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

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Dark Urges

Darryl Starks' little sister needs $20.  She needs it for a new tattoo, one that will commemorate his death, which is imminent.  Starks himself lies intubated and comatose in a narrow hospital bed, in ICU room #19, at the Alameda County Medical Center, a.k.a Highland Hospital.  He lies under bright lights.  His head is tilted back a little on the white pillow, skewed just slightly to his left, toward where his oxygen tube runs.  His eyelids are not completely closed. 

It’s Saturday night.  Starks was shot on Friday evening, at 78th Avenue and Bancroft, while driving home from the store.  He was hit once in the shoulder and once in the back of the head.  Now an ICU nurse sits distractedly at a computer station just outside a picture window with a view onto Starks' unmoving body.  Occasionally the nurse checks his iPhone.

A social worker seeking Darryl’s organs hovers in the glare of the dingy hospital hallway.  The family is onboard for the harvesting of the organs of their twenty-six-year-old son.  But the process will not move swiftly.  Darryl’s violated body is evidence, and so the coroner must give its permission to pull the plug, as it were.  And this being a Saturday, the coroner’s office is closed.  So nothing will happen until Monday, at the earliest. 

A Seventh Day Adventist pastor stands over the body.  I see a number of pastors hovering around the ICU protecting their claims, their black, tattered bibles in hand.  (Later the Adventist clergyman will join hands with Darryl’s mom, out in the waiting room, and say a lucid and plaintive prayer for strength and peace.  She will bow her head and close her eyes tightly and hope for the best, even as five minutes earlier she’d been saying she did not want an Adventist service for her son.)

In twos and threes, Darryl’s sisters, his cousins, his aunt and mother, and his father, estranged from his mother, stand at his bedside, variously staring down at him, talking at him, or chatting amongst themselves.  They are remarkably poised.  His mother, Ella Thompson, tells me she’s been crying for two days, but of course, Darryl was shot only 24 hours ago.  Probably it just feels like two days.

Today is precisely one week before Christmas, 2010.  Three days ago, Starks had visited his little sister out in Antioch, where earlier this year she and her mother had moved.  He’d asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and once it had been decided that a car was out of the question, she’d suggested she’d settle for some jeans and shoes, which her big brother had said sounded more reasonable.  Now Danesha just wants that $20.

The Conveyor Belt of Grief
Danesha is 16, petite, with braces and beautiful, deep brown eyes.  Tonight, like the rest of her family, with the exception of her older sister’s little boy, maybe 3-years-old, who is bored and hungry, she is calm.  She’s also put-out with an ICU nurse who declined to indulge her talk of miracles.  In the room, staring at the lines moving across the monitor, she’d asked the nurse what they would look like if Darryl was to take a turn for the better.  The nurse, in impatient tones, according to Danesha, answered only that her brother would not be taking any good turns anymore, that he was going to die. 
“I looked at her,” she says, with disbelief in her voice, “and then I looked at him...”  Here she trails off.  But she doesn’t cry.

I can see both sides of the incident.  Probably, the ICU nurse felt it was best to nudge any lagging family members onto the conveyor belt of this reality and its unavoidable grief.  You have to get on the belt somewhere if you are ever going to get off.  It was something like an act of mercy.  Probably this is inconceivable to a sixteen-year-old.  And maybe the nurse could have been gentler while insisting on her realistic assessment.  Maybe Danesha misinterpreted her tone.  It’s a confusing time.  A painful time.  All the alien sights at the ICU, all the exhaustion and emotion, they tax the senses and the mind. 

Occasionally Danesha doesn’t quite know what to do.  Who would?  When her mother leaves the waiting room to speak to a reporter from a local paper, she asks me if she has to go with them.  I say No, but later, when I see a picture of her mother and older sister accompanying the article, I feel guilty.  I know she would have liked to be part of the public aspect of this event.

She’s already told me how, when she herself was shot, almost a year ago, on the day after Christmas, while at a gathering of kids at Rainbow Park, near the violent East Oakland intersection of Seminary and East 14th, through her left thigh -- in one side and out the other, so now she has two scars -- they said her name on the TV news.  She seems proud of that, and then briefly disappointed when I tell her that the TV will probably not be coming tonight.  Her brother’s death is too demographically unspectacular for the TV.  1) He is 26, smack in the heart of the 17-to-34 year-old age range of African American men most likely to die by homicide.  2) He is a black man who lives in Oakland, and while most black men in Oakland will never get shot or killed, they do make up an absurd portion of this year’s 90-plus homicides, and nationally, their most recently calculated murder rate was 40.6/100,000, compared to 6.2 for white men.  3) Darryl was shot on a street in a neighborhood where violence is common.  I count within a few blocks of Bancroft at least six homicides this year, including that of 13-year-old Jimon Clark, back in August.  (See part 1 & part 2 of the September post called "13.")  4) Finally, Darryl had a gun in his car; people with guns are more likely to get killed than people without them.  Four and a half times more likely, according to some studies.

And so, although this event, the violent death of a young man, might hold cosmic heft, to the TV news, it holds little of interest.

Ella Thompson tells me that the fact that her son had a gun in the car with him seemed to be all the police were interested in when they’d questioned her at the hospital last night.  A very thin woman anyway, tonight she looks to be disappearing into nothing.  She’s only 44, but in the general frankness of the hospital lights she’s the color of a dry, fallen leaf.  Her hair is brushed back, her face is narrow, her speech is slow, but there is life in her eyes and they meet my gaze directly as we talk. 

“I’m mad at the investigators,” she says, “because they did not come out here to get evidence, his clothes, nothing; they came out here to find out why he had a gun in his car.  The gun was a registered gun, though.  And they didn’t ask anything else.  They didn’t want the bloody clothes.  They don’t even know where the clothes at.  I’m the only one knows where the clothes at.”

That might be why she was interested in talking to me tonight, and to a reporter from the Oakland Tribune.  Surely she knows how these stories get played here.  Ella was born and raised in East Oakland.  She grew up on 65th Avenue.  She has one brother who is incarcerated and an uncle who was killed by the gun.  Darryl grew up in East Oakland, too.  He went to Castlemount High until his first daughter was born nine years ago.  He has two daughters.  The other is a two-year-old by a different woman.  Ella herself, in addition to Darryl and her two teenage daughters, has a five-year old girl. 

It is all so easy, so easy to sum up in a paragraph, the typical life of an East Oaklander.  Violence, out-of-wedlock children born to children, dropping out, more children by shifting combinations of parents.

Maybe that is why she wanted to have some say in this story, to lend it its proper complexity.  And so Marilyn Harris had called me earlier in the day to ask me to come to the hospital tonight. 

“Darryl Starks,” she’d said, “he’s about to die, and his mother wants his story told.”  Miss Marilyn is here now.  Ten years ago she lost her only son, Khadafy Washington, to the gun, and since then, through the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has spent her days and nights guiding families of victims in Oakland through the poisonous aftermath.  Mostly Miss Marilyn comes into the picture immediately after someone dies, often at the crime scene, but wherever the family is, she goes.  More and more she seems to be joining the often long, trying hospital vigils of victims clinging to life.  No doubt word has gotten out that she is a confident, competent, knowledgeable, watchful presence.  Tonight she has one eye on the family of Darryl Starks and one eye on her iPhone, as her own daughter is in a hospital a few miles from here, with kidney problems.  I know she is anxious to get to her daughter, but she shows nothing but patience with the family, with their scattered emotions and uncertainty.  She keeps nearby, but always just beyond the inner circle, where she knows things have to be allowed to develop in their own way: there is no stopping the conveyor belt that will take this family on their tour of emptiness and loss.

Sitting next to each other, on yellow, plastic seats in a room around the corner and down the hall from where Darryl lies, I ask Ella Thompson to describe what she is feeling.  "Last night," she says, slowly, "I spent a horrible night crying in despair.  It’s just a shock, and knowing that your son was not out there selling drugs or hanging out on corners or nothing like that, and to know that he was a good son doing what he was supposed to do, it just don’t make no sense.

“I’m angry right now,” she says, “and the fact is, this was supposed to be a mistaken identity.  They was looking for a green Infinity, and my son drove a black Infinity."  When I ask her how she knows this, she says, "A couple of people done checked around for me and then they done found this out.”

The Best Year
The initial headline of the Tribune article, which hits the Internet just a few hours later, announces that Darryl’s organs will go to the saving of lives.  The story mentions that, after dropping out of high school at the birth of his first daughter nine years ago, he had recently been taking classes at Merritt College and preparing to transfer to a four-year school, that he had been working with his father at a hotel in San Francisco. 

“This year was supposed to be the best year,” says Ella.  “I done got myself back together.  Moved to Antioch, although it was the ghetto part of Antioch.  I didn’t know that before I moved there.”
She says she’s fallen asleep three times at Darryl’s bedside, holding Darryl’s hand.  At home again early this morning, she says she slept briefly, only to be awakened by a call of condolence, a call back into reality.  I think a lot about waking up after a sleep, in the early days of life after death.  How it dawns on you anew every time, sometimes in an instant, sometimes after a moment of confusion and later you wish you had clung to that confusion longer.  I remember going home the morning my father died, to a house full of relatives, and a mother in shock, how that afternoon, before we went to plan the funeral, I sat by my mother in an upstairs room.  She was lying on a sofa sleeping for probably the first time in two days.  I was in my dad’s blue recliner chair, vaguely scanning the day’s newspaper, but never turning the page, desperate not to wake her just yet, knowing that when she woke up on this day she’d lost her husband, she would have to re-live the first moments of this incomprehensible loss.  But also knowing I would have to do this cruel thing sooner or later.  That would have been eighteen years ago now.  Today my father lies under the snow, and Mom is well.

“Now it’s all bad”
It will probably be two weeks before Darryl Starks is buried.  While he was shot in mid-December, he was not destined to be our last 2010 homicide, and the coroner has been busy.  I saw Darryl in the ICU on Saturday night and by Sunday two more men were dead.  Then, all day on Monday a helicopter wove its way through the skies above my neighborhood in East Oakland.  Half a mile from my house, after a short car chase, the OPD shot to death a suspected murderer.  They say he was on his way to kill members of a rival gang.  They say he pointed a gun at them, that they found an assault rifle inside his car.  They say that two of his three associates escaped on foot.  Thus the helicopter vigilance.  Four days later, on the day before Christmas, the body of a woman was found floating in the estuary out near the airport.  Police have indicated that she was a homicide victim, stabbed to death.  She was from Fresno, but her family says she visited Oakland often.  When I characterized the story as “strange,” Marilyn said, “No, it’s not so strange.  A lot of girls come up to Oakland from places like Fresno to work as prostitutes.”  Of course, that might not be the case with this victim.  Or with the woman whose naked body was found on Christmas day, at the entry to a bike path in the Oakland hills.  Her name has not yet been released, or perhaps even determined.  By my count, she is our 95th victim this year.  Each year since 2007 the number has dropped by a few souls.  A week from now 2010 will end and we will have had about ten fewer killings than in 2009, even as the dark urge ends the year with a bloody flourish. 

Ella Thompson summed things up as our conversation in the ICU waiting room closed and she prepared to return to Darryl’s bedside.  She was talking about her family, but she could have been speaking for 95 other families hit by violent death in Oakland in 2010:

“This was a good year, until the end of the year, now it’s all bad."

Oakland, with its lush hills, its great food, its radical political history, its integrated public spaces, will never be defined for me solely by its troubles.  But our troubles live on. 
                                                                                           Jim O'Brien
                                                                                           Late December 2010


Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Big Event

Death is an event.  The event.  And a homicide is a public event.  It tends to get noted to one degree or another, depending on the circumstances: on the place, the race, the method, the age of the victim or the suspect.  My interest in stories about the aftermath of the big event flows in part from a belief that, while the prelude to a homicide can be fascinating (it can also be depressingly banal), and the event itself monumental, it is in the aftermath that a killing wreaks havoc on a person, a family, a neighborhood, a community, a city, not to mention what it does to the psyche of a killer, assuming he has any trace of humanity.  Herein lies a story and the pulling of the trigger is only its middle.

That bullet that wounds or kills, it also ricochets.  As the news spreads through a family, through the streets, it continues to wound or kill; if one person has been taken from us body and soul, a dozen more are lost to us in lasting bitterness, subversive grief, debilitating fear, and, in the case of a child growing up on streets lorded over by the gun, a way of life they learn from repeated violence and loss. 

For some, the blood of their son on the sidewalk, that blood in the driver’s seat or in the grass, fertilizes certain long-buried seeds of profound courage, of kindness, of strength, of power, of creativity.  That’s what I see in Marilyn Harris, whose only son, Khadafy Washington, was killed in 2000.  Khadafy was 18.  Now, day after day Marilyn walks with the families of new survivors.  She walks with these initiates to the torment through the painful tasks that precede burial of a homicide victim.  A veteran of the walk, she knows how they are feeling, how they are thinking, that probably they are not thinking very clearly.  She enters their lives not morbidly or with sentimentality in her voice, but soberly, with seriousness; there's business to take care of.  She’s a rung to cling to that keeps these families from suffocating.  She protects them, begins their healing, even as they represent a never welcome reminder of herself ten years ago.  But there she is, a clerk for the federal government the day her son was killed, now a guide through a mine field.

People ought to be aware of the long path a bullet takes.

Despite the cynicism displayed by those who have the time and inclination to write flippant online comments to news articles about homicides in Oakland, normal residents of every neighborhood of the city are moved by each homicide they learn of.  They consider the pain, the horror and the grief.  For that moment of awareness, they become one with the city.  The whole city.  They also consider and usually lament the preponderance of violence here, most of it gang and drug-related.  To varying degrees and with varied alacrity, often privately, but not always, many then give in to the belief that the homicide victim chose an immoral path, or had a moral lapse and, to an extent, got what was coming to him.  And so they move on to the next item of news or of the business of their days. 

Some might take a moment to consider the pain of a young victim’s parents, but many are willing to blame the parents as much as the victims for whatever circumstances led to a killing.  They know about the black community, the Latino community: no fathers, no gumption, no work ethic, no birth control, 40% high school drop out rate.  What’s the point of spending too much time caring? 

Their dark, communal passage is over with.  Or so they think.  But each individual affected by this event carries this septic wound into the community, their community.  Because not everybody is like Marilyn Harris, sometimes the survivors become lost to us.  We are all diminished.

With the stories on this blog, I would like to elongate our municipal attention span, not in order to create a more wounded city, but instead to plumb a city’s compassion.  To do that, sometimes I have to describe the effects of our sickness. 

Fortunately, I can also write about how, out of the event, out of the grief and shock and tragedy, comes revelation, how some, like Miss Marilyn, like Darnetta Fluker, who have lost a loved one to the street, have gone on to find themselves, and to find in themselves real greatness.  Maybe the city can do the same thing.  Maybe that can be our big event.

I’m reminded of the closing lines of an early poem by Robert Hass:

I know that I know myself
no more than a seed,
curled in the dark of a winged pod,
knows flourishing.

Death is Mercy

Crucifix spotted in northern New Mexico, 2018
One of the things I'm reminded of frequently in my work covering homicide in Oakland is that death is mercy. This and Jesus are the most common comforts offered at funerals of the fallen. We are in pain, but we can be assured that he who is in that coffin is not, especially if at some time before his death he gave his soul to Jesus, publicly. 

Often I sit there in churches and chapels hoping this is true, while considering the other side of the promise of heavenly peace: that if there is a heaven, then there is probably a hell, too, and no matter how much we want to think our lost one was perfect, especially now that he or she is dead -- death being yeast to the reputations of those we’ve lost -- maybe he nevertheless got plopped into the fire. Unless, as often I try to convince myself, an infinitely loving God proves in the end all mercy and forgiveness. If you believe in salvation, in Christ and heaven, then you can be relieved for the dead.  You can believe he or she is

Where the soul hath the full measure and compliment of happiness; where the boundless appetite of that spirit remaines compleatly satisfied, that it can neither desire addition nor alteration...wherever God will thus manifest himself, there is heaven.  
                           -Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1634

Or, if you are an atheist, you can be relieved that the dead no longer suffer this bleak and uncertain life of the gun in Oakland. You can hope their violent deaths were quick and their physical pain short-lived. Mercy. 

It’s the living who suffer. Even if they believe their loved ones are in the warm embrace of God, the missing is suffering.

“The people who have lost children that lived with them,” says Miss Marilyn, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, “even if the child was 52 but lived in your house, you have to get used to missing them. The support groups we do ask, ‘Do you have a loss?’ And a loss is anything that you’ve gotten used to over the years, because a man that loved his wife, he grieves the same way as a man who was mad at his wife and didn’t want to be with her. Because he’s gotten used to her ways, he’s gotten used to seeing her every day, he might have gotten used to her in that same head rag. Good or bad, you’re grieving that. People losing jobs, people losing relationships they thought were going to work out. It’s not so much that person, it’s getting used to being without that person. It’s a hole.”

In November, listening to the mother of another homicide victim, I got some insight into the plight of the living dead, and witnessed another moment of righteous courage born from the blood of a gunned-down son. 

At a packed meeting in a small hearing room at City Hall, Darnetta Fluker was surrounded by 18 gang members from her neighborhood. These were not the people who had killed her son but, according to the Oakland Police Department, they were appropriate stand-ins, each having been identified as among the most violence-prone members of the community. Until she'd risen to speak, she'd been sitting at a table between two of them -- one thin, neatly pressed, probably in his very late teens; one obese, older, well into his twenties, his dark hair cropped to the scalp, rolls of fat stacked at the back of his neck -- while in quick, three-minute talks, DAs, federal prosecutors, police captains and parole officers threatened the gang with severe penalties if they continued to terrorize the far west of the city. 

These gang members were a confident crew, a formidable collective presence even in this peaceful, controlled and business-like atmosphere, even in City Hall at two in the afternoon.  Now this mother stood to speak. Probably 50-years-old, she looked younger because she was slight and so casually stylish in a dark, short-cut jacket and jeans. She wore no lawyerly power suit, no holstered gun.  I hoped she was a David, but what weapons she might possess were concealed. 

She placed on an easel a large photo of her dead son, shed a few tears, gathered herself, and told the room that he had been killed nine years ago, that he’d had five small children. 

Then, with only the width of a conference table between her and these men known for cold violence, she turned her gaze on them and began to make the point that, as far as she was concerned, they were cowards. They killed with guns because they were afraid to fight with fists.  They had no idea what they were doing. They were wrong, she said, to think that the person they target and kill is the one they hurt. 

She was well past her moment of tears now. Her voice grew, not louder, but stronger.  It had the power and authority of her grief and suffering, of the fact that she was right and expected to be listened to. It became a kind of gale.  And these men in this room in 2010, they had become her son’s killers. 

“You don’t know who you’re hurting,” she said. “You think you hurt him, but you didn't hurt him.  He's dead.  He’s fine.  It’s his 5 children you hurt. They live with this every day.  I live with this every day.  People talk about closure, but there is no closure. You didn’t hurt him,” she told them to their 18 faces, “I'm the one you hurt."

Here is a pretty good description of the everyday effects of grief. It is about 1,700 years old, but is a good reminder of what Darnetta Flucker had to master before she confronted the Campbell Village Gang:

At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; I hated all places, for that they had not him, nor could they now tell me, ‘he is coming’, as when he was alive and absent.  I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, 'why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely': but she knew not what to answer me... Thus was I wretched....
                                       -St. Augustine, Confessions, circa AD 398

- Jim O'Brien

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Coming Up: Morgue Tour, Oakland

The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau charges a family $321 for the transfer of a body from the morgue, near Jack London Square, to a funeral home. If the deceased is a homicide victim or a child, the cost is $67. After the fourth day, the fee for storage of a body is $85 per day. Survivors are not permitted to see the body at the coroner's bureau, but only at a funeral home. Funeral homes have various charges for picking up a body from the morgue. But, what happens when a family can't afford the cost of the transfer? The father of 23-year-old Hyman Taylor and the mother of 15-year-old Keylow Colston struggled with this issue over the summer. Next: their complex stories.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Against Nostalgia

Standing in the back of the mortuary chapel in downtown Richmond, California, squeezed in among the grieving friends, classmates and relatives of 17-year-old Raymen Justice, of Oakland, I can’t help but think many at this crowded funeral must know something about who killed him. 

It was a Tuesday evening, in front of a taqueria, right next to the three-story apartment building where Raymen lived with his father and brother, Rayven Sr and Jr.  Reports are that Raymen had been at a tutoring session, or visiting with a teacher at his former high-school, just down the street.  Out in front of the taco joint, there might have been an argument, an angry exit with a promise to return, a promise fulfilled, and an apparently much-loved very young man felled in a second or two of deadly violence. 

Despite Raymen’s association with Otha Side, a group whose nature I can’t quite pin down just yet, despite the verbose message I spot on the back of a memorial sweatshirt worn at the funeral by an Otha Side kid, otherwise in khaki shorts and with an Oakland A’s tattoo on his neck and a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim cap on his head, that read, in part, “We going to mob up for you bra,” despite this message, this killing does not appear to have been gang related. 

A gang intervention specialist I’d spoken to the day after Raymen’s killing had told me what the street was saying: it had something to do with a girl.  The next day, I’d been talking to Anne Marks of Youth Alive!, an organization that works with victims of violent crimes in Oakland, whose specialists go to the hospital bedsides of people who’ve been shot, to help the victims cope and, more urgently, to convince them not to retaliate.  We had been talking about the homicide rate in Oakland, which is down from last year.  By my count, Rayven is the 65th homicide in 2010, compared to 80 by this time in ‘09.  Anne said it seemed to her that, more and more, shootings and homicides in Oakland are not over business, not over turf or drugs or money, but are the mortal culmination of interpersonal conflicts: perceived looks of disrespect; someone hitting on someone else’s girlfriend; someone looking at someone else’s girlfriend with appreciation.  If a young woman is killed, it might be the result of domestic abuse, it might be by a jealous boyfriend, or by a man she thought was her boyfriend but who was actually her pimp. 

In the case of Raymen, who knows?  Still, it would seem that if this was over a girl, then a lot of people in this close-knit community would have some idea where to look to find Raymen's killer.  By this I mean where the police could look.  But it also applies to the friends of Raymen Justice, if they are so inclined.

Again, I don’t know that Otha Side is a gang.  “Gang” is a funny word in Oakland; its definition is fluid.  I will find out more about it in the coming weeks.  But whatever its reason for being, it is made up of a large assemblage of young people touched by violence in Oakland, and it has lost three of its members this year to murder, three 17-year-old boys.  Some shirts at Raymen’s funeral commemorated “our three lost angels.”  A video on youtube, a rap in their honor by Lil Kayla, was posted just a day or so after Raymen’s gunning down.

 I only figured out that the three victims were related on the Friday morning after Raymen was killed, when I met Marilyn Harris, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, at the Justice family’s apartment.  I arrived before Marilyn, and spent some time reflecting over the memorial assembled near the driveway of the smallish apartment building on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland, a building I am pretty sure used to be a motel. 

A History of Highways, Freeways & Motels and Their Effect on the Environment
MacArthur Boulevard, before they gouged Highway 580 into the landscape right alongside it, was the highway, the thruway, the way Californians traveled by car east out of Oakland and into the Delta and the then-undeveloped countryside.  Many of the old motels remain along MacArthur.  Some are clean, with cropped shrubbery, bright flower beds and fresh paint.  Some are sleazy.  Some house transients or the chronically homeless.  With the rise of car travel having killed train travel, and before the birth of the wide freeways changed everything, these motels were popular stops for American travelers in Pontiacs, Fords and Chevrolets.  Indeed, the success of the roadside motels had killed off many grand old trunk hotels like the Lake Merritt in Oakland.  In the old days, you’d get off the train with your trunk full of suits or gowns and head to a luxurious full-service hotel, where you would dress for dinner.  But then cars usurped trains, and motels usurped hotels, and then, finally, freeways usurped blue highways like MacArthur, which became trails of urban and suburban blight, where people in poverty subsist under clouds of noise and air-pollution and literally in the shadows of freeways raised on concrete pillars to heights above the treetops. 

This morning the speeding trucks and cars of 580 create an uncertain breeze that causes the early autumn dust to rise, disperse, regroup and settle on the sad neglected bushes and cars and houses and formerly bustling motels below.  Traffic noise dominates the block and the air outside the Justice apartment building. 

Just Call My Name So I Can Be With You
Against a wall right next to first floor Apartment #3, not the Justice home, are the scattered remains of what had been brought in the hours and days after his killing, to signify the life of Raymen and the emotions his friends were feeling in the aftermath of his murder.  There are religious candles with images of Jesus on them, votive candles, none burning for now.  There is a large bottle of cheap gin with a swig or two remaining.  There is a small, pocket-sized bottle of Hennessey whiskey, the kind you request from the counter person at the liquor store, a swig or two remaining.  I think of the preserved booze as symbolic shots for the dead, to help him in his journey to the afterlife.  There is an empty McDonald’s french fry container.  I can’t tell whether it is in memoriam or just litter.  On the stucco walls of the building there are photos of Raymen smiling, printed from computers. 

There are messages of love and shock written with magic markers in emotional hands.  Some I find slightly morbid, even eerie: Raymen I am ready to/ come home so just/ call my name so I can/ be with you.  Some hold threats.  One reads, We put fear in you suckas heart/ We knocking down over/ this one I love you bby boy.  Another says, Raymen came through ready to kill for his brothers. 
There are also signs referring to “Tay.”  As in, “Raymen, I can’t believe it, both you and Tay gone.”  As we climb the outdoor stairway to the apartment I ask Marilyn if she knows who Tay is, but she doesn’t. 

There is a note, handwritten in black, taped to the apartment door, discouraging visitors from knocking.  It makes the point that the Justices will have nothing to give you, especially money, and don’t knock unless you have brought something for them. 

Marilyn of course brings, as always, the promise of help, hope, and healing.  She always enters even the tensest, most somber, most fraught rooms with the confidence and even the joy of the gifts she brings.

Years Numbering Fewer than 18
It’s 9:30 in the morning.  There are maybe seven people in the small, dimly lit, disheveled apartment.  Raymen’s sisters are here.  On the day after the killing, Raymen’s brother Rayven Jr collapsed and was taken to the hospital.  Rayven Jr is a composer and performer of sort-of hip hop love ballads.  He seems to be talented and is no doubt a sensitive person.  He is recuperating with the boys’ mother at her home in East Oakland.  A family friend named Miracle is here.  Two years ago her brother was taken from this very apartment building and murdered; his body was burned so severely that the police could not declare the death an official homicide.  There is a Tupac poster on the wall.  Over the couch there is a narrow, framed portrait in oils of Raymen’s father, Rayven, in his younger days in a suit and round hat with an upturned brim.  It was, I believe, a certain favored style in Oakland in the early 80s. 

Rayven Sr is a slight man, gray-haired, a Vietnam vet, angry as hell, righteous about having raised his two sons on his own, about their potential and their good grades.  Raymen had a 3.3 grade point average, he tells us several times. 

Rayven Sr is sitting next to me on a small sofa.  He’s drinking coffee with cream and sugar.  Man he is pissed.  He gets up a number of times and leans over the coffee table and into people’s faces to declare his independence from need of the money being offered him. 

Marilyn tells him she has been getting calls from people who want to help.  Some want to start scholarship funds in Raymen’s name.  This happens when someone under 18 gets killed.  She’s told me this before, that when a younger person gets killed, her practical help, her resourcefulness in finding monetary aid to pay for funerals and such, is less needed.  People are moved to contribute by years numbering fewer than 18. 

There have been a handful of articles in the newspapers about Raymen’s grade point average and his particular interest in bio-sciences, how for this school year he had transferred from Oakland High to the East Oakland charter school called Life Academy, in order to focus on this interest of his.  In the coming days I will read or hear several tributes, from teachers and other adults who’d encountered Raymen, to his commitment to education, his qualities of leadership, his determination to excel, his charisma.

But a brief review of Raymen’s public facebook wall indicates that he had missed school recently, perhaps more than once, that he had smoked five joints in one day recently.  At least he claimed to have.  At least that is how I interpret his entries.  It also indicates a young man feeling alienated from his friends, feeling a great deal of love and real emotion for others, but feeling also, perhaps, betrayed.  There are few specifics beyond this and it is impossible to tell what it all says about Raymen.  Probably nothing. I have already written about the myths we create for the dead.  Probably best to listen to those who knew him.

While Raymen’s dad talks about his personal connections to the music industry and professional sports figures, Marilyn finds someone else in the room with whom she can do business.  She needs to know what to tell people who want to give the Justices money.  She won’t take any of it without the family’s permission, and is advising them to use the money to pay off the Richmond funeral home out of which Raymen will be buried in one week.

Rayven Sr is saying that both the Oakland A’s and the principal of Life Academy have suggested a memorial scholarship.  He wants all the money to go to the principal, but says that nothing should be done about it until Raymen is buried and at peace.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  Better to deal with such business after the chaos of this week subsides.  Rayven is very concerned that no one in his family does anything to try to get any money for themselves out of this.  He is angry, and acting out, but I can’t blame him.  Less than 72 hours ago, only a few feet from their home, his young son was murdered.  He was given no chance to defend himself, under the New Code of the West. The father held his dying son in his arms.  He will be forced to pass by this death scene every day. 

17 X 3
When we come down the stairs and back to the memorial, we notice someone has lit a few of the candles.  Rhodesha, one of Marilyn’s volunteers, notices a bottle of Sippin’ Syrup among the items of the memorial.  30g of sugar per bottle.  I think usually it is mixed with a clear alcohol, vodka or gin, to make a potent cocktail.  Rhodesha knows some of the Otha Side people.  She tells me that the “Tay” mentioned in the memorial signs is Davante Riley, whose funeral I attended back in March.  He was killed by a 15-year-old girl.  At the very end of Davante’s service, two gunman stepped to the front of the church and started shooting up the congregation, but somehow no one was hit.

I remember seeing Otha Side shirts at Davante’s funeral, but had assumed they were referring to his being in heaven.  Rhodesha tells me that it actually refers to a group of friends in Oakland, and that Damon Williams, killed on June 21st, also was in the group.  At Damon’s impromptu memorial gathering, outside his family home in West Oakland, a block from the Khadafy Foundation offices, Rachael Green, 19, was gunned down in a drive-by, and five others shot, including a 13-year-old boy who is now blind for life.  He is still at Children’s Hospital recuperating. 

I think about the possibility that all this pain, physical and emotional pain, these repeated instigations of unbearable grief, perhaps lifelong grief, lost lives, lost sight, the enormous void all these killings and shootings leave, that possibly it’s all the result of teenage heartbreak.  I recall a comment I’d heard drop inside the apartment this morning: “That girl, she’s down in L.A. now.”

We are Adult and Clueless
On a sunny Friday morning one week later, the kids are out of school again for another funeral.  A hundred, more than that, high school kids, a few who look middle-school-age, most of the boys in baseball caps on which the style now, at least for this group, is to leave the peel-off size and brand sticker on the hat’s brim long after purchase.  As a group the kids are stoic, or inscrutable, but every few minutes one, usually a girl, but sometimes a boy, emits an audible sob and drops her head into her hands, is comforted, walked out of the chapel, out of the mortuary and onto the streets around Richmond’s Civic Center for some of that toxic Richmond air.  There’s a small farmer’s market going on in the parking lot across the street.

There are teachers here as well.  One will speak during the service about how Raymen changed her life, changed the way she taught, how she never gave up on him and is glad he never gave up on her.

Before the service, in the mortuary parlor, I run into the uncle of the blinded 13-year-old.  He says his nephew might be released from the hospital in another few weeks.  Last week a 6-year-old was shot, but is recovering, physically.  The chief of police had brought her a teddy bear.  This visit and gift had made the news.  But the chief has never visited the newly blind kid. 

I also meet the Green Party candidate for Oakland mayor.  He is the only politician I see at the funeral.

The chapel is woody, rectangular and dark.  It has a feel of the sacred, rare in these places.  There are ushers in white gloves from the Christian Body Life Fellowship, which is out of Vacaville. 

Before the service begins, I follow two women I assume are teachers up the long aisle to the coffin to pay my respects to Raymen.  We stair down at the corpse in emptiness.  We are adult and clueless.  Raymen was very thin.  He had a thin mustache and a small patch of hair on his chin.  The fingernail of his left index finger is dirty.  He’s wearing a bright, checkered shirt and a Kansas City Royals baseball cap askew on his head.  There are many strands of wooden beads laid across his chest.  I think one of them is a rosary, and indeed later, a close friend of his reads an impressive poem, written in the days after Raymen’s murder, in which he mentions the rosary he carried.  Or possibly wore. 

Impossible Notes Through Impossible Sadness
I see Rayven Sr as the family enters the chapel.  He is holding hands with Rayven Jr, a tall, thin young man, a year or so older than the victim.  The father looks dignified and strong in a navy suit.  There is a long, long procession of family young and very old, hail and infirm, stoic and openly grieving.  Near the end of the entry of the family I see two teenagers who look like they might be brothers, but they might be cousins, young men, standing tall, walking close together hand-in-hand.  It’s really beautiful.

Today’s preacher is younger than usual.  He looks to be in his thirties.  Before he preaches the usual call for an end to the killing, Raymen’s cousin, who tells us he is fifty years old, sings from the pulpit a beautiful, a capella Our Father.  He reaches impossible notes through impossible sadness.  His singing makes you feel the presence of holiness.

During the service, pictures of Raymen flash across a large screen over the coffin.  It is billed as a Wilson & Kratzer Production.  Wilson & Kratzer is the funeral home.  Lots of pictures of Raymen smiling, flexing, just being a kid.  Family pictures, baby pictures.  One, which seems to be on the screen every time I look up, appears to be Raymen and his brother Rayven Jr as toddlers, stepping out of a doorway, smiling and shirtless on a summer morning.  One of them, I imagine it is Raymen, has a small bandage on his forehead.

Against Nostalgia
Early in his sermon, the preacher makes a point that causes me to wonder if he doesn’t know for certain that this killing was over a girl.  “I want to be with a woman other guys are looking at,” he says.  “I take that as a compliment.”

He goes on to give a fine and lucid sermon.  He grew up in Richmond and talks about life on the rough streets of this oppressed, ganged-up, drugged-up little town on the bay, this microcosm of Oakland, with its own absurd homicide rate.  He says, “We used to fight with fists.  We would “knuckle-up.”  And sometimes, after a fight, we would end up best friends with the guy we fought.  But you’ll never have that experience.  You need to learn what it’s like to fight, to lose, to go home and lick your wounds and come back the next day and live.”

I agree with the preacher, but I have a strong sense that he is not moving these young people with the propensity to resort to violence over trifles.  I worry it is just more irrelevant nostalgia.  And so in the end I view it as just another failed plea.  I am against nostalgia, because nostalgia is false; it is not remembering, but a type of subversive wishing backwards.  In this case, the kids might be thinking, You may have fought instead of killed, but you were still violent, and now you are romanticizing your own violence, but we don’t really see much of a difference.

Always, at the point in each service when someone of an older generation starts begging for peace, I watch the faces and eyes of the children for something I might be able to call reflection or re-consideration or capitulation.  I never see anything, but I can’t see everybody and I could be wrong.  It wouldn’t take too many kids to make a difference.  In my optimistic daydreams I imagine some smart, courageous kid with leadership qualities deciding it is time to change, finally figuring out the beautiful simplicity of what we are all trying to tell them, that this way of the gun offers no exit.  I imagine him making a gesture of Christian forgiveness, that hardest thing of all, that forgiveness of a true enemy, one who hasn’t asked for it or done anything to even indicate they want your forgiveness, but who in fact expects you to continue the cycle, but you walk up to them and instead of firing back you say “I won’t.  I forgive you.”  Or “I want to forgive you.  I am going to try to do that, instead of trying to kill you.”  It’s a nice daydream.  I wonder if Raymen might have been that leader someday.

I’m standing in the back of the chapel and have a lot of time to read the backs of shirts and sweatshirts.  Many say “R.I.P Raymen.”  There is the one about mobbing up.  Also one that says “Raymen is Prezzent.”

When the service is over, the white-gloved ushers re-open the casket for a final viewing, which I forgo.  But all the kids file past the corpse once more.  Sitting in the mortuary parlor, I can hear them exiting a side door of the chapel, sounding as if they have been lining up to be punched, one-by-one, right in the gut. 

Walking to my car after the service, I note that old familiar industrial smell of Richmond.  I lived here for three years, on the water, where the smell of the factories is less distinct.  Richmond is a fascinating city.  It was home to the Kaiser Ship Yards during World War II.  Here they constructed the small and nimble Liberty Ships.  During the war Richmond’s population grew four-fold, as people from all over the country came to find work.  Now it is depressed and largely under the thumb of drugs and gangs.  There are a dozen storefront churches in Richmond at any given time, and many years ago I spent months going to their services and meeting their preachers and congregants for a story I wanted to write.  I was going to call it “Storefront Salvation.”  No one picked it up, but I think I will post the pitch over at Theoretically Smelly, my blog for stories that never got published.  All this Oakland work may encounter the same fate, but I think it will feel less like failure. 

Insiders Contemplating Why

Below is a link to a collection of brief, thoughtful comments by members of the community that's re-forged every time someone is killed here.  In the aftermath of violence in Oakland, the old members of the community -- police, trauma docs, crisis responders, gang intervention specialists -- all re-unite to greet the newly initiated members, the survivors.

The article was published in 2007 in the Oakland Tribune as as a kind-of postscript to an excellent 5-part series by Brenda Payton on the death of Frederick ``Mar'' Layne, a 23-year-old African American man who was dealing drugs in West Oakland.  Payton used Layne's particular life, his death, and its wake to give readers a much broader view than they usually get of how one death hits a community, of how profoundly it impacts the people who knew and loved the victim, as well as those who come to pick up the pieces.  

For Part 5 (link below) she asked some of Mar Layne's friends and family, but also the police officers, hospital personnel, preachers and preachers of non-violence she'd encountered in her reporting why they think the violence in Oakland is happening and what can be done to stop it.  

It's not that their answers are particularly surprising or innovative.  In fact, I read the tone as bleak.  Always a realist, Marilyn Harris, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, whose son, Khadafy Washington, was murdered in Oakland in 2000, says, " We're getting a world of old people now. It's gotten to be a pleasure to go to a funeral when somebody is over 50."  

Still, these are the thoughts of people fighting against the allure and false comfort of cynicism, but who have seen too much blood and despair to bother with mincing words.  Again, it is a piece of good reporting by Brenda Payton, from the Oakland Tribune, March 3, 2007.

So, please read: 

Why the violence is happening and what can be done to stop it 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Part 2: The Presence of My Enemy

There is an abundance of suffering here in the cool of the chapel this
afternoon. Suffering is a thing we all share, and especially this crowd
of East Oaklanders who have lost a child to the gun. (See Pt. 1: Chapel Light.)
Usually you think of the mother as the queen of the sufferers, but 13-year-old
Jimon Clark had a twin, Javon, and all indications were that they were twined
together in life until now.

Among the speakers are friends and teachers of the twins from Frick
Middle School, all of whom seem to find it a little strange to refer to
one of them without the other, as if this dying is the first thing one
of them has ever done independently. They seem to have been regularly,
unselfconsciously, referred to as “Jimonjavon.” Juh-MON-juh-vawn. One

And so you must think of Javon as having died a little, too.  Or that
the entity, JimonJavon, was murdered, along with Jimon himself. It’s a
double-homicide. Or at least a homicide and a half.

The service opens with a reading from St. Paul, from his second letter
to the Corinthians: For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so
our consolation also abounds through Christ. It elicits a great amen
from the congregation, from the adults in the congregation, whose faith
must get shaken, but it always appears very strong. Christ is one of
the two comforts they are repeatedly offered, or that they repeatedly
find for themselves. Christ shares your suffering, in Christ is peace
and hope. If there is no peace in the city, no peace in your
neighborhood, no hope of safety, if the police can’t protect you, if
those who run the city are helpless, if the schools can’t raise you up
toward hope, there is Christ in the end.

The other comfort is heaven. No less than six times from the pulpit,
teachers and friends and family and preachers reminds us that Jimon is
in a better place. Better than Oakland, better than earth, better than
this world of struggle and fear and death. What other comfort are you
going to find? And what will you do if there is no softer place to go
for healing than where the fact of this bare meaningless death and void

An Instigator of Dreams
Young people take the altar to talk about how funny Jimon was, that he
was a kind of leader, an instigator, usually of innocent hi-jinks,
although sometimes these hi-jinks led to suspensions from school, which
elicits some laughs, but suspensions always sound serious to me, and
never funny in real life. One of the kids says, “I’m gonna wear his
colors.” But I’m not quite sure what this means. Probably Jimon just
liked to wear certain colors. He seems to have had that kind of fun and
colorful personality.

A teacher from Frick Middle School, from which Jimon and Javon had
graduated in the spring, says that Jimon assembled the very first student relay track
team to beat the Frick teachers in their end-of-the-year race. He talks
about Jimon’s determination. Jimon encouraged his relay team practice
every day. When ever there was a spare moment, he had them on the track
honing their baton transferring skills. I think this is the source of
the track star designation some of the media have given the dead boy,
which might be a bit of a stretch, the kind of legend the press
invents, or that we sometimes invent about our newly dead, a posthumous
medal of honor we bestow to comfort the dead, to make the dead feel
better about themselves. One article referred to Jimon as a “standout
athlete,” which seems like it might have been more precise.

Maybe Jimon did run track. Or maybe he would have run track at Skyline
High, where he was set to begin only a few days after his murder. Maybe
he would have run track, loved it, excelled at it, won great victories
and suffered the great crushing defeats that are the stuff of life.
Maybe he would have gotten a scholarship to run track at USC, studied
physical education or economics, gotten a degree and become a teacher,
a leader, an instigator of the dreams of 13-year-old kids. But instead
he is in a better place.

On the later, a friend of Jimon’s tries to sing for the dead boy a song
called, according to the program, “His Eyes is on the Sparrow.” She is
thin, tall, but a child. She is wearing very high heels. She is
distraught, sings one verse, very off key, then breaks down and is
helped back to her seat just in front of mine by another child her age,
Jimon's age. That night the one TV channel that has shown up broadcasts
this on its Ten O’clock News.

The Failure
The member of the city council from Jimon’s neighborhood approaches the
pulpit. Larry Reid’s voice shakes as he utters the second-most-heard
phrase at funerals of the killed in Oakland. “This has to stop.”

My opinion of the council member rises and falls by the moment. Unless
it turns out he has a personal relationship with the family, I’m
inclined to hate him for being here, or at least for speaking.

But then, when he calls the Oakland killings “insane violence,” I like
the term.

 “When I got the news of Jimon’s killing,” says Reid, “I saw myself as a
failure.” I appreciate the starkness of the term and the taking of this
personally. When he announces that he is giving the family a check for
$5000, it is the announcement, not the gratuitousness, that bothers me.

When he asks if anyone in today’s congregation knows anything about
Jimon’s killing, I quickly scan the room, even as I feel a chill run up
my spine. I watch carefully as Reid offers $2500 for the information.
To my eyes, no one reacts in any way that might indicate they know

“If you’re scared to go to the OPD,” he says, “come to me. Because this
has to stop. In this city, when your children leave the house, you
don’t know if they’re going to come back.”

I’m impressed by his honesty, by his quivering voice, but, finally,
when he presents the family with a resolution from the mayor and city
council, I feel exceedingly empty.

The Enemy
Until an old gospel singer seems to appear from nowhere, an old man
backed with an organ, and sings a long, slow, agonized song based on a
verse from the 23rd Psalm, the psalm that begins, The Lord is my
shepherd; I shall not want, the one that declares that, though I walk
through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, the one that ends, I
shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

But it’s a neglected, middle verse the singer keeps repeating, an
enigmatic one I rarely note when I hear the psalm recited, that resonates: You prepare
a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Over and over in a
minor key, as the song comes to an intense climax, soulfully he sings
the words "in the presence of my enemy..."

I think the verse is about the abundance and joy of enduring life in
the midst of evil and death in the world, but sitting here this
afternoon, I can’t help but think about the funeral of Davante Riley,
which ended in gunfire. I can’t help but think about the trophies I’m
told the killers sometimes come to the funerals of their victims to
collect: a lock of hair, a cell-phone photo of the dead. I wonder if
the killer is with us today. Is the dead boy in the presence of his

Or is it us? Are we in the presence of the enemy, or at least of the
enemy's quarry? And is the enemy, not death, but whatever it is in
Oakland that breeds the evil urge that lets a person kill like this.

Turn Out the Lights
Finally an old preacher speaks. He is short, and fat, full of energy,
with the worn, gravelly voice of a man with experience, and a man who
has done a lot of preaching.  He tells us he won’t talk for long, and
so he does. He talks about his past as a drug dealer. How he made a
hundred thousand dollars in one day. He makes it sound pretty good.
Then he says, proudly, that he now has a job where he makes $90,000 a
year, but he either forgets to include some kind of transition, the
part where he gets arrested or shot or loses his family or causes some
young person to become an addict or to overdose, or there just isn’t
any particular narrative lesson to be gained.

The preacher says that partying is fine, but that you “got to know when
to leave the party.” He has the congregation repeat this. He has us
turn to the person next to us and say it again. He tells bad jokes that
are likely lost on the kids. He ends with a recruitment drive, calling
up anyone who, right at this moment, has truly felt the call of Christ.
Forty, maybe 50 people, mostly the young ones, throng the altar. The
preacher tells us that there are pastors placed all around the room to
talk to anyone interested in joining his church.

The chapel service is ended. There is to be a balloon release now, out
in a field on the campus, but I head across the fuming blacktop to my
car. Inside, the thermometer reads 103 degrees. I drive the long way
down International Boulevard toward the lake. A hundred blocks, a
hundred stop lights. There are small gatherings of hookers on certain
corners, out in today’s bright blazing California sun. Most of them are
overweight. A couple of them are having a pretty good laugh over
something. I think about how I haven’t laughed like that in months.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Part 1: Chapel Light

Just ahead of me in line at the funeral of Jimon Clark, the last of six homicides to occur in Oakland between August 18th and August 25th, a group of kids in their early teens has reached the coffin. They look like they are not quite sure what to do. In line, all but two of them have been fairly upbeat, nonchalant, possibly faking their cool, or possibly they have done this so many times that it feels about the same as standing in line at a taco truck. I want to think they are faking, that their hearts are beating faster than usual, that they are at least a little freaked to confront the dead body of their friend and schoolmate, that maybe they are hiding secret worries that his gunshot wounds are visible.

(The wounds aren’t visible. The 13-year-old was shot in the back, a double violation of the old Code of the West, which held, among other things, that you do not shoot children and you do not shoot anybody in the back. The new Code of the West, as it exists in Oakland, has rejected those tenets, thoroughly.)

I want to think that for these baby-faced, rather slight, early teenage kids from Oakland, neither the day nor the event is routine.

Only two of them are showing, or allowing to show, any signs of confusion or mourning. They are boys, a little taller than the rest of their group. One breathes heavily in and out, says quietly, “I don’t know what to do.” The other rests a hand on his shoulder.

A pastor helping to keep the line moving tells them it’s okay to cry. But none of the kids cries as he or she stares, through the thin, white gauze that stretches from the edge of the open lid to the casket’s rim at the brown, lifeless, glistening face of Jimon, his taught lips stretched horizontally in an expression of wry acceptance of his task today to lie still all the long afternoon. His face looks unnaturally wide.

The body has been lying on its back in freezers and coffins for a week now and so it has settled and spread. I remember noticing the width of the dead face of the 15-year-old, Kelow Colson, at rest in the coroner’s freezer for a month before his open-casket funeral. Surely to the kids he must look, as all cadavers of friends and family do, simultaneously familiar and alien, a combination which approaches the precise definition of surreal.

The Mystery
I’d like to think the moment is surreal for these kids, but possibly it’s just real. Jimon was shot in the back, at 9:30 at night, while walking with his brother down Bancroft Avenue near his home in East Oakland. Bancroft Avenue is a street that hosts more than its share of violence. It’s a street I tend to pass only when I am out reporting these stories.

Officially, no one knows why Jimon was killed. There have been rumors of him receiving a strange phone call that evening, being asked by the caller to run an errand, that that is what he was doing when he was killed, that it was some kind of set-up.

I’m told the streets say he was not the intended victim of the bullet, that neither was his brother, that it was a case of mistaken identity. I know it’s hard to imagine a 13-year-old, who hadn’t even started high school yet, being involved in the kind of business that can lead to his murder. And probably Jimon wasn’t involved in anything like that. But sometimes in Oakland things seem one way and turn out to be the other way, the way you couldn’t imagine. So who knows.

Maybe it was a simple robbery. Reportedly, the killer took $2 from Jimon’s pocket.

Innocence Invasion
One week after his killing, one day after what would have been his 14th birthday, and the 14th birthday of his twin brother, Javon, they hold a funeral for Jimon in an unadorned chapel on the tiny, pristine campus of a bible college on 105th Street, in the often violent, ganged-up neighborhood called Sobrante Park. The School of Urban Missions sits near the end of a long residential street off International Boulevard. It’s one of those streets where you have to weave among the double-parked black SUV’s, out of which there is always a conversation taking place with someone standing on the street, leaning in at the car window. I try to give them a wide berth.

At the campus gates, which appear to be more for security than for purposes of a grand and decorative entryway, there are two young white boys directing traffic. I think they are expecting a lot of press, but in the end, although the chapel is packed with people, I see only a couple of reporters, and in the days following, only one or two stories about the funeral.

Usually, depending on the circumstances, the death of anyone 16 or under attracts a great deal of attention. Kelow Colson was 15, and his killing back in March got some press, but mostly because he was killed while trying to steal dope, and so the media could call it a “home invasion,” which is an exciting, energetic, war-like term they like to apply to any burglary they can. But because he was engaging in a criminal act -- with two of his brothers, by the way -- Kelow’s killing elicited less of the lasting general sympathy it might have had he been what they like to call an innocent victim.

This reminds me of one of the interesting things about the work of Marilyn Harris and the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence: Marilyn does not distinguish between innocent victims and guilty victims. She does not believe in guilty victims. When you die, your record dies, she says. And anyway, Your mama didn’t kill anybody. Your grandmother didn’t kill anybody. Didn’t hurt anybody. Now they need help. I did hear her say once, speaking to the ghost of a young man killed in a gunfight, whose father she had been helping through a very sad and difficult day, “Oh _____, look what you did to your father.” She has told me that often she doesn’t want to know too much about the victim, because she admits it might affect her efforts to help their survivors navigate the manic hell of the aftermath of a murder.

Jimon seems to have been an innocent victim and a nice kid. The media decided to refer to him as a track star, although it turns out that might have been a stretch. He was about to start at Oakland’s Skyline High, a school not for troubled kids, but for the general population, so there was little to cause anyone to turn of the sympathy spigot until he was buried. And so I was expecting more press.

Marilyn, who had gone out on the night of the killing to provide comfort and support to Jimon’s mother, anticipated a lot of media at the funeral, too. She’d suggested I get there an hour and a half early. I was probably more like 45 minutes early, and while there was a lot of activity underway, very few mourners had arrived, and no press that I could detect.

I had never heard of the little bible college and so when I saw a very young photographer observing the preparations with great attentiveness, I asked if she was a student there, and she said she was. She told me that it is not just a local school, although Oakland is the flagship campus, and that people come from out of town to attend. Oakland has about 152 students, but there are campuses all across the country, including in Brooklyn and New Orleans. The staff and students making preparation for the funeral were a mix of Latino, white, black and Asian, the latter possibly Samoan and Filipino.

There was a guest book to sign, over which floated a Mylar balloon that read
(Later on a sports field they released red and white balloons.)

The English Civil Wars
I take up a seat to the far right, in the back row of pews, all of which fan out from a platform too low to call a stage and too multi-purpose to call an altar, although for purposes of this description that’s what I’ll call it. There are musical instruments up there, including a set of bongo drums. There is also is a plain wooden cross about six-feet high standing at the back of the platform. Not a crucifix, but a cross. Later it will be thoroughly obscured by a video screen. But for now it is the only nod to religion I can detect in the chapel, and I find myself thinking about the English Civil Wars, and how I am probably not the right person to be doing this story, but as Padraic Column wrote in the foreword to his book The Hidden Ireland, it doesn’t look like anybody else is going to do it, and it ought to be done.

Underlying the English Civil Wars was a free-for-all of religious hatred between Christians. On one side were the Anglicans, who were practically Catholic, even though they despised and killed the actual Catholics, who would later despise and kill them, it always depended on whom was in power. The Anglicans rejected the Pope, of course, but still had a hierarchy full of fat, wealthy bishops and cardinals telling everyone what to think about God. They had statues and saints and they even on occasion prayed to the Virgin Mary. They had beautiful churches, formerly Catholic churches, where they celebrated very precise and formal liturgies of the Mass. On another side were the Puritans and the Presbyterians, who believed in Jesus, but not in having church fathers or anyone to tell you how to communicate with God. You could tell people which God to worship, just not how to do it. They believed in employing no liturgy at their services. They held truck with no Book of Common Prayer. And they certainly didn’t prettify their churches with stained glass or images of God or his Apostles. Both sides hated the Catholics.

Not that this is a Presbyterian or Calvinist school or chapel. I think they are more Methodists, but that is what this unadorned church causes me to think about, as do many of these services, in that they seem random in their elements and procedures, are usually a collection of sermons with songs and short readings, and there are no sacraments. It’s anarchy.

I start thinking that it would be just like me to try to begin a book about death in Oakland with a long explanation of the roots of the English Civil Wars. And that I should just give up and declare myself psychologically disabled and go on Social Security. I glance down at some literature I’ve picked up about the School of Urban Missions and immediately see a reference to John Wesley, who was somewhat in between the two extremes of the war. He was an Anglican priest, but an evangelical who urged people to strike up a personal relationship with Jesus.

I like that the school might not be extreme, and that it might be sincere about training young religious people of all races for urban missions. I like the one student I’ve spoken to, who looked cool. Some of the staff also look cool, although some look like they are trying to look cool, cool for the kids, cool to the kids, and sure enough I note in the literature, along with that mention of Wesley, a bit too frequent use of the word “awesome” by adults. Always a bad sign.

I get in line to view the body. I’m finding that bodies of strangers in caskets mean nothing to me anymore. The body of a murder victim on a gurney, covered by a sheet, with the coroner’s invasion on the back of his skull covered by another sheet, moved me. But these kids in caskets are out of my range at the moment.

The kids in front of me in line might be having a similar problem. I watch them up there trying to wrap their minds around what this means, this body of their classmate and friend lying in a coffin like this. They stare, comfort each other with a touch, one of them, the smallest, looks a little frightened. The girls tear up, but don’t cry, and move on. I step up. Jimon is wearing a red baseball cap with A’s insignias stamped across it. He’s wearing a jacket and tie. There is an image of a football on the inside of the coffin lid and tiny Raiders figurines placed along the coffin’s rim. Chapel lights reflect off some moisture rising on his skin on a very hot day in early September.

The chapel is full. I would guess there are 400 people here. The family is large. It seems confident and composed. It takes up the entire middle section of the room. It’s clear they have a lot of support. They are church people. It makes a difference. Marilyn tells me that when the victim is so young, financial support tends to flow a little more freely, quickly, and from more varied sources. So she has not had to find any money for them. Funerals are not free.

The funeral is being held here because Jimon and his twin brother Javon were part of a Christian youth group called Points of Light that gathered here on Friday nights. The organizers must have thought, if they are here on Friday nights, the most violent of Oakland nights, they will be the safer for it. One of their youngest has been killed anyway.

Next: Part 2: The Presence of My Enemy

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More August Bloodshed

A 13-year-old boy was gunned down last night in East Oakland.  After 3 weeks with no homicides in Oakland, there have now been 6 in one week.

Here is today's SF Chronicle story of the killing of the child:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rash/Wave/String: Homicide Update

We’re having our first heat wave of the summer. The marine layer is taking a long weekend.

Marilyn Harris, of the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence, has told me she considers August to be the city’s deadliest month. But this particular August had been, while not peaceful -- there were many shootings -- not deadly. We had no homicides for the first three weeks of the month. It was the longest stretch without a death since I began paying close attention. I’m happy to credit good police work, community policing, Measure Y, whatever you want. I like a hopeful view.

But I kept telling my wife it was the weather, here in the coldest, grayest summer in memory. And sure enough, record breaking heat has coincided with a rash/wave/string of killings. Five in one week. Each apparently unrelated to the next. There have been two stabbing deaths and three shooting deaths. There have been killings in East Oakland, West Oakland, and Downtown.

Meanwhile, federal and local law enforcement agencies are meeting to discuss Oakland’s gang problem. On Monday, at Oakland’s Laney College, two alleged gang members were arrested leaving class. Each was carrying a weapon.

Fifth Oakland Killing in One Week

Nearly three weeks into August we had had no killings for the month, but now, morbidly, August seems bent on catching up, with five killings in the past seven days.  By my count, this San Ramon man, known as Mississippi in the East Oakland neighborhood where he was stabbed to death, is 2010 homicide #57.  By this time last year we'd had 68.

The news of his death, from the SF Chronicle:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Law Enforcement Gang Summit in Oakland

From today's SF Chronicle:
Law-enforcement officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the state Department of Justice will meet with outreach workers, crisis response groups and re-entry service providers "with the intent of fostering sustainable partnerships focused on the fight against violence in Oakland," police officials said.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Spirit of the Bus

In April we gathered outside a library across from DeFreemery Park, where, back in 1972, the Black Panthers would hand out free food to throngs of ever more desperate West Oaklanders. By then, what a mere decade earlier had been a thriving African-American community, was desperate.* Four decades on it still is.

We were there to board a bus for a political rally in the state capitol. As Marilyn Harris herded everyone toward their seats, I began to see her as rather like Moses -- prettier than Moses would have been, shorter, and black, and without a Moses-like beard, of course -- but similarly intrepid, similarly determined to lead this ad-hoc community of the wounded, not to any promised milk or honey, but out of the land of death and back to living.

Just about everyone on the bus had suffered a shocking loss, but it was an upbeat group. After a prayer led by a local pastor, as the bus pulled away from West Oakland, laughter and joking settled into chatter about skin care products or how quickly the grandkids grow up. Occasionally, words like "homicide" or "investigator" or "coroner" would rise above the din, as might be expected.

In front of me sat a young woman whose twin brother had been murdered back in October. Seated next to her, her mother, in her late sixties, wore a beautiful blue blouse. The daughter kept trying to smooth a stray, stubborn curl of her mother's gray hair.

Across from me sat a woman whose mentally challenged son had been murdered on his way to the store; none of his money had been taken. His murderer was never found.

Marilyn sat near the front. Her son, Khadafy, had been shot on a summer night in 2000, on the grounds of the West Oakland high school he had graduated from two months earlier. There were six homicides in Oakland that weekend.

There were eighty homicides that year, but six in one weekend shocked even Oakland. It was one of those events that politicians can't ignore. Something had to be done. And so they formed commissions.

Here in 2010, twice in March we had four homicides in 48 hours. But no new commissions that I’m aware of. Marilyn and the Crisis Response team (See August 5th post, "Ministry of Presence) answer call after call to begin each rebuilding project one family at a time. As far as I can tell, there is no one else doing anything precisely like this in any other city in America.

In Sacramento that afternoon, as anonymous state politicians blathered at a podium, the passengers on the bus proved far more interested in, even mesmerized by, the hundreds of posters on stands along the boarders of a big white tent pitched before the west steps of the beautiful Capitol building. Each stand held large portraits of four murdered Californians on each side. The first thing everyone did was to find the portraits of the loved ones of the passengers on the bus.

There were hundreds of people mulling under and out of the tent, many wearing t-shirts with images of the dead from all over California, usually with the words "In loving memory of..." or "Always in our hearts..." And, of course, there were plenty of shirts and posters influenced by Marilyn’s original phrase, conceived for billboards in the weeks after her son's murder: Do You Know Who Killed Me?

All through the afternoon, Marilyn kept introducing me to the mothers of the dead, all with incredible stories of loss and rebirth. One woman’s only son had been killed in a carjacking while on his way to work. After the rally, as she was climbing onto the bus, she turned to me and said, "Jim, do you want to hear something really strange? The father of one of the people who killed my son is on this bus. He's the pastor. He must know who I am, after all that time we spent in court. It's strange. But it's okay. He can be here."

* Many of West Oakland's beautiful Victorian and Italianate homes (there are some that survived the "renewal") were owned by middle-class, African American canning factory workers, longshoremen, and sleeping car porters based at the nearby train station. By '72, most had been razed and replaced with the crushing blandness of beige row houses. Today it can be hard to tell one street from another. Those not replaced by public housing were seized through eminent domain, demolished, and replaced by three major freeways creating choking pollution and a choking isolation from the rest of the city. The final insult came in the form of the towering concrete pillars of an above-ground BART line running down the middle of 7th Street. Last stop in Oakland. Just before the tracks plunge into the Bay, if you look down from your train car you can see in the shadows the ruined facade of a legendary jazz club called Esther's Orbit Room. Billy Holiday played there. So did Etta James, back when 7th Street was the commercial heart of West Oakland.