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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Healers in a plague

The paragraph below comes near the end of Camus' novel The Plague. It refers to those who tried to comfort and save the citizens of Oran during the epidemic. Reading it this morning, I was reminded of all the Oakland violence prevention workers I write about here on the Almanac, but especially those who themselves were once victimized by the violence, like Marilyn Washington Harris and Caheri Gutierrez, Oaklanders who do what has to be done, who refuse to bow down, who strive to be healers, despite their own afflictions. Just replace "terror" with "violence," and "pestilences" with "guns" or "killers" -

...he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. -From The Plague by Albert Camus

Marilyn Washington Harris
Caheri Gutierrez


Monday, December 30, 2013

A sub-100 year: what history tells us

2013 is coming to an end and some in Oakland want to, if not celebrate, then find hope in the city's homicide number for the year, which will be that rarity since the early 1970s: fewer than 100. Maybe this is the beginning of a change that will be permanent. No question, it will have been a far better year for the city than 2012, when over 130 people were murdered here. 

Of course, tell that to the families of the nearly 90 dead in 2013:

Oakland's Civic Trauma
Cold Bodies, Cold Analysis, Chilling Irony;  
Read About Today's Killings, Then Forget;  
OPD Chief on Young Murder Witness;  
Death Like a Public Bus.

No one has ever told me how or when we will know that we have genuinely shed our murderous character as a city. It's important to remember that the homicide numbers have fallen below 100 here and there (see this brief history of the homicide rate in Oakland), and that politicians have touted those numbers as progress every time, and that eventually, usually quite quickly, the numbers have surmounted 100 again, sometimes by a lot. As recently as 2010, there were 95 homicides. Then in 2011, there were 110. In 2012, 131.

And anyway, as I wrote back in June of 2011: 
The human urge to squeeze the trigger never checks the calendar. Perhaps grasping for hope when they’re down, or out of morbid shock when they’re up, like now, we tend to pay too much attention to the daily and weekly violent crime numbers in Oakland. We assign them too much meaning.

Quan’s Objection
Certainly politicians and the newspapers do. Precisely one year ago, then-mayoral-candidate Jean Quan reacted defensively when I suggested to her that violence should be a priority of the next mayor. “We’ve brought the murder rate down,” she said.  

That was in June 2010, and so far there had been 37 homicides in the city, 6 fewer than June 2009, a modest number, and a more seemingly significant 24 fewer than June 2008. 

The Calendar and the Killing
The calendar year 2010 ended with 13 fewer homicides than the year before -- 100 vs. 87.

But what does it indicate, that in the twelve months since Quan’s objection to my suggestion -- mid-June 2010 to mid-June 2011 -- there have been 100-plus homicides, at least six more than between mid-June 2009 and mid-June 2010?

What does it mean? 

Nevertheless, in daily news reports of homicides, habitually reporters insert the current year’s number of killings-so-far alongside the total from “this time last year.” These numbers shouldn’t bring readers much hope, as in 2010, or, in the case of June 2011, when we have already suffered 51 homicides, deeper despair.
              - From Trauma Cache, Part 1: The Calendar and The Killing
Again, I hope the 40 fewer homicides from last year to this really is the result of police re-organization or Ceasefire or whatever else the politicians will tell us has turned the tide. But it will take time, it will take years, maybe even generations, to know if we have gained some peace. There were 3 homicides as the calender turned, 2 in East Oakland, 1 in West Oakland.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Unwounded in Afghanistan, shot in East Oakland

Sometimes home becomes the place you dread, a thing you must escape from. Sometimes you think you've escaped, but you haven't.

Jean Eason was not a perfect kid and he did not have a perfect childhood in Oakland. He'll be the first to tell you both. The 23-year-old Oaklander is pretty frank about mistakes he's made, about the  people he has alienated. And he can sometimes sound angry about the way he was tossed around as a kid from home to home, even living for a couple of months out of his mother's boyfriend's truck. On the bright side, he tells me one dark evening in late November as we walk at a brisk pace around Lake Merritt, "It was the one time in my life I got to see Lake Tahoe. The actual lake."

Intelligent and articulate, Jean knew for sure school was nevertheless not for him. He had barely graduated from Skyline High. That was in 2008, at the height, or rather the depths, of the Great Recession. Employment opportunities were few and far between.
Jean at 19

So he enlisted in the Army, was shipped off to Fort Benning, Georgia, for boot camp, and eventually found himself an infantryman in Afghanistan. He saw little action, did not get wounded, left the Army, came home to Oakland, and got shot.

It was New Year’s Eve, mid-morning, a Saturday in East Oakland. Jean recalls it vividly. He was sitting in a parked car with, not a friend, an acquaintance, a guy he says he had known for a while but not well. Just a dude he'd hang out with sometimes. They'd play Madden. Drink beer. Today it was beer.

"I finished mine," says Jean.

The other guy is still drinking his when he sees something in their rear view mirror and starts to yell, "Hey get outta here, get outta here!'"

"And I looked in the mirror," says Jean, "and I saw, I'll never forget this, I saw the guy had a gun pointing in the back of the car. And he had a smile on his face. That made me hot, so I jumped out of the car. I jumped through the car window like a dumb ass, instead of just opening the car door and falling out."

His foot got caught in the seat belt, the bullet penetrated his right leg, shattered his tibia. The other guy in the car, who somehow survived, got shot seven times.

It's a thing that happens in Oakland far too regularly. In 2013, there have been almost 1,000 shootings here, to go with nearly 90 homicides. Far too regularly the victim is not the primary target, but just a man or woman, or sometimes a kid, in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe hanging out with somebody they don't know well enough. True, sometimes they are in a place perhaps they shouldn't be. But that doesn't mean they deserve to get shot, to be launched on the difficult and often dark journey a victim of violence must take. The physical pain is profound and lasting. But even as the physical trauma fades, the victim feels lost, alone, bitter about his situation, bitter toward his city and community, angry at the violent side of Oakland.

But there are other sides of Oakland, sides that don't give up on the city or its people, especially when they have been affected by violence.

Soon after the shooting, as he lay depressed and immobilized in a hole-in-the-wall East Oakland apartment not far from where it all went down, Jean got a call from Ray Estrada, of Youth ALIVE!'s Caught in the Crossfire program. For over twenty years now, Intervention Specialists from Caught in the Crossfire have been stepping in to the immediate aftermath of Oakland shootings to help the victims. Usually they meet the victim at his or her hospital bedside. Often their first task is to keep the peace, to convince angry victims and their angry family and friends not to retaliate, to help break the cycle of violence.

After that, it's the well-being of the victim they attend to. The emotional and psychological weight of violence can be immense. It brings depression, and fear of everyday life.

"People get jumpy," says Estrada. "They can't walk down the street without looking back, they're paranoid."

Even today, tonight, walking around the lake, some stretches of our path are darker than others, and Jean can seem suddenly nervous, lost in a story he knows well, quiet for a moment. At one point he says, "Man it's dark here" and it sounds like the path he is still on in life, the path all victims of violence find themselves on: struggle, progress, healing, then suddenly the dark, the nervousness and confusion return.

Estrada's task is to help. Everybody is different, he says. Each victim's needs are unique. So he listens to you, to what you say you need. He helps you get compensation from the Victims of Crime program, funding to pay your medical bills, to re-locate if that will help, funds for therapy. He helps you apply for jobs or get back into school. More than that. He'll take you to get groceries, take you to a game or a movie.

"I tell my clients, and I told Jean, that I would pick him up and take him anywhere, anything that is positive, that is going to benefit him and move him forward, I would be there to help."

For Jean, it sounded good, but promises like that come and go.

"I needed somebody who would do what they said they were gonna do," he says. "I was fragile, man. I've told Ray that. I was dark. I let my hair grow out. I got fat. All I did was sit on my ass in the house, eat food, watch TV. My girl, I think I drug her down with me."
Traumatized people often struggle to do the little things in life. First the pain, then the emotions sap a person of the energy necessary to take care of business. That's where Jean was when he met Ray.

"I didn't have one thing. I didn't have a job. The place I was staying was in a rough spot. I had a full leg cast on. I'd been shot for something I had nothing to do with. It was low. I was low. That was it for me. I was low."

And Ray kept showing up.

"For me, that was the one thing," says Jean, "that Ray did what he said he would do."

He took Jean to hospital appointments, helped with job applications, practical things, but crucial to a full recovery.

"One of the things that struck me was Jean's military background," says Ray. "Combined with that, now this shooting, he had a lot of potential trauma." Ray suggested Jean get some therapy. Jean was interested.

Ray made therapy appointments, picked Jean up and took him to them, even sat in on some. Jean says the therapy helped him deal with the trauma, but also helped to improve his relationship with his family. He began doing his own physical therapy with videos he'd found on YouTube.
Jean Sr & Jr

He had it out with his father, they reconciled and moved in together. He found a job, then a better one, and now has been working at the same place for nearly a year. His leg feels great. Life is again a thing he embraces.

That night, as we walk around the lake, the holiday season is just underway. Jean tells me that Christmas had always been his favorite time of year. "But I had lost that," he says. "Now it's back, Ray helped me get the joy in life back."


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What restaurants mean

Shnetz & Sovitsky turned this into a beautiful restaurant
Often when I walk Telegraph between, say, 46th and 51st, I think about the risks Thomas Shnetz and Dona Sovitstky, owners of DoñaTomas, took when they moved in to what was then a dreary, empty block. Whenever I weave among the crowds in Uptown, I give them another little Thank You for opening Flora (see right) when nothing else was happening around the Fox Theater.

Driving Mandela on my frequent West Oakland wanderings, I always give a nod to Tanya Holland and her still lonely but always sweet Brown Sugar Kitchen, and pray for the success of her newer, equally welcoming joint, B-Side BBQ, wedged into a desperate stretch of San Pablo Avenue.

Same with Hopscotch, a little down that same troubled street, owned and managed by chef Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz. I'm pretty sure the building they're in used to house a porn shop.

Still, even as Oakland's leaders tout the city's ever expanding culinary splendor as a sign of hope for greater peace and a new city reputation, shootings this summer in Uptown and Jack London Square (again) and Downtown (again) make it harder for me to tell visitors not to worry. How can I say it's safe to head to those neighborhoods, to all those Oakland restaurants -- Boca Nova, Chop Bar, Duende, Flora, Ozumo, etc. -- with their gorgeous interiors and lively atmospheres?

Do restaurants make a city better? And if so, for whom? Well, they provide jobs, and I'm told higher levels of employment lead to decreased crime. They introduce neighborhoods to a broader community. I always thought crowds of happy eaters were by and large peaceful crowds.

They make a neighborhood about something besides its day-to-day struggle to survive. They enrich identity, bring life to the lifeless. Or at least they try to bring life. Not every build-it-and-they-will-come restaurant survives, no matter how good its concept and execution. And certainly the veteran businesspeople who've opened places in Oakland knew that.

I marvel at the faith, courage and devotion of every Oakland restaurateur who, over the past 10 years, has moved into some moribund block, built a beautiful space, and then trusted in his or her own talent, ideas and the taste of Oaklanders, to succeed. I don't know if these owners and chefs saw their ventures in part as civic crusades. I doubt they see themselves as saviors. But despite our ongoing troubles, there are days here in Oakland, sometimes in our quieter stretches, even sometimes after a night of new bloodshed, when I do stop and think about what these places mean.

B-Side BBQ on San Pablo Ave. (Pic from their site)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Puking for Oakland

News that residents of wealthier neighborhoods in Oakland are hiring private security firms and mounting private surveillance cameras nauseates me. I think I'd throw up less if they would take up collections to help provide such security for poorer neighborhoods where the most crime and violence occurs. But I'm not sure anymore that I can entirely condemn them as I'm puking.

Indeed, with shootings in the past few weeks at Jack London Square, shootings in the heart of Uptown, a broad daylight shooting last week in front of a busy hotel at 11th and Broadway downtown, a shooting in Trestle Glen, it's getting harder for me to defend Oakland to residents and outsiders who fear it.

Not impossible. Just harder.

With the stories here on the Almanac, I had hoped (forlornly) to get people to think longer about the hard-hit parts of Oakland, to encourage them to consider the lives lost and lives altered by the gun in East and West Oakland. I'd sought to discourage them from quickly and easily writing-off thedead and their survivors or ignoring the dark plight of the wounded.

At the same time, elsewhere, I've always tried to celebrate the city's greatness, its integrated public spaces, its history and its trees and its bungalows and its youthful, fertile culinary scene.

But every week it gets harder to honestly argue that most of Oakland is safe, hard to stand on the claim that whole neighborhoods remain peaceful and unbloodied.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A plight, and a plea, for Oakland

September 12, 2013 - With 11 homicides in Oakland in August and September, and nearly 70 so far this year, Marilyn Washington Harris, as usual, is too busy helping the families of the killed to raise funds for the non-violence foundation she works through. This year alone, she has comforted and guided the families of 8-year-old Alaysha Carradine, 16-month-old Andrew Jackson, and dozens of lesser-known homicide victims in Oakland. I'm on the board and I can hardly get in touch with her these days. That's okay, I don't want to interrupt her work. All of her energy needs to be spent on her clients, or even occasionally on her own needs.

This is not the way Miss Marilyn would talk. She certainly wouldn't talk about herself. But she will talk about her work and especially the plight of her clients and what they need in the crushing, insane days after a husband or son or daughter or mother has died violently in Oakland. They need attention, love, clarity, guidance, information and a knowing ear. They need protection from exploitation, they need a friend, an advocate. And sometimes they need funds. When these sudden, dire needs remain unmet, things go from bad to worse, and the long dark path back to life, work, family, back to the community, gets far longer and far darker. It might even become endless. The city loses not just the person who was killed, but also it loses the survivors in their lasting grief and unhealed bitterness.

Mural representing 2011 Oakland homicide victim Carlos Nava

Councilmember Libby Schaaf, a native of Oakland, understands the need Miss Marilyn fulfills, and its impact on individuals and the city.
"Walking victims and their families through the complicated, heart-wrenching, expensive nightmare of a gunshot’s aftermath is a special calling – a unique skill. Grown organically out of her own experience as the mother of a homicide victim, Ms. Marilyn has become a guide on this tragic journey.
"Not only a guide down this sad road after violence, Miss Marilyn directs those effected away from further violence. Like other Interrupters, Miss Marilyn is a leader – she literally leads people away from the cycle of revenge, retaliation and more victims."
Marilyn Harris has been helping survivors through the muck for 12 years now, pretty much ever since she became a survivor herself, when her only son, Khadafy Washington, was murdered in Oakland in 2000, and there was no one to help and guide her. Khadafy was 18, and had just graduated from McClymonds High. Today, Marilyn gets some funding from the city, a small amount. She gets help from the venerable Oakland non-profit Youth Alive. But hers is now and always has been a nearly solitary, shoestring operation out of donated space with out-dated equipment in the Acorn. 

If Marilyn is to continue to serve Oakland's living victims of homicide, if she is to continue to serve Oakland, she needs your help. Learn more about Marilyn's work with survivors in the immediate aftermath of a homicide, and her ongoing care for them, at the links below. And please consider donating to the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence or, better yet: 

As Councilmember Schaaf says, "We need to fully support Miss Marilyn to show victims the way. We all dream of an Oakland where the Khadafy Foundation is unnecessary. But until we have enough police officers, or jobs, or defuse the gangs, or get illegal guns out of Oakland, or reach our at-risk youth, we must support one who has had success, and who helps lessen the bullet's impact."

I couldn't agree more.

-Jim O'B.

Read more on the work of Marilyn Washington Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence:

No Escape, No Surrender (San Francisco Magazine)
Life After Homicide Part 1 (Oakland Local)
Life After Homicide Part 2 (Oakland Local)
Miss Marilyn (Ice City Almanac)
Anniversary of an End and a Beginning (Ice City Almanac)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Death like a public bus

A telling quiet hangs over Oakland this week. With the funeral of 8-year-old Alaysha Carradine behind us, and the killing of 66-year-old Judy Salaman fading into the past, there are no more victim profiles in the local news, or calls from our city leaders for change, for action, for something to be done to prevent further violence in Oakland. 

Backwards graffiti, abandoned 16th Street Station, Oakand
And yet, the city suffered three homicides last week. Three men were killed, ages 18, 22 and 43. As far as I can tell, OPD hasn't held a news conference to discuss any of the 3 killings. No council member has met with the neighborhoods. Unfortunately, these victims were of the gender, the ages, and were killed in the kinds of places where to the outside world, even to Oaklanders from outside their world, death is thought to cruise the streets like a public bus. It makes its regular stops. We hear its noise only as it passes. But we don't ride that bus and so we don't pay much attention to it, and it moves on.

This is a question I find myself asking several times a year: what is the thought process, what are the assumptions we're making, that lead us to shrug off killings like those that occurred last week? What specifically about those killings fails to cause the outrage, despair and anger we express so publicly when the victims fit a different profile? And if we were to feel similar outrage, despair and anger with each Oakland killing, instead of treating 97% of them like a passing bus we'll never ride, would things change?

See: Oakland's Civic Trauma
See: Read about today's killings, then forget


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Anniversary of an end and a beginning in Oakland

From the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence:

Killed in Oakland, but his spirit lives
Sunday August 4th, 2013 marks the 13th anniversary of the shooting death of Khadafy Washington on the campus of McClymonds High School in West Oakland. Khadafy was 18. He had graduated just two months earlier. He was riding his bike that night. He died quickly, but his family's pain and struggle were only just beginning. 

Thirteen years later Khadafy's mom, Marilyn Washington Harris, and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence continue to support thousands of survivors of the well-over 1500 people killed in Oakland since that fateful night in 2000. 

Miss Marilyn started in the months after Khadafy's killing by conceiving billboards, which were distributed, 19 of them, about the city, with Khadafy's picture and the blaring question: Do You Know Who Killed Me? They were a stark reminder to a city sometimes in denial that too many of its young men were dying violent deaths. 

Soon she was organizing marches to bring attention to Oakland's problem with violence, and to the lasting pain families of victims endure. Privately, she would reach out to individual families in the immediate aftermath of a homicide, sending them mementos and reminders that they were not forgotten.

Then she began seeking them out personally, at their homes, the hospital, even at crime scenes, taking them by the hand to guide them through the craziness that descends on a family in the days and weeks after a loved-one's sudden, violent death. In their weakest moments, she protected them from exploitation, scraped up funds for the mostly poor families so that they could bury their dead with dignity and grace, and continued to counsel and care for them as they tried to get back to life. Today, as the violence persists, Khadafy's mom is Oakland's primary crisis responder, touching the lives of thousands of suffering Oaklanders. 

Through the life and growth of the foundation named in his memory, we like to think that Khadafy still lives and grows, and that it's his spirit reaching out to the survivors of Oakland's killed, those living victims of homicide, that it is Khadafy's spirit helping them begin the long process of healing, of finding some kind of peace and love in their lives and their city. 

Read more about the work of Marylin Washington Harris and the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence in San Francisco Magazine, "No Escape, No Surrender", and at Ice City Almanac "She's gonna help you get through it."

Jim O'Brien
Member of the Board

Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence

Sunday, July 28, 2013

On the preachers at the funerals of the killed in Oakland

When it comes to stemming violence in Oakland, the preachers at the funerals of the killed are powerless, especially the older ones.

In general, the young men the preachers think they’re speaking to don’t listen.They clap when they’re supposed to, and they say “Amen,” but they shut down when the old preachers, usually the pastor of the church, start saying the same old things, the same things that didn’t change anything the last time. They are unmoved by the preachers’ nostalgic litanies of the comparatively innocent transgressions of their own infinitely distant youths, unmoved by the supposedly relevant lyrics to songs the preachers often admit none of the young people ever will have heard, by the platitudes, by the straightforward begging for reason, by the earnest, plaintive appeals to black pride, to civic pride, to human feeling, to heed the peaceful urgings of Christ.

It’s not the preacher’s fault. I sit there waiting, wondering what they could ever say that might make a difference. Often they appear to labor under the myth of the great speech, the idea that they can inspire with their words and the scriptures a moment of mass, permanent transcendence that will change lives right then and there. Deep down, they must know that what difference they can make will need to be on one young person at a time.

And yet, at the funeral, they have to say something. Some concentrate on lifting the spirit of the family. It’s possible they have surrendered to the reality that a sermon about leaving behind the emptiness of the life of the gun will probably be ineffective, if not completely ignored by those living that life. So they don’t dwell in the plaintive mode. These preachers tend to put all of their substantial eloquence and energy into lifting the spirits of the family with the proposition, put forth at all the funerals of the killed in Oakland, that, if there is any, even scant, evidence that at some time in his life the deceased gave his soul to Jesus, then today is nothing but a celebration of his joyous home-going. He or she, we are promised, is now in a better place than we are. 
Some pastors, even if they understand the futility of their pleas, can’t help themselves: they are sick for their community and they have to try. Here at Velly’s funeral there is a substantial audience of young people coming of age at the grim geographical nexus of our violence that is Bancroft Avenue, Seminary Avenue, and Foothill Boulevard, in East Oakland. 

The pastor has before him a fairly large contingent of African American men just entering the age group of greatest peril: 17 to 34. They’ve got these young people in here, a semi-captive audience, and they are going to give it a go, they’re going to try to find what no one has found before: the words, the word, the one idea, the one tone, the one long-elusive volume, the one inarguable piece of logic, the one laugh line or soaring passage that will transform the psyches and souls of these young men, who are either cynical, or totally disaffected, or overwhelmed with anger, or overwhelmed with fear, young men restrained by the chains of an entire life in which they have seen killing used as, if not the only answer, then a common answer to common problems.    

Early on, while decrying the influence of the Devil, the old pastor recites a passage from the Bible, John 10:10, in which Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come so that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” 

And then he goes straight to the plaintive.

Put down your guns, he says, and pick up the bible. Be a good role model. The Devil is the worst enemy you could ever know. All this killing is motivated by the Devil. Why is everybody drinking tequila? Stop smoking pot. I might expect this killing in Mississippi fifty years ago, by whites, but all this black on black killing is awful. Children should bury parents, not the other way around. Remember what James Brown said: I’m black and proud.

Finally, he tries to quote the 1982 Grandmaster Flash song “The Message,” but he can’t recall the name of the song, the precise lyrics, or who recorded it. “A while back,” he says, “there was a song said it’s a jungle. Something like, ‘It’s a jungle,’” he says, “’you wonder what keeps you from going under.’” Despite the haphazard clues we’re given, everyone knows the song, and everyone seems glad to think about it.
                                                     From Imaginary Pain 
                                                     by J. O'Brien

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Oakland's Civic Trauma

City-wide, Oakland doesn't tend to dwell on its homicides. We have a habit of profiling the victims, so that if they are young African-American men killed late at night in East or West Oakland, we read about the shooting, maybe feel bad for a moment or two, give a brief sigh for a mother who has lost her son, then, in part because we think it possible, even probable, that the victim had done something wrong to put himself in peril, we forget. (Most of us do, but not everyone. See: Miss Marilyn.) 

If the victim doesn't fit our profile, if he or she is very young, or very old, or killed at work, or white, as has been the case with four of our most recent killings, we linger a little longer, the news outlets publish stories on the victim's life and character ("Slain Oakland Pet Sitter was Beloved, Watchful" - sfgate, July 25, 2013), our leaders express their outrage publicly, they call for change ("Oakland Leaders Call for Crime Crackdown" - sfgate July 26, 2013), for new violence prevention strategies, they meet with residents, attend funerals, take up collections in support of the survivor. 

But, again, with the bulk of our killings, we seem to sigh then shrug and move on. At least we think we move on. But in reality, each killing, even the ones considered run-of-the-mill to everyone but the family of the killed, digs us deeper into a civic trauma that affects daily life in ways we might not even notice: we become used to avoiding parts of the city that scare us; we become ever more familiar with the tension strangers cause; we feel a little less proud of, a little less confident in our otherwise beloved city. With each killing, there is a traumatic effect that begins with a victim's inner circle, then radiates out to a street, a block, a neighborhood and beyond. It is difficult to heal, even if you are trying to heal it. If you ignore it, or deny it, it probably won't ever go away.

Oakland Police Deputy Chief Paul Figueroa grew up near High Street in East Oakland. Here he describes how, when he was a kid, the killing of one person changed him and his close-knit neighborhood and how, as a police officer, he continues to witness the ongoing, cumulative effect of Oakland's persistent troubles with violence:

The shooting, the killing, the short- and long-term aftermath of each act of violence, are part of what shaped Figueroa, of what led to him becoming a cop. When he was 10, a beloved neighbor, father of his best friend, was shot and killed while walking his dog. Figueroa says the killing cast a pall over a once relatively normal, happy, active block, a pall that took years to lift. As a cop now, he sees it every day, the lasting and widespread effect of each individual killing or shooting. It becomes the muck Oaklanders must push through every day, the encoded trauma.

“There was this funk, this depression,” says Figueroa, “that just set over the neighborhood for a long time, and I’ve seen that in my career over and over again, and often times I try to describe it to people, because I’ve lived it. And what I’ve seen in my experience, is that you get homicide-homicide-homicide-violent-act, even burglaries can certainly be as traumatic for somebody, and so you get that trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma, and the funk, that we were eventually able to pull out of, it’s difficult when you stack trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”
                         From Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
                         One young, wounded woman's quest to heal herself and her city, Oakland
                         A Kindle Single by James O'Brien
                         Readable on any device
                         Soon to be available as an audio book from

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cold bodies, cold analysis, chilling irony

The immediate aftermath of the July 1st Oakland Wingstop double homicide has been chaotic and confusing. But it does appear now that the killer thought he was in danger, and assumed that the two men coming toward him in the back of the Wingstop restaurant were those by whom he felt threatened. They were, in fact, employees of the restaurant coming to check on him. He shot them both dead. His family says he had begun carrying a gun because people had been shooting at him. They declined to elaborate.

I was struck by several statements in a news item about the incident published in today's San Francisco Chronicle. One is a cold, instant analysis of the potential legal aspects of the killing. The commentator calls it a "fascinating case." Another is a comment by the accused killer's sister, referring to the gunman and his companion: "They came with the intention to eat. They were getting off work and unfortunately they picked the wrong spot to eat."


Names of the dead: Jose Santamaria. Kenneth Bradley. 

Here's a passage from today's story:

Family members of Gurley have told The Chronicle he opened fire while believing he was defending himself and a friend from street toughs who came into the restaurant to harm them. Gurley and his friend had worked guard shifts at a school construction site, Gurley's family said, and were wearing orange safety vests when they walked into the Wingstop.
After seeing one or two men they believed were about to do them harm, Gurley and his friend ran into the freezer in the back of the business, police said. When Santamaria and Bradley followed to investigate, Gurley opened fire, killing both victims, authorities said.
Gurley had told his friend, "The first person that comes in, we're just going to shoot," according to Gurley's mother, 51-year-old Lawana Gurley.
Both victims were wearing their uniforms, said Santamaria's girlfriend.
Legal expert Steve Clark said Friday that the unusual set of circumstances makes for a "fascinating case." He said the defense could conceivably argue that the case is one of manslaughter under the theory of "imperfect self-defense," in which someone overreacts and attacks a perceived aggressor when in fact the target intends no harm.
"The jury would have to decide whether that's reasonable. Even if you perceived an immediate threat, is it reasonable to use deadly force to quell that?" said Clark, a former Santa Clara County prosecutor who is now a defense attorney.
"If it's not reasonable, then it's not self-defense - it's imperfect self-defense, which reduces murder to manslaughter, Clark said. "But still, a firearm was used, so there's still a very significant penalty."
Relatives said Jamaine Gurley had no plans that night to kill anyone.
"They came with the intention to eat," said his sister, 33-year-old Kyesha Thompson. "They were getting off work, and unfortunately they picked the wrong spot to eat."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Life after homicide, Part 2: "She's gonna help you get through it"

Part 2
(See: Life after homicide, Part 1: Adrift in a churning tide

Just over a year later, Rose Holman still says it's hard to believe her son is gone. Lewis was 21. He was killed in daylight, while riding in a car near Mills College.

"I know it, but then I don't," says Holman. "I still feel like we have had one of our arguments, a falling out. But that sooner or later we will meet up, at a family gathering or something, and we will sit down to talk and then we will be past it and move on."

Sooner or later, maybe much later, it will hit her, though, that there will be no chance to reconcile with her son, or to watch him become the man she hoped he would be. And then all the grief will come tumbling down on top of her again.

That's what the killing does to survivors. More than 170 killings in 2012 and 2013 in Oakland have left hundreds of family members in our community, mothers, fathers, children, sisters and brothers, crushed under the weight of their grief. Over 800 victims since 2006 means thousands of survivors, thousands of Oaklanders hoping something or someone will come along and find them and pull them out from under the rubble of their lives.

For many, that someone is Marilyn Washington Harris a kind-of one woman search party. (See: Miss Marilyn.)That something is the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, the organization Harris founded in the name of her son, killed in Oakland in 2000. Harris is an emergency responder. In some ways she is not unlike a police officer or firefighter or paramedic: where others might run away, she steps into the most tense, fraught, sometimes still dangerous situations to bring safety and healing to survivors, to protect them from further harm, neglect and exploitation in their sudden grief.

"A woman at work told me I should talk to her," says Holman. "She said, 'She's gonna help you get through it.' I didn't know what she meant at the time."

At first, Holman said she resented this woman who was stepping into her life at the worst possible time, telling her what needed to be done, what business had to be attended to. Because there are many things to do when you are a survivor of a homicide victim, many people to deal with: police, coroners, funeral directors, city clerks. Suddenly there is much business to attend to, just as your state of mind has been shattered.

Soon, says Homan, her feelings about Harris changed.

"Because she showed me that love," says Holman. "She said, 'I understand where you're coming from, and you can't do it alone.' She has helped me understand a lot of things."

Rose is now a volunteer with the Khadafy Washington Foundation. And the Foundation has found a gem, a self-professed lover of paper work.

"I love organization," says Holman. "Having things together when people need them, that's just who I am." Now, on a daily basis, she sees Harris working with families, doing for them what she did for Homan in her time of need.

"What I love most about her is she'll let you know the consequences. She says, 'If you are a responsible adult like you say you are, you need to consider this.' She will take you step by step and show you how to do it. If there's someplace you need to go, she'll get you transportation, or take you. I see her working with these young kids who have lost a father or mother."

Holman says she couldn't understand how one person could do so much.

"I saw her at an event," she says, "and I sat down and talked to her and asked her if she needed help. I wanted to take care of her, because I saw the work she was doing. She needed help with the computer. I'm a computer nut, put me with a computer and I'm happy."

Rose Holman will be at the annual Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence Mothers & Families Luncheon, Saturday, June 29th, at the Jack London Inn. For more info, go to the event's Facebook page.

                        -J. O'Brien
                         Author of Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
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A history of the homicide rate in Oakland in 4 paragraphs

As I said in the preceding post (A history of Oakland crime-fighting strategies in 4 paragraphs), despite its unrelenting troubles with crime and violence, Oakland remains a great and beautiful place to live and work. Unfortunately, Oakland also remains, especially for young African American men, a frequent place to die. Actually, the past couple of weeks have been relatively quiet in terms of death. Although, of course, tell that to the family of Aya Nakano, shot multiple times and killed here last week, on the eve of his 23rd birthday. Their tumult and terror is only just beginning. (See: Adrift in a churning tide: life after homicide.)
It is true that we have had signficantly fewer killings this year than last. 51 by mid-June of 2012 compared to 43 so far in 2013. (Last year's numbers at this time included the 7 people slaughtered by one man at Oikos University in April, in America's forgotten mass shooting.) 
Death's almost-holiday here is welcome, but I hate myself whenever I employ the "this-time-last-year" thing, as journalists and city officials like to do. (See: Trauma Cache, Part 1: The Calendar and the Killing.) And so I wish to take this opportunity to emphasize that it will take many years, maybe decades, to really know if somehow, some way, we really have lowered the rate of violence in Oakland, in Chicago, in Philadelphia... 
It's understandable that politicians and the media tend too quickly to claim progress (or sometimes regress) based on fluctuations in homicide numbers. Politicians want success, they want to have figured out a way to make their cities safer. They also want credit for it. So, as Mayor Quan has done with me in interviews, they will site any comparative dip in homicide numbers as evidence the tide has turned and they are the moon. The media is just looking for stories. Here's my history of the homicide rate in Oakland from the 1960s, in 4 paragraphs (for the record, 2012 was worse than 2011, worse even than bloody 2007):

In Oakland, homicide numbers might fall or rise incrementally from year to year, but the annual death count has remained staggeringly high for nearly four decades. The lowest recent count came in 2010, when the city had 90 killings.Even in raw numbers, many larger cities have far fewer annual killings than Oakland. In 2011, Oakland had five times as many homicides as did much-larger Seattle. It had four times as many killings as San Diego, with over a million residents.
Such homicide numbers are a tradition in Oakland. City leaders like to tout as progress even the indication of a dip, but an examination of murders in Oakland over the past forty-plus years demonstrates that the numbers never stay down for long. In 1960, Oakland’s population was just over 300,000. There were twenty homicides that year. By 1969, the number had risen to eighty-nine. No one could, or would, say precisely why. When the city first broke the 100 homicide mark, in 1973, Oakland Police Captain John Lothrop was baffled by the violence. “We are living in violent times,” he said.
From 1986 through 1995, the city would suffer an average of 124 homicides a year. Years with fewer than 100 killings were anomalies, but they would be marked as progress. When there was a dip in killings in the late Nineties, it was credited to a decrease in drug dealing and a strong economy. In 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted a turnaround for the city.
Then, in 2002 the number rose to 113. By 2003, reporters were using the term “killing fields” to describe certain neighborhoods in the city. There were 148 homicides in 2006. By 2007, a writer in the Oakland Tribune was worried about what he perceived as a “sinister acceptance of violence” in the city. There were 126 homicides that year. 

                       -From Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
                        a Kindle Single by James O'Brien
                        "Captivating" - Visión Hispana
                        "Gutierrez is an unforgettable subject" - San Francisco Chronicle
                        Available at Amazon for $0.99
                        Soon to be an audiobook from

A history of Oakland crime-fighting strategies in 4 paragraphs

The Oakland Police Department announced this week that it has introduced a mobile command center, in part to deal with an increase in robberies (often of smartphones) and burglaries in Uptown and near Lake Merritt. You can read what they have to say about it here: Its announcement reminded me of all the many things the OPD and city leaders have tried in just the past 15 years as crime, especially violent crime, in Oakland has continued to taint an otherwise great and beautiful place to live and work. (See also: A history of the homicide rate in Oakland in 4 paragraphs) Here's my history of their efforts, in 4 paragraphs:
Randomly, like the coming of the carnival, mayors and their chiefs announce new crime prevention plans, or resurrect old ones and give them new names. Sometimes, the new plans come to the public attention with fanfare, at press conferences or State of the City speeches or Community Crime Summits. But they tend to peter out quietly. In 1999, Mayor Jerry Brown sought to ease crime first through gentrification, through the building of mid-market condominiums to draw a hoped-for 10,000 new, nonviolent, middle-class residents to moribund neighborhoods near downtown. He had a plan to mimic the blight abatement approach said to have helped New York City curb violence. When the homicide rate soared in the mid-2000s, Brown adopted an element of what is known as the Ceasefire model, in which known perpetrators of violence are called in to City Hall — the meetings are called “call-ins” or “forums” — lectured by law enforcement, by mothers of murder victims, threatened by the district attorney and the federal prosecutor, then offered help from social workers to get out of the gang life. The idea is that often a preponderance of violence in a city is perpetrated by only a handful of residents; if you identify them, pressure them and help them change, you save your city time and money. Later Brown got Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to lend Oakland a hundred California Highway Patrol officers to flood the city’s crime hot spots. He called it “Operation Impact.”

Just before Brown left office, the police chief introduced his “Vision and Plan of Action to Reduce Crime — Improve Accountability.” There would be greater hiring of officers, computer mapping of crime patterns, needs-based deployment of the force, community policing, neighborhood watches and greater police attendance at neighborhood crime prevention council meetings. But soon a new mayor would come into office, with a different plan.

Unlike the carpetbagger Brown, his successor, Ron Dellums, had deep roots in the African-American neighborhoods of West Oakland. His father had been a sleeping car porter and an officer of the historic union. Dellums knew many Oaklanders did not trust the government or the police and would likely chafe against a heightened police presence in their neighborhoods. A majority of Oaklanders favored a crime approach that balanced prevention and enforcement with nearly equal care. Dellums introduced what he called the “Prevention, Intervention, Enforcement, Sustainability,” or PIES, safety strategy. He used revenue from a violence-prevention property tax to send intervention specialists into the violent neighborhoods to negotiate with the gangs, to convince them not to fire. Dellums oversaw a reorganization of the police force. Reluctantly, he increased the number of officers. But retirements, attrition, union problems and budget shortfalls soon pared the force back down. Near the end of Dellums’ time in office, a new police chief proposed the return of computer mapping, or hot spot policing, to re-flood those most violent parts of the city with officers. He proposed the adoption of gang injunctions that would prohibit known gang members from associating with one another. The injunctions met severe opposition in the community and the courts. By now, Oakland had re-introduced, sporadically, the lecture-threat-aid gang call-ins, as well...

In 2011, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan announced her “100 Blocks” strategy. Her staff had determined that 90 percent of Oakland’s violent crime occurred within about 100 blocks of the fifty-seven-square-mile city. This is where the police force would focus most of its presence. Quan was coy about precisely which 100 blocks were to be targeted, but it didn’t matter. Soon a respected crime think tank, Urban Strategies Council, released an analysis demonstrating the widespread nature of Oakland’s shootings beyond any 100 blocks anyone could imagine. And residents of the city’s gentle hills, where there is little to no violent crime, began complaining about the possible effects on their neighborhoods if so many officers were assigned elsewhere. The 100 Blocks plan fizzled.
                       -From Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
                        a Kindle Single by James O'Brien
                        "Captivating" - Visión Hispana
                        "Gutierrez is an unforgettable subject" - San Francisco Chronicle
                        Available at Amazon for $0.99
                        Soon to be an audiobook from