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

Monday, October 27, 2014

After the Death of Darnell Byrd, Jr, Part 2: "A story that is killing my heart"

"A story that is killing my heart"  

(See Part 1: Between Rumor and Knowing)

Today, a year after the murder of Darnell Byrd, Jr,, his mother, Ultra Humphries, sits in the front room in her house in East Oakland, in the room where Darnell slept, talking about him, about his hopes and dreams, about his ongoing presence in her life. Darnell wanted to be a barber. He had plans to change his own look, to look more professional, more button-down. He was getting serious, he was growing up. Mother and son were scheduled to go shopping for new clothes the day his body was found, with a bullet in his head, on 78th Avenue. He was 24.

Akim, Ultra and Darnell. Darnell was killed in Oakland in 2013
Ultra has turned Darnell's old room into a peaceful sitting room. Warm sunlight filters through the curtains of blue and brown. There are two comfortable couches and a corner shrine to the memory of her only son. Her husband, Akim, sits at her side. They are young, a year either side of 40, a strikingly handsome couple, out in the world they will catch your eye. But if you watch them long enough you will see in the hard, sober set of their faces the weight of this loss. Akim is always a quiet presence until, occasionally, while telling her story, Ultra can't totally control her emotions and her voice wavers, and then gently Akim touches her arm. He picks up the story until she can gather herself. It's never a long time. Ultra is determined for people to know what happened, what is happening in Oakland, and how the families of the killed, especially the mothers, suffer.

"I'm strong," she says. "But I hurt."

For Ultra, it has been, it continues to be, a journey through grief and pain, to forgiveness, and a search for healing and justice. Every week she checks-in with the Oakland detectives in charge of the investigation. When the primary investigator got sick, she insisted that the investigation progress.

"This is not a cold case," she told them. She says they have been responsive, but she does get frustrated with the pace of things.

Her attitude towards her son's killer has shifted over her painful year.

"In the beginning, I felt a lot of hatred," she says. "And I really wished he was dead." But this has been a hell she would not wish on anybody. "I really have to pray for him and his family. Because...God help him. And I really hope that he will turn himself in and repent and turn away from wickedness and evil. If he doesn't turn away, his parents are going to lose their son."

Her faith has kept her intact, she tells me. "Because I have God, it's why I haven't gone crazy."

She's gotten invaluable support from her church, and from two Oakland institutions devoted to helping families of the killed. The Crisis Response and Support Network, out of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, has helped with the rent when Ultra had to miss work. And they have linked her and her daughter up with therapist who she says have helped them both immensely.

And in Marilyn Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has found a kindred soul and a source of ongoing strength and healing. Since her own young son was murdered in Oakland in 2000, Harris has been stepping into the lives of survivors, often right at the crime scene, or in the first days after a killing, to guide them through the business at hand, to be their eyes and brain when their own eyes and brain refuse to function or believe, and to begin their long journey back to life. Among the many services she provides, Harris leads a monthly grief group for parents of the killed. There, Ultra could being to tell her story.

"The group," she says, "it makes me feel comfortable to speak about my situation, because others are going through the same thing that I'm going through. So they understand. And when they tell their stories, I'm able to identify what I'm going through, because even though they may have lost their son five years ago, ten years ago, they still lost their son, and they're able to tell me how it's gonna be."

It sounds strange, but sometimes her strength frustrates her. "I don't want to wear it," she tells me," but she does want people to know both that she has a painful story and that she is enduring. "I want them to know, even though I've been through the death of my son, you are still able to make it, you can do it. and that's what Marilyn has given me strengh to do."

Outwardly, a year later, she can look fine, normal, like anybody else going about their business. On a day just about six months after Darnell's death, Ultra wandered idly into a local clothing store. She didn't have much money and wasn't really looking for anything in particular, unless some real bargain popped out at her. Eventually she found herself at the jewelry counter chatting with a friendly clerk. Ultra ended up telling the clerk her story, talking about her son's death, witnessing to the clerk about her church.

"She said, 'I saw you when you came into the store," Ultra recalls, "'and you just looked so good, and nice, and you would never have thought that you lost your son.' In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Do I have to look like what I've been through? She said 'You can't even tell.' But if I looked like my story," says Ultra, "I'd probably be missing all my hair, all my teeth, one leg, no hands."

Still, it is important that people know, that they hear. "Just because I'm not wearing my story, doesn't mean I don't have a story that's killing my heart. Because I have one."

One year later, of course Darnell remains a force in her daily life, even as she misses the little things, the mom-things."I can't tell him to take the garbage out, tell him to go the store for me."

She speaks to him still, sometimes just to ask, in exasperation, why he wouldn't listen to her. "Why didn't you just stay home, why did you always have to go out. Why didn't you just listen. I told him not to go in that area. Not to go around there. That's not a good area for him to be in."

And then there are the times when she hears his voice. Darnell speaks to her. "I just keep hearing him telling me 'Moms, it's gonna be okay.'"

When her inclination was to save the insurance money, Darnell gave her advice. Mom, you need to use that money, that's what I gave it to you for. She used it to create this peaceful room we are sitting in today, this room in which Darnell is a presence in photographs and in spirit. One year after his murder, the grief of course still comes, sometimes very suddenly. "I will be in the bathroom putting on my makeup and suddenly have a spurt of crying," says Ultra.

She says she wants to have a quiet day on the anniversary of his death, a visit to his niche at the cemetery and a day of family togetherness. They'll have a bigger event to mark what would have been his 26th birthday in January.

More and more, others who have lost a son or daughter have begun turning to Ultra for advice and she says that actually has helped her heal. "Helping others helps me," she tells me. "I'm a fighter, I go, I have to keep moving, and that's what makes me thrive. I want to be like Marilyn Harris, to be able to motivate and inspire people."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

After the death of Darnell Byrd, Jr, Part 1: between rumor and knowing

Between Rumor and Knowing

It always begins with rumor and disbelief. Phones ring and it's the Street on the line. The Street, notoriously unreliable, is saying your son has been shot. But the Street always knows things before you do. Most often, it is the last thing he touches, the last thing he feels, and as if the concrete has sensed his last heartbeat, it begins broadcasting the news.

Despite what early reports said, Darnell, 24, was shot once.
Ultra Humphries was at work on a Saturday morning. On her way in that day she'd felt compelled to pray for her children. Now she was in a meeting but her cellphone kept lighting up and she kept ignoring it. She could see who was calling: her daughter, her daughter's cousin, a family friend. It was annoying; they all knew she was at work. Finally her meeting was over so she called her daughter back. "Somebody says Darnell's been shot," she said, "he's dead."

No, you're lying, thought Ultra. Not that her daughter was lying, but life was lying, the world, time was lying.

Then came those long hours between rumor and knowing, the last, strange, painful hours between a normal life and the void, hours like a slow breaking of your bones, as you search for the truth, for something solid, some authority to tell you he is alive or dead. Sometimes the only real authority is your own eyes.

It was only the beginning of a journey similar to one thousands of Oaklanders have taken in the last 40 years, as the city's homicide rate has remained stubbornly high. There have been years when homicide numbers go down and years when they rise to frightful highs, but the bottom line is that for four decades Oakland, today a city of about 400,000 people, has averaged 108 homicides per year, consistently one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Even as other troubled cities across the country have brought violence down, Oakland has failed to do so. Perhaps until now. We seem prepared to have our second consecutive year where homicides have fallen significantly, and we can only hope that this trend continues, that it is in fact more than a trend, but a new normal. It will take years and constant vigilance to know if we have succeeded. It will take generations to bring real peace and healing to our hardest hit neighborhoods, where children develop PTSD from witnessing violence, from losing relatives and classmates to the gun. Where many residents of all ages suffer in an ongoing way from the trauma.

Ultra Humphries had tried to escape that trauma, she had tried to shield her children from it, raising them in Suisun, far to the east of Oakland. But, eventually, Ultra, who'd grown up in Oakland, and her new husband, Akim, had moved back. For a brief time they'd lived near crime-ridden 79th Avenue in East Oakland. Then the family had moved to a charming old house on a quiet street far from 79th.

But something drew Darnell back there. His mother had warned him a way more than once.

"When you're in an environment where you think that type of lifestyle is cool," says Ultra, "even though your immediate family doesn't do that, you try to fit in"

But he had friends and family over there. Then he got arrested there, for selling weed, spent time at Santa Rita for that. Darnell was not one of those stoic kids who pretends he's unaffected by incarceration..

"When my son went to jail, he cried like a baby," Ultra says. "He wasn't a bad kid, you're trying to be hard, but you're really not. He cried. 'I'm not gonna do this anymore, Mom, get me out of here.'"

Since then, things had been going well for Darnell. His mom had worked hard to get him into a program for young men, to help them find discipline and to establish a path forward. Ultra worries that she did too much for her son, was perhaps too protective, but really she just sounds like an active and caring mother.

"I always came to his rescue," she says. "That's why he probably thought everything was so easy. Because I always came to his rescue. I'm always doing things for him to make sure he's okay." Note the present tense.

Darnell wanted to be a barber. He had plans to begin looking and dressing in a more professional manner. He and his mom were supposed to go shopping for nice clothes, new shoes and button-down shirts that Saturday when she got off work. On Friday night before a friend picked him up, Akim asked Darnell if he'd be home later or if he was spending the night with a friend.

"I liked to be up and to let him in when he would get home," says Akim.

He remembers Darnell thought about it a moment and said, Yes, he would be home that night.

Then a strange thing happened, something that Ultra can't recall having happened before. At 2 o'clock in the morning, she was awakened by a phone call.

"I don't even know why I answered," she says. "I usually don't."

It was Darnell. Just calling to say Hi. He was happy, excited, he'd only recently learned that the family was planning a trip to Vegas for his 25th birthday that coming January. He wanted to talk about it, wanted his mom to tell his friend that it was true. He put the friend on the phone. Ultra confirmed the story and told the friend to bring her son home, it was so late.

In the morning before heading to work she asked Akim if he'd let Darnell in, but he'd not come home. They didn't think much about it. He was 24, he sometimes didn't come home. Then, around 10 o'clock that morning, the calls started coming in. As soon as she heard the rumor, Ultra started looking for information. She called Darnell's friends, who said he'd ended the night at an apartment near 79th.

"I tried to keep him away from that area," says Ultra.

She tracked down the number of a girl he'd been with that night, who said only that he had been on the phone with someone, that he had been pacing the floor. She called relatives who lived over near 79th. No one knew much.

She called the coroner, but no one answered. It was a Saturday, the office was short-staffed. Not until the end of the day did she finally talk to someone there. They had a young man who fit her son's description, down to a particular and unique tattoo. It was true. It was over. And something else had begun.

Darnell was shot one time in the head, at 6 o'clock in the morning, in front of a store on 78th. It was November and still dark out.

"Some people tell me a lady near where he got shot heard him say 'Somebody help me,'" Ultra tells me, then says it again, "Somebody help me," but swallows the last word, or rather gasps it instead of saying it.

Again she gathers her strength and continues. "That's all I know that my son said, he didn't have a gun, but he did call for help."

"If I looked like my story, I'd probably be missing all my hair, all my teeth, one leg, no hands, because I've been through a lot. I want them to know even though I've been through the death of my son, you are still able to make it, you can do it. And that's what Marilyn Harris has given me strength to do."

Friday, September 26, 2014

"I still sleep with his shirt under my pillow"

Shoes of Oakland homicide victims

On their own in Oakland: a good time to be reminded of their bad times

Each of them talked about the call. It came at 3 a.m., or at 5 a.m., at 6 o'clock in the evening but it was summer so the sun was up and bright, still shining when they got to the hospital. None of them knew what to do in the moment. Some of them screamed. Some had to be told two or three times. Disbelief was common.

In Oakland, a quiet summer of 2014 has ended with a violent late September. There have been 3 killings, all of them young men, and there was a shootout in East Oakland in broad daylight. Still, homicides in Oakland are down for the second straight year and so it is the best time possible to be reminded of the human pain the killing causes, complacency being our tendency as a city and a species. Last night the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence (along with My Baby Matters and Pleasant Grove Church) held a vigil for last year's victims, and many of their survivors came and spoke. 

With a microphone, before the small crowd gathered in the ampitheater in front of City Hall, they were remarkably strong, remarkably collected, though some cried. They all recalled their last encounter with their son or daughter or husband.
"We were in the kitchen. I'd brought home Chinese food. I asked him if he was hungry and fixed him a plate."
"Thank god the last time we were together we had a great time. We laughed a lot and I told her I loved her. The next time I saw her she was in a white box."
"He forgot his phone and called to tell us. I said it was getting late and it was time to come home. He said, 'Okay, Dad.'" 

One young women held her adorable and fatherless daughter in her arms and recalled times, back in 2006 and 2007, cutting out pictures of her killed East Oakland friends from the newspapers. She never thought it would hit so close. "He might have been into some things he shouldn't have," she said, "but no one deserves to die."

For the dead of 2013, 92 balloons
Some rambled a little, but of course you felt like you should indulge them. One mother had lost two sons within 19 days. A father whose beautiful young daughter was killed just three months ago said, as I have heard so many of them say, "I have good days and bad days. Today is a bad day."

The mother of Alan Blueford, killed by the police in 2012, recalled a conversation with Marilyn Harris. Harris' son was killed in 2000. Since then she has entered the new void that confronts shocked survivors in Oakland, to guide them back to life. Alan's mother told Harris she couldn't sleep and was having nightmares. "Get one of his shirts," Harris told her. "Fold it up and put it under your pillow." It worked, said Alan's mom. "I still have his shirt under my pillow every night."

Mallie Latham was there to lend support. His daughter Shanika was killed in 2012. (See No Manual: after the death of Shanika Latham). Rose Holman was there. Her son Lewis was killed in 2012. (See Life After Homicide: adrift in a churning tide for Rose's story)

John Lois, head of the Oakland Police Department Homicide Division hovered on the edges of the group, took a few calls on his phone, occasionally disappeared around a corner. Several times he was approached by mothers of the killed who knew him and he spoke with them patiently. Many, probably most, of the mothers are aggressive advocates for their lost children; they follow the investigations insistently. Tonight one said, "Oh they know me at the police department. I call them every week."

When Det. Lois spoke, he mentioned that homicides are down this year, which is fine, but it was probably irrelevant to most of the people in this particular gathering.

Despite taking place in the open plaza before City Hall, it was an intimate affair. A family affair. You got the sense that, except for Harris and a very few others, these people are on their own.                      
- J. O'Brien 

Read More - In the October issue of San Francisco Magazine - Guns Down. Don't Shoot. Inside Oakland's Operation Ceasefire by James O'Brien - how it works, whether it is working, and can it survive problems of funding and politics in Oakland.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My San Francisco Magazine article on Oakland's Operation Ceasefire

Backwards graffiti pic: Caitlin O'Brien
They are, according to the Oakland Police Department, the city’s most violent or potentially violent men. All are on probation or parole, having been convicted of robbery, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and a litany of other felonies. Some were summoned here by a letter received in the mail; others had the letter hand-delivered to their home by a probation officer with a police escort. When the authorities knocked on the door, “people were nervous, ready to go on the run,” says Malik, one of the parolees who was paid a visit. Better to flee and ask questions later, the men believed, than to open the door and leave in cuffs: “If they catch me,” Malik says, shrugging his shoulders, “they catch me.” 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Retaliatory: Street corner confrontations and Operation Ceasefire in Oakland

I will have an article in the October 2014 issue of San Francisco Magazine all about Oakland's Operation Ceasefire, the city's current violence prevention campaign, a collaborative effort among law enforcement, churches, service providers, former victims and former perpetrators. The piece looks at how Ceasefire works, whether it works, and whether it can survive, financially and politically. Comprehensive though the story is, some things could not be elaborated on, including custom notifications, one of the ways the Ceasefire partners communicate with the men they believe commit most of the violence here. So here is something I wrote about how these often tense meetings go down:

Retaliatory - Custom Notifications and Operation Ceasefire
When we have those painful stretches in Oakland, those weeks when there are three, even four killings in quick succession, often they are the result of retaliation. Meant to stanch that flow of retaliatory blood, Operation Ceasefire's most urgent mode of communication with the city's most violent, and its most vulnerable, is called a "custom notification."

Unlike call-ins, meetings which a dozen or more gang members attend, and which can take months to plan, custom notifications usually involve one potential victim or suspect, a person whom intelligence indicates is either in imminent danger of being shot, or who is planning to shoot. Custom notifications might take place on a street corner, in an apartment, at the jail. At these small, seemingly impromptu meetings, one or two highly-trained police officers, along with a probation officer, approach the suspect. Sometimes a street outreach worker who knows the suspect accompanies the officers. 

Usually the first part of the message is specific: You are in danger. 

Or, We know your sister got killed last week. We know you or your friends are gearing up to retaliate. We are watching you.

Then the Ceasfire message comes: We love you, we care about you. But this city cannot take any more violence. It must stop. If you help us, if you pull back, we can help you change your life. But if you or your associates strike, we will strike harder, and you will be gone, prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law, no deals possible, sent to the farthest away prison for as long as possible. The time is now to get out of the life, and we can help you. We have services -- job training, legal advice, substance abuse counseling -- whatever you need to exit this dangerous life alive and free.

There have been 48 custom notifications in Oakland since late 2012.

Also see: Death & the Mother: inside an Oakland gang call-in

Also, the October 2014 San Francisco article is out - Guns Down. Don't Shoot  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Death and the Mother: Inside an Oakland Ceasefire Call-in

I'll have a story in the upcoming, October 2014 issue of San Francisco Magazine about Oakland's current violence-prevention campaign, Operation Ceasefire, its effectiveness and its own political and financial prospects for survival. The story goes inside a meeting between police, prosecutors, community members and, according to the Oakland Police Department, 15 of the city's most violent men. At the meeting -- there have been six such meetings held since October of 2012 -- these mostly young men are promised severe punishment if they commit any further acts of violence, and also offered help getting out of the life. Much of the work done through Ceasefire is funded by the parcel tax known as Measure Y, which expires this year. If its replacement, Measure Z, fails to be approved by Oakland voters in November, Ceasefire will lose a crucial source of funding for the social services it offers those members of violent gangs and groups who want to change their lives.

This scene did not make it into the final version of the story, but it gives a great sense of the atmosphere inside the room and of the ultimate things at stake. I wrote about the two speakers featured here in another story for San Francisco back in 2012: No Escape, No Surrender.

Death and the Mothers: Inside an Oakland Ceasefire Call-in
Ever so gradually, you begin to sense that there is another crucial message being communicated at the call-in. It's not about law enforcement, not even necessarily about putting the guns down or getting a job, but about choosing between your own life or death. It starts when the focus shifts to Marilyn Harris, who lost her only son to the gun in Oakland back in 2000. Harris is also a service provider who steps into the immediate aftermath of homicides, often at the very crime scene, to aid families of the killed. In fourteen years, she has helped thousands of victims' family members in Oakland at the moment of their rawest grief. "You don't want to see me," she says. "Your mother doesn't want to see me. Because if I show up, it means you're dead." It's a fundamental point to make and a key finding of Ceasefire's data analysis: these young men are not only the most violent, they are also the most vulnerable to violence.

Late in the meeting, in the pregnant silence after DA Creighton and other law enforcement speakers have made their threats, the theme of death is revisited. Kevin Grant scrambles under a table and takes the center of the room. He is the one speaker who is given no time limit. Grant spent 17 years in 11 different federal prisons. Some of those years were for crimes committed on the streets of Oakland. Now his is the one voice that everyone in the city—the police, the politicians, the prosecutors and the street— listens to. To the young men he drives home a simple point, one gleaned from attending the sites of countless homicides as the city's premier gang intervention specialist: You are the ones who will end up on the ground.

"The sheet they put over the body is always too short," he says, "so there's always those shoes sticking out." Sometimes the victim’s mother shows up and when she sees the shoes, she knows that it's her son on the ground and her grief comes sudden and loud and excruciating.

He asks the guys, "What if that was you? What if that was your mom? And listen to this: What if God came down to you and said, 'You know what, I feel bad about this. You're still dead, but I'm gonna give you 60 more seconds with your mom to say whatever you want to say.'"

Grant walks to their places at the tables, looks at each young man and, one-by-one, asks him, "What would you say?"

Some tell him they would say "I love you."

“What about ‘I'm sorry?'" says Grant, with a hint of impatience, perhaps even a tinge of anger in his voice. And they nod, all but two of them, sitting near each other at one corner of the square, easily the youngest looking guys in the room. One is like no other participant I've seen at the call-ins I've attended. Throughout the meeting he has stared off into some undetermined space, into the shadows at the edges of the otherwise bright room. He has hardly paid any attention to any speaker. He looks lost, distraught, or possibly high. Others tell me they think he might have been mentally disabled. He responds to Grant's question with the barest nod then returns to his private place.

The other one has held his phone under the table and worked it through much of the meeting. He shrugs off Grant's question, while in a folding chair behind him sits his mother, crying.

It is a quietly devastating scene, hopeless even. But later, after the meeting, I see one of the pastors talking to the kid and his mom. Then I see Grant in a conversation with them. It is one of the great moments of a call-in, when the formal part is over and the preachers, the social workers and the former victims begin the hard work of urging these young men into a different life. It is an encounter only Ceasefire could make happen, so long as Ceasefire survives.

Also see: Retaliatory: Street corner confrontations and Operation Ceasefire in Oakland

Also, the October 2014 San Francisco article is out: Guns Down. Don't Shoot.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Deleted passage offered up to posterity

San Francisco was writing about restaurants elsewhere in their Oakland (June 2014) issue ("The Oakland 100"), so this passage from my obscure Oakland piece was considered redundant. But I kind of like it, so thought I'd throw it up here for posterity. You're welcome, posterity.

If anything in recent memory has challenged Oakland's reputation for violence and crime it's food. Nowadays, when the New York Times or the Guardian or GQ or other far-flung publications risk encouraging their readers to visit here, they might mention Lake Merritt or the Oakland Museum of California or the weather, but it's restaurants they emphasize. What started promisingly in 2003, with Tamarindo and then the Trappist in Old Oakland, with Luka's and Flora in Uptown and Dona Tomas in Temescal, has spread with great fervor and many wood-burning ovens to Piedmont Avenue, Grand Avenue, to Jack London Square, to Downtown. It's begun taking its first tentative steps into parts of West and North Oakland. Today, all over town, restaurants open and close and open and close like eyes blinking. In just three neighborhoods, Uptown, Downtown and Old Oakland, over 100 restaurants have opened since 2003. Some of them are already gone, but twenty more are set to open soon. That's some sort of narrow progress, I guess. Sometimes cities lumber forward more than they stride. And after several years covering violence in Oakland, it's good to be reminded that this is not just a place where people die but also a place where people live. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Related by Blood

Profiles of the wounded, 2010-2015, Oakland

The bullet that wounds or kills is only the beginning of the story. These are profiles, written since 2010, of those living in the aftermath of violence in Oakland, where you can multiply their stories, and their pain, by thousands, to include all the wounded and all the members of the families of the 450-plus killed in the past four and a half years.

Caheri Gutierrez was shot in the face and nearly killed:
After nearly dying that night, after waking up to find her self jawless and toothless and deaf in one ear, and after a month in the hospital, Gutierrez had gone home to East Oakland, only to find her struggle for recovery haunted by fear of the street, by nightmares, by a growing anger and an incipient grief for her lost identity. This is where victims of violence find themselves, in a lonely place where no one around them knows how to help. The victim feels helpless and so do the victim’s loved ones, coworkers, neighbors and friends. Many are afraid even to approach that dark place full of fear and confusion and anger where the victim exists.
I Might Have Some Hope Here

Beautiful Wounded: a story from the Deep
Prologue to a Maze of Dreams
No Escape, No Surrender

Rose Holman lost her son:

"I know it, but then I don't," says Holman. "I still feel like we have had one of our arguments, a falling out. But that sooner or later we will meet up, at a family gathering or something, and we will sit down to talk and then we will be past it and move on." Sooner or later, maybe much later, it will hit her, though, that there will be no chance to reconcile with her son, or to watch him become the man she hoped he would be. And then all the grief will come tumbling down on top of her again.
Life After Homicide  - Part 1: Adrift in a Churning Tide & Part 2: "She's gonna help you get through it"

Mallie Latham lost his daughter:
It wasn't just her mannerisms that struck her dad as free and easy. Before she was shot to death in 2012 on a street in East Oakland, Mallie Latham's youngest daughter, Shanika, a college student one week shy of her 21st birthday, had seemed untouched by the things in life that strip away our joy and our trust in others. "She had that openness and freshness," says Latham. "She made friends easily." 

No Manual: After the death of Shanika Latham 

Jean Eason returned from the war in Afghanistan unharmed:
 Even today, tonight, walking around the lake, some stretches of our path are darker than others, and Jean can seem suddenly nervous, lost in a story he knows well, quiet for a moment. At one point he says, "Man it's dark here" and it sounds like the path he is still on in life, the path all victims of violence find themselves on: struggle, progress, healing, then suddenly the dark, the nervousness and confusion return. 

Unwounded in Afghanistan, Shot in East Oakland 

Daryl Starks family waited for him to die in the Highland ICU:
Darryl Starks' little sister needs $20. She needs it for a new tattoo, one that will commemorate his death, which is imminent. Starks himself lies intubated and comatose in a narrow hospital bed, in ICU room #19, at the Alameda County Medical Center, a.k.a Highland Hospital. He lies under bright lights. His head is tilted back a little on the white pillow, skewed just slightly to his left, toward where his oxygen tube runs. His eyelids are not completely closed. 

The Dark Urges

Ultra and Akim Humphries lost their son:
Then came those long hours between rumor and knowing, the last, strange, painful hours between a normal life and the void, hours like a slow breaking of your bones, as you search for the truth, for something solid, some authority to tell you he is alive or dead. Sometimes the only real authority is your own eyes.
After the Death of Darnell Byrd, Jr - Part 1: Between Rumor and Knowing & Part 2: "A Story that is Killing My Heart"
Marilyn Harris lost her only son:
Marilyn Washington Harris aids Oakland's forgotten and its shunned. Since losing her only son to the gun in 2000, and finding no help available, she has dedicated her life to stepping into the immediate aftermath of homicides to provide help, hope and healing to stunned, angry, mourning families. Daily, she guides Oaklanders through the craziness, the hopelessness, and the business -- coroners, funerals, city offices, police -- of being a survivor. 

Miss Marilyn
A Plight, and a Plea for Oakland
Anniversary of an End and a Beginning
No Escape, No Surrender

Lashawn Randolph lost her daughter, Rich Livingston lost his son; they died together:
Both Rick and Lashawn talk about a future they will never witness. Rickey's dad dreamed of taking his son to exotic places, "away from the concrete of Oakland and San Francisco." Alexis mom talks about the happy answers she will never get, what college Alexis would go to, what career path her promising daughter would follow. Both young people have had birthdays since their deaths. Each family had a party.
A Search that Never Ends

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Essay about Oakland in SF Mag

A Unified Theory of a Tough Town by Jim O'Brien, in the June issue of San Francisco Magazine. The entire issue is dedicated to the life, politics, culture and people of Oakland. Here's a little excerpt from my article:

Oakland is hilly but not mountainous. It is a physically beautiful place, but unlike in San Francisco, its beauty does not confront you at every hill crested or corner turned. You have to seek it out. Try standing at Van Buren and Euclid and looking north to the hills or south to the gleaming lake. Stroll the beautiful unpainted remnants of the town once known as Brooklyn at the strange elbow bend in International between 12th and 14th Avenues. Or feel the moody haze as you sit on the little knoll just east of Lake Merritt at dusk in autumn. Some early spring day at sunset, find your way to the obscure meeting place of Wellington Street and Everett Avenue in the foothills, watch the sun blast its way into the city’s broken-comb skyline, and try not to be moved. Walk certain historic blocks in West Oakland, rich in architecture, any time of the day or year: Eighth Street between Henry and Pine, or Chester between Fifth Street and South Prescott Park.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Beautiful Wounded - a story from the Deep

Old hotel on San Leandro Blvd in E. Oakland
Many of those Oaklanders displaced by the midcentury changes in West Oakland settled in the crowded eastern part of the city. Today, all through sprawling, Hispanic, African-American, Vietnamese, hipster, lively, industrial, violent East Oakland, as well as good food, colorful shops, busy parks and bustling avenues, there are streets of danger, blocks under the sway of the gun, free-market drug corners, long prostitution strolls, and the blood of fresh homicide scenes. Sometimes people here refer to parts of East Oakland as “Deep East Oakland.” Or “DEO.” Or just “The Deep.” Depending on who is saying “Deep East” or “The Deep,” it can be a term of respect — “Yeah, the dude that started this company grew up on, like 82nd, Deep East Oakland.” Or one of fear — “I had to make a delivery in Deep East Oakland today. Man, was I nervous!” When used by someone who lives there, it’s simple shorthand, a useful, unselfconscious combination of geographic explanation and self-characterization.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in The Deep, Caheri Gutierrez was recognized early as an academically gifted kid. A visionary second grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary took her under his wing. David Silver would bring the smart little girl along to meet with his colleagues in education and take her to college campuses around the Bay Area. His big idea was that very young students, especially in under-siege places like East Oakland, should think about college, should aim for it from the time they enter elementary school. Constant awareness of its necessity and what it takes to get there would help create more driven and better-prepared learners, all the way through school. It would especially aid smart kids like Caheri. Silver had an idea to found a school based on this principle, and so assembled a team of educators and parents to design it. There was one student on the team: 10-year old Caheri Gutierrez. By the time Think College Now, a school for fourth to eighth graders, opened its doors on 27th and East 14th in East Oakland, Gutierrez was too old to attend. She was finishing up at St. Anthony’s, where she was a student leader, a bringer home of academic awards and a burgeoning volleyball star.

Gutierrez’s mother, a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, scraped together the money to send her to a parochial elementary school, then managed to get the girl from East Oakland into a public high school over across the estuary, in suburban Alameda, near the restaurant where she worked. Encinal High School promised a less perilous environment and stronger academics than Skyline High in Oakland. At Encinal, Gutierrez led the volleyball team to the Northern California finals. She was aiming for a full college ride on the strength of her athleticism and good grades.

It’s hard to say what sidetracked her. It’s hard to say what didn’t. For one thing, Gutierrez couldn’t handle the responsibility of off-campus lunch periods.

“I just had too much freedom and I started partying a lot and I started smoking.” She started cutting class, hanging around at home all day while her mother was out working.

Some of what sidetracked her — too much freedom, too much partying — could have happened to a kid in the suburbs, in one of California’s rural counties, in any big or small town. Some of it was strictly Oakland.

“When you’re young and you’re in Oakland, it’s a trend to be bad, it’s a trend to smoke weed, it’s a trend to, you know, just not care,” Gutierrez says. “I don’t know, it’s stupid. You want to be tough; you want to hang out in the streets.”

Her rampant truancy led to poor grades, she started missing volleyball practices, and in her junior year, Gutierrez got kicked out of Encinal. She was sent to Dewey, an Oakland school for students at risk of not graduating on time. She got kicked out of Dewey. Her transformation was almost complete. Then she was recruited by the Vixens.

Suddenly the girl who used to get attention for her good grades and her athleticism was getting it for her looks. It was intoxicating. In Vixen photos, Gutierrez tends to look serious, possibly unapproachable, but she was very popular at their events. She was a party girl. She was also under-age.

“I was getting attention for being pretty and having style. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really fun.’ That was my lifestyle.”

She was drifting ever further away from her family, constantly fighting with her younger sister, becoming alienated from her brother, from her mother, who knew Caheri was missing school, smoking weed, who was threatening to bar her from her prom and who frequently kicked her out of their apartment on 82nd Avenue.

One day, in another vicious fight with her sister, Gutierrez said, “I’m so done with all you guys. Family is just a fucking word. It doesn’t mean anything.”

That fight happened in late summer of 2008. She was 18.

In those days, her mother worked on the cleaning crew of an office building near the Oakland Airport. Sometimes Gutierrez would help out there. One night in the fall she was running late and asked a guy for a ride, a guy she’d known only a short time. She asked her best friend to come along for the ride. They headed out around 9:30. and soon were cruising down 98th Avenue toward the airport. They caught a red light at San Leandro Boulevard. Gutierrez was in the passenger seat, her best friend in the back. They were a little stoned, not talking, listening to music.

“And all of a sudden,” she says, “I feel shocks, just really really intense shocks.” She thought the car had been hit from behind. She could hear her friend in the back seat asking “What is going on?”

Then the driver began to shout, “I’m shot! I got shot!”

Gutierrez could see that he had been hit in the hand and she tried to ask him if he was okay.

“And he looks at me,” she says, and pauses.

We’re sitting across a table, in the dimly lit, slightly dingy conference room of a violence-prevention organization in Oakland. Gutierrez has attentive eyes, pitch dark, but there’s a glint, a pilot light. Her bright smiles tend to breakout in slow motion, her long, straight, dark hair frames a face that is oval except where that small part of her right chin is missing. She tells the story without emotion, but occasionally the telling slows down. Imagine a person feeling through a dark cupboard for the ingredients to a dish she dislikes profoundly. And the cupboard is full of spiders. But she has promised to make the dish for you and so, over and over again, she reaches in.

She remembers the look on the driver’s face as he gazed back at her that night. A strange look, she says, a look of shock at what he was seeing.

“And that’s when I touched my face, and I didn’t feel anything, and I looked toward the dashboard and all of my gums, my teeth, everything was there.”

She was hit in the right jaw.

“It just exploded when it hit me, it exploded everything, and it came out of my mouth and exploded all of my teeth. And all of a sudden I just start feeling sleepy, so sleepy, oh my god I’ve never felt this sleepy before, and I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. I was like, ‘Oh, here it is, I’m leaving, this is it.’ I was really thinking ‘This is it.’”

The driver was not badly wounded. He continued down 98th Avenue. Gutierrez’ body was convulsing, her legs kicking, her mouth was full of blood, she couldn’t talk. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. Near the airport they spotted two police cars and got the officers’ attention.

Gutierrez could see an entrance to the freeway nearby and began to calculate her chances of survival. Would she make it to the hospital if the ambulance arrived soon? She didn’t think so. She closed her eyes and thought, This is it. She thought about her family. Her mother. She wanted her mother to know that she had not died in pain. Suddenly her mind was saying Don’t give up, just try to hold on. But she was choking, kicking, holding her face together with her hand. The paramedics appeared, asked her her name. She wrote it down for them.

Then she let go of her face and everything fell out, her cheek, her severed tongue, everything.

She could hear the paramedic on her radio, “Level 1, Level 1, Level 1 trauma ...” The adrenaline was keeping her awake. She’d never been in an ambulance, she knew she was on her way to the hospital.

“I might have some hope here.” she thought. So stay up.

She remembers the bright lights of the emergency room, the shocked looks on the faces of the trauma staff, of these ER doctors and nurses who have seen it all.

“The last thing I remember,” she tells me, “was they laid me down on the bed and I just saw bright lights, really white lights, and after that I closed my eyes. I don’t want to see anything more, I don’t want to feel anything. I closed my eyes and that was it."

- from Until You Bleed - on life, violence and healing in Oakland - .99 e-book available at Amazon or as an audiobook at iTunes, Amazon and Audible. 

A place you might not want to remember

Light tower, green light, late winter evening sunlight at E 16th Ave., Oakland
In Oakland, despite the freeways, concrete monstrosities that isolate neighborhoods from one another, despite the seeming differences between various neighborhoods and people and the varieties in its character, things can seem surprisingly connected. A man gets gunned down in West Oakland and you learn he had half a dozen close cousins in East Oakland. A man dies in Fruitvale and you find out he had worked for years in the Lower Bottom neighborhood, everybody knows him over there. A police officer on the beat in Eastmont grew up in violent Campbell Village. A restaurant owner in Jack London Square is from the Acorn neighborhood in West Oakland, and he’s committed to hiring parolees from The Deep. Sometimes it feels like every green freeway sign in Oakland is only a degree of separation from everywhere else in Oakland, and a reminder of a place you might not want to remember.

- from Until You Bleed - on life, violence and healing in Oakland - .99 e-book available at Amazon or as an audiobook at iTunes, Amazon and Audible. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

No Manual: after the death of Shanika Latham

When he watched her, when he was with her, he says she reminded him of himself when he was young, of the way he'd been before his own life had taken a wrong turn.

"She had a lot of the mannerisms that I lost growing up, going through things as an adult, especially after addiction, that lifestyle and the things you see that toughen you."

It wasn't just her mannerisms that struck her dad as free and easy. Before she was shot to death in 2012 on a street in East Oakland, Mallie Latham's youngest daughter, Shanika, a college student one week shy of her 21st birthday, had seemed untouched by the things in life that strip away our joy and our trust in others.

"She had that openness and freshness," says Latham. "She made friends easily. She was just too open, but that was her personality and I appreciated it. She never had conflicts with people. You'd never see her in arguments, which in Oakland is amazing to do. So she had a lot of traits that I admired, that would have been special to me."

This is the loss that confronted Latham when his phone rang on that August morning. It's the loss, the missing light, the missing joy that will haunt him the rest of his life.

That morning when the call came, Latham was at a training, learning to teach parenting skills. He knows how important it is, especially for young men, especially in Oakland, to understand their responsibilities and the opportunities they have to raise safe and happy kids. It was nearly lunchtime and his niece was on the phone, but she was hysterical, unable to communicate. Then his aunt called.

"I knew this was bad," he tells me one gray morning a year and a half later, over breakfast at the noisy Buttercup Cafe in downtown Oakland. He rests his big frame back in the semi-circular booth, chomps on eggs and sausage and home fries. There is an undeniable sweetness in his voice, a lightness that very suddenly can disappear when an image from the past will force him to stop, to turn his head away, just a moment to recover, and then back to the talk of his painful past and his hopeful future in spite of it.

With that call from his aunt relaying a rumor that his daughter had been killed in East Oakland early that morning, Latham, in his mid-50s, had entered the strange, dark world of the survivor, a world where, besides and beyond the staggering grief, there is business to deal with. Business that is equally alien and mysterious.

A colleague drove him to Highland Hospital. But once there, he had no idea what to do.

"There's no manual for that," he tells me. "There's nobody charged with the responsibility to receive you coming in in terror, in a panic, trying to find out, is it true my daughter's dead."

At home that evening, with no idea what to do next, Latham's niece approached him. A year earlier, her brother had been killed in West Oakland. She said, "I know who to talk to, don't worry about it, there's this woman who has an agency, who deals with these situations, she helped me with my brother." Then a friend of Latham called. She told him, "I know a woman, a friend, who knows what to do, who can help you now." They were referring to the same person, the same agency, to Marilyn Washington Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence.

Once, Harris had been in the very same place Latham was now: reeling, beyond reeling, after learning, back in August of 2000, that the rumored death of her only son, 18-year-old McClymond's grad Khadafy Washington, was true. There was no one to help her then, no one to guide her through the confusing next steps and the beginning of healing. It made the pain worse, the journey even more perilous and dark. She vowed back then that no one in Oakland would have to go through this alone again. In the past 13 years, on a shoe-string budget and with little staff, Harris has helped thousands of stunned survivors of Oakland's killed. She has walked with mothers, fathers and children in the immediate aftermath of their greatest losses. Harris knows the business that must be taken care of. She knows the police, the funeral directors, the city and the street, and perhaps more importantly, they know her, they respect her and the work she does. They know she is tough, honest and tireless in her work protecting and guiding survivors.

In some ways, Mallie Latham was one of the lucky ones. He had close friends, sturdy and attentive, to stay with him, to keep an eye on him. Many don't. Even still, he says it was the presence of Marilyn Harris that kept him sane. She talked to him on the phone that first day, then met him a day later at the funeral home.

"At the time, emotionally, I was so vacant," says Latham. "I was basically just like a robot." But Harris was with him. "I could tell what Marilyn was doing, that I could trust her, and I just told her, 'Take over.'"

A year and a half later, Latham continues to heal. He has started a grief group for Oakland men who have lost a loved one. His daughter was killed only two blocks from his East Oakland home. A few months later, his nephew was killed in North Oakland. A week after that, a homicide occurred right on his doorstep. He knew who to tell the survivors to call.

He credits Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence for helping him get where he is today.

"If I had had to face the things Marilyn took care of, even with the support I had, even with the people I had behind me, I couldn't have got out of it sane. I wouldn't have been here now. I'd still be somewhere balled up in a corner."