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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ignore this

She said, What do you do? 

And as I always do, I hesitated, then mumbled something about being a writer, hoping she wouldn't hear me and would let it drop.

No luck.

What kind of writer? she asked.

Obituaries from lesser-known funerals in Oakland
"Failed," I mumbled. Then, in a moment of optimism, "Failing." But she didn't hear. So I said the usual: "I write different things, whatever they will let me." I was feeling particularly insecure that morning, so now that it was underway I made sure to say I write "features, long articles, for magazines." I said that in the last few years I'd written mostly about Oakland (A Unified Theory of a Tough Town), about violence in Oakland (Guns Down, Don't Shoot), about the aftermath of violence (No Escape, No Surrender), about the survivors of homicide victims (I still sleep with his shirt under my pillow) and about people who have been shot (Unwounded in Afghanistan, shot in East Oakland), about their attempts at recovery, what they go through, how they make it (Until You Bleed). Also about people in Oakland trying to create peace, trying to prevent violence. (Seeking the courage to change; A new way out)

We were in Oakland.

Immediately she said, Oh, this women got killed kind of near where I live trying to protect her children.

It was the highest profile killing of the year so far in Oakland. As I had just said, I had been covering Oakland's violence for years. So, Yes, I said, I had heard about it. I knew what was coming next.

It was awful, she said.

"Really awful," I said. "Horrible. They all are."

But she was gainfully employed, she said.

"Yes," I said, "some of the victims are but you don't always hear about it. But it is probably true that most of them aren't. Still, their killing causes a lot of emotional turmoil for families."

Then, I didn't say:

First of all, because you happen to have read that she was gainfully employed, doesn't mean no other victim was employed. What it means instead is that something about her situation existed outside the norm, that the circumstances of her killing represented a particularly dramatic scene, and so received more attention in the media than other killings here. Frank whathisname on Chanel whatever probably even went to her house, as he tends to do when a victim's demographics are unique.

I hadn't felt like talking in the first place, and certainly not about my work, so I let the conversation end. I felt angst but not the energy to lay it out for her, to point out what might be, on her part and on the part of so many of us, unspoken assumptions, to point out her own essential commentary on the other victims in Oakland who presumably were not, as she called it, "gainfully employed," but, perhaps, somehow, I don't know, ungainfully employed, or whom she assumed were engaged in some illegitimate activity when they were killed. What that commentary was and what those assumptions were I will let you imagine.

I hadn't the energy it takes to be the asshole again, the one who turns someone's simple, kindly and genuine sympathy into a potentially racist attitude about victims of violence in Oakland and elsewhere in America. Not that her assumptions are necessarily far off the mark.The problem is the effect of the assumptions, the lack of outrage or sympathy that follows. 

A study by California Partnership for Safe Communities of homicides in Oakland in 2011 and 2012, showed that about 70% of Oakland's victims have felony criminal records, frequently for violent offenses. Violence leads to violence, no question about it.

Obits, study, notes
The study also showed that 84% of victims in Oakland were male. 78% were African American. Over two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 34. What it did not show is that there are rarely articles in the press about the suffering of their families, that there are rarely politicians present at their funerals. That Frank and his colleagues might not be paying much attention to their killings and the aftermath and neither are we. I am partly responsible for this in Oakland, because I have failed to create change with the stories on this blog. I indict myself for what I didn't say that day and for what I have failed to do here.

Oakland's new-ish Mayor, Libby Schaaf, is actually making a small gesture to be egalitarian in her official response to individual homicides. She is presenting a letter of condolence and sometimes a small care package to the family of each victim here. I was there for the beginnings of this small program, even helped with the shopping one Sunday morning as we picked up paper plates, tissues, pens and pads, as we shopped for the living and the dead. I went with her staffer and crisis intervention specialist, Marilyn Harris, to deliver the packages and the letters. (Visitations) My research so far shows that no other mayor in America is doing anything like this.

But the city-wide and nationwide pattern continues, the one wherein killings that lie outside the usual demographics, or killings of better-known men within the demographics, stir our passion and hold our attention and sometimes lead to community action. While the majority of killings end as mere news items.

Just recently a killing of a basketball prodigy in Patterson NJ inspired people there to work for change, which is great. But I continue to wonder what would happen if all homicides caused the same passion.

I continue to wonder what it means that they don't.


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