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."
See Part 2: "A story that is killing my heart"
"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."