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

Monday, October 27, 2014

After the Death of Darnell Byrd, Jr, Part 2: "A story that is killing my heart"

"A story that is killing my heart"  

(See Part 1: Between Rumor and Knowing)

Today, a year after the murder of Darnell Byrd, Jr,, his mother, Ultra Humphries, sits in the front room in her house in East Oakland, in the room where Darnell slept, talking about him, about his hopes and dreams, about his ongoing presence in her life. Darnell wanted to be a barber. He had plans to change his own look, to look more professional, more button-down. He was getting serious, he was growing up. Mother and son were scheduled to go shopping for new clothes the day his body was found, with a bullet in his head, on 78th Avenue. He was 24.

Akim, Ultra and Darnell. Darnell was killed in Oakland in 2013
Ultra has turned Darnell's old room into a peaceful sitting room. Warm sunlight filters through the curtains of blue and brown. There are two comfortable couches and a corner shrine to the memory of her only son. Her husband, Akim, sits at her side. They are young, a year either side of 40, a strikingly handsome couple, out in the world they will catch your eye. But if you watch them long enough you will see in the hard, sober set of their faces the weight of this loss. Akim is always a quiet presence until, occasionally, while telling her story, Ultra can't totally control her emotions and her voice wavers, and then gently Akim touches her arm. He picks up the story until she can gather herself. It's never a long time. Ultra is determined for people to know what happened, what is happening in Oakland, and how the families of the killed, especially the mothers, suffer.

"I'm strong," she says. "But I hurt."

For Ultra, it has been, it continues to be, a journey through grief and pain, to forgiveness, and a search for healing and justice. Every week she checks-in with the Oakland detectives in charge of the investigation. When the primary investigator got sick, she insisted that the investigation progress.

"This is not a cold case," she told them. She says they have been responsive, but she does get frustrated with the pace of things.

Her attitude towards her son's killer has shifted over her painful year.

"In the beginning, I felt a lot of hatred," she says. "And I really wished he was dead." But this has been a hell she would not wish on anybody. "I really have to pray for him and his family. Because...God help him. And I really hope that he will turn himself in and repent and turn away from wickedness and evil. If he doesn't turn away, his parents are going to lose their son."

Her faith has kept her intact, she tells me. "Because I have God, it's why I haven't gone crazy."

She's gotten invaluable support from her church, and from two Oakland institutions devoted to helping families of the killed. The Crisis Response and Support Network, out of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, has helped with the rent when Ultra had to miss work. And they have linked her and her daughter up with therapist who she says have helped them both immensely.

And in Marilyn Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has found a kindred soul and a source of ongoing strength and healing. Since her own young son was murdered in Oakland in 2000, Harris has been stepping into the lives of survivors, often right at the crime scene, or in the first days after a killing, to guide them through the business at hand, to be their eyes and brain when their own eyes and brain refuse to function or believe, and to begin their long journey back to life. Among the many services she provides, Harris leads a monthly grief group for parents of the killed. There, Ultra could being to tell her story.

"The group," she says, "it makes me feel comfortable to speak about my situation, because others are going through the same thing that I'm going through. So they understand. And when they tell their stories, I'm able to identify what I'm going through, because even though they may have lost their son five years ago, ten years ago, they still lost their son, and they're able to tell me how it's gonna be."

It sounds strange, but sometimes her strength frustrates her. "I don't want to wear it," she tells me," but she does want people to know both that she has a painful story and that she is enduring. "I want them to know, even though I've been through the death of my son, you are still able to make it, you can do it. and that's what Marilyn has given me strengh to do."

Outwardly, a year later, she can look fine, normal, like anybody else going about their business. On a day just about six months after Darnell's death, Ultra wandered idly into a local clothing store. She didn't have much money and wasn't really looking for anything in particular, unless some real bargain popped out at her. Eventually she found herself at the jewelry counter chatting with a friendly clerk. Ultra ended up telling the clerk her story, talking about her son's death, witnessing to the clerk about her church.

"She said, 'I saw you when you came into the store," Ultra recalls, "'and you just looked so good, and nice, and you would never have thought that you lost your son.' In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Do I have to look like what I've been through? She said 'You can't even tell.' But if I looked like my story," says Ultra, "I'd probably be missing all my hair, all my teeth, one leg, no hands."

Still, it is important that people know, that they hear. "Just because I'm not wearing my story, doesn't mean I don't have a story that's killing my heart. Because I have one."

One year later, of course Darnell remains a force in her daily life, even as she misses the little things, the mom-things."I can't tell him to take the garbage out, tell him to go the store for me."

She speaks to him still, sometimes just to ask, in exasperation, why he wouldn't listen to her. "Why didn't you just stay home, why did you always have to go out. Why didn't you just listen. I told him not to go in that area. Not to go around there. That's not a good area for him to be in."

And then there are the times when she hears his voice. Darnell speaks to her. "I just keep hearing him telling me 'Moms, it's gonna be okay.'"

When her inclination was to save the insurance money, Darnell gave her advice. Mom, you need to use that money, that's what I gave it to you for. She used it to create this peaceful room we are sitting in today, this room in which Darnell is a presence in photographs and in spirit. One year after his murder, the grief of course still comes, sometimes very suddenly. "I will be in the bathroom putting on my makeup and suddenly have a spurt of crying," says Ultra.

She says she wants to have a quiet day on the anniversary of his death, a visit to his niche at the cemetery and a day of family togetherness. They'll have a bigger event to mark what would have been his 26th birthday in January.

More and more, others who have lost a son or daughter have begun turning to Ultra for advice and she says that actually has helped her heal. "Helping others helps me," she tells me. "I'm a fighter, I go, I have to keep moving, and that's what makes me thrive. I want to be like Marilyn Harris, to be able to motivate and inspire people."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

After the death of Darnell Byrd, Jr, Part 1: between rumor and knowing

Between Rumor and Knowing

It always begins with rumor and disbelief. Phones ring and it's the Street on the line. The Street, notoriously unreliable, is saying your son has been shot. But the Street always knows things before you do. Most often, it is the last thing he touches, the last thing he feels, and as if the concrete has sensed his last heartbeat, it begins broadcasting the news.

Despite what early reports said, Darnell, 24, was shot once.
Ultra Humphries was at work on a Saturday morning. On her way in that day she'd felt compelled to pray for her children. Now she was in a meeting but her cellphone kept lighting up and she kept ignoring it. She could see who was calling: her daughter, her daughter's cousin, a family friend. It was annoying; they all knew she was at work. Finally her meeting was over so she called her daughter back. "Somebody says Darnell's been shot," she said, "he's dead."

No, you're lying, thought Ultra. Not that her daughter was lying, but life was lying, the world, time was lying.

Then came those long hours between rumor and knowing, the last, strange, painful hours between a normal life and the void, hours like a slow breaking of your bones, as you search for the truth, for something solid, some authority to tell you he is alive or dead. Sometimes the only real authority is your own eyes.

It was only the beginning of a journey similar to one thousands of Oaklanders have taken in the last 40 years, as the city's homicide rate has remained stubbornly high. There have been years when homicide numbers go down and years when they rise to frightful highs, but the bottom line is that for four decades Oakland, today a city of about 400,000 people, has averaged 108 homicides per year, consistently one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Even as other troubled cities across the country have brought violence down, Oakland has failed to do so. Perhaps until now. We seem prepared to have our second consecutive year where homicides have fallen significantly, and we can only hope that this trend continues, that it is in fact more than a trend, but a new normal. It will take years and constant vigilance to know if we have succeeded. It will take generations to bring real peace and healing to our hardest hit neighborhoods, where children develop PTSD from witnessing violence, from losing relatives and classmates to the gun. Where many residents of all ages suffer in an ongoing way from the trauma.

Ultra Humphries had tried to escape that trauma, she had tried to shield her children from it, raising them in Suisun, far to the east of Oakland. But, eventually, Ultra, who'd grown up in Oakland, and her new husband, Akim, had moved back. For a brief time they'd lived near crime-ridden 79th Avenue in East Oakland. Then the family had moved to a charming old house on a quiet street far from 79th.

But something drew Darnell back there. His mother had warned him a way more than once.

"When you're in an environment where you think that type of lifestyle is cool," says Ultra, "even though your immediate family doesn't do that, you try to fit in"

But he had friends and family over there. Then he got arrested there, for selling weed, spent time at Santa Rita for that. Darnell was not one of those stoic kids who pretends he's unaffected by incarceration..

"When my son went to jail, he cried like a baby," Ultra says. "He wasn't a bad kid, you're trying to be hard, but you're really not. He cried. 'I'm not gonna do this anymore, Mom, get me out of here.'"

Since then, things had been going well for Darnell. His mom had worked hard to get him into a program for young men, to help them find discipline and to establish a path forward. Ultra worries that she did too much for her son, was perhaps too protective, but really she just sounds like an active and caring mother.

"I always came to his rescue," she says. "That's why he probably thought everything was so easy. Because I always came to his rescue. I'm always doing things for him to make sure he's okay." Note the present tense.

Darnell wanted to be a barber. He had plans to begin looking and dressing in a more professional manner. He and his mom were supposed to go shopping for nice clothes, new shoes and button-down shirts that Saturday when she got off work. On Friday night before a friend picked him up, Akim asked Darnell if he'd be home later or if he was spending the night with a friend.

"I liked to be up and to let him in when he would get home," says Akim.

He remembers Darnell thought about it a moment and said, Yes, he would be home that night.

Then a strange thing happened, something that Ultra can't recall having happened before. At 2 o'clock in the morning, she was awakened by a phone call.

"I don't even know why I answered," she says. "I usually don't."

It was Darnell. Just calling to say Hi. He was happy, excited, he'd only recently learned that the family was planning a trip to Vegas for his 25th birthday that coming January. He wanted to talk about it, wanted his mom to tell his friend that it was true. He put the friend on the phone. Ultra confirmed the story and told the friend to bring her son home, it was so late.

In the morning before heading to work she asked Akim if he'd let Darnell in, but he'd not come home. They didn't think much about it. He was 24, he sometimes didn't come home. Then, around 10 o'clock that morning, the calls started coming in. As soon as she heard the rumor, Ultra started looking for information. She called Darnell's friends, who said he'd ended the night at an apartment near 79th.

"I tried to keep him away from that area," says Ultra.

She tracked down the number of a girl he'd been with that night, who said only that he had been on the phone with someone, that he had been pacing the floor. She called relatives who lived over near 79th. No one knew much.

She called the coroner, but no one answered. It was a Saturday, the office was short-staffed. Not until the end of the day did she finally talk to someone there. They had a young man who fit her son's description, down to a particular and unique tattoo. It was true. It was over. And something else had begun.

Darnell was shot one time in the head, at 6 o'clock in the morning, in front of a store on 78th. It was November and still dark out.

"Some people tell me a lady near where he got shot heard him say 'Somebody help me,'" Ultra tells me, then says it again, "Somebody help me," but swallows the last word, or rather gasps it instead of saying it.

Again she gathers her strength and continues. "That's all I know that my son said, he didn't have a gun, but he did call for help."

"If I looked like my story, I'd probably be missing all my hair, all my teeth, one leg, no hands, because I've been through a lot. I want them to know even though I've been through the death of my son, you are still able to make it, you can do it. And that's what Marilyn Harris has given me strength to do."

Friday, September 26, 2014

"I still sleep with his shirt under my pillow"

Shoes of Oakland homicide victims

On their own in Oakland: a good time to be reminded of their bad times

Each of them talked about the call. It came at 3 a.m., or at 5 a.m., at 6 o'clock in the evening but it was summer so the sun was up and bright, still shining when they got to the hospital. None of them knew what to do in the moment. Some of them screamed. Some had to be told two or three times. Disbelief was common.

In Oakland, a quiet summer of 2014 has ended with a violent late September. There have been 3 killings, all of them young men, and there was a shootout in East Oakland in broad daylight. Still, homicides in Oakland are down for the second straight year and so it is the best time possible to be reminded of the human pain the killing causes, complacency being our tendency as a city and a species. Last night the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence (along with My Baby Matters and Pleasant Grove Church) held a vigil for last year's victims, and many of their survivors came and spoke. 

With a microphone, before the small crowd gathered in the ampitheater in front of City Hall, they were remarkably strong, remarkably collected, though some cried. They all recalled their last encounter with their son or daughter or husband.
"We were in the kitchen. I'd brought home Chinese food. I asked him if he was hungry and fixed him a plate."
"Thank god the last time we were together we had a great time. We laughed a lot and I told her I loved her. The next time I saw her she was in a white box."
"He forgot his phone and called to tell us. I said it was getting late and it was time to come home. He said, 'Okay, Dad.'" 

One young women held her adorable and fatherless daughter in her arms and recalled times, back in 2006 and 2007, cutting out pictures of her killed East Oakland friends from the newspapers. She never thought it would hit so close. "He might have been into some things he shouldn't have," she said, "but no one deserves to die."

For the dead of 2013, 92 balloons
Some rambled a little, but of course you felt like you should indulge them. One mother had lost two sons within 19 days. A father whose beautiful young daughter was killed just three months ago said, as I have heard so many of them say, "I have good days and bad days. Today is a bad day."

The mother of Alan Blueford, killed by the police in 2012, recalled a conversation with Marilyn Harris. Harris' son was killed in 2000. Since then she has entered the new void that confronts shocked survivors in Oakland, to guide them back to life. Alan's mother told Harris she couldn't sleep and was having nightmares. "Get one of his shirts," Harris told her. "Fold it up and put it under your pillow." It worked, said Alan's mom. "I still have his shirt under my pillow every night."

Mallie Latham was there to lend support. His daughter Shanika was killed in 2012. (See No Manual: after the death of Shanika Latham). Rose Holman was there. Her son Lewis was killed in 2012. (See Life After Homicide: adrift in a churning tide for Rose's story)

John Lois, head of the Oakland Police Department Homicide Division hovered on the edges of the group, took a few calls on his phone, occasionally disappeared around a corner. Several times he was approached by mothers of the killed who knew him and he spoke with them patiently. Many, probably most, of the mothers are aggressive advocates for their lost children; they follow the investigations insistently. Tonight one said, "Oh they know me at the police department. I call them every week."

When Det. Lois spoke, he mentioned that homicides are down this year, which is fine, but it was probably irrelevant to most of the people in this particular gathering.

Despite taking place in the open plaza before City Hall, it was an intimate affair. A family affair. You got the sense that, except for Harris and a very few others, these people are on their own.                      
- J. O'Brien 

Read More - In the October issue of San Francisco Magazine - Guns Down. Don't Shoot. Inside Oakland's Operation Ceasefire by James O'Brien - how it works, whether it is working, and can it survive problems of funding and politics in Oakland.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My San Francisco Magazine article on Oakland's Operation Ceasefire

Backwards graffiti pic: Caitlin O'Brien
They are, according to the Oakland Police Department, the city’s most violent or potentially violent men. All are on probation or parole, having been convicted of robbery, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and a litany of other felonies. Some were summoned here by a letter received in the mail; others had the letter hand-delivered to their home by a probation officer with a police escort. When the authorities knocked on the door, “people were nervous, ready to go on the run,” says Malik, one of the parolees who was paid a visit. Better to flee and ask questions later, the men believed, than to open the door and leave in cuffs: “If they catch me,” Malik says, shrugging his shoulders, “they catch me.”