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

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trauma Cache, Part 2: Oakland's Moneyball Approach to Public Safety

Castro Street, West Oakland
There are plenty of veterans of Oakland’s troubles -- survivors of assaults, survivors of the killed, formerly-incarcerated Oaklanders making amends -- out there addressing our abundant, sometimes hidden hoards of trauma.  (See Trauma Cache,Part 1: The Calendar and the Killing.)

Some are with city government, others work out of nonprofit organizations dedicated to violence prevention and supported in part by Measure Y, the city program approved by a public vote, which funds anti-violence efforts among Oakland’s youth. 

In Oakland, even as the dark urge wins battle after battle, the number of police officers continues to diminish, down now from just over 800 in early 2010 to fewer than 700 today. 

And so, as I heard Police Chief Batts say at a fundraiser early this year, the work of non-violence organizations to inject the idea of peace into a community accustomed to violence has become more crucial than ever, more crucial than planned.  Meant to supplement, to complement police work, meant to lay a seed of peace for the future, the non-violence programs, whether they know it or not, whether they want it or not, are taking on a far more urgent role in protecting Oakland than originally envisioned.

Leaning house, West Oakland
Because they are undervalued, because they are accustomed to supporting themselves through fundraising, because they have lower overhead than a police department, and because the salaries of non-profit workers are far lower than police officers, broke Oakland can afford to support non-violence organizations.  

Think of it as the Moneyball approach to public safety.

(See the trailer for Moneyball, the movie, starring Brad Pitt, coming this September) 

Baseball's Version
Moneyball, as most who read this will probably know, is a term used to describe the Oakland A’s method (emulated by a few similar organizations) of fielding a competitive team despite its own penurious (think: Scrooge) ownership and despite the need to beat rival teams willing and able to pay unimaginable salaries to numerous superstar players. 

Theoretically, in addition to finding and developing its own younger, and therefore cheaper, talented pitchers and position players, the A’s seek out “undervalued” veterans: seemingly mediocre players with particular, undervalued skills; good athletes with a history of injury whom they gamble will finally stay healthy for an entire season; or superstars at the ends of their careers who might have one good or great season left (see Frank Thomas).  All this in the hopes that some combination of these affordable, undervalued players will become a winning team. 

To an extent, the approach worked, culminating in an appearance in the American League Championship Series of 2006.  All through the early Oughts, the A’s fielded fun-to-watch teams who won a lot of games, including, of course, a record-breaking twenty-in-a-row in 2002.

No championships, though, and in recent years, the downside of Moneyball has become evident, as injury-prone players get injured, once-great veterans fail to recapture their youth (see Mike Piazza), and the A’s organization seems incapable of drafting and developing its own superstar position players.  Although they are still very good at identifying and developing pitchers.  No question they know pitching.

Intersection, Oakland
Life & Death & Moneyball
Think of the police as the superstars who make a lot of money, and why shouldn’t they?  Pretty hard job they do.  Danger every day.  Elaborate training required.  Lots at stake.  (Of course, the current dispute between the City and the police is not over salaries, but over how much the officers organization should pay into its own pension plan.  Absent a 9% payment, the City says it can’t afford to hire more officers.)

Non-profits, like YouthAlive!, in Oakland, tend to work where they can find cheap or donated space, often their equipment is old computers, metal desks, flip charts and magic markers, thumb tacks and their own cars.  Usually they do get reimbursed for gas.

Diet Rite Cola sign, West Oakand
Training Comes with a Bullet
You might say that non-violence work requires less training than police work.  Technically, perhaps. 

But training also comes with a bullet. 

Working in Oakland programs that deal with the various stages of a life touched by violence, there are victims of drive-by shootings, mothers of the killed, even formerly incarcerated gang members. 

Gutierrez & the Kids
Caheri Gutierrez, who lost her face in a drive-by shooting in 2008, works, with her colleague Robert Watts III, in a program called Teens on Target, where high school students in violent Deep East Oakland learn to cope, where they learn how to tell the stories of their lives and their community.  These students then go into the middle schools to work with younger kids exposed to violence, to share stories and ideas about coping, about finding solutions other than violence. 

The idea is to give these kids an alternative to the path of the gun, to the path many of the adults and many of the older children, in their neighborhoods and families have been taking for decades now.  Sometimes it is the only path, and violence the only solution, these young people have seen.

(Read the full Caheri Gutierrez story, I Might Have Some Hope Here)

Grant & the Gangs
For those who have entered the life already, there is the Measure Y Street Outreach team, led by Kevin Grant, who committed crimes in Oakland and got sent away to Federal prison for 17 years, only to become, in the years since his release, one of the most persuasive and compelling voices of non-violence in California. 

Grant and his colleagues take to Oakland’s most dangerous streets at the most dangerous times of the night to engage young people who have the potential to do harm.  He approaches them with an insider’s instincts, a gang-veteran’s credibility, and a passion for peace in their lives.  When he talks to them about the failure of the life of the gun, he tends to make a lot of sense.  They tend to listen to him.

Dan Simmons & the Returned
Some do, anyway.  Others don’t hear or don’t heed the message Grant brings.  They get arrested, get sent away.  Many, probably safe to say most, who return after a period of incarceration are unskilled, uneducated, unwanted.  A return to the kind of life that got them into trouble might be the only choice they see. 

As part of Oakland’s prisoner re-entry program, city-employee Dan Simmons, a veteran of incarceration, now with a masters degree and a mission, and his colleague Emilio Vann, along with Grant, work to introduce people out on probation or parole to the possibilities of a lawful, peaceful existence.

Simmons works with the OPD and Alameda County Probation and Parole offices to coordinate Call-ins.  Call-ins are meetings between, on the one side, the police, the DA, the United States Attorney and other law enforcement organizations and, on the other side, Oaklanders identified by their records and affiliations as most likely to commit violence in their communities. 

(Read an in-depth report on an Oakland call-in: A Violent Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

These meetings, held at City Hall, are business-like and even polite, but very intense.

First, the police and the government attorneys promise vigilance.  We are watching you, even the FBI is watching you now: commit more acts of violence, and you will be sent far away for a very long time, we promise. 

Then Grant talks to the participants (read about Grant's talk in "It's over, you lost").  He shows that he understands their lives, then helps them imagine a different path, all the while acknowledging the difficulties they face in trying to leave behind the life of the gun. 

Then the law enforcement people leave the room, and Simmons invites representatives of local non-profits and local businesses to speak.  They offer job training, legal and spiritual aide, actual jobs. 

Then case manager Emilio Vann works tenaciously for months to keep the participants on track.

Tammy Cloud & the Shot
Shots are fired anyway.  220-plus shootings so far this year.  Last year we had an average of three per day.  (See: even I can’t resist the urge to compare years. See, again:,Trauma Cache, Part 1: TheCalendar and the Killing.)  On one particular day last year, there were eleven incidents of gunfire reported.  Guns are aimed and triggers are pulled and people are wounded.  Many survive.  

Intervention Specialists like Tammy Cloud, from a program called Caught in the Crossfire, meet the victims, often when they awaken at their hospital bedsides.  They do two crucial things: first, they encourage the victims and their friends and family to consider foregoing violent retaliation, to consider breaking the bloody cycle; secondly, they don’t leave.  Instead, they work with victims for the long-term, to help them deal with the emotional trauma that comes in the wake of an assault, and to make their way back into a life not dominated by anger, by fear, or by confusion and depression. 

(Read about Cloud at work in Until We Bleed & Youth, Alive

Miss Marilyn & the City
Some die.  Mostly in East Oakland.  But not exclusively.  Many die in less-populated but long-besieged West Oakland.  Some make it to Highland Hospital before they die.  They leave behind in their loved ones an emptiness, something bottomless, an absence of hope, of reason, of whatever current runs through us that urges living and survival. 

Into this grim void step Marilyn Harris and Fabian Martinez of The Khadafy Washington Project.  Harris started the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence after her only son was shot dead in the summer of 2000. 

You might remember a series of jarring billboards, 31 of them, visible off of Highway 580 and all over West Oakland, where Harris lives and where Khadafy was killed.  On the billboards, alongside a large picture of her handsome son, who had just graduated from McClymonds High School, blared the stark, confrontational, resonant question: Do You Know Who Killed Me?

For going on eleven years now Harris has spent her days, and often her nights, and sometimes into the early mornings, at homes, at hospitals, at fresh crime scenes, bringing comfort and the very beginnings of healing to the parents, the spouses, the children of homicide victims in Oakland. 

I’ve written a lot about the work and impact Miss Marilyn has on lives in Oakland, so I won’t go into great detail here about all she does for the families of the lost, all the practical things, how she provides a clear eye during their time of shock, all the heavy lifting of the spirit, how she comes to them with an example, with the promise that life goes on.   

Read about her work here, and here and here

The Hope
At first glance, the work of Harris and Gutierrez and Cloud, and of Simmons and Grant and Vann seems to speak to a grim reality: hatred and the hopelessness of the gun are part of us.  And certainly each of them is a realist.  They have seen too much to be otherwise.  But what they’ve seen, what they have endured, has not made them cynical.  The energy and even joy you often see in them as they work indicates their hope. 

For sure each of them works in the moment, the urgent, frightening, depressing moment, but always with an eye to a more peaceful future Oakland.  More than any numbers that rise or fall, they carry on their shoulders the despair of the city and demonstrate the real hope we cling to. 

If they are less a fiscal burden to the city than the police, they are also undervalued, like a light-hitting first-baseman with a high on-base-percentage.  Still, even if the Moneyball approach makes sense for a cash-strapped baseball team trying to win games, I’m not sure it will work for a cash-strapped city trying to save lives and to change lives. 

And this worries me too: the best of the A's Moneyball teams were fun to watch, and they won their share of games, but, again,  they never won a championship.

Empty chair, abandoned station

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Trauma Cache, Part I: The Calendar and the Killing

Backwards graffiti, 16th Street Train Station, West Oakland

The human urge to squeeze the trigger never checks the calendar. Perhaps grasping for hope when they’re down or out of morbid shock when they’re up, like now, we tend to pay too much attention to the daily and weekly violent crime numbers in Oakland. We assign them too much meaning.

Quan’s Objection
Certainly politicians and the newspapers do. Precisely one year ago, then-mayoral-candidate Jean Quan reacted defensively when I suggested to her that violence should be a priority of the next mayor.  “We’ve brought the murder rate down,” she said.  

That was in June 2010, and so far there had been 37 homicides in the city, six fewer than June 2009, a modest number, and a more seemingly significant 24 fewer than June 2008. 

The Calendar and the Killing
The calendar year 2010 ended with 13 fewer homicides than the year before -- 100 vs. 87.

But what does it indicate, that in the twelve months since Quan’s objection to my suggestion -- mid-June 2010 to mid-June 2011 -- there have been 100-plus homicides, at least six more than between mid-June 2009 and mid-June 2010?

What does it mean? 

Nevertheless, in daily news reports of homicides, reporters habitually insert the current year’s number of killings-so-far alongside the total from “this time last year.”  These numbers shouldn’t bring readers much hope, as in 2010, or, in the case of June 2011, when we have already suffered 51 homicides, deeper despair. 

Portraits of the Barely Living
Notwithstanding that unhelpful habit, there is some really fine coverage here of Oakland’s violence and its impact; there is plenty of good writing and reporting and people should read it.  Scott Johnson’s Oakland Effect blog always delivers a good combination of hard reporting and even harder witnessing of the toll of violence on the living. Recently, the Bay Area News Group has had its reporters go beyond the daily litany of shooting, death, community silence, “Police request anyone with information call Crime Stoppers,” to put together a valuable series describing in part what happens after the violence, and what life is like for the survivors of the killed in Oakland. It amounts to a necessary, cumulative portrait of what the killing does beyond the sudden, brutal taking away from us of one person at a time forever.  

What the Survivors Find
The killing keeps on killing. As I’ve written elsewhere, that bullet that kills, it also ricochets. The lasting impact of violence comes in the years of grief and pain and bitterness the living endure, in the trauma we cache away, that seeps out like bad medicine from some malevolent time-release capsule.  The lasting impact comes also with how those angry, despairing, lost walking wounded affect the community, or worse, the next generation.  If we ignore them, we ignore ourselves.

Not much the police can do about that, even if they had as many officers as they would like to have. 

Addressing the impact of violence and loss on the living is an imprecise, necessarily intuitive, always difficult process.  There are no templates for healing a grieving our wounded person.  There are no definitive checklists of symptoms of their grief, no precise timelines or confident prognoses for their recovery. 

For many, faith and family help.  

But many survivors get no outside help at all.  Fortunately, some find great stockpiles of fortitude inside themselves; they discover strengths they’ve never needed before and likely never imagined they’d possessed.  In these strengths they find the resources to make their own comeback. 

What I’ve witnessed in covering the aftermath of violence in Oakland is that those victims who go on to help and comfort subsequent victims usually seem the most healed themselves. .

Empty chair, abandoned station, West Oakland
Coming up: Trauma Cache, Part 2: A Moneyball Approach 
to Public Safety 

Undefined Hatred in Oakland and Ireland

Then: Irish party fight

In early 19th Century Ireland rural farmers and farm workers, generally referred to as "peasants" in those days, would form secret societies, or parties, which sometimes would turn to violence for the purpose of resisting abuse by Protestant landlords.  Sometimes they fought each other, sometimes for no apparent reason.  In some ways, they were like the gangs and turf groups of Oakland and other urban places in America today.

Here, a character in a contemporary story by Irish novelist William Carleton describes the problems with the parties, with the vagueness of their mutual hatreds, the senseless violence they commit, and how they passed their hatred from generation to generation.

The writing is a little old-fashioned, but clear, and the joke of the title of the story, "The Party Fight and Funeral," is that whenever there's a party fight, inevitably follows a funeral.

I read it last night, and it reminded me of what many thoughtful people in Oakland have told me about the nature and depth of our own troubles:

I believe you would find...difficulty in ascertaining the cause of the feuds from the factions themselves. I really am convinced they know not, nor, if I rightly understand them, do they much care. Their object is to fight, and the turning of a straw will at any time furnish them with sufficient grounds for that.  I do not think, after all, that the enmity between them is purely personal: they do not hate each other individually; but having originally had one quarrel upon some trifling occasion, the beaten party could not bear the stigma of defeat without another trial of strength.  Then if they succeed, the onus of retrieving lost credit is thrown upon the party that was formerly victorious.  If they fail a second time, the double triumph of their conquerors excites them to a greater determination to throw off the additional disgrace; and this species of alternation perpetuates the evil.

These habits, however, familiarize our peasantry to acts of outrage and violence -- the bad passions are cultivated and nourished, until crime, which peaceable men look upon with fear and horror, lose their real magnitude and deformity in the eyes of Irishmen.  I believe this kind of undefined hatred between either parties or nations is the most dangerous and fatal spirit which could pervade any portion of society.  If you hate a man for an obvious and palpable injury, it is likely that when he cancels that injury by an act of subsequent kindness, accompanied by an exhibition of sincere sorrow, you will cease to look upon him as your enemy; but where the hatred is such that, while feeling it, you cannot, on a sober examination of your heart, account for it, there is little hope that you will ever be able to stifle the enmity which you entertain against him.
                                          --William Carleton, The Party Fight and Funeral, 1852 

Now: Oakland crime scene

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Imaginary Pain

When the girl yelled “Gun!” I was skeptical.  Even though the last time I was at a funeral where someone yelled “gun” shots had indeed been fired, it seemed probable that this was a false alarm.   

The kids had been boisterous before the service began, and occasionally distracted as the morning and the mourning progressed. To the classmates of the dead, along with sadness and strangeness, there is that unavoidable buoyancy the pleasure of a day away from school brings; before the sobbing that comes when they view the body, often there is restlessness and laughter and showing off, gossip, groupings and groups dissolving, endless trips to the restroom, posing and flirting.  This morning there had been plenty of all this, and I thought this sudden panic might be only an offshoot of a hyper-stimulated imagination.  And so I was slow to react.   

As mourners all around me scattered, in astonishingly coordinated flocks, like a sky full of starlings sensing a predator, I stupidly scanned the rectangular church for evidence of a gun.  Kids were screaming as they ran for the doors.  People huddled on the floor.  Many, like the family I’d been sitting next to -- mom, dad, and two toddlers, a boy and girl -- had taken refuge behind pews.  Up on the altar I could see two preachers, standing tall, with their phones to their ears.  Soon the police would arrive.  

Suddenly, these thoughts passed through my mind, in something like this progression: If there is a gun he’s not looking for me.  Random.  If there is a gun I could be shot.  This could be it.  I crouched down, my face pressed against the back of a wooden pew.  Unlike most everyone else in the church this morning, all of whom had reacted to the threat with appropriate urgency, I wasn’t used to this kind of thing.

“I will not have to worry about him anymore”
At funerals of murdered people in Oakland, the older gentlemen always take off their hats when they enter the church, but unless one of the preachers tells them to, the young men never do.  They are usually wearing baseball caps, as are the deceased in their coffins, if they are particularly young.

This week I’d been to two services, each for an Oaklander killed on January 8th.  Each was killed in a neighborhood maimed by generations of violence, and where residents live under a constant threat: Ishmael Knudsen was gunned-down in West Oakland, Lovell Hadnot in East Oakland. 

Ishmael was 29.  He was shot outside a store in Campbell Village and pronounced dead inside the store.  In November, I’d attended a kind-of summit at City Hall between Oakland law enforcement and a collection of the most violence-prone young men of Campbell Village, a 1960s, Oakland-style public housing project in the far west end of town, bordering the warehouses that border the port.  Erstwhile Police Chief Batts was there.  Over and over that afternoon the Campbell Villagers were warned that they were being closely watched, and that any act of violence would likely lead to federal time.  They were offered help getting out of the life of the gun: job placement and training, drug counseling, and spiritual guidance.  This is not to say that any of the eighteen young men at that meeting at City Hall killed Ishmael Knudsen.  Many credible sources believe that a series of these City Hall summits with men and women from neighborhoods across the city have had a positive impact on the violence here. 

But, Ishmael is dead, the first Campbell Village murder since November, and since his killing there's been another in the neighborhood.

Twice at the funeral at the Church of the Chimes, on Martin Luther King Day, relatives of Ishmael tried to read his obituary to the congregation, and twice they faltered.  One friend said, “We’re gonna miss him true enough.”  Ishmael’s sister said she’d asked him to stay off the streets.  She warned others to take a deep breath and think about it, to think, “Maybe I shouldn’t go.”  Finally, demonstrating another way in which death is mercy, she said, “I will not have to worry about him anymore.” 

The Myth of the Great Speech
When it comes to stemming violence, the preachers at the funerals of the killed are powerless, especially the older ones. 

In general, the young men the preachers think they’re speaking to don’t listen.  They clap when they’re supposed to, and they say “Amen,” but they shut down when the old preachers, usually the pastor of the church, start saying the same old things, the same things that didn’t change anything the last time.  They are unmoved by the preachers’ nostalgic litanies of the comparatively innocent transgressions of their own infinitely distant youths, unmoved by the supposedly relevant lyrics to songs the preachers often admit none of the young people ever will have heard, by the platitudes, by the straightforward begging for reason, by the earnest, plaintive appeals to black pride, to civic pride, to human feeling, to heed the peaceful urgings of Christ.

It’s not the preacher’s fault.  I sit there waiting, wondering what they could ever say that might make a difference.  Often they appear to labor under the myth of the great speech, the idea that they can inspire with their words and the scriptures a moment of mass, permanent transcendence that will change lives right then and there.  Deep down, they must know that what difference they can make will need to be on one young person at a time. 

And yet, at the funeral, they have to say something.  Some concentrate on lifting the spirit of the family.  It’s possible they have surrendered to the reality that a sermon about leaving behind the emptiness of the life of the gun will probably be ineffective, if not completely ignored by those living that life.  So they don’t dwell in the plaintive mode.  These preachers tend to put all of their substantial eloquence and energy into lifting the spirits of the family with the proposition, put forth at all the funerals of the killed in Oakland, that, if there is any, even scant, evidence that at some time in his life the deceased gave his soul to Jesus, then today is nothing but a celebration of his joyous home-going.  He or she, we are promised, is now in a better place than we are. 

In this way and others, the funerals of Ishmael and Lovell were contrasts.  On Monday at the Chapel of the Chimes, Pastor Robin Marshal, of the Book of the Covenant Ministries, fervently and openly urged Ishmael’s family to joy.  She wore a beautiful, white, brocaded gown.  She worked openly and hard to raise not only Ishmael’s spirit but the spirit of everyone there upward.  Even her hair was sculpted into spires.  I had to leave before the service ended, and so I missed her eulogy; she might have tried to talk about the violence then, but while I was there, the talk turned plaintive only when, briefly, Pastor Marshal gave way to Sister Denise Bell.

Sister Bell got closer than anyone else I’ve heard at a funeral to not only the brevity, but also the kind of content, tone, pace and anger that I could imagine making a difference, almost.  “When you kill,” she said, “you don’t just destroy one person, you destroy all of us.  Time is running out.  We’re frightened for you.  Parents, lay your hands on them, and pray for them.”  There was something about her that was genuine, spontaneous.  Her anger felt...fresh.

Two OPD cruisers were stationed a half a block on either side of the chapel entryway.  But it wasn’t until Wednesday that someone at a funeral would shout “Gun!”

Real and Imaginary Pain
On Wednesday morning, the sun was so bright, the sky so blue, the temperature so mild, that bloody Bancroft Avenue, Seminary Avenue and Foothill Boulevard seemed almost benign.  The blocks are clean.  The architecture where Seminary meets Foothill is simple, but the buildings do not look unloved.  Low-slung and functional, they are not beautiful, but there is a craft and an age to the structures that gives them dignity.  There are a number of storefront churches along these East Oakland streets. 

Outside busy Diego’s Power Alley Gym, I walk past a man sweeping the sidewalk. Lovell Hadnot was shot only a couple of blocks from here, on Bancroft.  He died at the scene. This morning, a little up the block, high school-aged kids are gathering outside the entrance to Good Hope Ministry Baptist Church.  Velly Hadnot was a sophomore at Fremont High; by the end of the service, there will be well over a hundred of his school mates here.

In the big, painted-cinderblock church, among a group of young men seated behind me near the back -- they are in their early twenties -- one wears, for some reason, a blue-gray washcloth on top of his head.  At each of the funerals of the killed I’ve attended there has been a blessed musical interval that gives me chills.  It’s not always a gospel song.  Once it was an a capella Our Father sung by a deeply grieving cousin.  Sometimes it is the pastor him or herself who breaks into song.  Today one of this group of young men, who had arrived well after the service began, is the singer.  He is dressed casually.  His deep voice overwhelms the sound system.  But I can make out that he says he did not really know Velly, but that he knows Velly’s cousin.  He proceeds to ad lib a low-key rap about Velly, about Velly’s cousin’s sorrow, while the organist tries to find a key in which to accompany him.  It’s spontaneous, but it doesn’t really fit the moment.

Programs are handed out at all the services of the killed in Oakland.  They feature photographs from the life of the dead, an obituary, maybe a poem, some thank-yous, and a step-by-step schedule for the funeral.  But there is nothing liturgical about the services; they proceed loosely, almost casually.  They can run for two hours, depending on the preacher, on whether or not a revival occurs and new church members are recruited, and on how many people participate in the Expressions.  Expressions are the time in the service when anyone who wants to can take the microphone and talk for up to two minutes about the deceased, or the family, or themselves.  Sometimes the Expressions are touching, sometimes funny in a way that brings everyone momentary comfort.  Often they end abruptly, with tears.  Sometimes they are completely incoherent.  Sometimes they just kill you, like when Velly’s dad, with Velly’s mom at his side, says, with a mix of pride and explanation, “We did the best we could.  He and I watched football together every Sunday.  We are a good family.”

During the Expressions at Lovell Hadnot’s funeral, I imagine someone rising and walking the long walk across the church's bright red carpet and up to the microphone at the foot of the altar and saying, slowly, I’m a friend of everyone.  Everyone, please close your eyes a moment.  I will keep mine open to protect you.  Now, everyone, please try to imagine you were Lovell, try to imagine you were Lovell, try to imagine you are Velly walking, that you are Velly, on a Saturday evening.  You’re walking.  Try to imagine what he thought, what was the thought he had at the moment when he first understood the bullet.  Try to imagine you are him, a kid, you’re walking on Bancroft, late in the day, then you are on the ground, and imagine what he thought about when he realized the blood was draining out of his body, and the life, what he thought when he knew that life was leaving him, and he grew weary, and his vision darkened, and try to imagine his pain, the fear, and then his sorrow, that he could not speak to his mother or to his father, to explain to them that they will be okay, what he thought about as he lay there waiting for something to happen, for help, or more pain, or more likely death, and it is likely he knew it.  Try, for just as long as you can, even if it is only for a second, try to imagine that feeling that you are Velly and you are going to die, and who is left behind without you.

Now try to imagine you have to make the call to Lovell’s mother.  Now imagine you are Lovell’s mother hearing for the first time out of nowhere the words that your son is dead, shot dead, shot down, gone.  Do this: picture before you an empty expanse with no light.  Pitch dark, no signs, no ground, no sky, nothing, nothing in front, above or beneath you.  Picture yourself there.  All there is before you is darkness.  Now feel the hands hit your back, and push you, without mercy, into the empty and dark expanse.

But, no one does, and it is time for the eulogy.

Some pastors, even if they understand the futility of their pleas, can’t help themselves: they are sick for their community and they have to try.  Here at Velly’s funeral there is a substantial audience of young people coming of age at the grim geographical nexus of our violence that is Bancroft, Seminary, and Foothill.  The pastor has before him a fairly large contingent of African American men just entering the age group of greatest peril: 17 to 34. 

Some pastors, they’ve got these young people in here, a semi-captive audience, and they are going to give it a go, they’re going to try to find what no one has found before: the words, the word, the one idea, the one tone, the one long-elusive volume, the one inarguable piece of logic, the one laugh line or soaring passage that will transform the psyches and souls of these young men, who are either cynical, or totally disaffected, or overwhelmed with anger, or overwhelmed with fear, young men restrained by the chains of an entire life in which they have seen killing used as, if not the only answer, then a common answer to common problems.    

Early on, while decrying the influence of the Devil, the old pastor recites a passage from the Bible, John 10:10, in which Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come so that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” 

And then he goes straight to the plaintive. 

Put down your guns, he says, and pick up the bible.  Be a good role model.  The Devil is the worst enemy you could ever know.  All this killing is motivated by the Devil.  Why is everybody drinking tequila?  Stop smoking pot.  I might expect this killing in Mississippi fifty years ago, by whites, but all this black on black killing is awful.  Children should bury parents, not the other way around.  

Remember what James Brown said: I’m black and proud.  

Finally, he tries to quote the 1982 Grandmaster Flash song “The Message,” but he can’t recall the name of the song, the precise lyrics, or who recorded it.  “A while back,” he says, “there was a song said it’s a jungle.  Something like, ‘It’s a jungle,’” he says, “’you wonder what keeps you from going under.’”  Despite the haphazard clues we’re given, everyone knows the song, and everyone seems glad to think about it.

In the neighborhood where these kids live and go to school, shootings and homicides occur with a desensitizing regularity.  Five days ago a man and a teenager were shot right here on Foothill Boulevard.  Last summer, Jimon Clark was killed on nearby Bancroft.  He was 13.  A few days before Jimon was shot in the back, Melvin Murphy was stabbed to death in an apartment complex on Bancroft.  Derrick Jones was killed on Bancroft by police back in November.  Alvaro Ayala was a student at the same high school as Lovell.  He was killed almost one year ago to the day. 

And yet, somehow, at least superficially, they remain, like all teens, conventional: self-conscious, social, periodically oblivious, ignorant of or uninterested in decorum.  They do tend to cooperate with the instructions of the preachers, to clap when they are asked to, to stand when they are asked to.  They know when they are expected to say “Amen” or to answer in unison a question about Jesus or the perils of smoking pot. 

But they don’t take any of the pastor’s words seriously.  Hopefully that’s because they assume they will never kill anyone anyway.  No doubt, being kids, and despite today's evidence to the contrary, some think they will never die.  And they don't seem gloomy.

Until it is time to see their schoolmate’s body.

Playtime is Over
As the sad service moves erratically toward its end, two dark-suited preachers open the gray, gleaming casket, drape white muslin down from the edge of the open lid and over the upper half of Velly, and without much order, we approach the altar.  In line, I smell weed, tobacco, last night’s beer.  

Most of us are going up to the body of Velly Hadnot to say goodbye.  In my case, I’m going because I want something solemn, I want more than imaginary pain, more than words, more than a news item, I want to pass by and see this stricken family gathered in the front pews. I want to look at this former kid from my city and be confronted with his dead body, his folded hands, his sewn-shut eyes, his eternally unmoving face, his utmost end.  I want to be confronted by the complexities of his life and death and the lives of all the children of Oakland I’ve been watching in this church this morning and other churches all across the city for the last year. I want to feel something like grace before I go.  

Sometimes the murdered look peaceful, but Velly looks pained.  There is no comfort to be found in his last grimace. The mortician has placed a blue Oakland A’s cap on his head.

I try to pray.  I think about how I am probably the only person here praying like a Catholic, an Our Father -- deliver us from evil -- a Hail Mary -- now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.  A moment staring at Velly’s face, a slight shake of my head, only the briefest pause over him.  We’d been instructed to keep the line moving.

I could walk out from here, but instead I decide to go to the very back of the church, and stay until the bitter end. 

Most of the kids who have passed the coffin are sobbing.  Now that they’ve seen Velly’s dead body, playtime is over.  Of course, in a way hard for me and my ilk to understand, for many of them, playtime ended long ago, or never existed.  What would this sorrow do to them tomorrow?  How will it inform who they become?  How will it manifest itself in the character of Oakland?  In a year, in five years?

It was just as I reached the back of the church that the first scream sounded.  From the middle of the church, from a girl, it came like a javelin hurled up and out of the wailing.  It was incoherent, but clearly urgent, followed by a momentary pause while the crowd gathered its senses, then another scream, and another, so we begin to understand -- a gun -- and then a chorus of screams and pointing, a mad scattering of groups for the exit, a bottleneck there, people dropping to the floor, hiding behind pews, I looked for the gun, a gleaming, for someone with an arm out, someone pointing.  I listened for a sound.  I saw and heard nothing threatening, but the realization came to me that this could be real, and so I crouched behind a pew, alone, waiting.

'chaos at end of funeral just like with davante'
By the time I stood back up and took a seat along the wall near the door, fear had turned to anger.  Cries, those terrible cries that hold everything, fear, frustration, grief and anger, had replaced the screams.  Apparently, there was no shooter; people were outraged that the solemn and dignified mourning of the Hadnots for their murdered 15-year-old had been cruelly interrupted.  His sister was at the pulpit insisting on order and respect for her family and her lost brother.  Soon, one of the preachers asked that everyone but the family leave the church. 

Out on sunny Foothill, police cars had begun to arrive.  The scene was not unlike at the funeral of Davante Riley, back in March of 2010, when a panic at the very end of the service was for real guns and real bullets flying.  That day, in a black suit, I’d been mistaken for a preacher.  

Today, tie-less, in a blue shirt and black blazer, I’m taken for a cop by an angry man with gold teeth.  
“You’re a cop,” he says to me, with outrage, “why didn’t you tell them the gun wasn’t inside the church!”  I’m not a cop, I say.  “Then what’s your business here?”  I don’t know exactly how to answer him.  I’m an ogler, a voyeur, a grief junkie, a friend, a mourner.  I represent the neighborhoods where no one gets shot, or goes to storefront churches, or proudly worships Jesus, the neighborhoods where, if kids die, it’s from car accidents or leukemia or defects they’ve had since birth, where few own handguns, or have seen a lifeless body in the street, or leftover police tape, or blood that’s gone brown, where few have had a brother or son gunned-down, or a father incarcerated, where a baseball cap is just a baseball cap, where, if people have watched a season or two of The Wire, then they think they know everything about your lives and why you die. 

I come from Oakland, but an Oakland where, if people were aware ten days ago that a 15-year-old boy from their town had been gunned down, they probably haven’t thought about it for nine days since.  I want to tell them about how the story continues.  I think they are missing out on something important. 

But I don’t say any of this, and before I can say anything, a woman in a blue sweatshirt emerges from the church and, having sensed our confrontation, steps in to tell the man that I am okay, and immediately he turns away.  I don’t know who she was.  More cops are arriving.  I had hung around after Davante’s funeral for hours, but today I head to my car, text Marilyn Harris, who works to help the families of the killed of Oakland, and who had had to leave Velly’s service early to meet another family at a mortuary:  

chaos at end of 
funeral just 
like with 

I think about something the pastor said during his eulogy.  “Somebody killed Lovell because they didn’t like him.” 

I don’t know if he was being specific, if he had heard this from the family or from the street.  He might just have been speaking generally, speaking to the truism that homicide is hateful.  But there is a trend in Oakland of young people killing young people over trifles.  Last year I went to funerals for a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old, and two 17-year-old kids.  Lovell was 15.  15.  What could you possibly do by 15 to get yourself killed?  Why was he killed?

Driving away, I try to stay focused. I think about what Ishmael Knudsen’s sister had said on Monday: I won’t have to worry about him anymore. I think about what Sister Bell had said, in the dim, cold, Gothic Chapel of the Chimes, where all through the service a downward slant of winter light bled through the windows, but failed to warm the tiles of the floor.  Lay your hands on them.