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

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.” 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Retaliatory: Street corner confrontations and Operation Ceasefire in Oakland

I will have an article in the October 2014 issue of San Francisco Magazine all about Oakland's Operation Ceasefire, the city's current violence prevention campaign, a collaborative effort among law enforcement, churches, service providers, former victims and former perpetrators. The piece looks at how Ceasefire works, whether it works, and whether it can survive, financially and politically. Comprehensive though the story is, some things could not be elaborated on, including custom notifications, one of the ways the Ceasefire partners communicate with the men they believe commit most of the violence here. So here is something I wrote about how these often tense meetings go down:

Retaliatory - Custom Notifications and Operation Ceasefire
When we have those painful stretches in Oakland, those weeks when there are three, even four killings in quick succession, often they are the result of retaliation. Meant to stanch that flow of retaliatory blood, Operation Ceasefire's most urgent mode of communication with the city's most violent, and its most vulnerable, is called a "custom notification."

Unlike call-ins, meetings which a dozen or more gang members attend, and which can take months to plan, custom notifications usually involve one potential victim or suspect, a person whom intelligence indicates is either in imminent danger of being shot, or who is planning to shoot. Custom notifications might take place on a street corner, in an apartment, at the jail. At these small, seemingly impromptu meetings, one or two highly-trained police officers, along with a probation officer, approach the suspect. Sometimes a street outreach worker who knows the suspect accompanies the officers. 

Usually the first part of the message is specific: You are in danger. 

Or, We know your sister got killed last week. We know you or your friends are gearing up to retaliate. We are watching you.

Then the Ceasfire message comes: We love you, we care about you. But this city cannot take any more violence. It must stop. If you help us, if you pull back, we can help you change your life. But if you or your associates strike, we will strike harder, and you will be gone, prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law, no deals possible, sent to the farthest away prison for as long as possible. The time is now to get out of the life, and we can help you. We have services -- job training, legal advice, substance abuse counseling -- whatever you need to exit this dangerous life alive and free.

There have been 48 custom notifications in Oakland since late 2012.

Also see: Death & the Mother: inside an Oakland gang call-in

Also, the October 2014 San Francisco article is out - Guns Down. Don't Shoot  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Death and the Mother: Inside an Oakland Ceasefire Call-in

I'll have a story in the upcoming, October 2014 issue of San Francisco Magazine about Oakland's current violence-prevention campaign, Operation Ceasefire, its effectiveness and its own political and financial prospects for survival. The story goes inside a meeting between police, prosecutors, community members and, according to the Oakland Police Department, 15 of the city's most violent men. At the meeting -- there have been six such meetings held since October of 2012 -- these mostly young men are promised severe punishment if they commit any further acts of violence, and also offered help getting out of the life. Much of the work done through Ceasefire is funded by the parcel tax known as Measure Y, which expires this year. If its replacement, Measure Z, fails to be approved by Oakland voters in November, Ceasefire will lose a crucial source of funding for the social services it offers those members of violent gangs and groups who want to change their lives.

This scene did not make it into the final version of the story, but it gives a great sense of the atmosphere inside the room and of the ultimate things at stake. I wrote about the two speakers featured here in another story for San Francisco back in 2012: No Escape, No Surrender.

Death and the Mothers: Inside an Oakland Ceasefire Call-in

Ever so gradually, you begin to sense that there is another crucial message being communicated at the call-in. It's not about law enforcement, not even necessarily about putting the guns down or getting a job, but about choosing between your own life or death. It starts when the focus shifts to Marilyn Harris, who lost her only son to the gun in Oakland back in 2000. Harris is also a service provider who steps into the immediate aftermath of homicides, often at the very crime scene, to aid families of the killed. In fourteen years, she has helped thousands of victims' family members in Oakland at the moment of their rawest grief. "You don't want to see me," she says. "Your mother doesn't want to see me. Because if I show up, it means you're dead." It's a fundamental point to make and a key finding of Ceasefire's data analysis: these young men are not only the most violent, they are also the most vulnerable to violence.

Late in the meeting, in the pregnant silence after DA Creighton and other law enforcement speakers have made their threats, the theme of death is revisited. Kevin Grant scrambles under a table and takes the center of the room. He is the one speaker who is given no time limit. Grant spent 17 years in 11 different federal prisons. Some of those years were for crimes committed on the streets of Oakland. Now his is the one voice that everyone in the city—the police, the politicians, the prosecutors and the street— listens to. To the young men he drives home a simple point, one gleaned from attending the sites of countless homicides as the city's premier gang intervention specialist: You are the ones who will end up on the ground.

"The sheet they put over the body is always too short," he says, "so there's always those shoes sticking out." Sometimes the victim’s mother shows up and when she sees the shoes, she knows that it's her son on the ground and her grief comes sudden and loud and excruciating.

He asks the guys, "What if that was you? What if that was your mom? And listen to this: What if God came down to you and said, 'You know what, I feel bad about this. You're still dead, but I'm gonna give you 60 more seconds with your mom to say whatever you want to say.'"

Grant walks to their places at the tables, looks at each young man and, one-by-one, asks him, "What would you say?"

Some tell him they would say "I love you."

“What about ‘I'm sorry?'" says Grant, with a hint of impatience, perhaps even a tinge of anger in his voice. And they nod, all but two of them, sitting near each other at one corner of the square, easily the youngest looking guys in the room. One is like no other participant I've seen at the call-ins I've attended. Throughout the meeting he has stared off into some undetermined space, into the shadows at the edges of the otherwise bright room. He has hardly paid any attention to any speaker. He looks lost, distraught, or possibly high. Others tell me they think he might have been mentally disabled. He responds to Grant's question with the barest nod then returns to his private place.

The other one has held his phone under the table and worked it through much of the meeting. He shrugs off Grant's question, while in a folding chair behind him sits his mother, crying.

It is a quietly devastating scene, hopeless even. But later, after the meeting, I see one of the pastors talking to the kid and his mom. Then I see Grant in a conversation with them. It is one of the great moments of a call-in, when the formal part is over and the preachers, the social workers and the former victims begin the hard work of urging these young men into a different life. It is an encounter only Ceasefire could make happen, so long as Ceasefire survives.

Also see: Retaliatory: Street corner confrontations and Operation Ceasefire in Oakland

Also, the October 2014 San Francisco article is out: Guns Down. Don't Shoot.