Back in 1986 the city of Oakland closed off several streets and a thousand citizens watched the funeral procession of Felix Mitchell, drug dealer,gang leader, and the man who helped establish the violent image of modern Oakland. His glass and brass cortege was followed by a long line of Rolls Royces.
The two Oakland funerals I’ve attended in 2010 have been bleak, uninspiring affairs. The preachers are ineffectual and of the wrong generation. The churches and chapels themselves are homely, even tawdry, but they are what people can afford. In June I sat in a mortuary meeting room and listened to the dazed, angry mother of a killed boy request balloons and a dove to release at her son's funeral. When the funeral director asked how she would pay, the mother was stumped, surprised even. She hadn’t a clue. It had taken the family a month just to raise the $650 necessary to have the 15-year-old’s body transported 12 blocks from the county coroner's downtown morgue to a shabby funeral home in West Oakland.
At the sparsely attended service there were no balloons or doves, just a few flower bouquets, and canned music on a sound system that repeatedly failed. During the time in the service when anyone can get up and talk about the dead, a brother of the deceased, I believe his only one not currently incarcerated, took the pulpit and delivered a brief, curse-laden goodbye to his younger brother, all the while curtaining is face with his long, loose braids.
A funeral I went to in April was different. It was for a kid, man, young man, I don’t know what to call a person killed on his 18th birthday. The Baptist church in deep East Oakland seemed homely to me. Blue chairs. Fluorescent lights. But maybe I am overly accustomed to candles. I’ve taken to referring to certain part of East Oakland as “deep East,” partly because of the catchy internal rhyme, partly to indicate that when you go there you are in another city not your city. I’ve heard it used many times. But every time I use the term I question my intentions. Is it a racist term? Is it overly-dramatic?
This funeral was well-attended. Arriving ten minutes early, I’d had to wedge and excuse my way through until finally I got stuck in the steamy, noisome vestibule in the back, between teenagers, some tearing up, some wailing, some chatting idly, most, of course checking and sending messages with their phones. Young men in hoods kept coming and going, excusing their way through the throng, coming and going, into the church and out, in and out of the nearby door to the parking lot. As they brushed past me I could smell the grease from their fast food breakfasts (my experienced nose identified it as McDonald’s grease). As is common in Oakland, the scent of marijuana hung in the air. Smoke drifted in through the doorway along with the sound of chatter and laughter from the parking lot.
At the funeral there had been one spine-tingling musical performance and one emotionally affecting moment when the principal of the deceased’s high school had announced that, as far as the school was concerned, he had completed his requirements. "Davante has graduated," he said, as he held aloft a diploma.
Then the preacher gave his bland sermon. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I had come with some small hope he might give me small hope just by being wise or kind or by having the kind of message or charisma I could imagine just maybe might give some troubled kid even the smallest doubt about his path. Something that might cause a weakening in the wall, something that might create from nothing a vulnerability in the kid that someone sensible -- a friend or girlfriend or uncle or teacher or mother or father -- might exploit, might aggravate until it wore to an opening. And maybe that kid would get out, rise up, become a leader willing to love and lead this lost, shunned generation. Maybe I was expecting too much.
In the end, the preacher, while dignified, and sincere, had nothing. After he established his own youthful credentials as a hard partier, now too old for such things, he said, "You can party with Jesus, kids,” and nothing against Jesus, but I wasn’t buying it and I doubt any of the kids were either, and the ceremony ground to its unceremonious halt with “Okay, now, everyone but the family, I’d like to ask you to go to your car.” For a moment I wondered what we were supposed to do in our cars. Then I realized he was planning a kinder, private, more spiritual closing prayer for the family. I was grateful for permission to escape the hot, packed church and to separate myself from the teenage girl I had been crushed up against intimately for well over an hour.
I headed for the side exit, out toward the skunky weed. I turned up the block and just as I was passing the crowded main entrance to the church I heard a kid yell that there was a gun, that there was shooting inside, and suddenly the whole scrum of bodies exploded into individuals running and screaming up the street.
I thought maybe it was a pathetic joke -- as shout of “fire” in a crowded theater -- perpetrated by an immature kid excited by the strangeness of death and the joy of a morning away from school, but I was wrong. Just after the pastor asked all but the family to leave the church in preparation for a final benediction, two hooded men had marched to the front of the congregation and started firing. No one was hit in the melee.
In genuine disbelief, I turned and walked back against the tide and stood across from the church entry way to watch, as more and more people staggered out. Soon I heard sirens but only gradually realized they were for us. Within twenty minutes there were dozens of cops from numerous forces -- OPD, CHP, Alameda Sheriffs, Parole, Corrections. Lots of collegiality between them. Hugs and handshaking and "Where you been lately?!?" There were guys in riot gear. That erie modern sight of helicopters hovering over you. Most of the cops had tear gas guns, but at one point a tall, white officer (I'd say 80 to 90% were white) took something that looked like a guitar case out of a van, snapped it open, pulled out a machine gun, clicked the cartridges in, slung it around his shoulders and headed up the street. He looked thrilled. I counted nearly a hundred cops in half a dozen picket lines across at least two streets.
Over a loudspeaker an officer ordered the young, hostile, broken-hive-like crowd to move away: "Citizens, move forward now." I happened to be wearing a black suit, so even as the police began to cordon off the neighborhood and shoo the media, no one asked me to move, until after about an hour, a riot-gear-clad OPD officer named Garcia asked me, politely, from behind his visor, if I was "one of the preachers." I had to admit I wasn't, so he moved me back, but just a bit. I stood there for a couple of hours watching, asking questions, thinking about Oakland. I'd never seen anything like it. God speed, Davante.
A few weeks later I saw his mother, young, pretty, a look in her eyes like someone lost in a tunnel, who can hear voices urging her on but can't tell where they come from, or if they’re friendly. I wanted to approach her, to ask her questions for my work, but I lacked the heart. I'll talk to her eventually.
Reportedly, Davante's young killer was facing him when she pulled the trigger, but there's a new Code of the West. The old Code only half survives, only the uncivilized part, the part that says any insult must be met with violence, and any perceived wrong must be avenged privately, with violence. The other tenets of the old code -- spare all women and children, never shoot an unarmed man, never shoot a man in the back -- are history. Shooters sneak up on you now. Not that they didn't in the old west, only there was a certain shame to it. Nowadays they fire into crowds from speeding cars, seemingly without discrimination, although often it turns out that the shooters knew what they were doing; usually they get who they wanted.
Often one or two bystanders as well. The killers show up at wakes and funerals seeking trophies: a cell-phone snapshot of their quarry in his casket, a lock of his hair. "You just know they're there," a friend whose been to hundreds of funerals told me. "You can just feel their presence."