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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Visitations: with the families of the killed in Oakland

Melted wax and other things at a homicide scene in Oakland

It's Wednesday January 21, 2015. Last night there was a double homicide in West Oakland. Five days ago there was a double homicide in East Oakland. A third killing happened a few hours later, near Adeline, in Dogtown. By my count, we have had 8 homicides already in 2015. This does not mean it will be a record-breakingly bad year in violence in Oakland, after significant drops the last two years. But it is a bad start, and an important reminder that, as I have written before, the urge to pull the trigger doesn't check the calendar. Those who cover or who pay close attention to the killing like to compare numbers and times of the year with this line: 

"This was the [insert number] killing of 2015. This time last year the city had [insert number] killings." 

Of course, we need some way to measure progress, but ultimately the comparisons by date are meaningless. (See: The Calendar and the Killing.)

What is meaningful is each killing and the effect it has on a family, a neighborhood and a city, and how we respond. In the past 10 years, Oakland has eked out a little tax money to contract with non-violence organizations to meet and help with the families of homicide victims. Mostly this is done by Marilyn Washington Harris of Youth Alive's Khadafy Washington Project, named for Harris' son, killed in Oakland in August of 2000.

On Monday I accompanied Harris on visitations to the families of two of this year's homicides, a 29-year-old man in West Oakland and a 19-year-old woman in East Oakland. Harris' job, her vocation since 2000, is to guide these shocked families through the aftermath, to help them take care of the business at hand at a time when they lack the will to do anything but grieve. Harris sets up appointments (and often accompanies the families) with the Victims of Crimes office, where they can get financial help, up to $5,000, which usually covers most of the funeral expenses. She meets them at the funeral homes to help with planning. Sometimes she meets them at the coroner's office.She asks questions -- have you taken your meds? have you checked your blood sugar? are you eating? -- and lets them ask questions, although often they are so baffled that they have none.

Also accompanying Harris Monday was a staff member from the office of Mayor Libby Schaaf, delivering a personal letter of condolence from the mayor and some things that might be helpful around the house at a time like this, items to help with visitors, items for writing and crying, eating and drinking. I am not aware of another mayor of any large city who does anything like this. I don't know if Schaaf will be able to keep it up, but I like the idea.

In a small apartment in Dogtown we visited the father of the 29-year-old man killed Friday on the street right in front of his dad's place. From the father's front door you could see, you could in fact not miss, the street memorial to his dead son, the accumulated artifacts deposited by friends and strangers since Friday, candles still flickering, candles guttered and gone, t-shirts, beer bottles, vodka bottles, poster board with loving notes to the dead. The gutter was lined with cat litter unevenly soaking up the spilled blood. There were dead flowers in the gutter. The father will need to move, and there is help available for re-location.

Through the treetop, the place where his son was killed.
That morning the mother of the dead man stood staring at the memorial. "They killed my baby," she said. He was her youngest. Inside the father's apartment, blues played from a music station on a small TV while the father discussed with Harris what appointments he had coming up and how things would work. We looked at pictures of his son. He said he'd been avoiding that. He choked up, excused himself, gathered himself, got back to business. From his daze he kept repeating that he was grateful, to Harris, to the mayor, to his family and neighbors. It was very important to him that everyone know that despite whatever else they saw or perceived in him, he was grateful. He wanted to leave them his gratitude for the love. The mother sat on the couch, ate hard candy. A song played, with the words "How could you leave me, where did you go?" It was the Blues, of course, so a song of lost love. But here it took on a different meaning.

That afternoon in Deep East Oakland we paid a visit to the grandparents of the 19-year-old girl, who had moved here to live with them, had gotten a job and was set to enroll at Laney. She was killed Friday afternoon, along with her boyfriend, who was 20 years old. We looked at pictures, prom pictures, graduation pictures from less than a year ago. So fresh. So ancient now.

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