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

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.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gang Homicide Study's Surprising Results

In January, the CDC released results of a study of violent deaths among gang members in five U.S. cities, including Oakland. The others were Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oklahoma City and Newark. Some of the findings were unsurprising: most gang-related homicide victims are young, male, and most are members of an ethnic minority. Most killings involved guns and occurred in public places.

Among the findings that might surprise you was one that also reflects something people in Oakland's violence prevention community have been telling me for two years now, that gang killings are not necessarily about drugs or money or turf. Sometimes it's even personal, the results of a dispute between young people who are immature and armed.

From the report:
The finding that gang homicides commonly were not precipitated by drug trade/use or other crimes in progress also is similar to previous research; however, this finding challenges public perceptions on gang homicides (5). The public often has viewed gangs, drug trade/use, crime, and homicides as interconnected factors; however, studies have shown little connection between gang homicides and drug trade/use and crime (5). Gangs and gang members are involved in a variety of high-risk behaviors that sometimes include drug and crime involvement, but gang-related homicides usually are attributed to other circumstances 

Here's the report as published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of 1-27-12:
Gang Homicides - Five U.S. Cities, 2003-2008

The CDC's conclusion: more prevention is needed, especially among young people, to discourage them from joining gangs in the first place. Gangs don't provide protection from the violence; being in a gang is incredibly dangerous.