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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A search that never ends

Alexis' mom liked her daughter's new boyfriend, Rickey; he brought out a side of Alexis she rarely saw. "He made her giggle and laugh," says Lashawn Randolph.

Lashawn & daughter Alexis. Alexis was killed in January 2015
Alexis was a very determined person, a young woman with a plan. Just out of high school in San Jose, she had quickly moved to Oakland to live with her beloved grandfather, despite his discouragement. Not that he didn't love the idea of having her near. He'd been there the day her mom had brought the newborn Alexis home from the hospital. They'd all lived together when Alexis was a little girl. He says that, of course, he loves all his grandkids, but you can tell Alexis was special, perhaps because of a connection forged in those early years.

But...Oakland is Oakland. No doubt, it is a beautiful place full of thriving, promising young people. But it is also a place where young people find trouble they can't make their way out of. Sometimes mortal trouble. Still, Oakland, with her grandfather, is where Alexis wanted to be.

"I dreaded that," says Lashawn.

But life in Oakland would be more exciting. At least when she wasn't working long hours at UPS. And work was what she wanted right now. College would come, it was definitely part of the plan. But first she wanted to work for a few years, make some money, have some fun.

In Oakland, she met Rickey Livingston. Oldest boy among seven siblings, Rickey's youngest brothers looked up to him. When he would come home to visit, he was all theirs, the kind of big brother who gave them his attention, affection and focus.

"He did that with all his brothers and sisters," says his dad, Rick Livingston. "He was all about family." Rickey loved music and seafood and sweets. He was intelligent, had a wide skill set. "And the dude was handsome," says Rick. "He had it all."

Nevertheless, Alexis had been reluctant to bring Ricky home to meet her mom.

"I'm tough," says Lashawn. "It's always a thousand questions." Rickey took the parental interrogation in stride, handled it with respect. Mom was satisfied.

Rickey Livingston, 20, killed in January 2015
"You could tell he was raised in a family like ours," she says. And then there was that way he had of bringing out Alexis’ lighthearted side. If he made Alexis happy, then Mom was happy, too.

Rickey was 20, Alexis 19. A good looking young couple. They were killed together. Shot in Ricky's car in broad daylight in East Oakland on January 16th of this year.

Now, on the 16th of every month, the families communicate, support each other. It's an unfortunate friendship forged in the most unfortunate circumstances. But so few can understand their plight.

Marilyn Washington Harris understands. Her only son, Khadafy Washington, was killed in Oakland in 2000. He was 18, had just graduated from McClymonds High, in West Oakland. He was killed on the campus there on a Friday night. The Alameda coroner's office is closed on Saturday, but how was Marilyn supposed to know that? She went there, banged on doors. No one was there. It made a horrible, lonely situation worse. She vowed that that kind of thing wouldn't happen to anyone else in Oakland.

For the last 15 years, through the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has dedicated her life to helping survivors of homicide victims in the days right after a killing, and beyond. Over those 15 years, she has taken nearly a thousand mothers, fathers, wives or children by the hand to walk them through the complicated business that comes in the wake of a homicide. She has helped them get compensation and aid available to help pay for funerals, helped them plan the funerals, protected them from exploitation at this most vulnerable time, listened to their pain, confusion, anger and fear. She has been a source of comfort and love, more than a symbol, proof to these wounded families that love is still out there and healing is possible, just when it seems impossible.

"She's been awesome," says Lashawn.

"Marilyn was patient," says Rick. "She told me, 'There are things you need to know. First we'll meet with the Victims of Crimes office, we'll go from there.' She was just very informative, welcoming, you could tell she understood what was important. I listen to her guidance because it is coming from the heart."

When you lose a child to violence, the killing itself is only the beginning of something, of a kind of lonely quest, or a search, that will last the rest of your life. And what makes that quest, that search even harder is that you don't really know what you're seeking. You're not even sure you want to find it, whatever it is. Is it peace? A reason? Is it the past?

There is a phenomenon discovered and documented by researchers and therapists who work with parents of the violently killed. They call it "re-enactment syndrome." Parents who were not there when their son or daughter was killed are wracked with guilt or simply cannot accept the idea of their helpless child dying without them. They are compelled to imagine what happened, with details gleaned from police reports or eyewitness accounts. They place themselves in the story, imagining and re-imagining what they would have done to comfort their dying child. It's possible Rick Livingston has never heard of re-enactment syndrome. Yet he expresses it perfectly.

"When my baby laid on that floor in transition," says Rick, "I wish I could have held his hand, been there with him, touched him, just been there."

It's part of the search for that mysterious something. You think you want peace, but when it appears, you feel guilty. You worry your lost loved one will feel abandoned. You look back to the incident as if searching for an alternate past. That is a search that will never end.

Both Rick and Lashawn talk about a future they will never witness. Rickey's dad dreamed of taking his son to exotic places, "away from the concrete of Oakland and San Francisco." Alexis mom talks about the happy answers she will never get, what college Alexis would go to, what career path her promising daughter would follow. Both young people have had birthdays since their deaths. Each family had a party.

"I was just all over the place that day," says Lashawn.

In one way, each of them is lucky. Lashawn has a support system of family and Alexis' friends who keep Alexis as a part of their every day lives, who text her mom to see how she is doing, bringing up good memories, posting old pictures to her Facebook page. Rickey's dad has his wife and children. And he is a social worker, surrounded in his work by therapists and others whose lives are dedicated to helping people. 

"They've always got my back," he says. "But you don't want to burden people, It's a heavy load to carry. There's orphans and widows, but what do you call when you lose a child? There's no name for it."

That is partly why Marilyn formed a support group. It meets the first Tuesday of every month in a bland classroom at Kaiser in Oakland. Often an Oakland Police Department homicide detective comes to update the families on their own cases or on the state of violence in the city. Mothers and fathers who lost a child a month ago, a year ago, or 10 years ago, come to the group, talk about life, death, their cases, their lost children, their living children. Often there is laughter, frequently anger, sometimes sadness. They always welcome with a rare combination of warmth and great regret new attendees. Rickey's dad and his wife, and Alexis' mom make the long drive to Oakland frequently, one from the South Bay, one from the North Bay, to be with others who understand, who have been there.

"I almost blew up one time," says Rick. "I was literally on the brink, and so they all loved me, got around me. They still call me. It's imperative that people try to support these programs, even a little bit helps."

So far in 2015 Oakland has suffered just over 90 homicides. The number may well surpass a hundred this year. That's a lot of violence leaving a lot of pain in its wake. It's a pain we don't often think about, but one that, unattended, robs the community of vital members, and that sometimes leaves a bitterness that can lead to deeper problems for an individual and a community. Research and real life have shown that violence, especially the trauma it causes, can lead to more violence. But healing can also lead to greater healing.

Friday, June 26, 2015

No Due Process for the Dead, Part 2: Guilty Until

Part 2: Guilty Until
See Part 1: Allegations
See also: The price of prices at 17, about Ed McGowan

Just hours before Ed McGowan died, Mr. Polk had a talk with him. Mr. Polk was Ed's grandfather.

"I hadn't seen him in awhile," he tells me, "and I wanted to find out how he was doing. I had heard that he wasn't doing the right thing."

Still, Ed, 17, was on track to graduate from high school in a month, and he assured his grandfather that all was okay. What else could the grandfather do?

Edward McGowan's graduation portrait
That evening Mr Polk got the call. He was in East Oakland, dropping his wife off at 73rd. It was 7:30 and Ed's father was on the phone. Over on 64th Street, Ed was lying dead from a bullet wound. Quickly, Mr. Polk drove the few blocks to see his grandson a second time that day, but he couldn't get close. Ed was now evidence, Ed was off limits. They didn't move the body until midnight. He would see his grandson again two days later at the funeral home, then not again for another two weeks.

Because the police said Ed had a gun when he was killed, because allegedly he shot, not mortally, his own killer, because in the words of the rules of the California Victims Compensation Program, a victim is ineligible if he has "participated in or been involved in the crime" (sometimes it reads "contributed to the circumstances of his death"), Ed's family was denied the emergency funds available to most homicide survivors to pay for a timely funeral.

"It was a very stressful time," says Mr. Polk.

In California, there is financial help for victims of violent crime, from the California Victims Compensation Program, or Cal-VCP. In Alameda county, victims apply for that compensation at the Victim/Witness Assistance Division of the DA's office. There you fill out the forms and there your eligibility is determined.

Among the primary eligibility rules: you must be cooperating with the investigation of the crime; and you must not have contributed in any way to the circumstances that led to it. These conditions are determined by the content of the police report.

Of the 50,086 applications processed in fiscal year 2013-14, 7962 were rejected, that's just under 16%.

Tasia Wiggins is the director of the Alameda victims assistance office. She tells me that an initial rejection is not always the end of the story. Sometimes a second, fuller police report might make a difference.

"What we do is order the full police report to see if circumstances change, if that contribution (to the crime) is overcome. So we try to tell people, 'Let's do what we can, let's get that application in, even if it might be found to be ineligible.' We can still make sure we get the full police report so that a decision can be made later once we get all of the information."

In these cases, compensation, in the form of reimbursement, might come later. But for destitute families in the grip of despair at the loss of a loved one, the need for funds for a funeral is urgent.

In general, the victims compensation program in Oakland is known to be genuinely responsive to families in dire need of funds for a funeral. Rarely have I ever heard someone, even someone deemed ineligible, say they were not treated with sympathy and respect there. And when a victim is eligible, this government office is able to provide financial help with great celerity.

On the other hand, the rule that disqualified Ed's family from help punishes innocent survivors, victims, whose loved one, according to the police report, may have been engaged in something unlawful when he was killed.

If Ed had lived and been accused of possessing or firing a gun, he could have contested the charge, gotten a lawyer, gotten his day in court. But, as I have said and written before, there is no due process for the dead. In fact, even on appeal, according to the legislation that governs the program, it is up to the victim's family to disprove the evidence. Here's the wording:

At the hearing, the person seeking compensation shall have the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, the elements of eligibility...

It reads as if the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" is being turned on its head, as if the common perception, that any young African American man killed on the streets of Deep East Oakland must have been doing something wrong, has been encoded in the statutes. If fact, according to Jon Myers, a spokesperson for Cal-VCP, it is the statutory nature of that rule that makes it difficult to change.

"Our mission is to help victims of crime, there isn't any prejudice, but we have to follow the law, and the law has certain limitations," Myers told me recently. These limitations in eligibility are also a nod toward the program's limited funds. Compensation money comes from criminal fines, but criminals are notoriously delinquent in paying up. At times the fund's balance has dropped so low that the amount of money available to victims had to be lowered. There used to be $7,500 available for funeral expenses. That figure is now $5,000.

Still, eligibility in some cases has been expanded, first to allow non-violent felons and victims on probation to be eligible. More recently, eligibility has expanded to cases of sexual assault where the victim was a prostitute. Technically in such cases, the victim could be seen to have contributed to the circumstances that led to the assault, and to have been committing a crime when it happened. The program didn't feel comfortable with this designation. They had some wiggle room on such eligibility decisions.

"We had already recognized this problem internally," says Myers, "so it wasn't automatically 'you are out of luck.'" Recently Cal-VCP changed the regulations on sexual assault so that prostitutes are no longer ineligible if they get assaulted on the job.

But Myers says the ineligibility of families like Ed's would be tougher to change, that statutes can only be changed by an act of the legislature.

And so, innocent survivors continue to suffer for something the police say their loved one did. And maybe it is true, maybe their son or grandson has done something stupid, something to put himself in a place of great danger. But his mistake would seem already to have been paid for in the harshest and most painful way.

It is Tasia Wiggins who usually delivers the bad news that an Oakland family like Ed's is ineligible.

"Those are the hard calls," she says. "But if there is an eligibility problem, we're not gonna make them wait, because the bottom line is, they need to know what they can count on."

What most of the families can count on is being forced to go out into the community to ask for help at the worst time in their lives.

"It's tough to see," says Myers. "But I see it all the time, a car wash to fund a funeral."

Ed's family members gave what they could. The family did a GoFundMe campaign that brought in a little money. Catholic Charities donated a small sum, but it still did not add up to the amount needed to bury Ed. It would be two weeks before Ed's funeral. It was already a time of uncertainty.

"The wait didn't make it better," says Mr. Polk.

Despite the two-week wait, Ed's funeral at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland was a very full and loving tribute. He had a lot of friends and a big, loving family. Two cousins of his spoke about how they and Ed had all been born within a year of each other, and had been excited to turn 18 together. An uncle had flown in from Georgia. He talked of his regret at not having known Ed better. He promised to work harder to get to know his family members in California. A young man in a wheelchair said he'd been shot ten years ago. He begged the young people to put the guns down. One of the preachers told the story of the Prodigal Son, but focused on a different lesson than one usually takes away from that story. I took his lesson to heart. A singer sang a gospel song called "I Wish You Were Here." Another, older preacher said that God is a good God and never fails us. He said that violence among young men represents a "grave situation." He said there are many paths a young man could choose in Oakland that look bright, "but there is the devil, Satan." Then he read from the Book of Job about the hope of a tree in its tender branches. Later he read from the Book of Proverbs about trusting in the Lord: lean not on your understanding.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The price of prices at 17

Outside the chapel in Oakland
At first when the preacher started to relate the Prodigal Son story I sort-of rolled my eyes a little. Not again. I thought. And anyway, there is no way Edward McGowan could be anybody's prodigal son. Edward will not return to ask for any kind of forgiveness, and no one will be slaughtering any fatted calves to celebrate. 

Edward was killed in Oakland in mid-May, during an apparent drug deal that went bad. He was 17, a popular student and athlete at Fremont High School, and a handsome kid, to judge by his graduation picture, on display next to his coffin in the chilly Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland on a hot Friday morning in June. After two weeks in refrigeration, while his family tried to scrape together the money to pay for his funeral, Edward did not look like himself. The wait, and then the sight of their son, grandson, nephew, cousin and friend could only have added to everyone's pain and grief. 

Since allegedly Edward was killed while involved in a drug deal, since allegedly he had a gun, allegedly fired it at the person who killed him, his family was ineligible for victim compensation money from Alameda County. That is where many families get the funds to pay for funerals. Absent that, it can take weeks to find a way. Especially in cases where the victim is not young or old or white or immediately sympathetic in some other way. For those kinds of victims, often there are fundraisers and added publicity that leads to contributions to help with such expenses. But rarely would that happen for the family of an African American male victim over the age of 16. In other words, demographically, Edward fell into the category of most of our victims, and therefore got little attention. His age, his gender, his race, and his own alleged contribution to his death were barriers to our sympathy and aid.

It is that lack of immediate sympathy that brought me around to the preacher's decision to tell us the story of the Prodigal Son, who took his inheritance from his rich father early, squandered it on fast living, then returned destitute to ask for forgiveness, to ask to be allowed back into his father's good graces. He was accepted back with great joy. The point the preacher was making was not that the God's mercy is infinite, and not that God celebrates once lost sheep more than a sheep who never strayed. His point this time was that the son made a bad decision, an immature decision. Edward did, too. Edward was 17. Most 17-year-olds don't do what he did, it's true, but most don't grow up like he did, and all of them make immature decisions.

I was lucky at 17. I made many immature decisions at 17, although admittedly none involved a weapon. I got away with them. Edward didn't. He paid the price of prices. His family continues to. The question is, should their suffering be compounded by their ineligibility for help? Edward is gone. It makes no difference to him. His parents committed no crime. But they are the ones left to endure the pain and emptiness of his loss, and to struggle to achieve even the bare comfort of giving him a proper funeral.

I'll be interviewing the director of victim and witness aid for Alameda County next week to ask some of these questions.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

No Due Process for the Dead, Part 1: Allegations

Part 1: Allegations
Often, when a homicide victim in Oakland is very young or otherwise outside the common demographic categories of most victims -- that is, when the deceased is not an African American man between the ages of 18 and 34 -- I will see on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere that someone has begun a GoFundMe campaign, or some other fundraising effort, to "help the family pay for the funeral.' 

Edward McGowan's obituary
It is a very kind thing to do, but in most of those cases, the families don't need help with funeral expenses. The Victims of Crimes office (VOC) of the Office of the Alameda District Attorney can quickly arrange to pay for the expenses that come in the immediate aftermath of a homicide. There is as much as $5,000 available to survivors to pay for funerals.  

But, if the victim was killed while allegedly committing a crime himself, then there is no financial help available. And there is no due process for the dead, certainly no swift one just when the family needs it. If the police say the victim was committing a crime, then the family is out of luck and on their own.

Because he was killed in a gunfight, in which allegedly he wounded his own killer, you wouldn't have heard much about the struggles of the family of 17-year-old Edward McGowan. Outside his own family and large group of friends, he wouldn't have inspired much lingering general sympathy in Oakland, where he grew up, and attended Frick Middle School and Fremont High. Certainly you would have seen no fundraising efforts on his family's behalf.

But because Edward was said to be in possession of a gun, and to have fired that gun in the course of a drug sale gone bad, they are precisely the kind of family that could use some help. It took two weeks for them to scrape together what was needed to bury their son. It must have been a long two weeks. At Edward's well-attended funeral on Friday at the Chapel of the Chimes, you could see and hear the suffering of his family, the same kind of suffering you would encounter at the funeral of any homicide victim, no matter the circumstances of their deaths or the facts of their lives. I'll have a longer piece about Edward and about this issue of VOC aid being denied certain families soon, about how we might think we know something about the lives people live, or lived, but that often our conclusions about them and their families, including our subconscious ones, are based on ignorance.

However, for now, if you wish to help Edward's family and others like them, I suggest you give to either Youth Alive or the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, both of Oakland. (I am a board member of the latter.) The founder of the Khadafy Washington Foundation, Marilyn Harris, has been helping all families of just about every victim in Oakland for 15 years now. Staff of Youth Alive also work to assure the families get the help they need. Either of these non profits could use your help.

Donate to Youth Alive.
Donate to The Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"You've changed places, he and you" - Part 2

"You've changed places, he and you"
Part 2: So much hard frost

The poet Pavel Antonkolsky (need I say he's Russian, with a name like that?), described in verse his grief over the death in action of his young son in June of 1942. In his long poem, "Son," he seemed to capture, with  haunting precision, the suffering of today's parents who lose a son to violence. Please check out Part 1 of "You've changed places, he and you."

In the poem, Antonkolsky goes on to say, "You share your mourning with all Moscow," as surely the parents of the killed in Oakland seek to share their mourning with our city.

Antonkolsy then seems to describe the ambivalence of Moscow, which in 1942 was of course suffering the abject horror of war. Here he again captures something of the modern-day ambivalence of Oakland toward the survivors of homicide victims. Oakland can be a warm and happy place, tolerant and open. I love it here. (See: A Unified Theory of a Tough Town.)

Akim & Ultra Humphries lost their son, Darnell Byrd, in 2013
But there are neglected places. (See: Oakland's Tainted Geography.) There are communities and neighborhoods here subject to active oppression and suppression. (See: Beautiful Wounded: a story from The Deep.) In these communities, you could almost understand an inability to muster very much grief for the survivors. And yet, often they do muster it, and I have witnessed the support and love they bring to families of victims.

It's the warm and happy Oakland that tends to brush most killings aside. Hey, you've gotta live your life. And if you stopped too long to ponder every death here -- after this weekend's triple homicide, there have been 31 already in less than 6 months of 2015 -- you'd have little time left for your own problems. I continue to think that if we did stop to ponder the suffering that comes in the wake of each killing, no matter the circumstances, we would have less and less to ponder.

Here is how Antonkolsky saw his city, the Russian capital, after the death of his son:
You share your mourning with all Moscow. There
Are no lamps or candles in windows,
Only haze, chilled with all the tears
And so much hard frost. It helps 
With its attention. What memories? Rails,
Rails, rails, Poles, flying by, poles.
Those burned-out people, shivering in the wind,
The whine of shrapnel. The metal howl
Of fate...
                                            - from "Son"
                                              Pavel Antonkolsky

"You've changed places, he and you" - Part 1

"You've changed places, he and you" - Part 1

The poet Antonkolsky
"You've changes places, he and you"
Part 1 - Not days, not years, but centuries
The Russian Pavel Antonkolsky wrote the long poem "Son" after the June 1942 death of his 18-year-old son, Vladimir, in World War II. Reading it for the first time this quiet gray morning in Oakland, I couldn't avoid being reminded of the plight of every parent here who loses a son to the gun. So many of the killed are 18, or just a few years on either side of 18. The majority of our victims are between the ages of 18 and 34. The vast majority are men and boys. The point here is that in just about every case I've encountered, at least one of the parents of the victim is alive to suffer. This is what they suffer. And this is how long their suffering lasts, whether their son was what people call "a good kid gainfully employed," or what they call "troubled."

You must dig in black ashes a long time.
Not days, not years, but centuries,
Until your dry eyes finally grow blind,
Until the stiffening hand ceases
At the end of its final line. Look now
At the features that you loved.
He's not your successor; you're -- his.
You've changed places, he and you.
                                                  -from "Son"
                                                   Pavel Antonkolsky

See Part 2 - So much hard frost

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ignore this

She said, What do you do? 

And as I always do, I hesitated, then mumbled something about being a writer, hoping she wouldn't hear me and would let it drop.

No luck.

What kind of writer? she asked.

Obituaries from lesser-known funerals in Oakland
"Failed," I mumbled. Then, in a moment of optimism, "Failing." But she didn't hear. So I said the usual: "I write different things, whatever they will let me." I was feeling particularly insecure that morning, so now that it was underway I made sure to say I write "features, long articles, for magazines." I said that in the last few years I'd written mostly about Oakland (A Unified Theory of a Tough Town), about violence in Oakland (Guns Down, Don't Shoot), about the aftermath of violence (No Escape, No Surrender), about the survivors of homicide victims (I still sleep with his shirt under my pillow) and about people who have been shot (Unwounded in Afghanistan, shot in East Oakland), about their attempts at recovery, what they go through, how they make it (Until You Bleed). Also about people in Oakland trying to create peace, trying to prevent violence. (Seeking the courage to change; A new way out)

We were in Oakland.

Immediately she said, Oh, this women got killed kind of near where I live trying to protect her children.

It was the highest profile killing of the year so far in Oakland. As I had just said, I had been covering Oakland's violence for years. So, Yes, I said, I had heard about it. I knew what was coming next.

It was awful, she said.

"Really awful," I said. "Horrible. They all are."

But she was gainfully employed, she said.

"Yes," I said, "some of the victims are but you don't always hear about it. But it is probably true that most of them aren't. Still, their killing causes a lot of emotional turmoil for families."

Then, I didn't say:

First of all, because you happen to have read that she was gainfully employed, doesn't mean no other victim was employed. What it means instead is that something about her situation existed outside the norm, that the circumstances of her killing represented a particularly dramatic scene, and so received more attention in the media than other killings here. Frank whathisname on Chanel whatever probably even went to her house, as he tends to do when a victim's demographics are unique.

I hadn't felt like talking in the first place, and certainly not about my work, so I let the conversation end. I felt angst but not the energy to lay it out for her, to point out what might be, on her part and on the part of so many of us, unspoken assumptions, to point out her own essential commentary on the other victims in Oakland who presumably were not, as she called it, "gainfully employed," but, perhaps, somehow, I don't know, ungainfully employed, or whom she assumed were engaged in some illegitimate activity when they were killed. What that commentary was and what those assumptions were I will let you imagine.

I hadn't the energy it takes to be the asshole again, the one who turns someone's simple, kindly and genuine sympathy into a potentially racist attitude about victims of violence in Oakland and elsewhere in America. Not that her assumptions are necessarily far off the mark.The problem is the effect of the assumptions, the lack of outrage or sympathy that follows. 

A study by California Partnership for Safe Communities of homicides in Oakland in 2011 and 2012, showed that about 70% of Oakland's victims have felony criminal records, frequently for violent offenses. Violence leads to violence, no question about it.

Obits, study, notes
The study also showed that 84% of victims in Oakland were male. 78% were African American. Over two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 34. What it did not show is that there are rarely articles in the press about the suffering of their families, that there are rarely politicians present at their funerals. That Frank and his colleagues might not be paying much attention to their killings and the aftermath and neither are we. I am partly responsible for this in Oakland, because I have failed to create change with the stories on this blog. I indict myself for what I didn't say that day and for what I have failed to do here.

Oakland's new-ish Mayor, Libby Schaaf, is actually making a small gesture to be egalitarian in her official response to individual homicides. She is presenting a letter of condolence and sometimes a small care package to the family of each victim here. I was there for the beginnings of this small program, even helped with the shopping one Sunday morning as we picked up paper plates, tissues, pens and pads, as we shopped for the living and the dead. I went with her staffer and crisis intervention specialist, Marilyn Harris, to deliver the packages and the letters. (Visitations) My research so far shows that no other mayor in America is doing anything like this.

But the city-wide and nationwide pattern continues, the one wherein killings that lie outside the usual demographics, or killings of better-known men within the demographics, stir our passion and hold our attention and sometimes lead to community action. While the majority of killings end as mere news items.

Just recently a killing of a basketball prodigy in Patterson NJ inspired people there to work for change, which is great. But I continue to wonder what would happen if all homicides caused the same passion.

I continue to wonder what it means that they don't.

Reaction to a homicide in Paterson NJ, and what it says about us

The killing of a 15-year-old athletic prodigy in New Jersey has inspired a city to try to calm a long-running and deadly feud. Good for them.

Too Late for a Basketball Prodigy, Paterson Seeks a Truce

But here is the problem I had hoped to address on the Almanac: that only certain kinds of homicides get much attention or spur a community or city to action. Many times I have written that unless a victim is very young or very old or white, their killing, and their family, get little notice or aid. The problem is that most of our killings in Oakland and other cities in America are not of very old or white people or very young children; most of our victims are men of color between the ages of 17 and 34, and they do not gather or sustain much interest in the media, the city at large, or among our leaders. 

Oakland homicides of all ages.
In Oakland on Tuesday a 17-year-old was killed in apparent gun fight. He just misses the age cut-off to become a cause. But does his family suffer as much as any other? Do his schoolmates suffer? Are they as traumatized as any other children might be? 

It is absolutely right that this killing of a promising young man in Paterson should lead to change. I hope it does. But if we felt a fraction of this passion for the other homicides, he might still be alive today. 

Why do you think we don't? Seriously. I'd like to know.

See also: Ignore this
The city-wide and nationwide pattern continues, the one wherein killings that lie outside the usual demographics, or killings of better-known men within the demographics, stir our passion and hold our attention and sometimes lead to community action. While the majority of killings end as mere news items.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Oakland's victims and its healers, sometimes one and the same - The Almanac on KALW

Last night, KALW's The Spot program played part of the conversation I had recently with Brock Winstead on his podcast, The Eastern Shore. I got to talk to a wider audience about the homicide victims in Oakland who don't get much attention, and about the effects of gun violence on victims, their families and the city. It was especially satisfying to discuss the work being done to help victims and the city heal and find peace by the likes of Marilyn Washington Harris of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, who works with families of homicide victims, Caheri Gutierrez of Youth Alive!, who works with kids in East Oakland, and Kevin Grant of Operation Ceasefire, who works with gang members and the re-entry population. 

My bit is about 12 minutes long and comes about 17 minutes in, but the first two segments are fun and interesting and worth a listen. One is about a checkers club and the other about a boxer and barber in London.

Here's a link:

You can read lots about Kevin, Marilyn and Caheri, as well as families hit by violence, here on the blog.

Here's a story I wrote about the three of them for San Francisco Magazine: No Escape, No Surrender.
Here's one I wrote for San Francisco about Oakland's Ceasefire efforts: Guns Down, Don't Shoot
Here's the original, full conversation with Brock on The Eastern Shore - Jim O'Brien on Violence and Its Aftermath

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Visitations: with the families of the killed in Oakland

Melted wax and other things at a homicide scene in Oakland

It's Wednesday January 21, 2015. Last night there was a double homicide in West Oakland. Five days ago there was a double homicide in East Oakland. A third killing happened a few hours later, near Adeline, in Dogtown. By my count, we have had 8 homicides already in 2015. This does not mean it will be a record-breakingly bad year in violence in Oakland, after significant drops the last two years. But it is a bad start, and an important reminder that, as I have written before, the urge to pull the trigger doesn't check the calendar. Those who cover or who pay close attention to the killing like to compare numbers and times of the year with this line: 

"This was the [insert number] killing of 2015. This time last year the city had [insert number] killings." 

Of course, we need some way to measure progress, but ultimately the comparisons by date are meaningless. (See: The Calendar and the Killing.)

What is meaningful is each killing and the effect it has on a family, a neighborhood and a city, and how we respond. In the past 10 years, Oakland has eked out a little tax money to contract with non-violence organizations to meet and help with the families of homicide victims. Mostly this is done by Marilyn Washington Harris of Youth Alive's Khadafy Washington Project, named for Harris' son, killed in Oakland in August of 2000.

On Monday I accompanied Harris on visitations to the families of two of this year's homicides, a 29-year-old man in West Oakland and a 19-year-old woman in East Oakland. Harris' job, her vocation since 2000, is to guide these shocked families through the aftermath, to help them take care of the business at hand at a time when they lack the will to do anything but grieve. Harris sets up appointments (and often accompanies the families) with the Victims of Crimes office, where they can get financial help, up to $5,000, which usually covers most of the funeral expenses. She meets them at the funeral homes to help with planning. Sometimes she meets them at the coroner's office.She asks questions -- have you taken your meds? have you checked your blood sugar? are you eating? -- and lets them ask questions, although often they are so baffled that they have none.

Also accompanying Harris Monday was a staff member from the office of Mayor Libby Schaaf, delivering a personal letter of condolence from the mayor and some things that might be helpful around the house at a time like this, items to help with visitors, items for writing and crying, eating and drinking. I am not aware of another mayor of any large city who does anything like this. I don't know if Schaaf will be able to keep it up, but I like the idea.

In a small apartment in Dogtown we visited the father of the 29-year-old man killed Friday on the street right in front of his dad's place. From the father's front door you could see, you could in fact not miss, the street memorial to his dead son, the accumulated artifacts deposited by friends and strangers since Friday, candles still flickering, candles guttered and gone, t-shirts, beer bottles, vodka bottles, poster board with loving notes to the dead. The gutter was lined with cat litter unevenly soaking up the spilled blood. There were dead flowers in the gutter. The father will need to move, and there is help available for re-location.

Through the treetop, the place where his son was killed.
That morning the mother of the dead man stood staring at the memorial. "They killed my baby," she said. He was her youngest. Inside the father's apartment, blues played from a music station on a small TV while the father discussed with Harris what appointments he had coming up and how things would work. We looked at pictures of his son. He said he'd been avoiding that. He choked up, excused himself, gathered himself, got back to business. From his daze he kept repeating that he was grateful, to Harris, to the mayor, to his family and neighbors. It was very important to him that everyone know that despite whatever else they saw or perceived in him, he was grateful. He wanted to leave them his gratitude for the love. The mother sat on the couch, ate hard candy. A song played, with the words "How could you leave me, where did you go?" It was the Blues, of course, so a song of lost love. But here it took on a different meaning.

That afternoon in Deep East Oakland we paid a visit to the grandparents of the 19-year-old girl, who had moved here to live with them, had gotten a job and was set to enroll at Laney. She was killed Friday afternoon, along with her boyfriend, who was 20 years old. We looked at pictures, prom pictures, graduation pictures from less than a year ago. So fresh. So ancient now.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"I signed up for a hard job" - Oakland Mayor Schaaf on a city's responsibility to families of homicide victims

Had a good conversation with new Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf last week. We met Friday, late in the day, for coffee (me) and very spicy hot chocolate (her) at Bittersweet Cafe downtown. She was very nearly on-time, which I appreciate, and not at all rushed once we got to talking. The interview was wide-ranging and much of it will appear as a Q&A in the March issue of Diablo Magazine

Mayor Schaaf and her staff had already indicated to me, a couple of weeks earlier, that she was determined to develop some kind of consistent outreach to the families of each homicide victim in Oakland. She's been getting advice on what this ought to look like from Marilyn Harris, whose son Khadafy Washington was killed in Oakland in 2000. Marilyn has since then dedicated her life, her days and nights, to supporting the survivors, mostly mothers, of the killed, in the crazy, in the impossible days right after the killing, when there is so much business to attend to, and very little will to do so. 

Marilyn has told me that when her son was killed, she never heard a word from anyone with the city government, and that if she had received even a sympathy card, it would have made a difference. Among the many emotions families of homicide victims experience, along with self-recriminations, emptiness, fear and shock, is resentment and bitterness toward the authorities, and toward the community. This civic wound needs to be healed or the rift will widen and the families will be lost to us forever. A gesture from the mayor, if it is thoughtful and humble, will help to begin, just begin, that healing. 

This is an excerpt from my conversation with Mayor Schaaf on January 9, 2015, where we talk about this issue:

Jim O'B: As mayor, I'm wondering how you see, what is a city's responsibility to victims of violence and to families of homicide victims.

Libby Schaaf: I think the first thing the city owes them is to do everything within its power to prevent violence from happening in the first place. And whether that is trying to ensure that children have a caring adult in their live, particularly the children that don't have parents in their lives, whether it's to provide places where children feel talented and good and productive and smart, that they see that there is some bright future for them

JOB: But what about in the aftermath, once it's happened. You can't prevent everything, its a city, there's going to be violence and there's going to be killing, and does the city government, does the mayor, have a responsibility to the victims, once it happens?

LS: Absolutely.

JOB: What is it?

LS: As Mayor, I think you know, that I'm committed to responding to particularly the family members of every victim, particularly homicide victims, with compassion, with an apology that your government was not able to keep your loved-one safe, and with a sense that you are not in this alone, that there is help, and there is support and there is a community around you. And to some extent, the immediate family needs that, but I certainly found, as council member, often the whole neighborhood needed that. As a council member several times I led healing circles, for the neighborhood, after an incident happened. And we had crisis counselors available, and I'd always walk in the room and make them move the chairs so it wasn't the government facing the citizens, but rather that we all sat in a circle, and everyone had a moment to share how they felt, and that also this neighborhood had its own opportunity to ask questions about the investigation, about the incident, directly to the appropriate people in the police department, recognizing that a traumatic effect like that is like a pebble in a pond, the ripples extend far, far out.

JOB: I always say, "that bullet ricochets." It hits not just the family but the street, the neighborhood, the city...

LS: But I don't know if you remember when I came to the Khadafy Washington Foundation event, and I gave Miss Marilyn (Marilyn Washington Harris, founder) a pebble, and I said that just as violence has these rings that spread out, so does kindness and compassion, and so it is certainly my hope, as mayor, when I, on behalf of the city family, express love and compassion and caring, for the families of each and every homicide victim, no matter what the circumstances of that death were, it was a loss to that family, and they deserve to feel that compassion and empathy for the grief, and so it's my hope that that too creates the ripples that spread through the city.

JOB: It will make a difference, especially if you come at it without fear, without guilt, but saying "we love you, we are sorry," and then getting back to work trying to prevent these things. It'll be hard sometimes.

LS: It will be hard, I'll be honest with you, I'm very uncomfortable with funerals, I'm very uncomfortable with death and loss.

JOB: Well, you shouldn't be doing this personally anyway...

LS: Well, I signed up for a hard job, and if I can't be tough for my city, who can?