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

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.