Death is an event. The event. And a homicide is a public event. It tends to get noted to one degree or another, depending on the circumstances: on the place, the race, the method, the age of the victim or the suspect. My interest in stories about the aftermath of the big event flows in part from a belief that, while the prelude to a homicide can be fascinating (it can also be depressingly banal), and the event itself monumental, it is in the aftermath that a killing wreaks havoc on a person, a family, a neighborhood, a community, a city, not to mention what it does to the psyche of a killer, assuming he has any trace of humanity. Herein lies a story and the pulling of the trigger is only its middle.
That bullet that wounds or kills, it also ricochets. As the news spreads through a family, through the streets, it continues to wound or kill; if one person has been taken from us body and soul, a dozen more are lost to us in lasting bitterness, subversive grief, debilitating fear, and, in the case of a child growing up on streets lorded over by the gun, a way of life they learn from repeated violence and loss.
For some, the blood of their son on the sidewalk, that blood in the driver’s seat or in the grass, fertilizes certain long-buried seeds of profound courage, of kindness, of strength, of power, of creativity. That’s what I see in Marilyn Harris, whose only son, Khadafy Washington, was killed in 2000. Khadafy was 18. Now, day after day Marilyn walks with the families of new survivors. She walks with these initiates to the torment through the painful tasks that precede burial of a homicide victim. A veteran of the walk, she knows how they are feeling, how they are thinking, that probably they are not thinking very clearly. She enters their lives not morbidly or with sentimentality in her voice, but soberly, with seriousness; there's business to take care of. She’s a rung to cling to that keeps these families from suffocating. She protects them, begins their healing, even as they represent a never welcome reminder of herself ten years ago. But there she is, a clerk for the federal government the day her son was killed, now a guide through a mine field.
People ought to be aware of the long path a bullet takes.
Despite the cynicism displayed by those who have the time and inclination to write flippant online comments to news articles about homicides in Oakland, normal residents of every neighborhood of the city are moved by each homicide they learn of. They consider the pain, the horror and the grief. For that moment of awareness, they become one with the city. The whole city. They also consider and usually lament the preponderance of violence here, most of it gang and drug-related. To varying degrees and with varied alacrity, often privately, but not always, many then give in to the belief that the homicide victim chose an immoral path, or had a moral lapse and, to an extent, got what was coming to him. And so they move on to the next item of news or of the business of their days.
Some might take a moment to consider the pain of a young victim’s parents, but many are willing to blame the parents as much as the victims for whatever circumstances led to a killing. They know about the black community, the Latino community: no fathers, no gumption, no work ethic, no birth control, 40% high school drop out rate. What’s the point of spending too much time caring?
Their dark, communal passage is over with. Or so they think. But each individual affected by this event carries this septic wound into the community, their community. Because not everybody is like Marilyn Harris, sometimes the survivors become lost to us. We are all diminished.
With the stories on this blog, I would like to elongate our municipal attention span, not in order to create a more wounded city, but instead to plumb a city’s compassion. To do that, sometimes I have to describe the effects of our sickness.
Fortunately, I can also write about how, out of the event, out of the grief and shock and tragedy, comes revelation, how some, like Miss Marilyn, like Darnetta Fluker, who have lost a loved one to the street, have gone on to find themselves, and to find in themselves real greatness. Maybe the city can do the same thing. Maybe that can be our big event.
I’m reminded of the closing lines of an early poem by Robert Hass:
I know that I know myself
no more than a seed,
curled in the dark of a winged pod,