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

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."

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