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

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.   

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