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

Monday, January 12, 2015

"I signed up for a hard job" - Oakland Mayor Schaaf on a city's responsibility to families of homicide victims

Had a good conversation with new Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf last week. We met Friday, late in the day, for coffee (me) and very spicy hot chocolate (her) at Bittersweet Cafe downtown. She was very nearly on-time, which I appreciate, and not at all rushed once we got to talking. The interview was wide-ranging and much of it will appear as a Q&A in the March issue of Diablo Magazine

Mayor Schaaf and her staff had already indicated to me, a couple of weeks earlier, that she was determined to develop some kind of consistent outreach to the families of each homicide victim in Oakland. She's been getting advice on what this ought to look like from Marilyn Harris, whose son Khadafy Washington was killed in Oakland in 2000. Marilyn has since then dedicated her life, her days and nights, to supporting the survivors, mostly mothers, of the killed, in the crazy, in the impossible days right after the killing, when there is so much business to attend to, and very little will to do so. 

Marilyn has told me that when her son was killed, she never heard a word from anyone with the city government, and that if she had received even a sympathy card, it would have made a difference. Among the many emotions families of homicide victims experience, along with self-recriminations, emptiness, fear and shock, is resentment and bitterness toward the authorities, and toward the community. This civic wound needs to be healed or the rift will widen and the families will be lost to us forever. A gesture from the mayor, if it is thoughtful and humble, will help to begin, just begin, that healing. 

This is an excerpt from my conversation with Mayor Schaaf on January 9, 2015, where we talk about this issue:

Jim O'B: As mayor, I'm wondering how you see, what is a city's responsibility to victims of violence and to families of homicide victims.

Libby Schaaf: I think the first thing the city owes them is to do everything within its power to prevent violence from happening in the first place. And whether that is trying to ensure that children have a caring adult in their live, particularly the children that don't have parents in their lives, whether it's to provide places where children feel talented and good and productive and smart, that they see that there is some bright future for them

JOB: But what about in the aftermath, once it's happened. You can't prevent everything, its a city, there's going to be violence and there's going to be killing, and does the city government, does the mayor, have a responsibility to the victims, once it happens?

LS: Absolutely.

JOB: What is it?

LS: As Mayor, I think you know, that I'm committed to responding to particularly the family members of every victim, particularly homicide victims, with compassion, with an apology that your government was not able to keep your loved-one safe, and with a sense that you are not in this alone, that there is help, and there is support and there is a community around you. And to some extent, the immediate family needs that, but I certainly found, as council member, often the whole neighborhood needed that. As a council member several times I led healing circles, for the neighborhood, after an incident happened. And we had crisis counselors available, and I'd always walk in the room and make them move the chairs so it wasn't the government facing the citizens, but rather that we all sat in a circle, and everyone had a moment to share how they felt, and that also this neighborhood had its own opportunity to ask questions about the investigation, about the incident, directly to the appropriate people in the police department, recognizing that a traumatic effect like that is like a pebble in a pond, the ripples extend far, far out.

JOB: I always say, "that bullet ricochets." It hits not just the family but the street, the neighborhood, the city...

LS: But I don't know if you remember when I came to the Khadafy Washington Foundation event, and I gave Miss Marilyn (Marilyn Washington Harris, founder) a pebble, and I said that just as violence has these rings that spread out, so does kindness and compassion, and so it is certainly my hope, as mayor, when I, on behalf of the city family, express love and compassion and caring, for the families of each and every homicide victim, no matter what the circumstances of that death were, it was a loss to that family, and they deserve to feel that compassion and empathy for the grief, and so it's my hope that that too creates the ripples that spread through the city.

JOB: It will make a difference, especially if you come at it without fear, without guilt, but saying "we love you, we are sorry," and then getting back to work trying to prevent these things. It'll be hard sometimes.

LS: It will be hard, I'll be honest with you, I'm very uncomfortable with funerals, I'm very uncomfortable with death and loss.

JOB: Well, you shouldn't be doing this personally anyway...

LS: Well, I signed up for a hard job, and if I can't be tough for my city, who can?

1 comment:

Diana Stephens said...

We are hopefully optimistic about the job our new mayor will do for the city, but she can't do it alone. We all need to express that sympathy and compassion for the family and friends of those killed in our city, again, no matter what the circumstances.