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

Friday, June 12, 2015

The price of prices at 17

Outside the chapel in Oakland
At first when the preacher started to relate the Prodigal Son story I sort-of rolled my eyes a little. Not again. I thought. And anyway, there is no way Edward McGowan could be anybody's prodigal son. Edward will not return to ask for any kind of forgiveness, and no one will be slaughtering any fatted calves to celebrate. 

Edward was killed in Oakland in mid-May, during an apparent drug deal that went bad. He was 17, a popular student and athlete at Fremont High School, and a handsome kid, to judge by his graduation picture, on display next to his coffin in the chilly Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland on a hot Friday morning in June. After two weeks in refrigeration, while his family tried to scrape together the money to pay for his funeral, Edward did not look like himself. The wait, and then the sight of their son, grandson, nephew, cousin and friend could only have added to everyone's pain and grief. 

Since allegedly Edward was killed while involved in a drug deal, since allegedly he had a gun, allegedly fired it at the person who killed him, his family was ineligible for victim compensation money from Alameda County. That is where many families get the funds to pay for funerals. Absent that, it can take weeks to find a way. Especially in cases where the victim is not young or old or white or immediately sympathetic in some other way. For those kinds of victims, often there are fundraisers and added publicity that leads to contributions to help with such expenses. But rarely would that happen for the family of an African American male victim over the age of 16. In other words, demographically, Edward fell into the category of most of our victims, and therefore got little attention. His age, his gender, his race, and his own alleged contribution to his death were barriers to our sympathy and aid.

It is that lack of immediate sympathy that brought me around to the preacher's decision to tell us the story of the Prodigal Son, who took his inheritance from his rich father early, squandered it on fast living, then returned destitute to ask for forgiveness, to ask to be allowed back into his father's good graces. He was accepted back with great joy. The point the preacher was making was not that the God's mercy is infinite, and not that God celebrates once lost sheep more than a sheep who never strayed. His point this time was that the son made a bad decision, an immature decision. Edward did, too. Edward was 17. Most 17-year-olds don't do what he did, it's true, but most don't grow up like he did, and all of them make immature decisions.

I was lucky at 17. I made many immature decisions at 17, although admittedly none involved a weapon. I got away with them. Edward didn't. He paid the price of prices. His family continues to. The question is, should their suffering be compounded by their ineligibility for help? Edward is gone. It makes no difference to him. His parents committed no crime. But they are the ones left to endure the pain and emptiness of his loss, and to struggle to achieve even the bare comfort of giving him a proper funeral.

I'll be interviewing the director of victim and witness aid for Alameda County next week to ask some of these questions.

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