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

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

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