In April we gathered outside a library across from DeFreemery Park, where, back in 1972, the Black Panthers would hand out free food to throngs of ever more desperate West Oaklanders. By then, what a mere decade earlier had been a thriving African-American community, was desperate.* Four decades on it still is.
We were there to board a bus for a political rally in the state capitol. As Marilyn Harris herded everyone toward their seats, I began to see her as rather like Moses -- prettier than Moses would have been, shorter, and black, and without a Moses-like beard, of course -- but similarly intrepid, similarly determined to lead this ad-hoc community of the wounded, not to any promised milk or honey, but out of the land of death and back to living.
Just about everyone on the bus had suffered a shocking loss, but it was an upbeat group. After a prayer led by a local pastor, as the bus pulled away from West Oakland, laughter and joking settled into chatter about skin care products or how quickly the grandkids grow up. Occasionally, words like "homicide" or "investigator" or "coroner" would rise above the din, as might be expected.
In front of me sat a young woman whose twin brother had been murdered back in October. Seated next to her, her mother, in her late sixties, wore a beautiful blue blouse. The daughter kept trying to smooth a stray, stubborn curl of her mother's gray hair.
Across from me sat a woman whose mentally challenged son had been murdered on his way to the store; none of his money had been taken. His murderer was never found.
Marilyn sat near the front. Her son, Khadafy, had been shot on a summer night in 2000, on the grounds of the West Oakland high school he had graduated from two months earlier. There were six homicides in Oakland that weekend.
There were eighty homicides that year, but six in one weekend shocked even Oakland. It was one of those events that politicians can't ignore. Something had to be done. And so they formed commissions.
Here in 2010, twice in March we had four homicides in 48 hours. But no new commissions that I’m aware of. Marilyn and the Crisis Response team (See August 5th post, "Ministry of Presence) answer call after call to begin each rebuilding project one family at a time. As far as I can tell, there is no one else doing anything precisely like this in any other city in America.
In Sacramento that afternoon, as anonymous state politicians blathered at a podium, the passengers on the bus proved far more interested in, even mesmerized by, the hundreds of posters on stands along the boarders of a big white tent pitched before the west steps of the beautiful Capitol building. Each stand held large portraits of four murdered Californians on each side. The first thing everyone did was to find the portraits of the loved ones of the passengers on the bus.
There were hundreds of people mulling under and out of the tent, many wearing t-shirts with images of the dead from all over California, usually with the words "In loving memory of..." or "Always in our hearts..." And, of course, there were plenty of shirts and posters influenced by Marilyn’s original phrase, conceived for billboards in the weeks after her son's murder: Do You Know Who Killed Me?
All through the afternoon, Marilyn kept introducing me to the mothers of the dead, all with incredible stories of loss and rebirth. One woman’s only son had been killed in a carjacking while on his way to work. After the rally, as she was climbing onto the bus, she turned to me and said, "Jim, do you want to hear something really strange? The father of one of the people who killed my son is on this bus. He's the pastor. He must know who I am, after all that time we spent in court. It's strange. But it's okay. He can be here."
* Many of West Oakland's beautiful Victorian and Italianate homes (there are some that survived the "renewal") were owned by middle-class, African American canning factory workers, longshoremen, and sleeping car porters based at the nearby train station. By '72, most had been razed and replaced with the crushing blandness of beige row houses. Today it can be hard to tell one street from another. Those not replaced by public housing were seized through eminent domain, demolished, and replaced by three major freeways creating choking pollution and a choking isolation from the rest of the city. The final insult came in the form of the towering concrete pillars of an above-ground BART line running down the middle of 7th Street. Last stop in Oakland. Just before the tracks plunge into the Bay, if you look down from your train car you can see in the shadows the ruined facade of a legendary jazz club called Esther's Orbit Room. Billy Holiday played there. So did Etta James, back when 7th Street was the commercial heart of West Oakland.