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

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.

Ministry of Presence

In Oakland there is a group made up of volunteers and social workers, led by a woman whose son was murdered here ten years ago, who step into the immediate aftermath of each homicide, usually at the homes of survivors, but sometimes at fresh crime scenes, in order to give aid and comfort to the survivors.

"Aid and comfort" they define with a blessed looseness. Sometimes it is merely a gentle, clear-eyed presence. I have heard them refer to this work as their Ministry of Presence.

More often it means help planning funerals, help navigating the unfamiliar world of investigators and coroners, help doing dishes, grocery shopping, arranging rides or childcare, cleaning crime scenes, asking, simply, "Have you eaten?" Or, "Have you taken your meds?"

The leader of the group is an African American woman in her mid-fifties named Marilyn Harris Marilyn gained a small amount of notoriety here ten years ago, after her son, Khadafy Washington, was shot dead in the summer after he'd graduated high school. In the ensuing weeks, Marilyn arranged for the erection of billboards all over West Oakland, the neighborhood in which Khadafy was killed, and one of the most historically fascinating and relentlessly violent urban places in America.

I remember the stunning effect of coming upon one of the billboards, which featured a large photograph of Khadafy and the words, "Do You Know Who Killed Me?" We still don't, but in the years since, with their Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence, Marilyn and her husband, James Harris, and a group of dedicated volunteers, and recently with funding through Measure Y and Catholic Charities, have dedicated their lives to guiding others through the toxic shock and blinding fog of just such a loss.

The Khadafy Foundation's offices are in the Acorn. The Crisis Response and Support Network is based at Catholic Charities of the East Bay.

I think of Marylin and the other members of the team like I might think of firefighters, in that every day they find the courage to run toward those things the rest of us would run away from. To spend time with anyone on the team, but particularly with Marilyn, is to have whatever shell of cynicism you might like to hide behind involuntarily torn away.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Servant of the Desperate City

In June I went to a small Jean Quan meet-the-candidate event. It was at the old Bellevue Club on the lake.

Admittedly, 50-to-66% of my motivation for going was that I had long wanted to see the inside of the social club's big white building with the blue awning, which, finally, reminded me of someone else's rather tall grandmother, prim and thin, formerly elegant, who dressed fairly well back in her middle age, but continues to wear those same clothes now she’s in her eighties. She has stayed in fairly good shape, so they fit her well, but they are becoming worn, even threadbare, there’s a stain or two, which is gross, and although her suits are tasteful, they are, of course, out-of-date. But you admire her for once having been so classy. The ceilings were high, and I liked the view of the lake from the parlor.

There were maybe twenty urbanites at the meeting. Each remained aloof from the other. Quan seemed caffeined-up. No doubt she has some pretty long days as a council member and a candidate for mayor.

Quan tried hard to make her opening comments seem spontaneous, but you could tell by her accelerated delivery that they were canned. But it wasn’t just the caffeine causing the fast delivery; it was over-familiarity with the material, and even in exchanges with her guests Quan struck me as the best student in the class, but not necessarily the most creative, the kind of student with a fantastic memory and a large well-organized storage unit in her head full of facts ready to be delivered, boringly.

Mostly she was obsessing over an anti-Quan robocall that had gone out that evening dealing with the dispute between the police union and the financially-strapped city. Anyone who made eye-contact with her was asked, with no niceties, as if she already knew you, “Did you get the robocall?”

The unions are supporting Don Perrata, a well-connected, but term-limited, state assemblyman desperate to stay on the dole by, in the shameful tradition of Jerry Brown, becoming mayor of Oakland. The subtly pro-Perrata robocall had apparently questioned Quan’s commitment to law enforcement, and she felt it was inaccurate and unfair, and spent a lot of time expressing her grief over the use of these tactics so early in the campaign for mayor. It was difficult to tell if her grief was strongest over the content of the call or the financial disparity it portends between her campaign and Peratta’s.

Once the meeting started, the candidate asked us to call out things we “love” about Oakland and then things we believe should be a “priority” for the next mayor. Her diminutive, disheveled, committed, surgeon husband (they are an accomplished family) scribbled our answers in columns on flip chart.

I had just spent a day with the father of a man killed in a gunfight in the Ikea parking lot just over a week ago. The lot is in Emeryville, but the victim had staggered bleeding a block into Oakland before dying, and thus became an Oakland statistic, an Oakland case, instead of an Emeryville one. Oakland homicide #37.*

At the invitation of Marilyn Harris (see August 2 post "East is East"), and with the permission of the father, who on getting the news of his son’s death had driven here from Florida in three days, I accompanied him, a friend of his from Florida, the girlfriend of the deceased, and Marilyn, as they visited the DA’s office on Lake Merritt, the coroner’s near Jack London Square, the Downtown police headquarters, and a West Oakland funeral home, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

I’ll post a description of their difficult day, their quest to bring the body home to Florida, what it means in California to be killed in the act of committing a crime yourself, or to be the accomplice of someone killed while committing a crime, the wildly disparate paths individuals in Oakland take to their violent ends, and the lives we live that even those close to us don’t know about, soon.

The point is that having watched Miss Marilyn guide this family through their hellish day, having watched her comfort them with wisdom, truth, hope and great kindness, and knowing that she was in danger of losing her funding, I had death and violence on my mind when meeting Jean Quan. (I always have death on my mind, but violence had only recently shown up at the 24/7 anxiety party in my brain. He brought ice.) So when we got to the “priorities” discussion, after others had mentioned supporting public schools, attracting retail to downtown, cleaning up Chinatown, I offered, “the killing,” and it was the only subject over which the candidate became defensive.

“We’ve got the murder rate down 45%,” she said. “So what,” I said, “it’s only June.” Not to mention that I question her number, although I didn’t think of that until she had moved on. (Another sad frustrating case of Treppenwitz, or, as the French call it, esprit de l’escalier.)

“Some of the non-violence measures we did are working,” she said. She was referring at least in part to Measure Y, which had added 63 police officers, had funded community policing, as well as the programs run by Kevin Grant, Anne Marks, Catholic Charities and Marilyn Harris. It was due to become another casualty of the recession by the end of the month, collateral damage in the fiscal stand-off between the police and the city in which very few of the police actually live.

Then she asked the group to raise our hands if we thought crime was up in Oakland, which of course many did. I knew that recently the FBI had reported that overall crime rates were down in America, but that violent crime rates remained high. Quan was pleased to explain that crime in Oakland is down.

I absolutely agree with Quan that Measure Y is working. And its most profound effects on violent crime in Oakland will be felt only in the long-term. And even here in early August the murder rate remains behind where it was last year. That’s good news.

But the topic was to deal with things that ought to be a priority. I find it hard to believe that a candidate for whom being Oakland born and bred is a selling point would consider the city’s violent tendencies to be a problem of the past, or a secondary issue.

Even should not one white person gets killed this year, even if no homicides occur in Montclair or Rockridge, even if every citizen who lives in the hills finds a way to live his or her life without ever venturing to International Boulevard above Fruitvale Avenue, the killings affect them, their poisonous cloud spreads, no one is unaffected by the pulling of the trigger and its aftermath. I have to believe that, on some level, everyone feels the death, everyone feels more keenly the fear of death, you read about the killing and you picture the blood on the street, imagine a moment the emptiness in the face, you feel the fear just seeing an exit for MacArthur Boulevard or E 35th Avenue, or when you take a wrong turn into some unfamiliar neighborhood with crowded, free-market corners. Even if it is disdain you feel, for the killer or the killed, you have been affected.

And I don’t think Quan sees the killings as secondary. A month later I encountered her at the post-Mehserle-verdict rally downtown, which I will write about soon. She was very much in the fray, along with Rebecca Kaplan, being a good politician, being a leader out where a leader should be.

What was disappointing that night at the Bellevue was seeing a servant of the desperate city in disingenuous campaign mode instead of governing mode. (I should probably go to a council meeting and watch her work.) That night she was a politician sick of hearing about the killing in Oakland, who didn’t really care what we thought a new mayor should focus on, but was using our good will to convey her bland campaign message.

Her careful use of plural pronouns -- “We’ve got the murder rate down” -- brought back that sense of the best student in class, desperate to please the teacher and very determined to get credit for her contribution to some group project, which she’s convinced was better than anybody else’s. Those kids were hard to like back then, although some of them turned out to be okay, rather likeable adults.

A few weeks later, we received a letter summarizing the meeting and listing the things people had said they loved and the things they though should be priorities, one of which was “decreasing crime.” No sign of the killing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

East is East

Try as I might, I can’t disassociate myself from the pernicious Oakland, the one that seems so different from the green, peaceful Oakland I’ve lived in for the past ten years.

I identify as an Oaklander, and I had long been trying to define Oakland by its hills, its restaurants, its proximity to wild spaces, its public integration and its aura of counter-cultural romance; that has been an act of avoidance. The passion and pain of everyday life on Oakland’s bloody streets define Oakland as much as anything else, no matter how much I might succeed in arranging my own life here to deny this. You can’t write about Oakland without writing about the open, flowing wound of daily violence it cultivates.

Call it a feeling of guilt I’m reacting to, if you want to. I prefer to characterize it as neighborly concern, or civic alertness. Whatever it is, I can’t help it.

Fortunately, what I find as I orbit the outskirts of that other Oakland, which is my Oakland, is a strange, intrepid, human beauty that thrives amid the grief and pain and violence, a network of people willing to go shieldless into the wrecked lives and neighborhoods to pick up the pieces.

It is endlessly interesting to follow people like Marilyn Harris of the Khadafy Foundation, who arrives within 24 hours to help the families of the slain, or to visit with the Crisis Response team at Catholic Charities, who provide longer term help to the survivors, or to listen to gang-interventionist Kevin Grant, who takes his team to the most violent corners of the city at the most violence-prone hours of the night to preach calm, or parolee re-entry specialist Dan Simmons, who understands the temptation to re-enter your old life when you get out of jail, or Ann Marks, whose team at YouthAlive approach the literally wounded, the gunshot victims at Highland Hospital, to finally address the damage done by bullets to minds and souls. Daily these people challenge my own hard-fired cynicism.

This work arose from defensiveness about Oakland’s image across the country, and from the fact that invariably at restaurants in Oakland I encounter a common, unselfconscious mix of white and African-American and Latino and Asian, and smugly think, “You will never find a more integrated city than Oakland.”*

And yet every night from my bed in my house on a little green hill in East Oakland I can hear the gunfire in the flatlands. (I mark the time, anticipate the news report.) This part of Oakland, the Oakland of the killers and the dead, their nurturers and survivors, is hardly integrated. The killers and the dead are African-American and Latino, and very occasionally Asian. Of the 52 (by some counts, I count 54) homicides in 2010, not one victim has been white. It is as if to be white in Oakland is to be immortal.

You can’t define the things you love or hate solely on your own terms.** I can’t define Oakland by the beauty and the food, or even by the mixing-bowl crowds at its eating establishments. They are aspects of a complex civic personality.

Still, it is possible in Oakland to live a great, peaceful, safe, delicious life while giving only infrequent, passing attention to the other side. This is not to say that my neighbors don’t love all of Oakland, or that they are unmoved by the killing here. But only that, in real life, we read about the killings, or hear about them on the TV news, and we feel bad a moment, maybe more, but then we move on. We have to move on. What else are we supposed to do? It’s just that it seems possible that in the moving we forgo, we surrender the energy to make change.

And so, moving forward, this work will be dedicated to the stories of the people who, unlike me most of my life, refuse to move on.

But first, something about the relationship between the Oakland I live in, and the one where most of the killed lived in, the one most people outside of Oakland seem most aware of. It’s frustrating.

I’m not alone in my frustration with Oakland’s image problem. Indeed, some who live in these East Oakland foothills don’t like to hear this part of the city referred to as “East Oakland,” with all its violent connotations. Of our 52 homicides so far this year, far more than half have occurred on the low-lying streets of the larger section of town referred to as East Oakland.

These East Oakland killings usually take place somewhere along MacArthur Boulevard, International Boulevard, or in the high numbered avenues: 89th Avenue, 79th Avenue, 78th Avenue, 77th and Ney, 92nd and Bancroft. These last two intersections are where two teenagers were killed within 9 hours of each other on March 28th.

I live about five miles from where they were killed in the blandly, if accurately, named neighborhood called Glenview. (A future posting will consider the great neighborhood names of Oakland and give a go at orienting readers to the lay of the land of Oak.) Last month in our neighborhood newspaper, which we share with an adjacent, more upscale neighborhood called Montclair, some local wrote an op-ed suggesting that for the benefit of their property values, Montclair should secede from the troubled city, in just the way wealthy, racist Piedmont did 103 years ago. Piedmont is adjacent to Glenview and Montclair. From my front porch, I can see the mansions of Piedmont lording it in the hills to our north. A city of 1.8 square miles, Piedmont is entirely surrounded by Oakland.

Like an unimaginably wealthy municipal monk, the city of Piedmont is inside of Oakland but not of it. It’s a gilded civic island and we are the brackish waters circling. If we were a calzone, it would be the meat and sauce and we the dry dough. End of metaphors.

Unlike its complicated oakey crust, Piedmont has famously good public schools whose permanent records are uncorrupted by the necessity of educating poor kids who failed to attend pre-school, or who might have behavioral problems, or who might have only one, harried parent unable to or uninterested in monitoring their schoolwork.

Piedmont has awe-inspiring mansions lining its seemingly deserted streets. It is home to the biggest house in all of the ostentatiously wealthy Bay Area. It is owned by the guy who invented wireless microphones. There are houses in Piedmont that sell for $4, $5, $6 million. Some of these estates are less than 2 miles from my little house in view of the glen.

Over in Montclair, the mostly mid-century architecture never rises to the gloating-grandeur level of Piedmont’s. But Montclair does have more old, pretty trees. Montclair has very high priced houses. Not Piedmont-high, but some pretty amazing, woodsy, multi-million dollar hideaways. Nevertheless, economically and in terms of reputation, Montclair is Piedmont’s poor sister, the one who married the patent attorney instead of the inventor. It is Oakland to Piedmont’s San Francisco.

Just like the time when I was a kid and ran away from home, if Montclair should succeed from Oakland, probably no one would notice for awhile. We would of course eventually feel the pain in our pocketbooks, as I’m sure comparatively wealthy Montclair bears a good deal of the city’s tax burden. But in our everyday lives, no one would notice it was gone, because it is the least interesting neighborhood of Oakland. Most Oaklanders have never been there because, besides its two independent book stores (I give it credit for that), there is nothing in Montclair you couldn’t find elsewhere.

There is edible food in Montclair, but in a city growing ever richer with lively culinary gems, there is nothing interesting to eat there. If you’re looking for a great meal you go to Temescal, Uptown, Jack London, even Glenview.

Montclair’s streets can bustle, but the bustlers are pretty homogenous. If it’s a lively, Oakland street scene you seek, you either head to the Fruitvale section of International Boulevard or hipster Piedmont Avenue (which by the way is not in Piedmont, but Oakland).

While not necessarily criminal, the public architecture in Montclair isn’t noteworthy. If you want cool old architecture, you go to Uptown, or Old Oakland, or you check out the Victorian and Italianate beauties around Chestnut and Linden Streets, over behind the giant post office in West Oakland.
A saltbox style cottage in Oakland

Montclair does have its uses. Actually, I go there all the time. It has a post office, two pharmacies, two supermarkets, two coffee houses, a bar, a park, some banks, and the kind of moribund department store you emerge from with a crushing depression. But no purchased items.

The secessionist op-ed writer couched her proposal as an antidote to living in a city -- Oakland -- with incompetent leadership. Fair enough. To secede would free Montclairians from submitting their tax dollars to be mismanaged by Oakland’s city government. It would also free it from being tainted by Oakland’s crime statistics, which keep its real estate values down in the single-digit millions. Actually the median house price in Montclair is closer to $600,000. Seceding from Oakland would keep Montclair from being positioned technically east of Downtown Oakland, and the shame of occasionally being characterized as being in “East Oakland.”

Although I do not live there, I would like to start a petition drive in favor of the secession of Montclair from Oakland, and I would like to suggest that the people of Montclair perhaps broach the idea of annexation with the leaders of Piedmont. You could be called East Piedmont.

* Not that I spend that much time in other cities. Some time, though. I travel, and I pay attention. But I can’t really say with complete authority that I wouldn’t encounter the same ethnic and racial mix at public places in L.A. or Atlanta, or Newark. I wouldn’t in San Francisco, of course. San Francisco isn’t even chronologically mixed. Sometimes when I’m at restaurants in S.F. I wonder what they have done with all the people over 40. I start to feel a bit paranoid. Everyone is noticeably young, the boys carefully unkempt -- this in Oakland, too -- while the girls, who have clearly put some effort into how they look, seem perfectly fine with this. Anyway, public San Francisco never comes across as integrated, while public Oakland does.

** You can’t define yourself by yourself. Something unwanted will always insist you are not entirely who you have been trying to think you are. Working for months on this serious project about violence in Oakland, I’ve so far been unable to convince a magazine to agree to publish any related piece. I've gotten thoughtful responses, but no interest in assigning a story, yet. However, recently I did get an email from an editor asking me to write a feature about cupcakes. I need the money and I like the magazine so I said Yes, but, despite the crushing, frightening things I’ve witnessed or learned in six months on the death beat, the cupcake assignment forced me to adjust my view of myself as a serious person working on stories of consequence. Also I’m worried about my weight...