by S. Howard Bransford/Oakland North
Desiree Davis was barely a teenager when Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters breached the levees of New Orleans, trapping her in her home with her mother and sister.
The deadly currents never did tear the home from its foundation, but when the waters receded, the family walked out into streets filled with looters and killers and decided it was time to move on. They had a strong connection to the city’s eclectic culture and jazz music—Desiree Davis’ father, Jesse Davis, is an acclaimed saxophonist, and her grandfather is the legendary trumpeter Howard McGhee. But family members living in California had offered their homes, and their quest for a better life eventually led them to Oakland.
On Wednesday night, relatives of Desiree Davis mourned the fact that her dreams of finding refuge—and a career as a veterinarian—never were fulfilled.
Desiree, 17, died on Labor Day in a shooting that took place in broad daylight in Northwest Oakland, and her uncle, Howard “Boots” McGhee Jr., blames a culture of violence that haunts young people from the Crescent City to the Pacific Ocean.
Desiree, an ambitious Oakland Technical High School Student, fled a natural disaster only to find herself in an environment where killing is often the preferred method of solving problems and gaining status, McGhee said.
“It’s a way of gaining status amongst your peers,” Boots McGhee, a photographer who grew up in Berkeley and now lives in the Santa Cruz area, said in an interview today. “You have to climb this false ladder.”
The killing took place just as Davis, a yearbook editor at Tech, was beginning to recover from the turmoil of her early teens and envision her future, McGhee said. “I think Desiree was just coming into her own and finding her own direction,” McGhee said.
Members of Desiree’s immediate family, who live several miles from the site of her death, asked for a time of privacy in the aftermath of the shooting. McGhee said that his sister, Desiree’s mother, had been at the conorer’s office today. “She saw her today for the final time,” he said.
At Oakland Tech, Principal Sheilagh Andujar said teachers and students were finding solace in sharing memories of Desiree, who fellow students have described as a mild-mannered person. A banner in her honor decorated a wall near the school’s main entrance, and school officials are considering plans for a memorial.
“The students and staff are finding each other,” Andujar said. “The support from the community has been stable.”
McGhee, in a lengthy telephone conversation this afternoon, described Desiree as a creative young woman who initially moved to Santa Cruz with her mother and older sister after Hurricane Katrina. He recalled how Desiree, a lover of animals, painted his doghouse and seemed ready to make her home within the town’s creative community.
Like her mother, who had a custom sewing and interior design business in New Orleans, Desiree showed promise as an artist when she was a young girl. McGhee recalled returning to the family’s home in New Orleans to recover drawings she had made in school, and said he had hoped to foster that talent by introducing her to artists in Santa Cruz.
“She had talent,” McGhee said. “She just didn’t have a lot of time to develop it, with the upheaval of Katrina.”
After a time in Santa Cruz, however, Desiree and her sister and mother decided to move to Oakland, McGhee said, because they wanted to live in a multicultural atmosphere that felt more like New Orleans.
“I think they felt they had more opportunities in an urban environment,” McGhee said.
But McGhee said Desiree soon experienced trouble with crime, and that about two months ago she was robbed while taking money from an ATM machine. She feared for her safety because her attackers had also taken her driver’s license and knew where she lived, McGhee said.
“She didn’t like the scene,” McGhee said. “It was scary.”
Whether investigators are looking into prior attempts on Desiree’s life was not clear as of late Wednesday. The Oakland Police Department had no further information on the case, the city’s 77th homicide this year.
Not long before the day Desiree was shot, McGhee said, the high school senior was considering a move to another town, where there was less of a threat of violence. But McGhee, who is an avid surfer, said she never had a chance to move.
McGhee said Desiree inhabited a world much like the ocean waters in which he surfs. Safety, he said, is elusive at best. “We’re here living in this world of sharks,” McGhee said. “These sharks are not only ruthless, they’re heartless.”