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."