Monday, September 15, 2008

101 Too Many

I'm not so wrapped up in wedding planning madness that I don't check the local newspaper, where I read this distressing article about the four killlings this past weekend that bumped Oakland's number of homicides this year to 101. Last year at this time, as the article claims, the number of murders in Oakland was 97.

Neither number is one that I want to have associate with the deaths of people in Oakland, my adopted hometown.

The complex problems that lead to these murders are too numerous for me to detail in this brief blog post, but J. Douglas-Allen Taylor does a pretty good job getting to some of these. I am not surprised but am dismayed at the way the Tribune (and the Chronicle, no doubt) portrayed the sideshows as death-shows, with loaded language about one of this weekend's homicides taking place 'a few miles' from a sideshow but still somehow linking it to these fairly spontaneous street events where local youth do donuts in the street, drink, hang out and generally make a lot of noise, sometimes disturbing the residents who may live nearby. Taylor's column does a good job at examining the broader social and political and racial landscape that puts the sideshows into a context--it's never as simple as the media, or even the man on the street, would have us believe.

I was in a site visit with a funder for my organization the other day, a funder that happens to fund work in Oakland specifically. She asked me at one point how the increased violence has affected our organizing work and our youth. I wasn't surprised by her question but I was a little surprised at my own response--a shrug that came close to indifference, although indifference wasn't what I was trying to convey. What I told her was that for most of our youth, the violence has been going on for so long, and has been so much a part of their everyday lives--they aren't the ones that only worry when restaurants get robbed on Piedmont Avenue or Lakeshore or in the Glenview neighborhood--that it's not like this recent spike was really anything new to them. So many of our youth have heard, seen or know of people getting killed on their block, or have had friends been shot and killed, that to call this recent spike a crisis and pay more attention to it than we would in years when the homicide rate was much lower, is a bit insulting to the reality of those that live in deep East Oakland or West Oakland and who deal with violence daily. I agree with my friend M., who grew up in East Oakland, that only when middle or upper-middle class white folks and professional people start getting robbed do people pay attention. I wrote something similar when I wrote about Chauncey Bailey's murder.

But when are we going to break out of our 'safe', illusory cocoons, wake up and realize that every death in this city, whether we knew the person or not, is connected to our lives? That violence that happens two feet or two miles away from us is our business too? That our willful ignorance and neglect of the violent and often impoverished and bleak realities of the people that are turning to crime and murder is part of the problem? Too often, people like me--middle-class, college-educated, living fairly comfortable lives--don't do anything until something happens to us, or someone that we know, or someone like us. We are motivated only by our fear of harm to our own persons, our own safety, when others walk around in our city feeling unsafe all the time, not just during years like this one.

Well, I, for one, want to be motivated by love, and I challenge all of my fellow Oaklanders who gripe and complain and sit on their hands when it comes to the violence in this city to do the same. Can we, as the Buddha and Gandhi and every other nonviolent leader in history has urged us, reach out in love and compassion to each other, to the strangers that walk past us? Can we say good morning to someone that we think might not speak the same language as us--whether that language is English or street slang? Can we challenge ourselves to rise above our own fear and feel compassion and empathy for not only the people that have been killed but for the people who wielded the weapon that brought about those deaths? Until we see that all of our lives are connected and intertwined--as this violent crisis, global warming/climate change, and numerous other major events in the world today show us--we will never be able to solve these persistent and disturbing problems.

Try it, if you don't believe me. Say 'hello' to someone that you pass everyday when you walk around Oakland--a young Black man or an older Asian immigrant. Smile. Be human, and see them as such. Make a connection. Eventually, you might end up having a conversation with someone that otherwise you would've just made lots of assumptions about, and you might learn that they are not that different than you. Or if that's too vague and unstructured an activity, volunteer to be a mentor to a young person who doesn't have lots of positive role models to look up to, help out at a local youth group or school, or if you don't have time to give, make a donation to an anti-violence group like the Silence the Violence project. Volunteer as an advocate for children in foster care.Talk to your neighbors. Get to know Oakland as a community, a group of people, a neighborhood, a place you call home, rather than a place you go to sleep at night.

For now, I'm sitting with this and thinking of the families and friends of those that were killed this weekend. I pray for them, and for the recently departed, and I pray for this city, that we can pull together in the ways that we need to to bring this cycle of neglect, oppression and violence to an end.

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