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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Part 2: The Presence of My Enemy

There is an abundance of suffering here in the cool of the chapel this
afternoon. Suffering is a thing we all share, and especially this crowd
of East Oaklanders who have lost a child to the gun. (See Pt. 1: Chapel Light.)
Usually you think of the mother as the queen of the sufferers, but 13-year-old
Jimon Clark had a twin, Javon, and all indications were that they were twined
together in life until now.

Among the speakers are friends and teachers of the twins from Frick
Middle School, all of whom seem to find it a little strange to refer to
one of them without the other, as if this dying is the first thing one
of them has ever done independently. They seem to have been regularly,
unselfconsciously, referred to as “Jimonjavon.” Juh-MON-juh-vawn. One

And so you must think of Javon as having died a little, too.  Or that
the entity, JimonJavon, was murdered, along with Jimon himself. It’s a
double-homicide. Or at least a homicide and a half.

The service opens with a reading from St. Paul, from his second letter
to the Corinthians: For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so
our consolation also abounds through Christ. It elicits a great amen
from the congregation, from the adults in the congregation, whose faith
must get shaken, but it always appears very strong. Christ is one of
the two comforts they are repeatedly offered, or that they repeatedly
find for themselves. Christ shares your suffering, in Christ is peace
and hope. If there is no peace in the city, no peace in your
neighborhood, no hope of safety, if the police can’t protect you, if
those who run the city are helpless, if the schools can’t raise you up
toward hope, there is Christ in the end.

The other comfort is heaven. No less than six times from the pulpit,
teachers and friends and family and preachers reminds us that Jimon is
in a better place. Better than Oakland, better than earth, better than
this world of struggle and fear and death. What other comfort are you
going to find? And what will you do if there is no softer place to go
for healing than where the fact of this bare meaningless death and void

An Instigator of Dreams
Young people take the altar to talk about how funny Jimon was, that he
was a kind of leader, an instigator, usually of innocent hi-jinks,
although sometimes these hi-jinks led to suspensions from school, which
elicits some laughs, but suspensions always sound serious to me, and
never funny in real life. One of the kids says, “I’m gonna wear his
colors.” But I’m not quite sure what this means. Probably Jimon just
liked to wear certain colors. He seems to have had that kind of fun and
colorful personality.

A teacher from Frick Middle School, from which Jimon and Javon had
graduated in the spring, says that Jimon assembled the very first student relay track
team to beat the Frick teachers in their end-of-the-year race. He talks
about Jimon’s determination. Jimon encouraged his relay team practice
every day. When ever there was a spare moment, he had them on the track
honing their baton transferring skills. I think this is the source of
the track star designation some of the media have given the dead boy,
which might be a bit of a stretch, the kind of legend the press
invents, or that we sometimes invent about our newly dead, a posthumous
medal of honor we bestow to comfort the dead, to make the dead feel
better about themselves. One article referred to Jimon as a “standout
athlete,” which seems like it might have been more precise.

Maybe Jimon did run track. Or maybe he would have run track at Skyline
High, where he was set to begin only a few days after his murder. Maybe
he would have run track, loved it, excelled at it, won great victories
and suffered the great crushing defeats that are the stuff of life.
Maybe he would have gotten a scholarship to run track at USC, studied
physical education or economics, gotten a degree and become a teacher,
a leader, an instigator of the dreams of 13-year-old kids. But instead
he is in a better place.

On the later, a friend of Jimon’s tries to sing for the dead boy a song
called, according to the program, “His Eyes is on the Sparrow.” She is
thin, tall, but a child. She is wearing very high heels. She is
distraught, sings one verse, very off key, then breaks down and is
helped back to her seat just in front of mine by another child her age,
Jimon's age. That night the one TV channel that has shown up broadcasts
this on its Ten O’clock News.

The Failure
The member of the city council from Jimon’s neighborhood approaches the
pulpit. Larry Reid’s voice shakes as he utters the second-most-heard
phrase at funerals of the killed in Oakland. “This has to stop.”

My opinion of the council member rises and falls by the moment. Unless
it turns out he has a personal relationship with the family, I’m
inclined to hate him for being here, or at least for speaking.

But then, when he calls the Oakland killings “insane violence,” I like
the term.

 “When I got the news of Jimon’s killing,” says Reid, “I saw myself as a
failure.” I appreciate the starkness of the term and the taking of this
personally. When he announces that he is giving the family a check for
$5000, it is the announcement, not the gratuitousness, that bothers me.

When he asks if anyone in today’s congregation knows anything about
Jimon’s killing, I quickly scan the room, even as I feel a chill run up
my spine. I watch carefully as Reid offers $2500 for the information.
To my eyes, no one reacts in any way that might indicate they know

“If you’re scared to go to the OPD,” he says, “come to me. Because this
has to stop. In this city, when your children leave the house, you
don’t know if they’re going to come back.”

I’m impressed by his honesty, by his quivering voice, but, finally,
when he presents the family with a resolution from the mayor and city
council, I feel exceedingly empty.

The Enemy
Until an old gospel singer seems to appear from nowhere, an old man
backed with an organ, and sings a long, slow, agonized song based on a
verse from the 23rd Psalm, the psalm that begins, The Lord is my
shepherd; I shall not want, the one that declares that, though I walk
through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, the one that ends, I
shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

But it’s a neglected, middle verse the singer keeps repeating, an
enigmatic one I rarely note when I hear the psalm recited, that resonates: You prepare
a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Over and over in a
minor key, as the song comes to an intense climax, soulfully he sings
the words "in the presence of my enemy..."

I think the verse is about the abundance and joy of enduring life in
the midst of evil and death in the world, but sitting here this
afternoon, I can’t help but think about the funeral of Davante Riley,
which ended in gunfire. I can’t help but think about the trophies I’m
told the killers sometimes come to the funerals of their victims to
collect: a lock of hair, a cell-phone photo of the dead. I wonder if
the killer is with us today. Is the dead boy in the presence of his

Or is it us? Are we in the presence of the enemy, or at least of the
enemy's quarry? And is the enemy, not death, but whatever it is in
Oakland that breeds the evil urge that lets a person kill like this.

Turn Out the Lights
Finally an old preacher speaks. He is short, and fat, full of energy,
with the worn, gravelly voice of a man with experience, and a man who
has done a lot of preaching.  He tells us he won’t talk for long, and
so he does. He talks about his past as a drug dealer. How he made a
hundred thousand dollars in one day. He makes it sound pretty good.
Then he says, proudly, that he now has a job where he makes $90,000 a
year, but he either forgets to include some kind of transition, the
part where he gets arrested or shot or loses his family or causes some
young person to become an addict or to overdose, or there just isn’t
any particular narrative lesson to be gained.

The preacher says that partying is fine, but that you “got to know when
to leave the party.” He has the congregation repeat this. He has us
turn to the person next to us and say it again. He tells bad jokes that
are likely lost on the kids. He ends with a recruitment drive, calling
up anyone who, right at this moment, has truly felt the call of Christ.
Forty, maybe 50 people, mostly the young ones, throng the altar. The
preacher tells us that there are pastors placed all around the room to
talk to anyone interested in joining his church.

The chapel service is ended. There is to be a balloon release now, out
in a field on the campus, but I head across the fuming blacktop to my
car. Inside, the thermometer reads 103 degrees. I drive the long way
down International Boulevard toward the lake. A hundred blocks, a
hundred stop lights. There are small gatherings of hookers on certain
corners, out in today’s bright blazing California sun. Most of them are
overweight. A couple of them are having a pretty good laugh over
something. I think about how I haven’t laughed like that in months.

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