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

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even threadbare, there’s a stain or two, which is gross, and although her suits are tasteful, they are, of course, out-of-date.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.

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