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

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
                         A Kindle Single
                        "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 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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Adrift in a churning tide: life after homicide, Part 1

Part 1

Very suddenly she had become like a lifeless stick adrift in a churning tide, with no will of her own. That's what it sounds like as Rose Holman describes the days after her son Lewis was shot and killed in Oakland in April of 2012. Lewis was a passenger in a car near Mills College in East Oakland. The driver was shot, too, but survived. Lewis died at the scene. It happened at 4:30 p.m.

When she emerged from that tide, things got even worse. "I was in an uncontrollable rage," says Holman, in a voice today full of kindness and calm.

Even in Oakland, you wouldn't have heard much about the killing of Lewis Holman. The 21-year-old carpenter was shot to death during the most murderous year Oakland had seen since the 2006. Lewis was not wealthy or white. He was not a child. He was a young, black man in East Oakland, and so, in some objective ways, the most unspectacular of victims of the city's long-standing troubles with the gun. Such murders garner little public attention. 

There was a handful of news items. One said there were many witnesses to the killing of Lewis, but more than a year later the police have no real leads. No one would talk. 

Like most survivors of the killed, his mother was offered little help from the city. Her loving daughters jumped in to try to guide her, but what did they know, really, about what to do when you are thrust into the strange world of homicide and its aftermath? Suddenly, there are police to deal with for perhaps the first time in your life. There are coroners and morticians and preachers and a whole world to notify and everything costs money and you had no idea this was coming. And you have lost not just your son or brother but, for a time, your mind, your heart. 

Who would step in to help her? -coming up in Pt 2 ("She's Gonna Help You Get Through It")

                                      -J. O'Brien
                                       Author of Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story,
                                   a Kindle Single, available at Amazon for $0.99
                                   "Captivating" - Visión Hispana
                                   "Gutierrez is an unforgettable subject" - San Francisco Chronicle
                                   Soon to be an audiobook from