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

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.