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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In 2010, a Strange Statistic

Until last year's 110 murders, homicide numbers in Oakland had fallen for five straight years. In 2010 there were 56 fewer killings than there had been in 2006. But to most Oakland residents it still feels like we are experiencing Prohibition-Era levels of violence.

In December of 2011, Urban Strategies Council, who do a ton of serious and fascinating research about Oakland, released an analysis of homicides in the city in 2010. Probably the delay was due to the difficulty in getting information from the understaffed Oakland Police Department. Here are a few of their findings:

In 2010 there were 90 homicides in Oakland.
74 people were shot to death.
68 people were killed on a street or a sidewalk.
51 were killed either in Deep East Oakland or West Oakland.
86 victims were men.
70 victims were African-American.
None were white.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Wound Dressers' Wounds

Many of Oakland's wound dressers, those who tend to the victims and survivors of violence, and those who work the streets to keep the peace here, carry scars of their own, or still-open wounds.They don't talk about it much unless they have to, or unless it becomes relevant to a situation, but their work is forever confronting them with reminders of their grief. 

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: 

There are teams of intervention specialist in Oakland, who take to the most dangerous streets, at the most dangerous times. You can see them on International Boulevard at 85th, on Fruitvale, in West Oakland's Campbell Village. They wear white jackets. They station themselves or move in small groups to engage the street. Many team members have been in trouble themselves in the past. They know the signs of tension, how to listen to the street. They know ways to keep the peace, to at least, as one of them said to me one night on International, move an angry person past the impulse to retaliate violently. Get them past that first impulse, and a lot of times they won't do anything.

Seven years ago outreach team leader Ron Wysinger's son was killed in Oakland. His step-daughter was shot and killed on International Boulevard in the spring of 2011. One Saturday night barely half a year later I walk with him up the Boulevard. It's a cold night and for a while we stand, hands in pockets, in the florescent glow coming through the plate glass window of a busy corner market. Wysinger talks to a few customers who come and go. We watch the action in a lot across the street where drugs are being handed off and paid for.

There's a Latino block party in full force somewhere down 85th and the entire neighborhood vibrates with heavy bass lines and relentlessly cheerful accordion music. This used to be an African-American neighborhood, but for the last few years, as the black population of Oakland has decreased, it's become more ethnically mixed.

There's not much happening at 85th, so we make our way up toward 92nd, Wysinger ducks into a bus stop kiosk. Overlooking the crowded bench is a bright yellow movie ad featuring the whimsical snout of Miss Piggy. The kiosk air reeks of alcohol. He offers his card to a young man and asks him if he's looking for work. But the man is too drunk to understand much. A well-dressed kid walks by us and we all agree he is too young to be out walking. We enter a poorly-lit stretch of the boulevard. It takes us to a point right across the street from the East Bay Dragons motorcycle club clubhouse. This is the precise spot where Wysinger's step-daughter was killed a few months earlier. I look at him but his face is expressionless. He walks, says nothing. He has a picture of her pinned to the lapel of his jacket. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

While The Killers Sleep

As we set out, the killers are still asleep. They stay up all night. I imagine them playing video games in the wee hours and smoking a tremendous amount of weed. They sleep past noon but the march commenced at just past 11 a. m. On a loud speaker someone said, "If you have a family member who was murdered and you'd like to be in the front, please see me." The day was sunny and the marchers owned the boulevard. Police cars blocked cross-traffic for the first few blocks. Below 25th, East Bay Dragons on their motorcycles quietly took over traffic control. Sometimes you see them leading funeral processions of the killed. Three days later someone would walk up to their clubhouse forty blocks south of here and shoot one of them dead. I don't know if he was working traffic control that day, but we all appreciated their help. 
There were hundreds marching, chanting, singing, praying for less bloodshed in the city, and slowly we snaked our way toward the lake and beyond it, City Hall. Oakland's homicide rate had dropped for five straight years. In 2010 there had been 56 fewer killings than in 2006, but some of us still felt it like a visitation of the plague. To us and to the rest of the country it seemed like Oakland was suffering Prohibition-era levels of violence. The goal today was to say it mattered, to publicly and en masse refuse to accept gunfire and bloodshed as a part of every day life in Oakland. It was nice that the members of this diverse crowd had given up their Saturday to march. 
A few blocks south of the staging area, International is pure Latino. Men in cowboy hats jaywalk. Here in the Twenties the boulevard becomes a mixture of African American and Latino just before it gives way to Southeast Asian. And so at first we pass Dos Hermanos Bar and the Mitchell Hotel (advertising "TV"), and then come to Phuong Dong Sea Blue Cafe and Karaoke Bar and the Khmer Snooker Lounge (since burned down). Along the way there are scattered, sturdy, if rather run-down Edwardian-style houses turned apartment buildings. Asian children watch from behind windows. Their parents and grandparents come into front yards and cheer, take pictures and shoot video. 
I keep to the outskirts of the crowd, neither marcher nor reporter, but something in between, too skeptical to march, too reluctant to report on this because I know it will make little or no difference. The walk finishes and the marchers gather under the bright sun at Frank Ogawa Plaza to hear speeches, rap music and bad poetry.

In view of the rally, at a little maze of tables set up under the linden trees just to the north of the plaza, local organizations are stacking up pamphlets and propping up posters, preparing to ask for donations, to recruit volunteers, to spread the word. From the tables you can hear the cheering, the prayers and chants for peace, rap music and bits and pieces of speeches, but business is slow in the shade. Under the trees are representatives of a handful Oakland programs that sit on the cutting edge of the Boston Miracle and Chicago Cease Fire model, the latter profiled in the 2011 documentary, “The Interrupters.” It’s a 24/7/365 prevention machine geared to keep violence from originating, or to keep what violence has happened from escalating, or to heal the wounds inflicted.

Much of this front-line work is done by victims, or former victims, by survivors of the killed, even by former perpetrators, original gangsters (OGs) making amends with a blessed vengeance. Their veteran status, and their wounds, give them authority; there are places here where a scar speaks louder than chants at a rally.

That afternoon elsewhere in Oakland, after the square has been cleared, two men are shot. One of them dies.