firearms were collected from the trunks of the gun owners’ cars before being safely secured, and logged into a database by the Oakland Police Department. Each person who turned in a firearm received gift cards from Target and Chevron for gas worth up to $300, Oakland A’s tickets, and most poignantly, a hand-forged garden tool fashioned from the 131 retrieved at last year’s gun buyback.

Despite the lower number of  guns surrendered this year, spirits were high. “Every gun we can get off the street potentially saves another life, whether it’s used in the streets or whether it’s a gun accident in the home,” Minister Payton Silket of At Thy Word Ministries said at the event.

The 42 weapons, ranging from rifles to revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, represent 8% of all guns recovered so far this year by OPD. Each is destined now for the hammer of local blacksmith John Rogers, to be beaten and shaped into a garden tool.

a woman wearing a straw hat talks to someone in a car with their windows down
Guns to Garden’s Paula Hawthorn passing out gift cards during the June 2023 gun buyback event in Oakland. Photo by Howard Dyckoff.
inside a police car, you see a bunch of metal and wooden handled rifles in the backseat
Photo of guns turned in at the June 2023 gun buyback event in Oakland. Photo by Cara Meredith.

St. Paul’s Meredith who lives in the Havenscourt neighborhood said, “it was incredible to see so many organizations, OPD, the mayor’s office, everyone come together. We are so grateful for the 42 guns that were surrendered because it matters. That’s why we do what we do. It seems like word is really get out now, people are getting excited.”

Looking ahead, the group plans to reach out to even more organizations “to get the guns off the streets that really need to be gotten off the streets,” Meredith said. As a Kaiser doctor who attended the event suggested to her, “what if we had a flier at every single pediatrician’s office?”

Councilmember Dan Kalb, who attended the buyback and has authored gun safety ordinances, said “anytime there’s an effort to get guns off the street in any part of Oakland or for that matter any part of the East Bay, we have to be supportive of that and encourage that and make it happen again, again and again. There’s way too many guns on the street.”

Oraya Hunter, Communications Director for Councilmember Treva Reid, came to support the day’s efforts. “Councilmember Reid is all about addressing public safety issues,” Hunter said, noting that Reid’s son died from gun violence. On a personal note, Hunter noted that she’s experienced all sides of Oakland. “I’ve been fortunate enough to live in the more positive conditions, and if I can help to ensure that the rest of the city gets to experience that, I’m all for that.” 

Twenty volunteers representing a dozen community organizations came together for the gun buyback, according to volunteer coordinator Vanessa Smart, along with Oakland OPD officers, most of whom participated on their day off. Smart, who is the lead for the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, described the event as an opportunity to network. “It’s a powerful opportunity to leverage, lift up the ‘boots on the ground’ work we do,” she said.

Mass shootings — like the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School which was the impetus for Moms Demand Action — continue to explode nationwide, including one in San Francisco on the eve of Saturday’s buyback. According to the most recent report by the Center for Disease and Control (CDC), homicide and suicide deaths by firearms are at their highest levels in decades and “existing disparities, including racial and ethnic disparities, widened.”

Mayor Thao wrote the city law as a councilmember last year that authorized OPD to develop and fund a comprehensive buyback strategy. While the state approved grants to local law enforcement agencies for gun buybacks, funding has been bottled up in the bureaucracy and is now threatened to be cut due to the current budget crisis.

“It’s frustrating,” said Paula Hawthorn, who tracked the legislation. Hawthorn is used to such challenges. Her persistent quest to initiate gun buybacks in Oakland began three years ago. She went on to connect with the national Guns to Gardens group, sold the notion of gun buybacks to OPD — only law enforcement agencies can oversee gun recovery under California law — recruited blacksmith John Rogers, and, with her friends at St. Paul’s, raised over $20,000 to purchase gift cards.

A man wearing sunglasses and a brown hat holds up A's tickets and gift cards whiles letting behind a table outdoors
Volunteer Mike Ubell with gifts. Photo by Howard Dyckoff.

“I was going to call it ‘Swords into Plowshares,’” she said. “But there’s already a local group with that name. Everybody knows the verse and everyone loves the sentiment.” 

Oakland has held gun buyback events prior to the local Guns to Gardens program, organized and initiated by different groups over the years

Four years ago, the Giffords Law Center issued a report which pointed to Oakland as a model for cutting its incidence of homicides in half to its lowest number in two decades (68). By 2021, that number had risen to 132 in the wake of the pandemic, before falling slightly to 120 last year. This year’s rate, with 35 homicides through May 14, has declined 13%, according to OPD’s weekly crime report.

Such statistics are sobering to John Rogers who is equal parts blacksmith and artist. Growing up in North Dakota in a family with deep ties to the military, he lost two friends to gun violence in the past year. 

a white woman in a t-shirt stands next to a man with short grey hair holding a vase of flowers
Cara Meredith, left, with blacksmith John Rogers. Photo courtesy of Cara Meredith.

Rogers described his relationship with guns as complex. “Metal work is transformative,” he told Oakland Voices. “All the elements — air, fire, and water — are gathered. You understand malleability. There’s a flow, a contained violence to it. When you’re working with steel, you have to be on it or you’re going to get burned. It’s like working with 2,000 degree clay. That keeps you in the present. I find it very zen-like.”

Last year, several police officers helped in the forging of the tools. “I think it was very cathartic for them,” he said. “To think about our dedication to weaponry, the fetishization of the military, its pragmatics but also the sickness of violence – next to the feeling today, being part of and interfacing with the community. I take the Isaiah scripture to heart, transforming these things into something really healing.”

An African American young male minister with short hair wearing a black suit stands for a portrait, smiling
Minister Payton Silket. Photo by Howard Dyckoff.

“It’s all about narrative,” Silket shared in an interview with Oakland Voices. “If people want to see a narrative of violence, hate, of lack of hope then that’s what they begin to believe in. This is also an opportunity to change that narrative, to show that we can do something good, can do something beautiful. There are opportunities, there are people working for peace who care about you. That’s the beauty in Guns to Gardens. Transformation can happen in a person but transformation that can also happen within a community. Oakland is not lost. There is still work to be done. We are still a beautiful city. We can continue to evolve and transform and see better days ahead.”

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Bill Joyce is a retired Berkeley teacher and 2016 alumnus of Oakland Voices.

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