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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oakland's Kevin Grant Awarded California Peace Prize

I've written about Kevin Grant a lot on this blog. He has been a key participant in the city's Ceasefire gang call-ins and was one of the three Oakland violence prevention workers I profiled in San Francisco Magazine in April 2012. Kevin has been tireless in his efforts to keep the peace on the streets of Oakland and to lead young people here to a better way of life. Much of his work is funded by Measure Y. Now he has been recognized, along with two other Californians, by The California Wellness Foundation. They've awarded Kevin their annual Peace Prize. It's a big deal. Here's the press release, with what they had to say about him and his work:

November 12, 2012
Contact: Laurie Kappe
i.e. communications, LLC
(415) 616-3930
Adriana Godoy Leiss
The California Wellness Foundation
(818) 702-1900

The California Wellness Foundation Announces 20th Annual California Peace Prize Honorees

Kevin Grant
Kevin Grant is a renowned expert in street outreach, violence mediation and re-entry programs. Growing up on the streets of Oakland, Grant himself was in and out of the juvenile justice system at a young age. Released from federal prison in 1989, Grant says he gained from his experience the motivation to change the direction of his life and the compassion to help others like himself. As a consultant, he provides probation and parole re-entry services and conducts trainings and workshops for law enforcement agencies, community service providers and school districts at local, state and federal levels. Grant is the violence prevention network coordinator for Measure Y, which was passed in Oakland in 2004 to fund violence prevention and public safety. He leads skilled street outreach teams made up of members of the community, who intervene to prevent conflict and/or retaliation before they happen in Oakland's most dangerous neighborhoods. 

"I believe that a lot of the violence in our communities is preventable," Grant said. "Through building relationships, we can give the power back to the communities." 

The California Wellness Foundation is a private, independent foundation created in 1992, with a mission to improve the health of the people of California by making grants for health promotion, wellness education and disease prevention.

The Foundation prioritizes eight issues for funding: diversity in the health professions, environmental health, healthy aging, mental health, teenage pregnancy prevention, violence prevention, women's health, and work and health. It also responds to timely issues and special projects outside the funding priorities.

Since its founding, TCWF has awarded 6,544 grants totaling more than $815 million. It is one of the state's largest private foundations. Please visit TCWF's website at for more information, including a newsroom section devoted to the California Peace Prize and the three honorees. High-resolution photos are also available. Video interview clips are posted at TCWF's YouTube channel.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oakland "Ceasefire" Returns

After a hiatus, Oakland is bringing back the call-ins. Not sure precisely how they will look this time around, but here's a link to my description of the ones I attended in the summer of 2010:

                      Inside a Gang Call-In

Also please see my October 2014 article in San Francisco Magazine on Oakland's Operation Ceasefire - Guns Down. Don't Shoot.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Insight and Denial in a Jean Quan Quote

With 4 homicides last week, among them the 16-year-old mother of an 8-month-old, Oakland has had 69 killings in 2012, including the 7 slain in the Oikos massacre in April. That is 69 killings in the 32 weeks of the year so far. 

 I interviewed Oakland Mayor Jean Quan on August 10th, for an upcoming profile in San Francisco Magazine. I think it will be in the October issue. We spoke in her office at City Hall for over an hour and covered a wide range of issues, including economic development, crime, the effects of mayoral fame on her life and family, the differences between life in the hills and life in the flatlands and what, if anything, connects or could connect the two seemingly alien parts of Oakland.

Mayor Quan talks quickly, swallows words, and sometimes follows whatever stream her consciousness takes her down. She is capable, in answer to any question, of demonstrating insight and a keen awareness of Oakland's problems before very quickly saying something that sounds like she's in denial.

I don't think her denial is necessarily reflected in her policies or her work. And maybe she sees it as necessary to her role as booster-in-chief of all things Oakland. But I wish she would stop it anyway.

The following Quan quote from the interview is an example that shows 1) how well she understands the depths of the city's generations-long problem with violence; and 2) her willingness to use vague numbers to, at least verbally, brush aside what I believe she knows is Oakland's open wound.

"I think for the kids in the poorest neighborhoods we're really talking about people who for now a couple of generations who just are, their families have been under attack for one thing or the other. You know, have kids who grew up without parents who were lost to the crack epidemic 20 years ago when I became a school board member; the murder rate was twice as high in the city. And a lot of people, so a lot of people think 'oh, it's really high now;' well, it was, it used to be much higher and it's been coming down so that if you look at a map (I think she means "graph" - JO'B), it's like the murder rate's been going down, hit an all-time low the last year of the Dellums administration when we had the most police, it's a little bump up and now I'm trying to get it back parallel, and then on track to being where [we were?], I don't know, we just had a murder today... no informatoin, no information, we've been having about 1 a week, and last year we were having about 2 a week." 
                                                                                                 - Jean Quan, Mayor of Oakland

Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Rate a Visit from President Obama

Sorry, no results found for 'oakland oikos.'

How big must an American massacre be to rate some Presidential consoling? Twelve murdered in the nightmare in Colorado beckoned the President, and rightfully he traveled there to address the stunned survivors and a wounded community. 

Seven dead in Oakland in a massacre in April did not rate a visit.

(Although the President will be in Oakland this month, to give a campaign speech at the beautiful Fox Theater, and to raise money in the town of Piedmont, the exclusive municipal island of unimaginable wealth completely surrounded geographically by Oakland.)

Maybe it is out there somewhere, I hope it is, but as for the Oikos University massacre, which took place here in early April of 2012, I can barely find a Federal government statement beyond this boilerplate from the Secretary of Education:

"I was saddened to learn of the senseless violence and loss of life at Oikos University in Oakland. My thoughts are with the community and families of the victims." -- Arne Duncan.

On the other hand, here's some of the White House reaction to Colorado:

"As we do when we are confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must come together as one American family. All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends and neighbors, and we must stand together with them in the challenging hours and days to come." 
-- President Barack Obama

The President dedicated his weekly address to the Colorado massacre, as he should have: Remembering the Victims of the Aroura, Colorado Shooting.

Here is a list of the President's weekly addresses in April 2012:

April 7: Easter and Passover
April 14: It's Time for Congress to Pass the Buffett Rule
April 21: Calling on Congress to Prevent Student Interest Rates from Doubling
April 28: Helping Our Veterans and Servicemembers Make Informed Decisions  
                 about Higher Education

What were the differences between the massacres? The obvious difference is the number. How many must be killed in a day by one crazed gunman to inspire the President to come? I honestly don't know the answer, nor do I know what's right, but I suspect you need to get into the double-digits in deaths. Over the course of each year, Oakland does that easily. Many years we reach the triple digits in killings. Last year there were over 100 homicides here. But it is a slow-motion massacre. It takes too long to spark a visit, a Presidential comment, or even much if any debate about gun laws.

Here's a another difference: unlike in Aurora, Colorado, many of the dead at Oikos were immigrants or foreign nationals, some with unfamiliar-looking names, others with names reflective of our immigrants' historic desire to become American-ized; and they were killed not at a famous university like Virginia Tech, but at an obscure school with a name no one was quite sure how to pronounce. The names of the dead at Oikos:

Kathleen Ping
Doris Chibuko
Judith Seymore
Sonam Choedon
Grace Eunhae Kim
Lydia Sim
Bhutia Tshering

Otherness is often key to the emotional processing of homicides. Some refuse to separate themselves from the killing and the killed. But in many parts of Oakland, so long as the killed are not like you, you can deal with the shock and sadness quickly and neatly. You might be moved, but only for a moment. The flatlands, the Deep, the lives and deaths of the victims, they are all a foreign country. Same with the dead and wounded at Oikos. And so, as far as I can tell, and again, maybe I am just not finding it out there, the White House had little or nothing to say to us about the slaughter.

But the White House is all over the killings in Colorado, supposedly a swing state, unlike California.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mosquito in Your Ear

Backwards graffiti, Oakland
Oakland's reputation isn't going to change if it has seven killings and a dozen shootings in one week, as it did in early July. A 15-year-old boy was killed. A 19-year-old woman found dead in a sleazy motel. An 84-year-old man found beaten to death in a car. An 18-year-old man killed, allegedly, by another 15-year-old boy. (No doubt the educators and intervention specialists at Youth Alive and the Khadafy Washington Project have their hands full these days.) It is all in the news if you wish to become aware of it. 

Reading about Oakland in old books and magazines, you begin to understand how old and deeply woven into its fabric is the city's other reputation, for hopeless poverty and political stagnation. Originally, much of it was described by outsiders of limited local experience. In one old piece, a long article from a 1966 issue of Ramparts (much thanks to the Project Oakland blog for making it available), the author describes downtown as a wasteland, with no place to eat lunch, unless you belonged to a gentleman's club. (That has changed dramatically. There's plenty of good eating downtown now, and even the outsider New York Times has proclaimed modern-day Oakland as a world-class culinary destination.)

But some of it came from Oaklanders themselves. In a book from 1968, a resident calls Oakland the "shitbox of the west." Apparently it was a common reference, as I have encountered it several times now, including in some of the historical background in Thomas Peele's fascinating book about the assassination of Chauncy Bailey, Killing the Messenger.

I'm reading things mostly from the Sixties and Seventies, written before the wound of the gun and cheap drugs had opened wide in East and West Oakland. In those days, critics saw the city not as violent, but as hemorrhaging figuratively, rapidly losing some apparent economic richness it had possessed, across races and neighborhoods, prior to WW II.

Not that people weren't worried about urban violence in the Sixties, about rioting in particular, as poor, minority neighborhoods in cities across the country burned. Oakland is poor, they said, it's unemployed, its minorities are powerless. Oakland will be next, they said. It wasn't. Oakland avoided riots, while producing instead the politically antagonistic Black Panthers and, later, the socially destructive Black Muslims. And, of course, finally, a propensity for killing, usually one person at a time.
Still, the views of some outsiders are slowly shifting. Sometimes you find that their perceptions depend on whether they have ever been to Oakland. That is, if you tell someone who has never been here that you are from Oakland, they seem a little shocked, or else indicate a concern for your safety. It's exasperating. On the other hand, if they have spent any time here lately, often they are impressed to learn you live here. They might even think to live in Oakland is cool. 

An Oakland council member from the hills told me she encountered this latter reaction recently in a conference call with officials of the city of Philadelphia, to whom Oakland was hip, the Brooklyn of the West, as people have been trying to call it for years now. Better than "shitbox," I guess. 

The council member tells me that crime is up a bit up there, but not as much as residents might think. She says that ready access to information these days makes things seem worse than they actually are. Still, she tells me, what crime there is has become more brazen: doors are kicked down, guns are pulled and sometimes fired. She does not begrudge her constituents their fears. She holds well-attended community meetings, where police officers give advice on how to discourage crime and salesmen of video surveillance systems make presentations. Old men email out to anyone who wants them notices of all crimes in the hills. But elsewhere might or might not exist.

Hills and wires, Oakland
Talking to residents of the hills today, you encounter sometimes a cynical acceptance, even an embrace, of the gritty reputation of the city, of that "Oakland" that began to be articulated in print in the Sixties. It's easier to accept when you view it from afar, from a place where you can imagine it however you want, instead of live in it against your will, where you can block it out or acknowledge it, depending on your mood. 
You can choose not to look. Shade the eyes of your children from the blood of the Deep. You can live a great life in Oakland and never encounter the violence. But what does that mean? Perhaps the only effect the violence has on you is that your house will sell for slightly less someday because it is in Oakland. Perhaps the only effect the violence will have on you is when the sound of another siren sails up from the flatlands, and you feel a momentary nagging, like a stubborn fly, or a mosquito in your ear as you are trying to fall asleep at night.

More on my reading upcoming, and more on my current interviews with politicians and hills residents.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

25 Guns

Here is a press release from the march I wrote about in the June 7th post, In Oakland, Seeking the Courage to Surrender. I was talking about surrendering the urge to commit violence, but I could just as easliy have been talking about the courage to surrender your gun. Twenty-five guns may not seem like a lot, but I imagine to the OPD, the notion of 25 guns out of circulation in Oakland sounds pretty good.

The 100% Strong Peace Event and The Gun Buyback–On Saturday, June 2, Messengers4Change and 100 Women Against Violence hosted the 100% Strong Peace Event and Gun Buyback at the De La Fuente Plaza in Fruitvale. Community members marched from East Oakland and West Oakland and culminated at De La Fuente Plaza for a resource fair and gun buyback. The event was held to engage and inform the community about violence prevention and the multitude of resources and services available, while promoting a safe city for children and families. Prior to the event,$10,000 was raised for the gun buyback, mostly in individual/small donations. During the event, Oakland residents who turned in a working gun received a $100 gift card from the event organizers. The Oakland Police Department received a total of 25 guns. Among the various hand guns and rifles turned in, two shot guns had the barrels sawed off. For more information, please contact the Oakland Police Department Media Relations Unit at  
(510) 238-7230 or Jennifer Argueta, Measure Y, at (510) 238-2056 or 
Messengers4Change and 100 Women Against Violence are meeting this week to discuss our next steps. Our goal is to collect 100 guns, since we still have gift cards left, we are still pushing for that goal.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

In Oakland, Seeking the Courage to Surrender

On a gray June morning, in the northwest corner of the parking lot of the AutoZone at 100th and International, the Bishop, in a wheel chair and a white track suit, called for surrender. He besought the group to pray for surrender, to pray for the killers to see the light in -- to see the bright peace of -- surrender. He prayed they would surrender their souls to Jesus, and that in Jesus' message to love your neighbor as yourself they would find the reason and the courage not to pull the trigger.

"There's a spirit we're up against," he said. "God can cast that spirit to the rats, as far as I'm concerned."

Across the boulevard sits St Louis Bertrand Catholic Church. In the 16th Century, the Spanish Dominican worked in the New World to convert the natives to Christ. Now, 450 years later, Bishop Simmons seeks to convert murderous Oaklanders. 

I can imagine faith and Jesus working to pull a young man free from the urge to pull the trigger. But I wondered if a person seeking to prove himself in East Oakland ever could see that defying those who would urge you to commit violence shows greater courage than succumbing to their dark and dead end instruction. Want to be defiant of authority? Want to show how powerful you really are? Then work to leave that life behind. It won't be easy, but it will be right.

The Bishop was preaching to a group of 20 to 25 that morning. The last such march I'd covered, from 23rd and International to City Hall, had taken up the entire right lane of the boulevard and stretched two or three blocks in all, but this was a sidewalk march, a more intimate group, led by young men from Victory Outreach Church. They carried a Measure Y banner, had bullhorns and energy and words. They kept up a remarkably lucid and inspiring monologue all along the long, slow, four mile march, discussing, for any and all within range, peace, love of humanity, love of Oakland, safety for your children, safety for your family. Bystanders cheered and handed out bottled water, drivers honked their car horns, marchers handed out flags to taco trucks and other businesses along the way, pressing them to spread the message of surrender. If I am skeptical of the effect of such marches on the killers, I still admired the marchers and the message.

Along the way, the group stopped three times to remember and pray for the dead. First in front of Bay Coin Laundry, on the spot where the child Carlos Nava was killed. There is a mural depicting him with wings there. Then at the taco truck where five-year-old Gabriel Martinez was killed; there were pictures hanging along the chain-link fence. Then at the entrance to Otaez Restaurant, where the owner, Jesus "Chuy" Campos, was shot dead early one morning in 2011 as he unlocked the door and prepared to go to work.

Carlos Nava Mural, International Blvd., Oakland

The mayor marched with the group, also her husband. The chief of police walked, as well, in civilian clothes, a jacket, jeans and loafers. Their collective presence lent the march a certain legitimacy its small numbers might have failed to do. They walked with the group past the trash-strewn number streets, the urine-drunk bus kiosks, past the dirty facades of the boulevard, past the graffiti announcing that once their was a guy who came along who calls himself "THC" here, there, everywhere, past the businesses and storefront churches, Se Compra Hora, Iglesia Christo Marantha, Low Fee Check Cashing, past the East Bay Dragon's clubhouse, a casino billboard, more graffiti: "Los," "TSK," "GE2." At 69th, three Latino men with shovels, rakes and hoes were clearing the high dry golden grass of a vacant lot and you had to wonder what they would find in that little, long neglected patch of Oakland. They leaned on their handles and watched us as we passed.

In front of a brightly painted, well-kept barber shop I tapped the mayor on the shoulder. "That's a lovely facade," I said.

We were all set to use redevelopment money to help many of these businesses upgrade their fronts, she told me. But the state economy had tanked and the governor had withdrawn the funds. She had been trying to convince the city council to pay for it, but they were reluctant. The City is suing the State to get some of that promised redevelopment money back. 

I handed her my card. On the back I had scribbled the name and date of an article I'd written about three violence prevention workers in Oakland, two former victims of violence, and one formerly incarcerated former Oakland gang member, all working now to create peace. She hadn't read it, said she had little time for reading. I told her I was working on another, longer piece on one of those former victims, on the city and its reputation and its fight against the gun, that I would love to interview her some time. She said to talk to her public safety adviser, Reygan Harmon. Soon a security guard addressed her, quietly, "Mayor," and pulled her away. She had another appearance to make, would meet up with the march at the event scheduled at its destination, a plaza in the Fruitvale District. At that event I approached Harmon. I handed her my card. On the back I had scribbled the name and date of an article I'd written about three violence prevention workers in Oakland. I said I was working on another one and needed to interview the mayor for it. She gave me her card and said to email her, which I did the following Monday, four days ago as I write, but no word yet. I wonder how many emails it will take.

Back before the marchers had reached the plaza I'd caught up with the Bishop in his wheel chair and told him how much I liked his message of surrender. He asked me if I was a preacher. No, I said, just a writer in Oakland.

(For more on the event, see 25 Guns)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Bright Side

As I have said many times, I love Oakland, and many specific things about it, especially its wild spaces, its history, and all the good eating you can do here. I know people in Oakland get frustrated with the attention the violence gets at the expense of the wild spaces, the history and the food. Editors ask me to work some of that stuff in to my reporting on the violence. They are looking for balance and context and that is a good thing. I do believe there are some publications that refuse to publish articles on the violence because the editors live in Oakland and are tired of hearing about it and are interested in boosting the city's reputation. I guess that's their prerogative, if that is how they wish to keep the literary or journalistic gates they've been hired to guard. We'll see how long they last in their positions. Maybe a long time, maybe not. Yesterday afternoon after painting my backdoor I raced to Chop Bar, down near Jack London Square, or the Warehouse District, or the Jack London Square Warehouse District, whatever we are wanting to call it these days, to order up my favorite breakfast in town, the Tri-Tip Scramble, but they had removed it from the menu. "Just trying to change things up," said the bartender. Essentially, it had been replaced with a pork chop, which might be good, but I'd had pork chops for dinner the night before, good ones, so I ordered the almond french toast, which I'd been curious about anyway. It was too sweet for my taste, but what else would it be? It's supposed to be sweet. Do you really want me to keep writing about this stuff? Later that night I went to a dance in San Leandro. Most of the attendees were residents of half-way houses for parolees and people with alcohol and other substance abuse problems. Men had tattoos on their faces and necks. I saw a woman who was clearly on the bright side of addiction, the pink color in her cheeks seemed new and fresh, the weight on her bones looked healthy and welcome. Among some of the hardest people I'd seen in a long time, there was a lot of laughing and dancing, and some looked lost, looked like they were dying for a beer at the sober event. Literally sober, that is, not in any other way was it sober, but lighthearted and fun. Kevin Grant's band played. The event was one of Grant's creations, one of his attempts to fill the void while these men and women attempt to build new lives for themselves. Later, no doubt, he went back out to the streets of Oakland to keep the peace there. I'll write more about the event later, and maybe about the calzone I had for dinner from Marzano, or the great cocktail I had there while I waited.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Prologue to a Maze of Dreams

Caheri Gutierrez with a student in East Oakland
Thinking a lot about weaving the City of Oakland's rich life and current times into Caheri Gutierez' incredible story. Life in Oakland today, for many of the kids who come from where Caheri did, continues to be one very dark maze of dreams, dreams most of us could never begin to interpret because they are either too humble or too profane. More the former. Maybe their dream is simple peace.

Oakland is not Afghanistan, and so by peace we mean an absence of stress and a freedom from the fear of bloody interpersonal violence. Oakland isn’t Mexico, so the bodies don't pile up, so much as they are found scattered throughout mostly the eastern part of the city at a rate of two-plus per week.

The shootings are worse.
People don't hear about the shootings as much because, unless the victim is under 16 or white, things don't get reported as faithfully when the victim survives. It's interesting that many of today's shootings would be killings except that the trauma team at our county hospital (where Caheri spent a month after her face was shot through with a hollow-tip bullet) has gotten so good at their work. Even so, the homicide rate maintains its morbid buoyancy. As I write, the number of homicides for the year sits above that of last year by precisely the number of people killed in the Oikos massacre in March, about which I wrote this short piece for San Francisco Magazine.
Backwards graffiti at 16th Street Station
To address the violence.
Quicker than her predecessor, the somnambulist Mayor Dellums, or his predecessor, the careerist politician carpetbagger Jerry Brown, our current mayor, Jean Quan, almost a native, having arrived in our tiny but intense Chinatown as a child, came up with a newfangled public safety plan. She announced it in front of hundreds of semi-hostile Oaklanders at a public safety "summit" just days after the City's ill-planned, ill-timed and poorly-executed eviction of the Occupy protesters at City Hall last September. I was there, depressed, but not particularly hostile.

To explain it requires a bit of background: By and large, Oakland doesn't have a lot of big gangs like other cities with similar troubles. It has instead what are called turf groups, small, liquid, often essentially leaderless, always violent. To monitor all this, protests that pop up, and whatever other disruptions of the peace occur, Oakland has about 650 police officers, a woefully inadequate number.

The Oakland Police Department (OPD) has been able to identify with precision the city'scrime hotspots, and under Quan's plan would deploy the bulk of its small force at these intersections and in these neighborhoods. Quan called this her 100 Blocks strategy, explaining that most violent crime can be isolated to 100 blocks of the city, and arguing that that's where we need the force to be if we are to be safe.

Of course, if you avoid those parts of the city, you might already feel safe. If you avoid those parts of the city, they begin to feel less real, what violence takes place there affects you less, if at all, it affects you as a hit to your property value, perhaps, as the city's reputation for violence grows, even if your house is many miles away.

Oakland is hilly but not mountainous.
Oakland's highest height is only 1800 feet, but it reaches there breathless, leaving behind the lower hills, where I live, and the flats, which peter out at the big port, and on the estuary as it rolls between Oakland and Alameda, and by the bay, and where live the people of Oakland in genuine daily peril, people under the thumb of the gun, where CaheriGutierrez grew up, where she became who she was, first standing out as the seemingly rare good girl defying the odds with top grades and athletic stardom, then the weed-smoking, street-tough and aggressively hot teenage dropout and model, then the victim of shocking violence, and now where she works as a violence prevention educator and servant of the desperate city.
Gutierrez with violence prevention peer educators in Oakland
It all happens in the flats.
Also known as Deep East Oakland, and in a city of 400,000 or so souls (and slowly shrinking, by the way, mostly due to the emigration of frightened and fed up African Americans), and 15% unemployment, the flats are where most of the violence occurs, where victims are made, where most of the guns are, where Oakland's turf groups rule, where they vainly but violently protect, in a criminal perversion of that word, their little blocks.

We have arranged the city in a way that allows many of us to avoid those blocks, to drive quickly over them on freeways. We will be far along down Highway 880 to Berkeley when our exhaust fumes have permeated the air of the Acorn or Ghost Town. With the overpass system of highways, we no longer need to stop there even for gas or coffee or cigarettes. Even if we care that someone had been killed there, if we don't see it, don't know them, don't feel traumatized the next day as we emerge from our home, then we don't feel connected.

Quan pretty frankly admitted that the downside of her plan was that the gentle, genteel hills would be somewhat on their own in terms of police protection. We'll come if you call us, but otherwise, will have less of a presence than before.

The hills wouldn't suffer quietly.
The hills have needs, they have means. And, yes, they have things worth stealing. And it goes without saying that hills residents deserve to live in a safe and secure city. It's what their taxes are supposed to pay for. And objections have floated down on us from the hills. And the 100 Blocks plan is slowly crumbling, through genuine civic pressure and the genuine political weakness of an administration under the shadow of two admittedly weakening recall campaigns.

The 100 Blocks strategy hasn't appeared to work, anyway, as the city's homicide numbers climb, but it's really too soon to tell. But not too soon to abandon the program. That's what politicians do here. We might never know if it was destined for success. In the meantime, people die, lives get ruined, and the people trust the City and its police force ever less.

Caheri, this daughter of the city.
As I have written, there are places in Oakland where a scar speaks louder than a badge, louder than a pulpit, louder than a diploma ever could. Politicians flounder; their fears and their personal weaknesses are nearly as palpable as the fear of Oaklanders in the Deep, if infinitely less honorable.

The OPD, a hated enemy in Oakland since the days of the Panthers, the Black Muslims and the gang lord Felix Mitchell, become ever more the evil Other. I have seen neighborhoods under police siege and the looks on the faces of the people who lived there, the deep-seated resentment of the flack-jacketed blue line. I have watched at funerals of the killed as the young people tune out the old preachers and their plaintive nostalgia for some supposed time when men fought with fists instead of guns.

But I've also seen Caheri, her beautiful face and her wounded soul demand attention and respect in these same neighborhoods and among these very same young people. Caheri was recruited into her work because of her charisma , but also because of her tragedy, because of her peculiar but symbolic story. 

In the rudderless city.
In a wounded city without trust, no one in a uniform and no one with a formal title is going to begin the change that lasts for generations. They all have roles to play. We need more cops. We need good churches and good civic leadership. But if Oakland is ever to change its reputation for violence, which clings to it like mud to the soles of your shoes, it will be the wounded, stepping into the wound, who do it.

As I write more about Caheri and others like her, I won't fall into the trap of looking for heroes, but this is the story of one of those wounded who might make the city that created her, change itself, through its trauma, just the way she has changed.
Gutierrez teaching

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

She trimmed her mourning with a thread of hope.

Even though he uses it in a very different context, someday I will borrow this line from the Scottish poet David Constantine to tell the story of Marilyn Harris. Harris lost her only son to the gun in Oakland in 2000, and since has dedicated her life to stepping into the immediate aftermath of homicides here to help families of the killed. She helps them take care of the business of being a survivor, and she helps them begin on the long road to healing. She threads their mourning with hope, just as helping them threads her own continued mourning for her lost son with hope. 

She trimmed her mourning with a thread of hope.
                              Line from "by word of mouth" by David Constantine

Monday, May 14, 2012

In Oakland, a New Way Out?

Among their other efforts, Oakland's Measure Y Street Outreach team attends the scenes of shootings and killings. Their purpose is to identify anyone related to the victim -- friends, family members, members of the same gang or turf group -- and to persuade them not to retaliate. One violent act has already taken place, they work to prevent the next one, to head-off an escalation. It would be difficult to quantify the shootings and killings that don't happen because a street outreach worker has intervened, has found a way, even in the heat and passion of the immediate aftermath, to calm a person bent on vengeance. We should probably find a way to count that.

Still, by the time the Measure Y guys show up, someone has been wounded, or someone is dead, and the sad, painful, infinitely wounding chain of events that follows a violent act is already set in motion. A mother and father are devastated, a neighborhood is traumatized, a kid feels less safe, becomes more distracted. He can't focus on his schoolwork, but he can sense, in that way kids have, that his mother is jittery, that she is more reluctant than usual to let him go beyond the front gate. The kid knew things were bad, but now they seem worse; inside and outside, there are less peace and less hope than before.

Despite his certainty about how much violence his street outreach team prevents, Kevin Grant says he's tired of showing up after the fact. He wants to find a way to prevent the original blood from flowing. And so he has begun to formalize, as a Measure Y violence prevention program called The Way Out, a thing he and his team members have been doing occasionally, which is mediating between antagonists before a dispute erupts. It is tense and sometimes dangerous work, and it will require an effective and pervasive publicity campaign among the groups they hope to work with. Often there will be an urgent need for interruption and mediation. A guy on the street who feels a situation is on the brink will have to have a number, make the call, to someone he trusts. That person will need to be available quickly, and will have to know the stakes, intuitively. He will need to have some understanding of the emotional state, even the psychology, of the people in the room. He will have to know how to communicate.

As I've documented many times on this blog, it is a job that only certain people could probably do. Rare is the cop who could serve in this role. (See (New) Code of the West or Idealists with Wary Eyes) One can imagine preachers doing it, maybe, but only the kind you meet out there who, in a past life, had lived the life. Most, if not all of the members of the Measure Y Street Outreach Team have lived the life, some only recently escaped. Many of them have been shot, some have lost a loved one, or multiple loved ones, to Oakland's troubles. They are on a new path now, but they can speak the language; they can relate.

At a meeting to introduce the program, in a grungy clubhouse of an unkempt park in East Oakland, a kid in a wheelchair told us about getting shot nine times last February, about life in a wheelchair. Even though it was stuffy in the clubhouse, he wore a coat and a hat with flaps over his ears; probably he gets cold due to the blood circulation problems paraplegics suffer.

His voice was deep.

"Three months ago I was walking," he said. "Now I can't play football. Can't hurry. Can't play with my nephews. All I did was go to the store," he says. His one mistake? "I wasn't watching my surroundings." And he had another lesson to learn, while he lay un-visited by any of his friends at Highland Hospital: "Everybody I thought would be real to me, they turned out to be fake."

His mother talked with great energy and intensity about seeing her son bleeding at the gate to their apartment complex. He'd been shot in the back nine times, but he was conscious. "He said, 'Mama don't let me die.' All we did was cry and pray, cry and pray," she said.

She talked about life with a young son in a wheelchair. "He's paralyzed like I'm paralyzed. I'm with him, taking care of him 24 hours a day."

Violence prevention educator Caheri Gutierrez, of Youth Alive, talked about growing up in the Deep, about seeing her brother shot in the head, then pistol whipped, then abandoned by his so-called friends. She talked about the night she herself got shot, in the face, through the face by a hollow-tip bullet, while sitting at a traffic light on 98th Avenue, how she almost choked to death on the blood gathering in her throat. She talked about life with a different face, a scarred face. Gutierrez rose above it all. And she uses that experience now to convince young Oaklanders that violence solves nothing, but only presents new problems that are much, much worse.

Caheri Gutierrez speaking at Youth Alive 20th Anniversary event

Here is a story I wrote for San Francisco Magazine, in which she plays a key role -- No Escape, No Surrender -- as do Kevin Grant, and also Marilyn Harris, of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence. And here is a brief relation of Caheri's story from the Almanac: I Might Have Some Hope Here; Here's Caheri's personal blog: Life.

A mother who'd lost her son last December spoke. I'd talked with her before the event. She was nervous. It would the first time she'd talked to a group about her loss, I said I thought this would be a good thing for her. She gave me a hug. Up in front of the the gathering, she teared up but wasn't self-pitying. She was emotional and powerful and you could almost begin to get a sense of her despair, and even just lightly brushing up against her pain for a moment was jarring.

"I'd like to be able to hug all of you. I can't hug Charles anymore."

Mayor Quan was there. She recalled brokering a series of demilitarized zones in Oakland, so that kids might get to school safely. Those zones disintegrated long ago. Programs come and go. At times during the event I stared at banners hanging from the clubhouse rafters. I wondered which if any of these programs still existed. The banners were wrinkled and curling and covered with dust. Here's how some of them read, verbatim:

Oakland P.A.L.
The Bond Between Cops and Kids
Lets Get To Kids Before They Get Into Trouble

Programs come and go. It's the going that's a problem. Some don't work, and they should go. Some take time to work, so-called leaders become frightened by the early appearance of failure, and the program is abandoned. This one will take time. To get the word out, to establish trust. Even if The Way Out is a success, still, sometimes it will fail. Will the City stick with it?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quan's Curious Comment

We were gathered in a small, crowded clubhouse full of ghosts and old trophies and banners hanging from the rafters celebrating old, forgotten youth programs ("Filling Playgrounds Not Prisons"). The clubhouse was in an East Oakland park called "Sunnyside," but that's not its official name. 

Halfway through the event to mark the kick-off of a new and promising gang intervention program, I was encouraged and even impressed to see Mayor Quan standing among the standing-room-only audience. The mayor even took the microphone and said a few words. 

She was received politely but with no warmth or enthusiasm. As she often does, she misjudged the tenor of the gathering, and spoke about her ("we," she said, without defining "we") efforts years ago to get certain Oakland gangs to agree to a series of DMZs near schools, so that their little brothers and sisters could learn. It was not entirely irrelevant to the event, but it felt self-serving and, as so often when an older generation discusses today's troubles, hollow in its nostalgia.

Later, when she took the microphone again, Quan did talk about today; but her comment was curious, borderline nonsensical, her choice of words unfortunate.

"If it hadn't been for the Oikos thing," she said, "we'd be at the lowest point in a decade."

I know she was trying to keep her comment brief, but the use of the term, "the Oikos thing," seemed dismissive and diminishing and like she wished it to just go away. 

Worse than that -- assuming she was referring to the amount of violence in Oakland -- on the day she made her comment, minus the seven April killings at Oikos, Oakland had already suffered 36 homicides in 2012. (Since then there have been 4 more.) At the same time in 2011 we'd had 35; on the same date in 2010 we'd had 29; in 2009 we'd had 35. Maybe I was the one misinterpreting, misreading what she meant by "lowest point." Because I would call 36 the highest point in homicides. 

Maybe I missed a word, and what she really said was, "Even without the Oikos thing, we'd be at the lowest point in a decade." Maybe she meant, the lowest point of effectiveness in protecting our citizens, or the lowest point in our spirits, our morale, from all this killing. 

Certainly we are at the lowest point of something.

Leg Check, Oakland

"How many of you know what a 'leg check' is?" he asked the gathering. A few young men raised their hands. Most of us didn't. "It's a message, it's when I come up to you and I shoot you in the leg just to let you know I got a problem with you."

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Reckoning in Oakland

Sometimes in early spring, sometimes in peaceful places and under a bright sun the urge to pull the trigger reminds us, jarringly, that it doesn't stop to check the calendar or location. I have a small piece coming out in the May San Francisco Magazine about the killing of seven people at Oakland's Oikos University in early April, about the ways in which its circumstances did and didn't fit with the usual patterns of violence here.

Certain rules always apply, and as usual I couldn't help but think about what I've learned following some of Oakland's violence prevention workers over the past two-plus years: in particular, that the one pulling the trigger never considers that the person he seeks to destroy is not his only victim. That bullet that wounds or kills, it also ricochets, wounding or killing the lives of families, friends, communities, of the cities of the victims. Now the seven families, and the city's Korean community, begin their struggle through a place where so many Oaklanders dwell, the dark void of the survivor.

Of course, these killings at Oikos are all about how easy it is to get guns in the United States, and how hard it is to get good mental health care. All your plans, all your prevention, all your police work can't stop an angry, mentally ill person from acquiring a weapon and killing. Some say that's the price of living in a free society. But it's so often the innocent who pay when the reckoning comes due.

Friday, March 30, 2012

It Was the Mothers

A friend wrote me today, "I had lunch with Marilyn on Wednesday and her phone wouldn't stop was the mothers."

Today, Chip Johnson, in his San Francisco Chronicle column, told a similar story: 

The grieving, heartsick mothers who have contacted Harris in the past two weeks didn't do it out of spite or anger or jealousy, but from a collective pain that anyone who's ever been through such a tragic loss is all too familiar with. "Our hearts go out to her because she suffers from what we all suffer from," Harris said of Martin's mother, Sybrina Martin. "There are no color boundaries when it comes to our children." But when an Oakland mother who has lost a child sees local churches and activists gearing up, determined to do something about a killing so far away, and seemingly oblivious to the near-daily tragedies occurring in their own city, it hurts, Harris said.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ice City Almanac's Top Stories

From I Might Have Some Hope Here: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
It was late winter 2009, and while the face of Caheri Gutierrez was healing, her soul was roiling. Just a few months earlier, in November, at the Oakland intersection of 98th Avenue and San Leandro Street, she'd had half her beautiful face blown off in a drive-by. She was 18. The bullet burst through the passenger-side window out of nowhere. It ripped through her jaw and cheek and stopped in the right arm of her friend driving the car. Gutierrez felt a shock, she says, but didn’t know she’d been hit until she saw the driver’s expression -- he was looking at her -- and the gory mess all over the dashboard. That’s when she reached up to touch her face.

A Violent Thing: Inside an Oakland Gang Call-In 
All gunshot wounds in Oakland are brought to Highland. She tells them, calmly, that the worst case scenario if you end up at Highland is surviving. Surviving a gunshot wound is the worst thing that can happen. It only takes one bullet in the spine and you’re a quadriplegic. No movement, no sex, someone has to wipe your ass. No one comes to visit you because no one wants to see you like that. I become your only friend, she tells them. She approaches the sharply-dressed Participant, points over toward the baby. Is that your baby? Is that your queen holding the baby? He nods politely. He’s looking her in the eye, looking up at her. You want that baby to see you paralyzed, with tubes coming out of you, with a colostomy bag? Imagine that. This is not rhetorical, it’s a demand. Imagine it. This right here today, she tells them, this is a blessing. Because you are alive and free.

From 13: At the Funeral of Thirteen-Year-Old Jimon Clark

Just ahead of me in line at the funeral of Jimon Clark, the last of six homicides to occur in Oakland between August 18th and August 25th, a group of kids in their early teens has reached the coffin. They look like they are not quite sure what to do. In line, all but two of them have been fairly upbeat, nonchalant, possibly faking their cool, or possibly they have done this so many times that it feels about the same as standing in line at a taco truck. I want to think they are faking, that their hearts are beating faster than usual, that they are at least a little freaked to confront the dead body of their friend and schoolmate, that maybe they are hiding secret worries that his gunshot wounds are visible.  I want to think that for these baby-faced, rather slight, early teenage kids from Oakland, neither the day nor the event is routine.

From The Dark Urges: In the ICU with Daryl Starks' Family

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.

From Imaginary Pain: At the Grim Geographical Nexus, with Kids
In the neighborhood where these kids live and go to school, shootings and homicides occur with a depressing 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.

From Against Nostalgia: After The Death of Raymen Justice
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 Harris, 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. 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 any need of the money being offered him.

From The Big Event
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.

From (New) Code of the West

In genuine disbelief, I turned and walked back against the tide and stood across from the church entryway to watch, as more and more people staggered out. Soon I heard sirens but only gradually realized they were for us. Within twenty minutes there were dozens of cops from numerous forces -- OPD, CHP, Alameda Sheriffs, Parole, Corrections. Lots of collegiality between them. Hugs and handshaking and "Where you been lately?!?" There were guys in riot gear. That erie modern sight of helicopters hovering over you. Most of the cops had tear gas guns, but at one point a tall, white officer (I'd say 80 to 90% were white) took something that looked like a guitar case out of a van, snapped it open, pulled out a machine gun, clicked the cartridges in, slung it around his shoulders and headed up the street. He looked thrilled. I counted nearly a hundred cops in half a dozen picket lines across at least two streets.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Idealists with Wary Eyes

Despite their idealism, most of the people I've met who work in Oakland's violence prevention community are clear-eyed about the city and its people. They're not cynical. They believe change is possible. But they're wary, leery, and it would be difficult to fool them or play them, the way some social workers are susceptible to being played. Certainly, there are Pollyanas and careerists who work in violence prevention. But more so there are hardened veterans of the City's bloodshed, people who have seen too much to be fooled, and who have seen too much not to try to change things. I have an article coming out in the April 2012 issue of San Francisco Magazine about three of these people. It's a long piece, but some passages didn't make the final version. Here's a short one, about how some of the violence prevention workers relate to the OPD:

They were realists. Many were former victims themselves. Some were former perpetrators. But, in general, they believed in cops. On the streets, they might keep their distance from the OPD, but they knew the officers and detectives and captains personally, and if sometimes they could get frustrated with it, they did not resent or hate the force. Probably they understood what it was up against better than any other civilians.
      They also understood its limits, which I first began to see when gunfire broke out at a funeral I attended in East Oakland and police descended on the neighborhood like crows on a barren hayfield. Crows with machine guns. There were helicopters overhead. If I was impressed with the quick and overwhelming response, the looks on the faces of the neighbors, a combination of anger and powerlessness, suggested something else. And when I looked again at the long police picket lines and the police lights flashing up and down the block, the place seemed not so much under police protection as under siege. In East Oakland, cops were suspect. They were hated. They could make arrests, but that was where their impact on attitudes and lifestyles in Oakland ended.