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

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