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

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.


Anonymous said...

I just read the addendum, and youre right, a more positive ending. I'm curious, why the decision, or even contemplation, to leave it out?

I was there at the same call-in, I remember the same two young men. I agree that the conversations that happen afterwards between the young folks called-in and the service providers and faith-workers are a critical piece of the agenda. I would argue, possibly the most important piece, since that's when the connections to resources get established, when the relationships begin to get forged. As the final portion of the evening, it's the last impression the young men leave with, and the only time, really, when they're given a sense of hope and possibility. Without these, how can change occur? Without this last paragraph/addendum, I feel the scene you describe is incomplete.

Just my two cents.

Jim O'Brien said...

Thanks for your comment. There are always impossible decisions to make with a limited amount of space in print. No one wanted to cut this scene, but I promise the final version will discuss extensively the role and work of service providers in Ceasefire and will include scenes of their interactions with the participants. Thanks for reading!
J O'B.

Anonymous said...

Nice, I look forward to the final, larger piece. Thanks for your attention and work on this incredibly important issue - the repairing of our communities and the saving of lives.