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Caheri Gutierrez never found out who shot her in the face nearly four years ago at this exact spot on the corner of 98th and San Leandro. But she's determined to ensure it doesn't happen to anyone else.
Marilyn Harris lost her only son, Khadafy, in a random shooting while he was riding a bicycle near his high school, in 2000. Since then, she's been helping other survivors navigate the shoals of grief and recovery.
Kevin Grant cycled through 11 federal penitentiaries for nearly 17 years, then emerged to become one of Oakland's most compelling intervention specialists, helping young gang members find alternatives to violence.
No escape, no surrender
With murders up, the police force depleted, and a mayor under threat of recall, 2011 was a very bad year for Oakland. To stem the tide of violence, former victims are stepping up to take care of their own. But can they blunt the power of the gun?
James O'Brien | Photo: Eva Kolenko | March 19, 2012
ALL DAY LONG THE FATHER HAD BEEN ASKING FOR reassurance. He didn't want the body embalmed before he saw it. He was a tall man, lean, a laborer with huge hands and an Island accent so thick, he was hard to understand. As she negotiated the body’s transfer from the morgue to an Oakland funeral home, Marilyn Harris, who aids survivors of homicide victims, instructed the mortician, “Don’t embalm him, OK? But make sure he looks nice for the father.” Harris was worried that the wound might show. We’d been to the morgue in the morning, but only to learn details of the killing and to retrieve some personal items; you’re not permitted to see the body there. Instead, we met with a sheriff’s deputy in a grimy room with a box of tissues on the table.
Throughout the morning the father had been calm, while the victim’s young fiancée hovered around the edges of composed. She desperately needed to go into shock but so far had insisted on experiencing every moment of this dreadful day. When they were told that the victim had had a weapon on him, that he’d died in a gunfight, the fiancée shook her head. The father uttered only the word No and jerked his head back, as if the deputy himself had pulled a gun. Soon the deputy began taking the victim’s things out of a large envelope: his wallet, a lighter, some dollar bills, a tube of lip balm. That final item was the last straw; the fiancée began to sob.
This was the first time I had accompanied Harris, who has been doing this work for years, and I kept looking to her for guidance on how to act. I thought she might try to comfort the young woman, but she stayed in her chair; she knew this pain was inevitable and necessary. I’d witnessed grief and suffering in my life, but nothing so tense and despairing as this. I was here as a writer, and the family knew that and had been very generous in the midst of their torment—but in this raw moment after the gunfight revelation, I began to feel like a voyeur. Quietly, I stood up and left the room.
That afternoon, we met at a West Oakland mortuary. The body was here, and it was time to see it. We walked together into a soulless chapel with a red, threadbare carpet and a white, industrial-size bucket of laundry detergent sitting out. The legs of the six-foot-nine-inch corpse extended far beyond the edges of the rusted embalmer’s table. A wrinkled white sheet covered his body. Another sheet, carefully folded, covered the cleft the coroner’s autopsy had left in the back of the victim’s skull. (The coroner always examines the brain.) Only the dead man’s face was visible. The father loomed over his prostrate son and meditated. The fiancée moaned and knelt to pray. Soon the father began to lift an apparently improvised lament to heaven, imploring Jesus to fill his son’s lungs with oxygen. He prayed to the Holy Ghost. Cried “Hallelujah.” In between prayers he instructed his son to rise and walk, addressing him by name, sternly, the way you might yell at a sleepy kid who’s going to be late for school. Harris and I stood in the back, heads bowed.
I’VE NEVER LOVED A PLACE I'VE LIVED IN AS MUCH as I love Oakland. I’ve spent years defending it to outsiders, telling them about Wood Tavern and Brown Sugar Kitchen; about Nobunny and 1-2-3-4 Go records, about hazy winter sunsets at Lake Merritt; about the city’s wild spaces, its integrated public places, its history, the Pullman porters, the Panthers, Count Basie at Sweet’s Ballroom; about its architecture, little saltbox houses sailors lived in near the port or those great old Victorian and Italianate homes that survived the shortsighted leveling of West Oakland; even about that smell of weed that’s often in the air here.
The fact that I had to defend Oakland at all was always a bit offensive to me, but its reputation for violence clung to it like mud to the soles of your shoes. Even as diverse crowds were being drawn to new Uptown restaurants and Downtown bars, and young professionals were moving into gleaming Uptown condos, most white people (including me) avoided large swaths of town. News of a homicide in West or East Oakland might inspire a few minutes of sympathy for the victim’s pain or for some imagined mother’s grief, but it was still a world away.
It wasn’t just outsiders who feared parts of the city; long-term residents didn’t feel safe, either. Over the past decade, while the Latino population grew, African Americans left for Hayward and San Leandro, and who could blame them? In 2010 alone, they made up 28 percent of the city’s population but nearly 80 percent of its homicide victims. Their neighborhood schools were dangerous, their streets were tense, the police weren’t to be trusted.
I was aware of complaints that violence in Oakland got too much attention, to the unfair detriment of the city and its reputation. Others thought the city was in denial about its problems. I figured both sides had a point. But either way, I needed a better understanding of Oakland’s turmoil, the prospects for change, and, especially, the people and places most affected.
As a first step, I turned to a crisis response team based at Catholic Charities of the East Bay. Its members repeatedly mentioned this one woman, this expert on the streets, this “Marilyn.” “She’s an angel,” said one of the staffers, gazing into the distance. Which of course she’s not. She’s a realist who believes in Jesus and healing. She’s pleasant, funny, and genuinely self-effacing. And tireless in her work with survivors. But she’s also demanding and disorganized and has just enough of an ego to exasperate, and outlast, anyone who stands in her way.
For 11 years, since founding the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, Harris has been stepping into the immediate aftermath of Oakland homicides to help survivors deal with the sudden void. At crime scenes, in apartments, at funeral homes, or at her office in the Acorn, she explains processes, the morgue, the cops, the costs. She asks if you’ve eaten or taken your meds; she makes appointments and takes you to them if you’re unable to drive, helps dig up money for the funeral, and makes sure you don’t overpay. Survivors are eligible for financial help from the county, but not if the victim was killed while committing a crime.
When I met Harris in January of 2010, one of the first things I asked about was the shortage of sympathy for black, male homicide victims. Was it because people figured they had been up to no good themselves? I expected her to bemoan the prejudice. Instead, she said yes, probably 80 percent of the city’s homicide victims were involved in some illegal activity. But so what? Didn’t mean they should die. Didn’t mean their mothers should suffer alone.
Over the next year, Harris introduced me to the city’s unsleeping violence-prevention machine: the intervention specialists like herself—some involved in programs funded by the Measure Y parcel tax, others part of nongovernmental groups scrambling for grants and donations—who were working to persuade young men not to fire their guns again, helping kids find reasons and ways never to fire a shot, or, like Harris, accompanying the survivors and the wounded through the dark trauma and the stress of recovery.
All through 2010, Oakland’s homicide numbers were still unacceptably high by most cities’ standards but low for Oakland—the lowest they’d been in five years. And as I became attuned to the ebb and flow of homicide while shadowing Harris, there were indeed times when I could sense, just barely, the possibility of greater peace here. But then, on New Year’s Eve, a young man was shot and killed while helping his sister load her baby into a car: It was a sign, a kind of notice to the city, that things were about to get worse.
ON A BRISK SATURDAY LAST FALL, JEAN QUAN stood before a large, semihostile crowd in the Laney College gym. Occupy Oakland was starting to roil, and the police chief had just quit. Really, you had to give Quan credit. She knew no one liked her. Law-and-order types saw her as soft, and to the Occupiers she was the oppressor. But there she was, in front of hundreds of Oaklanders, telling them what she was going to do to protect them, despite an understaffed police force. Among other things, the police department, she said, would be concentrating the majority of its personnel within the 100 blocks, primarily in East and West Oakland, where most of the violence was happening.
That night, two young men were gunned down on MacArthur Boulevard. No one seemed to notice the irony. It was only October, but it was already clear that the annual homicide count in Oakland would increase for the first time since 2006. Not only would there be 20 more killings in 2011 than in 2010, but among the victims would be a one-year-old African American boy, a three-year-old Latino boy, and a respected Latino businessman. These were the kinds of killings that drew national media attention, that inspired politicians to tour dangerous neighborhoods and preachers to vie for a chance to say the eulogy. There was even a public march, hundreds of people moving slowly down International Boulevard chanting and singing, then listening to speeches in front of city hall. In a macabre echo of what had happened the day Quan had spoken, that afternoon there were two shootings in Oakland, one fatal.
No one really knew why homicide numbers had taken this upward turn. A new police chief would blame a gang war. Some said the Occupy protests were depleting the resources of an already beleaguered and short- handed police force. Certainly, Oakland’s 16 percent unemployment rate wasn’t helping. And two recall efforts against the mayor brought to mind studies showing that homicides tend to increase during times of political instability and mistrust.
As 2011 neared its end, it looked as if civilian violence-prevention programs might be all that was holding the line between trouble and a bloodbath. And that was no surprise. Even if the police force had been fully staffed, cops are suspect, even hated, in many parts of Oakland. I’d come to understand that they can make arrests but that’s where their impact ends. On the streets, in the schools, and especially in the mayor’s 100 blocks, it’s not a badge that confers authority; it’s a scar, physical or emotional. It’s a personal story from the troubles.
TWELVE YEARS AGO MARILYN HARRIS WAS A CLERK with the federal government, raising a family in West Oakland. Her youngest daughter, Khadrym, was in her early teens; her son, Khadafy, a star athlete, was in his senior year at McClymonds High; her oldest daughter, Khadija, in her early 20s, was pregnant. Then Khadija got sick and lost the baby. It was a difficult passage for the family. Harris figured God was speaking to her, but he was only clearing his throat.
In June, Khadafy graduated and enrolled at Laney College, with his sights set on the University of Florida, near his grandmother. One Friday night that August, Khadrym heard a rumor. Kids on the block were saying that somebody’d been killed over at the high school. There was a body on campus, and people were saying it was Khadafy. Harris didn’t hear about it until the next day; in fact, she says she had the best sleep of her life that night. Later she would say it was “sleep that God gave me,” to arm her for what was to come. The next morning, when there was no sign of Khadafy, Khadija called the coroner’s office. The coroner usually asks for three identifying marks. Khadafy had no tattoos, but she told them about a surgical scar and other unique marks on his body. Yes, the marks were there; this was Khadafy. Harris had lost her only son to the gun. She raced to the morgue near Jack London Square and banged on doors, but it was a Saturday, and the morgue is closed on weekends. And anyway, you’re not permitted to see the body at the morgue. Who knew? Not her. And there was no one there to guide her.
Harris arranged for billboards to be erected over the freeways of West Oakland with a picture of Khadafy and the question, “Do You Know Who Killed Me?” We still don’t. About three months after his killing, she began reaching out to families like hers, to the newly initiated.
“I was crazy with just wanting to help somebody,” she says. “When somebody would tell me so-and-so got killed, I’d say, ‘Well, where do they live?’ I started having flowers sent, with papier-mâché angels and my card. I didn’t want recognition, but I wanted them to know that somebody had come that had gone through the same experience.”
I remember one day last July, sitting on a sofa next to a father whose 17-year-old son had been gunned down two days earlier half a block away. At the front door, I’d been nervous. The father had refused Harris’s help two days before. Now there was a handwritten note taped to the door, discouraging visitors from knocking.
It was morning, and there were maybe seven adults in the small, dimly lit, disheveled apartment. There was a Tupac poster on the wall, and over the couch, a narrow, framed portrait of the father in his younger days, in a suit and hat. Now he was gray-haired, a Vietnam vet. This morning, he was amenable to Harris; he knew her story now, but he was pure pissed. His dead son had had a 3.3 grade point average, he told us repeatedly. A number of times he got up and leaned into people’s faces to declare that he didn’t need the money being offered him. Clearly, he was in no condition to take care of business. Slowly, Harris worked the room, until about the fourth person she talked to sat down with her at the dining room table and began going through some papers, talking about the funeral. She’d found the one who could do business. There’s always somebody, she says, though usually it’s not the mother or father.
For the parents, her role is often more visceral; she’s like a line tethering them to their humanity, which wants to abandon you at a time like this. She describes going to help the parents of the three-year-old who was killed last August. The mother spoke no English, Harris no Spanish.
“But it’s strange,” Harris tells me, “how your pain makes you understand. Because she and I understood each other very well. You don’t need words.”
I asked her once how all this fit into the violence-prevention picture, given that the violence she was responding to had already happened. “Because we bring them a little bit of hope and just a tiny bit of healing,” she said, “it keeps them grounded enough to say, ‘I don’t want anybody else to feel the pain I feel.’”
ONCE AGAIN, I WAS NERVOUS, EVEN THOUGH THIS time I was sitting in a hearing room at city hall. There were police officers around, but they, too, seemed tense. We were waiting for the Ghost Town gang. Since 2008, the city has been talking directly to members of gangs and turf groups at meetings like this, known as call-ins.
Just a few months earlier, a police sweep of the gang’s West Oakland neighborhood had yielded dozens of arrests and several weapons, including an assault rifle, but when the Ghost Town guys arrived at the meeting, they looked surprisingly insubstantial to me. And young: 17 or 18 max. They were clean-cut and wore khakis and oxford shirts. They took their seats and for the next half hour or so were lectured by prosecutors, police, and parole agents. The city is sick of your bullshit. We know everything about you, and we are continuing to watch you. One more act of violence, and you will go up the river. You will do federal time.
I’d been told not to put too much stock in their reactions. Still, I couldn’t help noticing their pretense of apathy. Yet at this, and other call-ins I’d witnessed, there were three points at which you could see the armor being punctured—and the same thing happened here.
The guys always look up first when the federal prosecutor tells them that the FBI knows who they are. And they pay attention when the speaker is a survivor of someone who has been killed. At a call-in for West Oakland’s Campbell Village gang, all 18 men seemed more menacing to me than those at the first call-in I had witnessed. But they squirmed a little when a mother whose son had been killed placed a picture of him on an easel, walked to the front of the room, and, with only a conference table between her and these men known for cold violence, turned her gaze on them and called them cowards. “You kill with guns,” she told them, “because you are afraid to fight.”
They seemed to be forcing themselves to listen, to show respect.
“You don’t know who you’re hurting,” she said, her voice growing taut but never shaky. She pointed to the picture of her son. “You think you hurt him, but you didn’t. He’s dead. He’s fine. It’s his five children you hurt. They live with this every day. I live with this every day. People talk about closure, but there is no closure.”
After she spoke, and after law enforcement had left the room, a cloud of tension hovered. The gang members were frustrated, angry, in no mood to hear the coming offers of job training and placement, legal and spiritual advice, drug rehab, all describing a path out of the life. They might take it eventually, but in the moment, they appeared defiant.
This is the audience Kevin Grant inherits—and this is the third moment in which the guys pay attention. Grant favors long white T-shirts, baggy jeans, and a Bluetooth earpiece. He is almost impossible to get in touch with and impossible to stop listening to once you do. He speaks to newly released parolees, to students, and to young men out on the city’s most dangerous streets. He spent nearly 17 years in 11 federal penitentiaries and seems to have been preserving all his energy for now.
Grant’s primary weapon is his verbal persuasiveness, but his time in prison and his status as an OG (original gangster) from Oakland would probably be enough. He understands the lives these guys lead, and as he describes to me the crucial role call-ins can play in preventing more killing, he even slips briefly into the first person.
“It allows these guys—because the street don’t allow it, their neighborhood don’t allow it, our culture don’t allow it—but it allows me to go home,” he says. “And when you come up to me and say, ‘Kev, we gotta ride on that fool,’ I can say, ‘I just been to a meeting, those folks got my picture in a book. You do it. I quit.’ It allows them a way out of a gang that doesn’t have a way out.”
Grant is very funny, but not when he tells the men about federal time: the distance from home, the isolation, the lack of control, the crummy food, the violence. At one call-in I went to, a guy brought along his baby and the baby’s mother. So Grant told a story about how he’d been in jail when his son was born, and the mother had traveled hundreds of miles so he could see the baby. They came into the visitors’ room, and she put the boy in Grant’s arms.
“Nice,” said the guard. “Now give it back. One hug when they get here, one when they leave.”
Next, Grant asked the entire gathering to raise a hand if they had a key to where they’d slept the night before. And then to raise a hand if they owned a car. Then he said to the young gang members, “Look around. You see that? You see who’s got their hands up? It ain’t you, it’s the squares. I don’t know what you thought you were gonna get out of this life, but you didn’t get it. This life is done. It’s over. You lost.”
Their smiles faded; a bit of defiance returned to their faces. But Grant had made his point, and they’d gotten it. “You are the lucky ones,” he told them. “We know it’s not easy to get out of the life. But you have a chance I never had.”
When you talk to Grant, he’ll tell you how deep and broad Oakland’s problems are, how much it takes to help one gang member change his life, and how long it’s going to take for the city to change. He says it over and over again: “It’s a slow dance.” Or, “It’s gonna take a lot of hand-holding. These guys, they’ve never had a job in their life. They don’t know how to do anything.”
But he sees it working, sees kids eager to heed the warnings and eager to get the help. “If it was just love and hugs, or if it was just enforcement, I don’t think it would work,” he says. “But the overall messaging is truly powerful.”
IN OLD MODELING PHOTOGRAPHS, SHE'S 16, 17, posing, sometimes provocatively. But the provocation isn’t always sexual. Sometimes it’s like she’s daring the viewer even to speak to this girl: so hot, so street, she’s as likely to kick your ass as to kiss you. School, which once she’d been good at, was done with her; she’d been kicked out of two of them. Her family was shit; she was done with them. Her beauty, though, the smooth brown skin, the long, curving line from cheek to jaw, the sensual lips, those eyes, dark and fierce, these were her thing now. These were her. The Deep has taken care of the rest.
Sprawling East Oakland has the kind of ethnic diversity that enriches a city. But when you say “Deep East Oakland,” you mean to describe a place that’s remote, low-down, a place from which there is no easy escape route. It’s not just a geography but also a pathology. If it were the mind, it would be the subconscious. If it were water, it would suffocate. From the perspective of Oakland’s affluent neighborhoods, it might as well be the bottom of the ocean. If you grew up in the Deep, then no matter how nice and stable a home your parents might have created, once you stepped out the door or beyond your front gate, everything was hard. Hard to feel safe. Hard to feel peace. Hard to concentrate. Hard to learn. Hard to earn. Most people who grow up in the Deep manage these difficulties; they may never thrive, but neither do they fall. Others surrender. They join gangs or form turf groups; they ignore or drop out of school, take drugs, sell drugs, buy a gun, pull the trigger.
In November 2008, as Caheri Gutierrez sat in a car at a traffic light on 98th Avenue, a bullet crashed through the window and through her face. Its source was faceless and nameless, as if the bullet were the final blow of the Deep, motivation unknown.
“It exploded everything” is how Gutierrez describes it. By which she means everything: her jaw, her face, her mouth, her very identity. The remains were scattered across the dashboard. With her tongue severed and blood gathering in her throat, it was becoming hard to breathe; she calculated her chances of survival, and they didn’t add up to much. She wasn’t in any pain, though, and she thought she’d like her mother to know she had died pain-free. Maybe her mother wasn’t so bad, really. Really, she loved her mother, her whole family. She always had. Maybe she should put up a fight after all.
She was unconscious for a week, and spent a bleak month at Highland Hospital. One day she woke up to find a stranger in her room. It was Tammy Cloud.
“My angel,” says Gutierrez, “my guardian angel.”
An intervention specialist from a program called Caught in the Crossfire, Cloud starts her work at the bedsides of young gunshot victims in Oakland. When necessary, she and her colleagues try to persuade the victims and their associates not to retaliate. Gutierrez wasn’t looking for vengeance, but she was weak, angry, lost. Like many victims of violence, she had entered a subversive and lonely darkness. The challenge for Cloud was to assist this traumatized victim in her journey back to life, to return to the community a person who was fearful, embittered, angry, and possibly less violent.
When I first met her, Gutierrez, at 21, was beautiful again, but clearly wounded. She had long black hair, mysterious black eyes, full lips, a slow, pensive smile, and a red tracheotomy scar just above the neckline of her sweater. On the right side of her face were discolorations, vertical lines disrupting the curve of the jaw and the surface of the cheek. In dim light, it could look as if she had fallen sound asleep in long grass that left an imprint. In stronger light, she looked both more beautiful and more damaged.
With Cloud’s help, Gutierrez has accomplished much. “She was like a second brain,” says Gutierrez. In the first year after being shot, Gutierrez got her diploma, enrolled in college classes, and entered therapy. Tentatively, she began going out into the world, slowly shedding some of the fears that kept her awake at night, that led her to hide under a blanket when riding in a car, that made her paranoid when she heard the booming bass lines vibrating cars on her block. They’re coming to finish the job.
Our first meeting was at an Oakland nonprofit called Youth Alive, where Caught in the Crossfire is run, along with Harris’s Khadafy Washington Project (a branch of her foundation) and a program called Teens on Target (TNT). TNT identifies East Oakland students with leadership qualities and helps them discuss the violence and ways to avoid it. Then it sends them out into schools all over the city to start similar discussions among their peers. At first, it can be hard to get kids’ attention. It requires charisma, a connection, and authority.
In early 2010, when an opening for a violence-prevention educator in TNT came up, the group offered the job to Gutierrez. She would be stepping right back into the Deep, right back to where it had all gone down, where the nightmare had begun. Like Harris watching families mourn and Grant
watching young men make the same mistakes that had sent him away for 17 years, she would be back in the wound, telling her story again and again, reminded and remembering.
Yes, said Gutierrez, I really, really, really would love to do that. “I think I still had my imitation jaw,” she says, referring to the semicircular brace that held her face together for months. “But at the same time, I knew that that was one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to them, to show them: ‘Look, this is real, and this is intense, and this can happen.’”
Sometimes I would drive out to watch Gutierrez work at an East Oakland high school barely a mile from where she was shot. Often I wondered if the proximity bothered her. She said it didn’t. Still, I was aware that three years into her recovery, she couldn’t look in the mirror without her grief returning.
In her talk, often she’ll ask the students to guess what happened to her; most already know what’s coming. Her story could be their story. Maybe they haven’t been shot, but they’ve lived in the Deep, or Campbell Village, or Ghost Town, or the Acorn. They know the fear outside the front gate.
Today, in a bright schoolroom, Gutierrez gives the blow-by-blow of the night she was shot, of the weeks in the hospital, the artificial jaw, the lost teeth, the lost identity. Now she’s got their attention, and the conversation turns to their lives. This is the crucial transition you see with Harris and Grant too. A quick rundown of credentials, just a figurative flash of the badge to get your attention and respect. Then it’s about you, about now, about tomorrow.
It’s often at this point in the conversation that Gutierrez’s own grief seems to recede. If she lost her identity in the shooting, then through this process she is being reborn, daughter of the city but with a different soul.
Standing a bit behind Gutierrez, I can see the students’ faces, their focus, even at the end of a long school day. Soon they’ll begin telling their own stories, breaking them down, considering how things could be different. The talk will turn from violence to alternatives most of them seem never to have considered.
“They were born into this city,” Gutierrez says to me later. “Since we were young, we were raised to not let anybody take anything from us.” I can’t help noting that, like Grant, she has switched to the first person. “If somebody says something to us, defend ourselves. Until you have a mentor or a role model that tells you that this is not normal, that you don’t always have to put your guard up, you don’t have to carry a weapon to feel safe.”
Does what she’s doing make a difference? Yes, says Gutierrez emphatically. She can see it, sometimes in a week, sometimes in a day. “They make a transformation; their mindset changes. It’s like, ‘OK, I feel you. I never thought about it that way. You’re right, I only have a few seconds before I get outraged, and I can calm that down, and you’re right, I won’t ever get my point across if I just shoot somebody or beat somebody up instead of communicating what I feel.’ They get momentum. It’s a beautiful thing.”
HARRIS AND GRANT HAVE BECOME MENTORS TO Gutierrez. The more successful she is, the fewer clients Harris has, the quicker Grant’s slow dance comes to an end. But it’s a slippery goal. A bittersweet comment from Harris often echoes in my brain. We were sitting in a doughnut shop near the Port of Oakland. She knew just about everyone who walked in. “I’m a realist,” she said, “and I’m definitely not a fool. I know that some things we can stop long-term. But I don’t think you and I will be around to see it.”
There are statistics showing that violence-prevention programs can work. In Oakland, for example, recidivism is down among once-violent young men served by local prevention programs. But after a while I found that I no longer cared about the numbers. In the bloodiest part of a rudderless city, I had found a hidden cache of courage and kindness. I’d discovered something about Oakland that had come to symbolize the city more profoundly than restaurants or parks or the past ever could. I knew that even if the killing got too much attention, as some complained, the people around the killing, those in pain and those trying to heal this civic wound, didn’t get enough. The bullet that wounds or kills is only the beginning of the story.
Sometimes I still think of that day at the West Oakland funeral home, when the father prayed so beautifully and so painfully to bring his son back to life. Harris left the chapel first. I stood at the back and listened for about half an hour more, then slipped out to the tattered lobby. I remember the old mortician was standing looking through the plate glass door to the sidewalk. He had a clubfoot, a cane, and a black suit so worn it had a sheen. He turned and glanced back toward the chapel, where we could hear the father praying.
“It ain’t gonna work,” he said, “not after what the coroner did to his head.”
It was getting late. I could tell the old man wanted to go home. But we all took our lead from Harris. She was sitting patiently in a chair. Maybe she was remembering. How many times must she remember?
James O’Brien is working on a book about Oakland. Join the conversation about this story on our Facebook page.