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Mourners at a memorial service at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland on the same day.

Photo: Jane Tyska/San Jose Mercury News/mct/zumapress.com

A picture of Oikos University shooting victim Sonam Choedon, displayed at Richmond’s Tibetan Community Center on April 3.

Photo: Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times/MCT/zumapress.com

Grappling with Oikos

In the wake of the worst mass killing in years, an Oaklander reflects on our rituals of grief and detachment.

Even in Oakland, a city all too familiar with gun violence and bloodshed and wasted life, there was much that was unfamiliar about the Oikos University rampage on April 2. It did not happen between the statistically most deadly hours of 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. but midmorning on a sunny spring day. Only one of the seven victims was a man. None was African American. At the small Korean Christian college, a place that seemed so protected in its obscurity, its physical blandness, its gentle mission, its student body quietly striving to make it in America, One Goh allegedly killed six women and one man, including victims from the Philippines, Nigeria, and India.

     Daily news articles reporting on individual murders in Oakland tend to engage in a rote, generic arithmetic of victimhood, usually along the lines of “This was the city’s 27th homicide of 2012, up two from this date last year.” It’s as if we were tracking batting averages or measuring inches of rain. As if there truly were seasons of violence and seasons of peace in a metropolis as complex and combustible as this one.

     I’m as guilty as any other Oaklander of following the body count. I know our inclination to quantify, categorize, and analyze is human, even necessary. But it can serve to detach us from the reality of violent death. The inconceivable carnage at Oikos is one of those events that bring us back; it transcends our habits and our unconscious efforts at detachment.

     Still, in some ways these killings were not entirely different from those that occur in Oakland on an average of twice a week. They happened in mere moments. For the victims, there was little opportunity for resistance or room for escape. And then there’s this: Apparently, Goh took the lives of seven people he hadn’t even been targeting. (The former administrator he’d reportedly been pursuing no longer worked at the school.) That cruel randomness is eerily familiar, too. In 2011, errant bullets in Oakland killed three small children and wounded numerous bystanders.

     Murdered kids tear us away from the coldness of our statistics, and the media often cover their stories with an unusual degree of curiosity and sensitivity. Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle launched a series of profiles of the dead at Oikos on April 3. It was the right thing to do. At least their stories will live on. And yet, the desire to glean meaning from unfeeling data persists.

     The day after the shooting, as Goh’s personal story became available, as his own financial travails and perceived affronts emerged, an exhausted, exasperated woman at the Korean Community Center of the East Bay told me how hard Korean Americans have been hit in the foreclosure crisis, how little health insurance they tend to have, how much they struggle with the language. She was not making excuses for Goh. In fact, I don’t think she knew for sure why she was sharing all this with me. Suddenly, there was just so much to tell, she hardly knew where to begin. Sitting across the table from her, looking at her red, tired eyes, neither did I.