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

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


So much has changed in the world and yet so much remains unchanged. The streets of Oakland are still capable of being depressingly violent. The country is still filled with white people willing to kill from hate. Or willing to trap busy delivery drivers inside their needlessly gated communities. Or willing to force people of color to choose between their jobs and their health or the health of their families. Or willing to let the poor and the elderly get sick and die to save the economy. It is certainly easy to understand the anxiety people feel who aren’t fortunate enough to be working right now. Or people who are worried about their small businesses. It is a very scary and uncertain time. It’s their willingness to act like assholes, arming themselves, threatening reporters, calling people tyrants and Nazis who are just trying to do their best in a crazy time, that I don’t understand. I believe in protest. But it’s like those protesting pandemic safety rules skipped a step, went straight to militant. I know these are two different topics: white people killing and harassing African-American people who were just trying to go about their lives, and white people overreacting to some pandemic inconveniences. But I also think there’s a lot of overlap between these two populations: how they love to pull out their guns and play soldier; how they love to play sheriff. Only it’s no game when they are 100% motivated by hate. I don’t usually feel that I personally need to apologize for these acts of white people. But these days I just feel…sorry.  - J. O’Brien

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Made to Kill

We got another request for money from the gun people this week.* 

 This time they sent us a gift, unsolicited and unearned, little stickers that say: “Society is safer when criminals don’t know who’s armed.” 

Is it? I think criminals already don’t know who’s armed. But that doesn’t make me feel any safer. 

At the place where I work as an office drone, we have a program that helps families of the victims in the immediate aftermath of a homicide. 84% of the 79 Oakland homicides we recorded last year were by gunshot. We also have a program that helps young victims of violence – and most victims of violence are under 35 -- get their lives back together and deal with their trauma after an assault.** In 2017, we worked with 134 victims who survived an assault. 64% were gunshot victims. 

Maybe with the claim on their sticker, the gun people mean to say society is safer if everybody is armed. Like how peaceful and orderly it was in the Old West. 

Pretty much everybody had a gun out here in those days. Pretty much all men and many women carried a gun, sometimes keeping it concealed. According to historian Clare McKanna, in the Nineteenth Century, in Eastern cities, murderers rarely used guns for their deeds. But in California, 60% of murderers used guns. Mostly handguns. As sheriff and gunfighter Bat Masterson said, “Always remember that a 6-shooter is made to kill the other fellow with and for no other reason on earth.” 

I’m certain that the gun people don’t understand the real nature of the violence that plagues our country, and especially the violence that has left so many young African American men dead or wounded over the past 50 years in Oakland. I suspect they don’t really care.

Is it possible that if each of the 80 gunshot victims we worked to support in 2017 had had a gun (surely some of them did, but they got shot anyway), there’d have been fewer gunshot victims in our caseload? Or would there have been more?

* I can’t help but feel they are trying to get me to pay for someone’s eventual violent death. Maybe they think they are trying to protect us. Even as in their letters they continue to call those who oppose them names and exaggerate the nature and degree of the opposition to their mania. 

** Most shooting victims in Oakland end up at Highland Hospital, home of Alameda County’s excellent trauma center. Staff from our programs meet victims there, at their Highland Hospital bedsides, to begin the process of helping them deal with life through the cloud of trauma an assault creates. Our staff help them with the business of getting back to school or work or home. They also take the temperature of the room. The people we send in are from the same community as most victims. Many of them have been shot, or have, for a time, lived the life of the street. And if they sense a risk of retaliation, or that the victim remains at risk, they work to bring the temperature down, to discourage retaliation, diffuse tension and increase safety. Sometimes this required relocation. Sometimes it can be done through better communications with both sides of a conflict.