Part 1: Chapel Light
Just ahead of me in line at the funeral of Jimon Clark, the last of six homicides to occur in Oakland between August 18th and August 25th, a group of kids in their early teens has reached the coffin. They look like they are not quite sure what to do. In line, all but two of them have been fairly upbeat, nonchalant, possibly faking their cool, or possibly they have done this so many times that it feels about the same as standing in line at a taco truck. I want to think they are faking, that their hearts are beating faster than usual, that they are at least a little freaked to confront the dead body of their friend and schoolmate, that maybe they are hiding secret worries that his gunshot wounds are visible.
(The wounds aren’t visible. The 13-year-old was shot in the back, a double violation of the old Code of the West, which held, among other things, that you do not shoot children and you do not shoot anybody in the back. The new Code of the West, as it exists in Oakland, has rejected those tenets, thoroughly.)
I want to think that for these baby-faced, rather slight, early teenage kids from Oakland, neither the day nor the event is routine.
Only two of them are showing, or allowing to show, any signs of confusion or mourning. They are boys, a little taller than the rest of their group. One breathes heavily in and out, says quietly, “I don’t know what to do.” The other rests a hand on his shoulder.
A pastor helping to keep the line moving tells them it’s okay to cry. But none of the kids cries as he or she stares, through the thin, white gauze that stretches from the edge of the open lid to the casket’s rim at the brown, lifeless, glistening face of Jimon, his lips stretched horizontally in an expression of wry acceptance of his task today to lie still all the long afternoon. His face looks unnaturally wide.
The body has been lying on its back in freezers and coffins for a week now and so it has settled and spread. I remember noticing the width of the dead face of the 15-year-old, Kelow Colson, at rest in the coroner’s freezer for a month before his open-casket funeral. Surely to the kids he must look, as all cadavers of friends and family do, simultaneously familiar and alien, the precise definition of surreal.
I’d like to think the moment is surreal for these kids, but possibly it’s just real. Jimon was shot in the back, at 9:30 at night, while walking with his brother down Bancroft Avenue near his home in East Oakland. Bancroft Avenue is a street that hosts more than its share of violence. It’s a street I tend to pass only when I am out reporting these stories.
Officially, no one knows why Jimon was killed. There have been rumors of him receiving a strange phone call that evening, being asked by the caller to run an errand, that that is what he was doing when he was killed, that it was some kind of set-up.
I’m told the streets say he was not the intended victim of the bullet, that neither was his brother, that it was a case of mistaken identity. I know it’s hard to imagine a 13-year-old, who hadn’t even started high school yet, being involved in the kind of business that can lead to his murder. And probably Jimon wasn’t involved in anything like that. But sometimes in Oakland things seem one way and turn out to be the other way, the way you couldn’t imagine. So who knows.
Maybe it was a simple robbery. Reportedly, the killer took $2 from Jimon’s pocket.
One week after his killing, one day after what would have been his 14th birthday, and the 14th birthday of his twin brother, Javon, they hold a funeral for Jimon in an unadorned chapel on the tiny, pristine campus of a bible college on 105th Street, in the often violent neighborhood called Sobrante Park. The School of Urban Missions sits near the end of a long residential street off E. 14th (International Boulevard). It’s one of those streets where you have to weave among double-parked black SUV’s, out of which there is always a conversation taking place with someone standing on the street, or leaning in at the car window. I try to give them a wide berth.
At the campus gates, which appear to be more for security than for purposes of a grand and decorative entryway, there are two young white boys directing traffic. I think they are expecting a lot of press to be here, but in the end, although the chapel is packed with people, I see only a couple of reporters, and in the days following, few stories about the funeral.
Usually, depending on the circumstances, the death of anyone 16 or under attracts a great deal of attention. Kelow Colson was 15, and his killing back in March got some press, but mostly because he was killed while trying to steal dope, and so the media could call it a “home invasion,” which is an exciting, energetic, war-like term they like to apply to any burglary they can. But because allegedly he was engaging in a criminal act -- with two of his brothers, by the way -- Kelow’s killing elicited less of the lasting general sympathy it might have had he been what they like to call an innocent victim.
This reminds me of one of the interesting things about the work of Marilyn Harris and the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence: Marilyn does not distinguish between innocent victims and guilty victims. She does not believe in guilty victims. When you die, your record dies, she says. And anyway, Your mama didn’t kill anybody. Your grandmother didn’t kill anybody. Didn’t hurt anybody. Now they need help. I did hear her say once, speaking to the ghost of a young man killed in a gunfight, whose father she had been helping through a very sad and difficult day, “Oh _____, look what you did to your father.” She has told me that often she doesn’t want to know too much about the victim, because she admits it might affect her efforts to help their survivors navigate the manic hell of the aftermath of a murder.
Jimon seems to have been an innocent victim and a nice kid. The media decided to refer to him as a track star, although it turns out that might have been a stretch. He was about to start at Oakland’s Skyline High, a school not for troubled kids, but for the general population, so there was little to cause anyone to turn off the sympathy spigot until he was buried. And so I was expecting more press.
Marilyn, who had gone out on the night of the killing to provide comfort and support to Jimon’s mother, anticipated a lot of media at the funeral, too. She’d suggested I get there an hour and a half early. I was probably more like 45 minutes early, and while there was a lot of activity underway, very few mourners had arrived, and no press that I could detect.
I had never heard of the little bible college and so when I saw a very young photographer observing the preparations with great attentiveness, I asked if she was a student there, and she said she was. She told me that it is not just a local school, although Oakland is the flagship campus, and that people come from out of town to attend. Oakland has about 152 students, but there are campuses all across the country, including in Brooklyn and New Orleans. The staff and students making preparation for the funeral were a mix of Latino, white, black and Asian, the latter possibly Samoan and Filipino.
There was a guest book to sign, over which floated a Mylar balloon that read
(Later on a sports field they released red and white balloons.)
The English Civil Wars
I take up a seat to the far right, in the back row of pews, all of which fan out from a platform too low to call a stage and too multi-purpose to call an altar, although for purposes of this description that’s what I’ll call it. There are musical instruments up there, including a set of bongo drums. There is also is a plain wooden cross about six-feet high standing at the back of the platform. Not a crucifix, but a cross. Later it will be thoroughly obscured by a video screen. But for now it is the only nod to religion I can detect in the chapel, and I find myself thinking about the English Civil Wars, and how I am probably not the right person to be doing this story, but as Padraic Column wrote in the foreword to his book The Hidden Ireland, it doesn’t look like anybody else is going to do it, and it ought to be done.
Underlying the English Civil Wars was a free-for-all of religious hatred between Christians. On one side were the Anglicans, who were practically Catholic, even though they despised and killed the actual Catholics, who would later despise and kill them, it always depended on whom was in power. The Anglicans rejected the Pope, of course, but still had a hierarchy full of fat, wealthy bishops and cardinals telling everyone what to think about God. They had statues and saints and they even on occasion prayed to the Virgin Mary. They had beautiful churches, formerly Catholic churches, where they celebrated very precise and formal liturgies of the Mass. On another side were the Puritans and the Presbyterians, who believed in Jesus, but not in having church fathers or anyone to tell you how to communicate with God. You could tell people which God to worship, just not how to do it. They believed in employing no liturgy at their services. They held truck with no Book of Common Prayer. And they certainly didn’t prettify their churches with stained glass or images of God or his Apostles. Both sides hated the Catholics.
Not that this is a Presbyterian or Calvinist school or chapel. I think they are more Methodists, but that is what this unadorned church causes me to think about, as do many of these funeral services, in that they seem random in their elements and procedures, are usually a collection of sermons with songs and short readings, and there are no obvious liturgy or sacraments. To a lifelong Catholic, it’s anarchy.
I start thinking that it would be just like me to try to begin a book about death in Oakland with a long explanation of the roots of the English Civil Wars. And that I should just give up and declare myself psychologically disabled and go on Social Security. I glance down at some literature I’ve picked up about the School of Urban Missions and immediately see a reference to John Wesley, who was somewhat in between the two extremes of the war. He was an Anglican priest, but an evangelical who urged people to strike up a personal relationship with Jesus.
I like that the school might not be extreme, and that it might be sincere about training young religious people of all races for urban missions. I like the one student I’ve spoken to, who looked cool. Some of the staff also look cool, although some look like they are trying to look cool, cool for the kids, cool to the kids, and sure enough I note in the literature, along with that mention of Wesley, a bit too frequent use of the word “awesome” by adults. Always a bad sign.
I get in line to view the body. I’m finding that bodies of strangers in caskets mean nothing to me anymore. The body of a murder victim on a gurney, covered by a sheet, with the coroner’s invasion on the back of his skull covered by another sheet, moved me. But these kids in caskets are out of my range at the moment.
The kids in front of me in line might be having a similar problem. I watch them up there trying to wrap their minds around what this means, this body of their classmate and friend lying in a coffin like this. They stare, comfort each other with a touch, one of them, the smallest, looks a little frightened. The girls tear up, but don’t cry, and move on. I step up. Jimon is wearing a red baseball cap with A’s insignias stamped across it. He’s wearing a jacket and tie. There is an image of a football on the inside of the coffin lid and tiny Raiders figurines placed along the coffin’s rim. Chapel lights reflect off some moisture rising on his skin on a very hot day in early September.
The chapel is full. I would guess there are 400 people here. The family is large. It seems confident and composed. It takes up the entire middle section of the room. It’s clear they have a lot of support. They are church people. It makes a difference. Marilyn tells me that when the victim is so young, financial support tends to flow a little more freely, quickly, and from more varied sources. So she has not had to find any money for them. Funerals are not free. I don't know if they are eligible for state compensation available to families of victims.
The funeral is being held here because Jimon and his twin brother Javon were part of a Christian youth group called Points of Light that gathered here on Friday nights. The organizers must have thought, if they are here on Friday nights, the most violent of Oakland nights, they will be the safer for it. One of their youngest has been killed anyway.
Part 2: The Presence of My Enemy
There is an abundance of suffering here in the cool of the chapel this afternoon. Suffering is a thing we all share, and especially this crowd of East Oaklanders who have lost a child to the gun. Usually you think of the mother as the queen of the sufferers, but 13-year-old Jimon Clark had a twin, Javon, and all indications were that they were twined together in life until now.
Among the speakers are friends and teachers of the twins from Frick Middle School, all of whom seem to find it a little strange to refer to one of them without the other, as if this dying is the first thing oneof them has ever done independently. They seem to have been regularly, unselfconsciously, referred to as “Jimonjavon.” Juh-MON-juh-vawn. One word.
And so you must think of Javon as having died a little, too. Or that the entity, JimonJavon, was murdered, along with Jimon himself. It’s a double-homicide. Or at least a homicide and a half.
The service opens with a reading from St. Paul, from his second letter to the Corinthians: For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. It elicits a great amen from the congregation, from the adults in the congregation, whose faith must get shaken, but it always appears very strong. Christ is one of the two comforts they are repeatedly offered, or that they repeatedly find for themselves. Christ shares your suffering, in Christ is peace and hope. If there is no peace in the city, no peace in your neighborhood, no hope of safety, if the police can’t protect you, if those who run the city are helpless, if the schools can’t raise you up toward hope, there is Christ in the end.
The other comfort is heaven. No less than six times from the pulpit, teachers and friends and family and preachers reminds us that Jimon is in a better place. Better than Oakland, better than earth, better than this world of struggle and fear and death. What other comfort are you going to find? And what will you do if there is no softer place to go for healing than where the fact of this bare meaningless death and void lie?
An Instigator of Dreams
Young people take the altar to talk about how funny Jimon was, that he was a kind of leader, an instigator, usually of innocent hi-jinks, although sometimes these hi-jinks led to suspensions from school, which elicits some laughs, but suspensions always sound serious to me, and never funny in real life. One of the kids says, “I’m gonna wear his colors.” Probably Jimon just liked to wear certain colors. He seems to have had that kind of fun and colorful personality.
A teacher from Frick Middle School, from which Jimon and Javon had graduated in the spring, says that Jimon assembled the very first student relay track team to beat the Frick teachers in their end-of-the-year race. He talks about Jimon’s determination. Jimon encouraged his relay team to practice every day. Whenever there was a spare moment, he had them on the track honing their baton transferring skills. I think this is the source of the track star designation some of the media have given the dead child, which might be a bit of a stretch, the kind of legend the press invents, or that we sometimes invent about our newly dead, a posthumous medal of honor we bestow to comfort the dead, to make the dead feel better about themselves. One article referred to Jimon as a “standout
athlete,” which seems like it might have been more precise.
Maybe Jimon did run track. Or maybe he would have run track at Skyline High, where he was set to begin only a few days after his murder. Maybe he would have run track, loved it, excelled at it, won great victories and suffered the great crushing defeats that are the stuff of life. Maybe he would have gotten a scholarship to run track at USC, studied physical education or economics, gotten a degree and become a teacher, a leader, an instigator of the dreams of 13-year-old kids. But instead, he is in a better place.
On the latter, a friend of Jimon’s tries to sing for the dead boy a song called, according to the program, “His Eyes is on the Sparrow.” She is thin, tall, but a child. She is wearing very high heels. She is distraught, sings one verse, very off key, then breaks down and is helped back to her seat just in front of mine by another child her age, Jimon's age. That night the one TV channel that has shown up broadcasts this on its Ten O’clock News.
The member of the city council from Jimon’s neighborhood approaches the pulpit. Larry Reid’s voice shakes as he utters the second-most-heard phrase at funerals of the killed in Oakland. “This has to stop.”
My opinion of the council member rises and falls by the moment. Unless it turns out he has a personal relationship with the family, I’m inclined to hate him for being here, or at least for speaking.
But then, when he calls the Oakland killings “insane violence,” I like the term.
“When I got the news of Jimon’s killing,” says Reid, “I saw myself as a failure.” I appreciate the starkness of the term and the taking of this murder personally. When he announces that he is giving the family a check for $5000, it is the announcement, not the gratuitousness, that bothers me.
When he asks if anyone in today’s congregation knows anything about Jimon’s killing, I quickly scan the room, even as I feel a chill run up my spine. I watch carefully as Reid offers $2500 for the information.To my eyes, no one reacts in any way that might indicate they knowsomething.
“If you’re scared to go to the OPD,” he says, “come to me. Because this has to stop. In this city, when your children leave the house, you don’t know if they’re going to come back.”
I’m impressed by his honesty, by his quivering voice, but, finally, when he presents the family with a resolution from the mayor and city council, I feel exceedingly empty.
Until a gospel singer seems to appear from nowhere -- an old man, backed with an organ -- and sings a long, slow, agonized song based on a verse from the 23rd Psalm, the psalm that begins, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, the one that declares that, though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, the one that ends, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
But it’s a neglected, middle verse the singer keeps repeating, an enigmatic one I rarely note when I hear the psalm recited, that resonates: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Over and over in a minor key, as the song comes to an intense climax, soulfully he sings the words "in the presence of my enemy..."
I think the verse is about the abundance and joy of enduring life in the midst of evil and death in the world, but sitting here this afternoon, I can’t help but think about the funeral of Davante Riley, which ended in gunfire. I can’t help but think about the trophies I’m told the killers sometimes come to the funerals of their victims to collect: a lock of hair, a cell-phone photo of the dead. I wonder if the killer is with us today. Is the dead boy in the presence of his enemy?
Or is it us? Are we in the presence of the enemy, or at least of the enemy's quarry? And is the enemy not death, but whatever it is in Oakland that breeds the urge that lets a person kill like this.
Turn Out the Lights
Finally an old preacher speaks. He is small and round and full of energy, with the worn, gravelly voice of a man with experience, and a man who has done a lot of preaching. He tells us he won’t talk for long, and so he does. He talks about his past as a drug dealer. How he made a hundred thousand dollars in one day. He makes it sound pretty good. Then he says, proudly, that he now has a job where he makes $90,000 a year, but he either forgets to include some kind of transition, the part where he gets arrested or shot or loses his family or causes some young person to become an addict or to overdose, or there just isn’t any particular narrative lesson to be gained.
The preacher says that partying is fine, but that you “got to know when to leave the party.” He has the congregation repeat this. He has us turn to the person next to us and say it again. He tells bad jokes that are likely lost on the kids. He ends with a recruitment drive, calling up anyone who, right at this moment, has truly felt the call of Christ. Forty, maybe 50 people, mostly the young ones, throng the altar. The preacher tells us that there are pastors placed all around the room to talk to anyone interested in joining his church.
The chapel service is ended. There is to be a balloon release now, out in a field on the campus, but I head across the fuming blacktop to my car. Inside, the thermometer reads 103 degrees. I drive the long way down E. 14th toward the lake. A hundred blocks, a hundred stop lights. There are small gatherings of hookers on certain corners, out in today’s bright blazing California sun. A couple at 66th are having a pretty good laugh over something. I think about how I haven’t laughed like that in months.