Carlos Nava, a 3-year-old, was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in East Oakland on August 9. Less than three months later, 23-month-old Hiram Lawrence was shot in the head by a stray bullet in West Oakland on November 28, and died two weeks after that when he was taken off life support. On December 30, 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez was shot and killed by another stray bullet in front of his family’s taco truck in East Oakland.
Martinez was the 110th homicide victim in Oakland in 2011. The fact that three of those who lost their lives last year were toddlers has drawn outrage from community leaders who work to prevent violence.
“The City of Oakland is in a state of emergency, and families are definitely in shock,” said Lorrain Franklin-Taylor, the founder of 1,000 Mothers Against Violence, an advocacy and support group for families who have lost loved ones to violence. “It is not even believable what these mothers have been going through. Lives have been crippled.”
Franklin-Taylor started 1,000 Mothers after her 22-year-old twin sons, Albade and Obadiah, were shot and killed in 2000. She is often contacted by friends or family of victims of acts of violence, and she visited with the Lawrence family while baby Hiram was on life support at Children’s Hospital.
Franklin-Taylor said she’ll never forget the sight of the baby lying in his hospital bed while his father cried and his mother asked Franklin-Taylor how she coped with her own loss. “Those memories are hard memories,” Franklin-Taylor said. “He’s a baby, a poor baby who hasn’t seen 2 years yet. And to be caught in the crossfire and watch him on life support …”
The homicide rate jumped in Oakland in 2011 for the first time in five years. In 2010, there were 95 homicides. Ann Marks, the executive director of violence prevention group Youth Alive, said the increase in violence makes young people particularly vulnerable. “It’s more dangerous for everyone, and unfortunately, our most vulnerable people are children,” she said.
None of the three children were the intended targets of the shootings that killed them. (Two men have been arrested and charged in the Nava killing; no arrests have been made in the deaths of Lawrence and Martinez.) Marks said her impression is that typically many of the homicides in Oakland aren’t targeted killings, but instead result from reckless acts like shooting into crowds of people, or choosing to shoot up a neighborhood rather than target an individual.
But Marks said that what’s more unusual about some of last year’s homicides is that the shootings occurred in broad daylight. She mentioned baby Hiram, who was killed in the early evening, as an example. “I think that’s in some ways a sign that people have become more brazen in terms of what they can do and get away with,” Marks said.
The devastating killings have inspired neighborhood action. On December 9, a group of community members from Oakland Community Organizations, a network of community and neighborhood groups in Oakland, held a peace march down International Boulevard to draw attention to the murder rate, especially in light of the deaths of the young Lawrence and Nava. Dozens of people attended, carrying signs and chanting “Gun violence has got to go.”
The march started at 64th Avenue and International Boulevard, where Nava was killed in August, and concluded at Green Leaf Elementary School, on East 17th Street, a few blocks off International, where community members met with Mayor Jean Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan to share their own personal stories of violence and urge the city officials to do more to stop it.
But then less than a month later, Martinez was killed about 10 blocks away from where that march started. Family members and friends have since enacted a vigil at the site where Martinez was shot near his family’s taco truck.
Standing in front of the vigil’s candles and stuffed animals, Emilio Mejie, a friend of the Martinez family, sighed and said he did not understand how something like this could happen. Mejie said he and other family members and friends have been gathering at the site every day since the shooting. As Mejie was talking, cars pulled up and people passing by paused to look at the memorial.
Mejie said he’s exhausted by all the violence around International Boulevard. “It’s crazy down here on International,” he said. “Maybe police need to come here more often. They need to pay attention.”
Community anti-violence proponents say that more policing could help curb the homicide rate. The Oakland Police Department employs about 650 officers, down from 800 two years ago. The staffing level has been a contentious issue, and former Police Chief Anthony Batts listed it as a reason he resigned in October. The OPD is currently so understaffed that officers only respond to emergency calls for service, and residents must report non-violent property crimes online through the CopLogic system.
Marks said that more officers are needed, noting that Oakland has fewer officers for the size of its population than other major cities, such as Chicago. Marks said she wonders if some of the shootings are happening in part because there is a lack of police presence. “Our police officers are trying to do a lot with a little, and there are just not enough officers to cover the territory,” she said.
Barbara Lafitte-Oluwole, a community leader at Oakland Community Organizations, agreed that more resources should be allocated to public safety in the city. She echoed Franklin-Taylor’s call that more officers are needed to patrol the city’s most dangerous areas, and to be more of a public presence in the highest crime areas.
“I understand they are short staffed, and that is one of the reasons they’re not in those hot spots all the time,” she said. “But we feel that if Measure Y is paying for community police officers to walk the beat. And if you’re actually walking the beat, you’re getting to know families.”
Franklin-Taylor said that more crime prevention techniques also need to be utilized, like the ShotSpotter system, which alerts police to places where gunshots have occurred. “We need security lights, put up the ShotSpotters, and let people know about the anonymous tip line,” Franklin-Taylor said. “People have to know there is another way to let people know about these murderers without fearing for their own lives and safety.”
Marks said that while the tragic killings of three children draws a lot of attention to Oakland’s murder problem, it’s important to remember that the shooting deaths of people of all ages are senseless. “I know that when a mother loses a son who’s 18, 20, there’s not the same level of compassion,” Marks said. “That was her child as well. All of these folks don’t deserve to die.”