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

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."