This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting.
Last week I spent an afternoon with a support group for victims of violent crime. The group is called "1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence" and it's organized by a well-known Oakland activist named Lorrain Taylor.
Thirteen years ago, Taylor's 22-year-old twin sons, Albade and Obadiah, were shot and killed while working on a car in Oakland. Ever since, Taylor has dedicated her life to trying to stop Oakland's violence. Once a month or so, she gathers with people who have lost someone to violence in Oakland. This last meeting took place in a quiet church on a Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after four people were gunned down in the city. That very day, even as we were talking, 11 more people would be shot.
That day, the group wanted to discuss the idea of justice. One man, whose name I won't reveal, talked about his son who was murdered not long ago. He said he knew who the killers were. He told us their names. He said he had told the police what he knew but they hadn't acted on his information. He knew every detail of their lives -- who they were dating and where they had been on the day his son was killed and what they had said and to whom they had said it. "Let me ask you," he said, "Why aren't they doing anything?"
A woman spoke up in response to his question. She held up two hands. "You have to understand something," she said, "There are two things going on here and you need to separate them. If you don't, you'll drive yourself crazy." She explained how, in the aftermath of a shooting, there was a desire for vengeance. That desire often translated into an obsessive focus on the minutiae of the case as it wound its way through the justice system (if it wound up in the courts at all). "You have to realize that justice is separate from grief," she explained. "You have to let yourself grieve, and you have to let justice take its course."
This was hard, some of the others said, because the Oakland police had such a poor clearance rate on homicides. How could they expect justice if there was no reasonable expectation that the killers would even be nabbed? Taylor questioned whether spending $250,000 on an outside adviser to the police department -- in the form of "supercop" William Bratton -- might not be better spent on a few, lesser-paid forensics specialists who could increase the department's clearance rate.
"Did you know four more people got shot last night?" said one mother, whose 21-year old son was shot last August while sitting in his car.
Taylor hadn't known.
"Oh dear God," she said. Then she spoke of how after the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School she hadn't been able to get out of bed for three or four days.
"Each time something happens it throws me back down," she said, and people began to nod. Two women started to cry.
A grief counselor who helps Taylor run her sessions began to speak. He told the others that sometimes, if they felt the need, they should just scream. "You've got to let the anger out," he said, "otherwise it's going to eat you up and then one day you'll just snap, and believe me, you don't want that to happen and neither does anybody else."
The counselor then told of how he was in East Oakland the other day, talking to a small child, maybe 8 years old, who had been scared by some of the recent violence.
"Be safe," the counselor told the child. The child responded, "I can't be safe, because even safe's get broken into."
Sometimes the tears turned into laughter, then back to tears. "I get so mad in court sometimes my face starts doing all kinds of strange things, and I can't control it," said one woman, who came to the group because her best friend, a single father, recently lost his only daughter. She was 15 years old, killed on a street in the middle of the night. She contorted her face and showed us what she looked like. "I don't usually look like this," she said. "I usually look refreshed, but these last six weeks ..." And she trailed off.
Taylor talked about the seven stages of grief. She said she was stuck in the first stage -- shock -- for years. When she told the group she was still trying to heal 13 years later another woman spoke up. "It never gets better," she told the newcomers. "Nothing will ever be the same. Ever."
"But you're safe here," Taylor said. "You can come here and you'll be safe."
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.