RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When our correspondent, Richard Gonzales, heard the news of an especially shocking crime in Richmond, California, it hit him especially hard. He was raised in Richmond. He describes it as a tough, working-class town, it's just across the bay from San Francisco, and it's where a 16-year-old girl was gang raped just about a month ago. At least 20 people watched but did nothing to stop the attack or even report it. This morning, Richard goes back home to try to find out why.
(Soundbite of song, "Forever")
DRAKE (Musician): (Singing) So, I don't plan on stopping at all. I want this forever, man.
RICHARD GONZALES: I grew up here in one of Richmond's toughest neighborhoods -South 17th and Cutting Boulevard. It looks like the ghetto from the movie "Boyz n the Hood." I have vivid memories of the everyday violence here - at school, on the streets - and then there was that stray bullet that ripped through my bedroom wall.
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GONZALES: That was 40 years ago � but as tough as it was, we at least had hope. We had good schools, and everybody's father had a job. And that's what's missing in most places here today.
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GONZALES: Just take a look at Richmond High School, where the rape happened. It wasn't my school but we all knew about it. It was a rough place but a lot of kids went on to college. It's a lot harder for today's students, says my old friend, Edel Alejandre. He's a guidance counselor at Richmond High.
Mr. EDEL ALEJANDRE (Guidance Counselor, Richmond High School): Oh my God. They face� You know, I'll say it's a miracle the kids come looking as good as they do. A lot of them come from families that the parents haven't worked for a long time. A lot of them come from families who've lost their homes - you know, when they bought a home they had the dream of but couldn't afford it. And they're hardworking, good kids.
GONZALES: Edel also knows the young men accused in the rape; he worried they were headed for trouble.
Mr. ALEJANDRE: The dehumanizing actions of these young men - and I stress, young men - is frightening. Where has their humanity gone?
GONZALES: After the rape, a lot of people in Richmond are asking that same question.
Sergeant CHRISTA CAPPIALI: My name is Sergeant Christa Cappiali. I've been here with the department almost 17-and-a-half years.
GONZALES: Even the cops.
Sgt. CAPPIALI: Now, let's take a ride up to Richmond High.
GONZALES: Cappiali and I cruise through my old haunts in her black-and-white. We pass through a lot of grim areas - tired and neglected. But every so often, a neighborhood stand out. It's obvious a lot of people who live there really care about it. Sergeant Cappiali says those who do, face an uphill battle here.
Sgt. CAPPIALI: It's a city that's struggling to kind of pull itself up from its own bootstraps. And it is an inner city. And there are a lot of us who try to fight that stigma, saying, no, we're just like any other town and we have a good side and a bad side. And somebody gets killed, there's a shooting, there's a gang rape. You know, like, you know, it's always that two steps forward one step back.
GONZALES: For some, Richmond's better days need not be a fading memory. And the sergeant reminds me, after World War II, this place was booming.
Sgt. CAPPIALI: Richmond, back in the day, was an amazing town. This was a thriving middle-class city, lots of working folks. \At the time, and even now, you could see shades of these classic homes here. The thing that came to Richmond, like a lot of inner cities, was drugs. And drugs, in a lot of ways, killed this city.
GONZALES: Drugs, as in crack cocaine. It consumed Richmond in the early '80s. But the town was already in trouble. Good-paying industrial jobs were drying up and downtown merchants were moving out.
Mr. RICHARD MITCHELL (Planning Director, Richmond): That was a big change.
GONZALES: This is Richard Mitchell, an old friend from high school. He's the city's planning director. He left Richmond to attend Harvard in 1969.
Mr. MITCHELL: After college and after being away, coming back in the late '70s and early '80s, it seemed that something significant had changed. Nobody was taking care of our schools anymore. Many of the programs and clubs and activities that were a part of the backdrop of our education experience were completely gone.
GONZALES: The city has been trying to reinvent itself by developing its waterfront and rehabbing its downtown. And in recent months, you could feel a sense of optimism slowly returning to Richmond � until this happened.
Unidentified Woman #1: 911, where's your emergency?
Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, it's in Richmond High School.
Unidentified Woman #1: What's going on?
Unidentified Woman #2: There's a girl that's, like, (unintelligible) drunk and she's naked.
Unidentified Woman #1: Where at in the high school?
Unidentified Woman #2: It's in the back in (unintelligible).
GONZALES: This call for help came two hours after the 16-year-old girl was gang raped outside her homecoming dance. Others could have - or should have - heard the attack. It happened within earshot of several homes. So, why'd it take so long for someone to intervene?
At a local caf�, I put that question to another Richmond native like me, Reverend Andre Schumacher(ph).
We both grew up in Richmond. Could this have happened back then?
Mr. ANDRE SCHUMACHER (Reverend): I'm a graduate of Richmond High School, and I don't think this would have happened at Richmond High the way this happened when I was coming through Richmond High. We knew each other, we were engaged to the extent where, regardless to what race, creed or color you may have been, if something as horrific as this was taking place, somebody would have said, hey, wait a minute, no, you can't do that.
GONZALES: After the rape, counseling sessions were held at Richmond High, and hundreds of students rallied to condemn the attack on their schoolmate.
STUDENTS: (Singing) It won't be long, 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on. We love you.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONZALES: Right after the rape, Richmond High was blasted with anonymous emails, saying the school � and the whole city � should be quarantined. The students were defensive; the message struck a nerve.
Ms. NORMA BAUTISTA(ph) (Senior, Richmond High School): They always attack Richmond, Richmond, Richmond. That happens everywhere. It happens nationally. It happens in New York, it happens in Nebraska. Why do they have to attack Richmond?
GONZALES: That's Norma Bautista, a senior at Richmond High. Lizette Franco, a sophomore, chimes in.
Ms. LIZETTE FRANCO (Sophomore, Richmond High School): We don't want this event to define the school. We don't want it to be our identity, because there's so much more to Richmond than what they're portraying in the media. There's so much more. We're not animals. We're not savages. We're students striving to be better people.
GONZALES: And there are many people in Richmond who say the kids aren't getting all the help they need. Rhonda James runs the local rape crisis center.
Ms. RHONDA JAMES: We have to realize that we have failed our boys and our girls, and I think you see that really strongly in an under-resourced community.
GONZALES: There have to be lots of people out there who say what's that got to do with this barbarity? Why are you making excuses?
Ms. JAMES: Poverty - nothing excuses the behavior of these young men, nothing.
GONZALES: But James says, in a context where there's not much hope, empathy is a casualty too.
Ms. JAMES: I think it's easy to start seeing yourself other than the person you're abusing. It's easy to otherize(ph), if you have been otherized. We see it where men gather. We see it where men gather.
GONZALES: In other words, it could have happened anywhere.
Authorities say that the 16-year-old rape victim is back home. Although she suffers from vivid flashbacks and nightmares, she is determined to put the experience behind her. Still, her recovery, they say, could be a very long one.
The same could be said for my hometown.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Richmond, California.
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