Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Killer View

San Quentin sunrise with Richmond Bridge
When a new inmate first arrives at San Quentin, they put him and his group of new arrivals in a small, airless room. (Everything inside San Quentin is airless. High windows let in only weak, indirect light.) In the room, there are not enough of the small aluminum stools which look uninviting anyway. Today we crowd in, a few adults, a handful of teens from East and West Oakland. A prisoner in blue denim joins us.

Unceremoniously, he dumps the contents of a plastic garbage bag on the floor. There’s a scratchy woolen blanket. A tube of toothpaste the size of an adult pinky. There’s a piece of soap about the size of a domino; you wouldn’t call it a “bar.” There is a plastic toothbrush, all brush, no handle. A white sheet. A pillowcase but no pillow. There’s a gray undershirt that once was white. And a pair of boxer shorts. The inmate holds them up for us. He says, “See these, these are pretty nice, you’re lucky if you get these, because the ones you probably’ll get will be stained from the guys who wore them before you.”

These are impressions from a day in February at San Quentin with a group of teens from East and West Oakland, some of whom are in Youth ALIVE!'s Teens on Target program. Our hosts were a group of inmates called Squires, who represents a civilized evolution of the old Scared Straight program. While we saw some jarring sights on our day inside the walls, the inmates themselves were kind, and good with the kids. They encouraged our young men to talk about their lives growing up in violent neighborhoods in violent times.

The day at San Quentin was arranged by OPD Officer Robert Smith, of the OK Program, which mentors young men of color. It is a long day and it feels thorough. There is time on the yard, inside cells, along unadorned cell blocks, at Death Row (Its entry sign reads “Condemned Row” and is painted on the wall over the arched doorway in ominous Gothic lettering). At lunch in the dim, cavernous mess hall the visitors assemble their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, like the inmates, without a knife. Your hands get very sticky.

At lunch, inmates sit at tables with small groups of teens and talk. I can't hear the conversations, but the encounters seem meaningful. Later they pass through a cell block called "Badger" where indeed the residents badger them with shouts the meaning of which gets lost in the echoes. Outside the block there is a small, fenced-in recreation yard, where many of the inmates drop their basketballs and stop their games to gather and watch the visitors pass. Some cling to the chain links, make small talk. One West Oakland kid runs into his dad. The father seems happy to see him, comments on his incipient teen mustache, asks if he played basketball this year at school. Promises they'll play when he gets out. The kid says very little.

For some, the most bracing moment of the day comes when each Squires inmate recites his sentence: 20 years to life; 40 years to life; 15 to life; four life sentences, 265 years. One inmate tells us he is 44 years old and has been at San Quentin for 23 years; another, who can’t be more than 40, has been here 21 years. Their commitment to reaching their young visitors becomes clear in their honesty about what they had done to get here. 

The young men react strongest to the underwear. On a day all over the sprawling California Department of Corrections Prison at San Quentin – on the yard, in the mess hall, in classrooms, on the blocks, in the cells, at the entrance to Condemned Row, it’s the underwear and the showers that get the most obvious reactions. The showers are wedged in a narrow cell block passageway, in clear view of walkways along all four levels of cells. The lowest walkway hovers balcony-like. You could perform Romeo and Juliet here. Call it Romeo and Romeo. 

There is a minimum of personal space between the twelve dangling shower heads we are told spout water that might be too hot or too cold but you have no control over that, or much else in your life at San Quentin. These are all the shower heads for the entire cell block and you have maybe 5 minutes to get clean and get out of there. Inmates watch today’s visitors from above, shout out factoids about showering in jail. All the sounds echo and merge and much of what they say is inaudible. You hear “wear boots,” “no time,” “bring a lookout,” “too hot,” “too cold.” It’s another bleak glimpse into a circumscribed world, but others from the day drive home the point to the young visitors that freedom is precious and worth preserving: a minute or so inside a cell with the iron door closed and locked feels longer. There is barely room for one grown man to live but this one houses two, in narrow bunks that are your only personal real estate. There are a few shelves crammed with Wheat Thins, jars of instant coffee, lots of deodorant. At the foot of the bunks, like a forgotten tree stump, sits your toilet, which you can flush once per hour.

Early morning light, San Quentin
Your escape is on the big, busy recreation yard, characterized by sweat and racial self-segregation. On concrete walkways up above, officers with machine guns keep watch while in the sunlight, in blue shirts and blue pants, some guys play chess, some cards, others dominoes, while on a small grassy berm below, men, shirtless and buff, do dozens of incredibly impressive burpies without stopping. None of the guards looks like he could do even one. Some inmates jog the perimeter, around and around. Some play basketball, some sit and talk. One man reads a book. Only a vision from the outside unites them: everyone watches the line of youthful visitors walk past. It’s impossible to know if it makes them wistful, homesick, if they feel on-display. Between the inmates and the teens there’s some friendly chatter, a few scattered, pleasant greetings. One kid grabs a basketball, shoots and misses. Everyone laughs. To the west, there's a killer view of Mt Tam.
                                                                                                          - Jim O'Brien 
(By the way, I encourage anyone who might read this to take a look at the novel On the Yard by Malcolm Braly.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A search that never ends

Alexis' mom liked her daughter's new boyfriend, Rickey; he brought out a side of Alexis she rarely saw. "He made her giggle and laugh," says Lashawn Randolph.

Lashawn & daughter Alexis. Alexis was killed in January 2015
Alexis was a very determined person, a young woman with a plan. Just out of high school in San Jose, she had quickly moved to Oakland to live with her beloved grandfather, despite his discouragement. Not that he didn't love the idea of having her near. He'd been there the day her mom had brought the newborn Alexis home from the hospital. They'd all lived together when Alexis was a little girl. He says that, of course, he loves all his grandkids, but you can tell Alexis was special, perhaps because of a connection forged in those early years.

But...Oakland is Oakland. No doubt, it is a beautiful place full of thriving, promising young people. But it is also a place where young people find trouble they can't make their way out of. Sometimes mortal trouble. Still, Oakland, with her grandfather, is where Alexis wanted to be.

"I dreaded that," says Lashawn.

But life in Oakland would be more exciting. At least when she wasn't working long hours at UPS. And work was what she wanted right now. College would come, it was definitely part of the plan. But first she wanted to work for a few years, make some money, have some fun.

In Oakland, she met Rickey Livingston. Oldest boy among seven siblings, Rickey's youngest brothers looked up to him. When he would come home to visit, he was all theirs, the kind of big brother who gave them his attention, affection and focus.

"He did that with all his brothers and sisters," says his dad, Rick Livingston. "He was all about family." Rickey loved music and seafood and sweets. He was intelligent, had a wide skill set. "And the dude was handsome," says Rick. "He had it all."

Nevertheless, Alexis had been reluctant to bring Ricky home to meet her mom.

"I'm tough," says Lashawn. "It's always a thousand questions." Rickey took the parental interrogation in stride, handled it with respect. Mom was satisfied.

Rickey Livingston, 20, killed in January 2015
"You could tell he was raised in a family like ours," she says. And then there was that way he had of bringing out Alexis’ lighthearted side. If he made Alexis happy, then Mom was happy, too.

Rickey was 20, Alexis 19. A good looking young couple. They were killed together. Shot in Ricky's car in broad daylight in East Oakland on January 16th of this year.

Now, on the 16th of every month, the families communicate, support each other. It's an unfortunate friendship forged in the most unfortunate circumstances. But so few can understand their plight.

Marilyn Washington Harris understands. Her only son, Khadafy Washington, was killed in Oakland in 2000. He was 18, had just graduated from McClymonds High, in West Oakland. He was killed on the campus there on a Friday night. The Alameda coroner's office is closed on Saturday, but how was Marilyn supposed to know that? She went there, banged on doors. No one was there. It made a horrible, lonely situation worse. She vowed that that kind of thing wouldn't happen to anyone else in Oakland.

For the last 15 years, through the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has dedicated her life to helping survivors of homicide victims in the days right after a killing, and beyond. Over those 15 years, she has taken nearly a thousand mothers, fathers, wives or children by the hand to walk them through the complicated business that comes in the wake of a homicide. She has helped them get compensation and aid available to help pay for funerals, helped them plan the funerals, protected them from exploitation at this most vulnerable time, listened to their pain, confusion, anger and fear. She has been a source of comfort and love, more than a symbol, proof to these wounded families that love is still out there and healing is possible, just when it seems impossible.

"She's been awesome," says Lashawn.

"Marilyn was patient," says Rick. "She told me, 'There are things you need to know. First we'll meet with the Victims of Crimes office, we'll go from there.' She was just very informative, welcoming, you could tell she understood what was important. I listen to her guidance because it is coming from the heart."

When you lose a child to violence, the killing itself is only the beginning of something, of a kind of lonely quest, or a search, that will last the rest of your life. And what makes that quest, that search even harder is that you don't really know what you're seeking. You're not even sure you want to find it, whatever it is. Is it peace? A reason? Is it the past?

There is a phenomenon discovered and documented by researchers and therapists who work with parents of the violently killed. They call it "re-enactment syndrome." Parents who were not there when their son or daughter was killed are wracked with guilt or simply cannot accept the idea of their helpless child dying without them. They are compelled to imagine what happened, with details gleaned from police reports or eyewitness accounts. They place themselves in the story, imagining and re-imagining what they would have done to comfort their dying child. It's possible Rick Livingston has never heard of re-enactment syndrome. Yet he expresses it perfectly.

"When my baby laid on that floor in transition," says Rick, "I wish I could have held his hand, been there with him, touched him, just been there."

It's part of the search for that mysterious something. You think you want peace, but when it appears, you feel guilty. You worry your lost loved one will feel abandoned. You look back to the incident as if searching for an alternate past. That is a search that will never end.

Both Rick and Lashawn talk about a future they will never witness. Rickey's dad dreamed of taking his son to exotic places, "away from the concrete of Oakland and San Francisco." Alexis mom talks about the happy answers she will never get, what college Alexis would go to, what career path her promising daughter would follow. Both young people have had birthdays since their deaths. Each family had a party.

"I was just all over the place that day," says Lashawn.

In one way, each of them is lucky. Lashawn has a support system of family and Alexis' friends who keep Alexis as a part of their every day lives, who text her mom to see how she is doing, bringing up good memories, posting old pictures to her Facebook page. Rickey's dad has his wife and children. And he is a social worker, surrounded in his work by therapists and others whose lives are dedicated to helping people. 

"They've always got my back," he says. "But you don't want to burden people, It's a heavy load to carry. There's orphans and widows, but what do you call when you lose a child? There's no name for it."

That is partly why Marilyn formed a support group. It meets the first Tuesday of every month in a bland classroom at Kaiser in Oakland. Often an Oakland Police Department homicide detective comes to update the families on their own cases or on the state of violence in the city. Mothers and fathers who lost a child a month ago, a year ago, or 10 years ago, come to the group, talk about life, death, their cases, their lost children, their living children. Often there is laughter, frequently anger, sometimes sadness. They always welcome with a rare combination of warmth and great regret new attendees. Rickey's dad and his wife, and Alexis' mom make the long drive to Oakland frequently, one from the South Bay, one from the North Bay, to be with others who understand, who have been there.

"I almost blew up one time," says Rick. "I was literally on the brink, and so they all loved me, got around me. They still call me. It's imperative that people try to support these programs, even a little bit helps."

So far in 2015 Oakland has suffered just over 90 homicides. The number may well surpass a hundred this year. That's a lot of violence leaving a lot of pain in its wake. It's a pain we don't often think about, but one that, unattended, robs the community of vital members, and that sometimes leaves a bitterness that can lead to deeper problems for an individual and a community. Research and real life have shown that violence, especially the trauma it causes, can lead to more violence. But healing can also lead to greater healing.

Friday, June 26, 2015

No Due Process for the Dead, Part 2: Guilty Until

Part 2: Guilty Until
See Part 1: Allegations
See also: The price of prices at 17, about Ed McGowan

Just hours before Ed McGowan died, Mr. Polk had a talk with him. Mr. Polk was Ed's grandfather.

"I hadn't seen him in awhile," he tells me, "and I wanted to find out how he was doing. I had heard that he wasn't doing the right thing."

Still, Ed, 17, was on track to graduate from high school in a month, and he assured his grandfather that all was okay. What else could the grandfather do?

Edward McGowan's graduation portrait
That evening Mr Polk got the call. He was in East Oakland, dropping his wife off at 73rd. It was 7:30 and Ed's father was on the phone. Over on 64th Street, Ed was lying dead from a bullet wound. Quickly, Mr. Polk drove the few blocks to see his grandson a second time that day, but he couldn't get close. Ed was now evidence, Ed was off limits. They didn't move the body until midnight. He would see his grandson again two days later at the funeral home, then not again for another two weeks.

Because the police said Ed had a gun when he was killed, because allegedly he shot, not mortally, his own killer, because in the words of the rules of the California Victims Compensation Program, a victim is ineligible if he has "participated in or been involved in the crime" (sometimes it reads "contributed to the circumstances of his death"), Ed's family was denied the emergency funds available to most homicide survivors to pay for a timely funeral.

"It was a very stressful time," says Mr. Polk.

In California, there is financial help for victims of violent crime, from the California Victims Compensation Program, or Cal-VCP. In Alameda county, victims apply for that compensation at the Victim/Witness Assistance Division of the DA's office. There you fill out the forms and there your eligibility is determined.

Among the primary eligibility rules: you must be cooperating with the investigation of the crime; and you must not have contributed in any way to the circumstances that led to it. These conditions are determined by the content of the police report.

Of the 50,086 applications processed in fiscal year 2013-14, 7962 were rejected, that's just under 16%.

Tasia Wiggins is the director of the Alameda victims assistance office. She tells me that an initial rejection is not always the end of the story. Sometimes a second, fuller police report might make a difference.

"What we do is order the full police report to see if circumstances change, if that contribution (to the crime) is overcome. So we try to tell people, 'Let's do what we can, let's get that application in, even if it might be found to be ineligible.' We can still make sure we get the full police report so that a decision can be made later once we get all of the information."

In these cases, compensation, in the form of reimbursement, might come later. But for destitute families in the grip of despair at the loss of a loved one, the need for funds for a funeral is urgent.

In general, the victims compensation program in Oakland is known to be genuinely responsive to families in dire need of funds for a funeral. Rarely have I ever heard someone, even someone deemed ineligible, say they were not treated with sympathy and respect there. And when a victim is eligible, this government office is able to provide financial help with great celerity.

On the other hand, the rule that disqualified Ed's family from help punishes innocent survivors, victims, whose loved one, according to the police report, may have been engaged in something unlawful when he was killed.

If Ed had lived and been accused of possessing or firing a gun, he could have contested the charge, gotten a lawyer, gotten his day in court. But, as I have said and written before, there is no due process for the dead. In fact, even on appeal, according to the legislation that governs the program, it is up to the victim's family to disprove the evidence. Here's the wording:

At the hearing, the person seeking compensation shall have the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, the elements of eligibility...

It reads as if the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" is being turned on its head, as if the common perception, that any young African American man killed on the streets of Deep East Oakland must have been doing something wrong, has been encoded in the statutes. If fact, according to Jon Myers, a spokesperson for Cal-VCP, it is the statutory nature of that rule that makes it difficult to change.

"Our mission is to help victims of crime, there isn't any prejudice, but we have to follow the law, and the law has certain limitations," Myers told me recently. These limitations in eligibility are also a nod toward the program's limited funds. Compensation money comes from criminal fines, but criminals are notoriously delinquent in paying up. At times the fund's balance has dropped so low that the amount of money available to victims had to be lowered. There used to be $7,500 available for funeral expenses. That figure is now $5,000.

Still, eligibility in some cases has been expanded, first to allow non-violent felons and victims on probation to be eligible. More recently, eligibility has expanded to cases of sexual assault where the victim was a prostitute. Technically in such cases, the victim could be seen to have contributed to the circumstances that led to the assault, and to have been committing a crime when it happened. The program didn't feel comfortable with this designation. They had some wiggle room on such eligibility decisions.

"We had already recognized this problem internally," says Myers, "so it wasn't automatically 'you are out of luck.'" Recently Cal-VCP changed the regulations on sexual assault so that prostitutes are no longer ineligible if they get assaulted on the job.

But Myers says the ineligibility of families like Ed's would be tougher to change, that statutes can only be changed by an act of the legislature.

And so, innocent survivors continue to suffer for something the police say their loved one did. And maybe it is true, maybe their son or grandson has done something stupid, something to put himself in a place of great danger. But his mistake would seem already to have been paid for in the harshest and most painful way.

It is Tasia Wiggins who usually delivers the bad news that an Oakland family like Ed's is ineligible.

"Those are the hard calls," she says. "But if there is an eligibility problem, we're not gonna make them wait, because the bottom line is, they need to know what they can count on."

What most of the families can count on is being forced to go out into the community to ask for help at the worst time in their lives.

"It's tough to see," says Myers. "But I see it all the time, a car wash to fund a funeral."

Ed's family members gave what they could. The family did a GoFundMe campaign that brought in a little money. Catholic Charities donated a small sum, but it still did not add up to the amount needed to bury Ed. It would be two weeks before Ed's funeral. It was already a time of uncertainty.

"The wait didn't make it better," says Mr. Polk.

Despite the two-week wait, Ed's funeral at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland was a very full and loving tribute. He had a lot of friends and a big, loving family. Two cousins of his spoke about how they and Ed had all been born within a year of each other, and had been excited to turn 18 together. An uncle had flown in from Georgia. He talked of his regret at not having known Ed better. He promised to work harder to get to know his family members in California. A young man in a wheelchair said he'd been shot ten years ago. He begged the young people to put the guns down. One of the preachers told the story of the Prodigal Son, but focused on a different lesson than one usually takes away from that story. I took his lesson to heart. A singer sang a gospel song called "I Wish You Were Here." Another, older preacher said that God is a good God and never fails us. He said that violence among young men represents a "grave situation." He said there are many paths a young man could choose in Oakland that look bright, "but there is the devil, Satan." Then he read from the Book of Job about the hope of a tree in its tender branches. Later he read from the Book of Proverbs about trusting in the Lord: lean not on your understanding.