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

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."