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