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.