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

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Death is Mercy

One of the things I'm reminded of frequently in my work covering homicide in Oakland is that death is mercy.  This and Jesus are the most common comforts offered at funerals of the fallen.  We are in pain, but we can be assured that he who is in that coffin is not, especially if at some time before his death he gave his soul to Jesus, publicly. 

Often I sit there in churches and chapels hoping this is true, while considering the other side of the promise of heavenly peace: that if there is a heaven, then there is probably a hell, too, and no matter how much we want to think our lost one was perfect, especially now that he or she is dead -- death being yeast to the reputations of those we’ve lost -- maybe he nevertheless got plopped into the fire.  Unless, as often I try to convince myself, an infinitely loving God proves in the end all mercy and forgiveness.  If you believe in salvation, in Christ and heaven, then you can be relieved for the dead.  You can believe he or she is

Where the soul hath the full measure and compliment of happiness; where the boundless appetite of that spirit remaines compleatly satisfied, that it can neither desire addition nor alteration...wherever God will thus manifest himself, there is heaven.  
                           -Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1634

Or, if you are an atheist, you can be relieved that the dead no longer suffer this bleak and uncertain life of the gun in Oakland.  You can hope their violent deaths were quick and their physical pain short-lived.  Mercy. 

It’s the living who suffer.  Even if they believe their loved ones are in the warm embrace of God, the missing is suffering.

“The people who have lost children that lived with them,” says Miss Marilyn, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, “even if the child was 52 but lived in your house, you have to get used to missing them.  The support groups we do ask, ‘Do you have a loss?’  And a loss is anything that you’ve gotten used to over the years, because a man that loved his wife, he grieves the same way as a man who was mad at his wife and didn’t want to be with her.  Because he’s gotten used to her ways, he’s gotten used to seeing her every day, he might have gotten used to her in that same head rag.  Good or bad, you’re grieving that.  People losing jobs, people losing relationships they thought were going to work out.  It’s not so much that person, it’s getting used to being without that person.  It’s a hole.”

In November, listening to the mother of another homicide victim, I got some insight the plight of the living dead, and witnessed another moment of righteous courage born from the blood of a gunned-down son. 

At a packed meeting in a small hearing room at City Hall, Darnetta Fluker was surrounded by 18 gang members from her neighborhood.  These were not the people who had killed her son but, according to the Oakland Police Department, they were appropriate stand-ins, each having been identified as among the most violence-prone members of the community.  Until she'd risen to speak, she'd been sitting at a table between two of them -- one thin, neatly pressed, probably in his very late teens; one obese, older, well into his twenties, his dark hair cropped to the scalp, rolls of fat stacked at the back of his neck -- while in quick, three-minute talks, DAs, federal prosecutors, police captains and parole officers threatened the gang with severe penalties if they continued to terrorize the far west of the city. 

These gang members were a confident crew, a formidable collective presence even in this peaceful, controlled and business-like atmosphere, even in City Hall at two in the afternoon.  Now this mother stood to speak.  Probably 50-years-old, she looked younger because she was slight and so casually stylish in a dark, short-cut jacket and jeans.  She wore no lawyerly power suit, no holstered gun.  I hoped she was a David, but what weapons she might possess were concealed. 

She placed on an easel a large photo of her dead son, shed a few tears, gathered herself, and told the room that he had been killed nine years ago, that he’d had five small children. 

Then, with only the width of a conference table between her and these men known for cold violence, she turned her gaze on them and began to make the point that, as far as she was concerned, they were cowards.  They killed with guns because they were afraid to fight with fists.  They had no idea what they were doing.  They were wrong, she said, to think that the person they target and kill is the one they hurt. 

She was well past her moment of tears now.  Her voice grew, not louder, but stronger.  It had the power and authority of her grief and suffering, of the fact that she was right and expected to be listened to.  It became a kind of gale.  And these men in this room in 2010, they had become her son’s killers. 

“You don’t know who you’re hurting,” she said.  “You think you hurt him, but you didn't hurt him.  He's dead.  He’s fine.  It’s his 5 children you hurt.  They live with this every day.  I live with this every day.  People talk about closure, but there is no closure.  You didn’t hurt him,” she told them to their 18 faces, “I'm the one you hurt."

Here is a pretty good description of the everyday effects of grief.  It is about 1,700 years old, but is a good reminder of what Darnetta Flucker had to master before she confronted the Campbell Village Gang:

At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death.  My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture.  Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; I hated all places, for that they had not him, nor could they now tell me, ‘he is coming’, as when he was alive and absent.  I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, 'why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely': but she knew not what to answer me...  Thus was I wretched....
                                       -St. Augustine, Confessions, circa AD 398

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