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Abdul Wahid Taha looks out the window of his East Oakland home in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 21, 2009. Taha often feels apprehensive about leaving his home due to the violence in the neighborhood. (Sean Donnelly/Staff)

OAKLAND

There are Oakland residents who've never seen a dead body on a street or sidewalk.

There are those who haven't heard gunshots ring out in the pre-dawn hours or looked from their window to see a flood of red-and-blue lights flashing as police string yellow crime-scene tape around a frontyard.

To some, 124 is just a number.

Most residents have not lost a brother, cousin or friend to a stabbing to the neck or a bullet to the chest.

Most homicide suspects don't live in Oakland hills neighborhoods, drink lattes in the funky coffee houses in the Laurel district or shop for organic produce in the Dimond.

For most Oakland residents, murder is something that happens "over there."

It's true that 75 percent of last year's killings occurred in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, according to a report from the Urban Strategies Council.

It's also true 1 of 10 homicide victims last year was younger than 18 and all but 25 of the 124 victims were African-American, according to the report. Forty-eight of those killed were on parole or probation, the report shows.

But even if you don't live in East or West Oakland or know a lot of young black men or people on parole, killings affect everyone and traverse geography and class, and faith and socio-economic standing, experts say. It can cause overwhelming stress and make blood pressures skyrocket. It can force women to forgo evening walks. It can make grown men use clothing or body language to size up passers-by.


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No matter if you live in Havenscourt or Rockridge, 124 is not just a number. It's how many men and women were killed in Oakland last year.

"I think (people) are more affected than they are aware of," said David Manson, the director of government and community relations for the Youth Employment Partnership in Oakland. "I wish (people) would be more aware of the impact on themselves. There is a lot of connectivity between a lot of us and we impact each other in many ways that we may not even be aware of."

Karen Ivy lives in Rockridge, a neighborhood where killings are rare. Still, she has altered some of her habits because of slayings in other parts of the city.

"I will say that I don't go for walks at night anymore. Maybe that is because I am 63 and when you are 63 you are more aware of things that can go wrong than when you are 43," she said.

"I would so hate for something to happen to me because I did something stupid, and I consider that going for a walk at night is stupid. We are not the kill zone, but we are the ATM."

Crime saturates city life

Ivan Chiu, an architect who has lived in the Temescal district for five years, has had his car broken into three times and has had a bike stolen, but he has never been directly affected by a killing. Still, he takes steps to protect himself — always. "I will be more wary walking to the MacArthur BART station," the 44-year-old said. "Clearly I will try to differentiate between someone who is dressed to go to work and someone who is just meandering around. I will try to size them up as quickly as I can by their dress code or by their demeanor."

Ken Druck founded the Jenna Druck Foundation and a spinoff program, Families Helping Families, after his 21-year-old daughter was killed in a bus accident in India. Each year the program helps about 250 families through individual and group facilitation. Druck said 20 percent of the people they assist are grieving violent deaths.

"To say people are disaffected is profoundly wrong," said Druck, a mental health professional, speaker and author. "People are deeply affected, and we've seen that when violence has spilled over into more affluent communities. You see a tremendous response and a sense of outrage when people are threatened in their own backyards."

Though there aren't hard numbers to indicate how Oakland's homicide rate affects such things as tourism, property values and economic growth, it certainly doesn't help.

Last year, Oakland had the fifth-highest crime rate in the country, according to the 15th annual listing of city crime rankings published by CQ Press, a unit of Congressional Quarterly Inc. The rankings were based on crime statistics compiled by the FBI for 2007.

"(There is) a negative impact of having your city associated with homicides, which translates into lower home values, etc.," said Elijah Zuniga, a retired San Diego police officer and former agent for the California Department of Justice. "The loss of quality people who want to live in an area where homicides occur could lead to a decline in the neighborhood, leaving it more vulnerable to crime and homicides, costing the taxpayer more money in city services and loss of government revenue."

A culture creates fear

Such things as "side shows," where cars drag race, spin "doughnuts" and passengers hang from windows, and the "Go Dumb" motto used by some young people can put Oakland in a negative light and add to the crime rate, experts said.

"Like anything else, people never remember the good," Zuniga said. "The negative will always stick with anyone, and when people think of Oakland, they will think of homicides."

As an example, Zuniga, who consults for a casino in Compton, said the casino owners unsuccessfully petitioned the city to allow them to change the name of where the casino is located to Crystal City because of the negative connotation associated with crime-ridden Compton.

While homicides cost the city money and divert police from regular patrol duties, there are also far-reaching psychological effects, residents and experts said.

"I think that the bottom line is that a scared child emerges and that the message is: 'What's going to happen to me?' And we don't have to know anybody (who has been killed) to feel that. There is a community fear and sadness and experience that is not personal, but it comes out in a personal way," said Elayne Savage, a Berkeley psychotherapist.

"(Homicides) bring up loss. When something like that happens in the community, even if we didn't know the person who died, it brings up past losses and most importantly past traumas. I think there is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder for the community even if they aren't directly involved," Savage said.

In Oakland, many slayings are retaliatory, perpetuating the violence, police say. Many are also linked to drugs and gangs, or both.

Always 'on guard'

Abdul Wahid Taha lives in the Havenscourt neighborhood, where there were eight homicides last year and 17 killings in the areas surrounding the neighborhood. The 57-year-old freelance Web designer is a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a nationwide group that works to improve quality of life for low- and moderate-income people, because he wants to better his community, he said. He isn't involved with the things that often lead to homicides, he said, but is profoundly affected by violence.

He has lived in Oakland for 25 years. Five months ago moved to Havenscourt. Since, his already high blood pressure has elevated and he is in tries to react calmly when someone is driving aggressively near him, leaning against his car, or refusing to move a car out of his path.

"I always have to be aware that a first response can't be an emotional response. It has to be a rational response," he said, adding that he relies on his religious faith to get through difficult situations.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pound man said he is on guard all the time.

"I'm just always more on guard any time I'm out. I make sure everything is locked up and chained up. If I get out of my car, even for 20 minutes, I put The Club on my steering wheel," he said. "If I'm somewhere else, I probably wouldn't put it on. You have to be constantly on guard to know who is watching you."

Reach Kristin Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com.