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

Thursday, June 7, 2012

In Oakland, Seeking the Courage to Surrender

On a gray June morning, in the northwest corner of the parking lot of the AutoZone at 100th and International, the Bishop, in a wheel chair and a white track suit, called for surrender. He besought the group to pray for surrender, to pray for the killers to see the light in -- to see the bright peace of -- surrender. He prayed they would surrender their souls to Jesus, and that in Jesus' message to love your neighbor as yourself they would find the reason and the courage not to pull the trigger.

"There's a spirit we're up against," he said. "God can cast that spirit to the rats, as far as I'm concerned."

Across the boulevard sits St Louis Bertrand Catholic Church. In the 16th Century, the Spanish Dominican worked in the New World to convert the natives to Christ. Now, 450 years later, Bishop Simmons seeks to convert murderous Oaklanders. 

I can imagine faith and Jesus working to pull a young man free from the urge to pull the trigger. But I wondered if a person seeking to prove himself in East Oakland ever could see that defying those who would urge you to commit violence shows greater courage than succumbing to their dark and dead end instruction. Want to be defiant of authority? Want to show how powerful you really are? Then work to leave that life behind. It won't be easy, but it will be right.

The Bishop was preaching to a group of 20 to 25 that morning. The last such march I'd covered, from 23rd and International to City Hall, had taken up the entire right lane of the boulevard and stretched two or three blocks in all, but this was a sidewalk march, a more intimate group, led by young men from Victory Outreach Church. They carried a Measure Y banner, had bullhorns and energy and words. They kept up a remarkably lucid and inspiring monologue all along the long, slow, four mile march, discussing, for any and all within range, peace, love of humanity, love of Oakland, safety for your children, safety for your family. Bystanders cheered and handed out bottled water, drivers honked their car horns, marchers handed out flags to taco trucks and other businesses along the way, pressing them to spread the message of surrender. If I am skeptical of the effect of such marches on the killers, I still admired the marchers and the message.

Along the way, the group stopped three times to remember and pray for the dead. First in front of Bay Coin Laundry, on the spot where the child Carlos Nava was killed. There is a mural depicting him with wings there. Then at the taco truck where five-year-old Gabriel Martinez was killed; there were pictures hanging along the chain-link fence. Then at the entrance to Otaez Restaurant, where the owner, Jesus "Chuy" Campos, was shot dead early one morning in 2011 as he unlocked the door and prepared to go to work.

Carlos Nava Mural, International Blvd., Oakland

The mayor marched with the group, also her husband. The chief of police walked, as well, in civilian clothes, a jacket, jeans and loafers. Their collective presence lent the march a certain legitimacy its small numbers might have failed to do. They walked with the group past the trash-strewn number streets, the urine-drunk bus kiosks, past the dirty facades of the boulevard, past the graffiti announcing that once their was a guy who came along who calls himself "THC" here, there, everywhere, past the businesses and storefront churches, Se Compra Hora, Iglesia Christo Marantha, Low Fee Check Cashing, past the East Bay Dragon's clubhouse, a casino billboard, more graffiti: "Los," "TSK," "GE2." At 69th, three Latino men with shovels, rakes and hoes were clearing the high dry golden grass of a vacant lot and you had to wonder what they would find in that little, long neglected patch of Oakland. They leaned on their handles and watched us as we passed.

In front of a brightly painted, well-kept barber shop I tapped the mayor on the shoulder. "That's a lovely facade," I said.

We were all set to use redevelopment money to help many of these businesses upgrade their fronts, she told me. But the state economy had tanked and the governor had withdrawn the funds. She had been trying to convince the city council to pay for it, but they were reluctant. The City is suing the State to get some of that promised redevelopment money back. 

I handed her my card. On the back I had scribbled the name and date of an article I'd written about three violence prevention workers in Oakland, two former victims of violence, and one formerly incarcerated former Oakland gang member, all working now to create peace. She hadn't read it, said she had little time for reading. I told her I was working on another, longer piece on one of those former victims, on the city and its reputation and its fight against the gun, that I would love to interview her some time. She said to talk to her public safety adviser, Reygan Harmon. Soon a security guard addressed her, quietly, "Mayor," and pulled her away. She had another appearance to make, would meet up with the march at the event scheduled at its destination, a plaza in the Fruitvale District. At that event I approached Harmon. I handed her my card. On the back I had scribbled the name and date of an article I'd written about three violence prevention workers in Oakland. I said I was working on another one and needed to interview the mayor for it. She gave me her card and said to email her, which I did the following Monday, four days ago as I write, but no word yet. I wonder how many emails it will take.

Back before the marchers had reached the plaza I'd caught up with the Bishop in his wheel chair and told him how much I liked his message of surrender. He asked me if I was a preacher. No, I said, just a writer in Oakland.

(For more on the event, see 25 Guns)

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