The Banger Who Came in From the Cold
Ollie Bryant was unpleasantly surprised last year when he found himself up on Potrero Hill, running from the cops.
He'd last gone rabbit in 1988, when he fled attempted-murder charges connected to the shooting of two gang rivals. Since he'd come home from prison in 1994, he'd stayed out of the drug business. What's more, he'd spent two years working in gang- and delinquency-prevention groups, sometimes with the close cooperation of Mayor Willie Brown. Fleeing the police was something he thought he'd put behind him.
But as anyone who's experienced it can tell you, the thug life in southeast San Francisco has a way of dragging you back into the fray. Especially if you have a past like Ollie's: major crack dealer, drive-by-shooting artist, gang leader.
"There was a fight in my neighborhood between two of my homeboys," Bryant explained the other day while sitting in the front office of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. "I was trying to break up the fight, and the police came, and they just pulled the guns on everybody. They knew who I was."
Old habits being what they are, Bryant ran. "I panicked," he says.
Being the former big man on the hill, his escape was assisted by housing project residents who hurled bottles at the police. As he fled, questions ping-ponged in his mind: Wasn't he still on parole as a two-striker? Wouldn't this be a third strike? Hadn't his old mentor from the Omega Boys Club always said that all it takes is one bad decision to land you back in prison for life?
And finally: Wasn't it time to stop running?
"I don't know what made me stop, but I stopped running," Bryant says.
He walked back to the cop who was chasing him and asked to be placed under arrest. But the cop, upset over the chase, allegedly smacked Ollie in the head. A scuffle ensued, and Bryant ended up charged with a third-strike felony -- assault on a police officer. He was looking at 25 years to life.
Bryant, however, had the political connections he'd amassed as a gang-prevention worker to draw on. Community leaders, a San Francisco police officer, and even the mayor himself vouched for Bryant before the court and the parole board. The felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and Bryant continued to serve parole without penalty.
It was an important lesson for a former hard case: You can get all the power and prestige you need, and without breaking the law.
By the time he dodged a third strike in 1997, Ollie George Bryant Jr., had already moved through a variety of political personae.
He had served as a street agitator and haranguer at public meetings. He had also worked closely with youthful offenders in the most respected anti-gang program in the city.
He was a loudmouth with a temper who left nasty phone messages for reporters who didn't see things as he did. He also fit in as a welcomed guest in the Mayor's Office, chatting amicably with department heads.
He had experienced power politics. Community politics. And, in beating the assault charge, a form of back-channel politics.
This month, Bryant will begin experiencing politics of another sort. He'll also be able to celebrate his best reward yet for choosing politics over crime.
The 29-year-old ex-convict will join local government as Mayor Brown's appointee to the Citizen's Advisory Commission on Elections, and as a representative of the Board of Supervisors on the Delinquency Prevention Council.
If Bryant can keep the shadows of his past at bay, this once-deadly young man might become something else. Impressive.
It took a lot of people and a hell of a lot of time and effort to yank Ollie Bryant out of the crack jungle.
Bryant's education in the ways of the legitimate world began when he was still a punk teen-ager and bad-ass crack dealer for the 25th Street gangsters. The process began with a grizzly old white man named Jack Jacqua, the fire-and-brimstone counselor from the Omega Boys Club, and his persistent erosion of Bryant's mindless macho facade.
During most of his childhood, Bryant hung out at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, where Omega held most of its meetings. He learned to box in the gym there.
"Jack was one of the only people who never gave up on me," Bryant says. "When I was in prison, before I was in prison, when I was selling dope. He always said, 'Ollie, I know this ain't you. I know you since you was little. You got good in you. All this selling dope, this big old pounding your chest stuff, that ain't you.' "
Jacqua's counsel did not keep Bryant from throwing away real opportunities. When he was accepted to the prestigious School of the Arts at McAteer High School, for example, he chose instead to follow the dark path of drugs and gangs. And in 1989, after a year on the run for his '88 shooting, Bryant did another drive-by in San Francisco. He was arrested and sent to prison for eight years.