Nearly 200 people gathered at a North Oakland church Monday to remember Oakland’s homicide victims in 2012. On New Year’s Eve, the last day of the year, the number of killings had reached 131—a five-year high.
The crowd, made up of family members, friends, strangers and neighbors, filled the chapel at St. Columba Catholic Church at 64th Street and San Pablo Avenue, and prayed for those who had died. Mothers spoke about the loss of their sons. A Catholic priest led the group in prayer, along with a Baptist minister, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam.
Outside the church, in the garden, were 131 white wooden crosses, planted for each person killed last year. As the crowd spilled out of the church after the ceremony, they clustered around the crosses, each one imprinted with the name and age of a person who had died: Milton, age 37. Phillip, age 49. Leonard, age 67. Tommy, age 18. Hidari, age 15. As the names were called, family members raised their hands to take the cross.
Oakland has seen its most deadly year in 2012 since 2006, when the death toll reached 146, according to Sgt. Christopher Bolton, a spokesperson for the police department. This year has been unusually violent, however, with the Oikos school shooting that left seven dead, the deaths of many teenagers and several shootings during the holiday season. “Just yesterday, someone asked me how many crosses do we have planted in the garden at St. Columba?” said Pastor Aidan McAleenan of St. Columba outside of the church prior to the ceremony. “I said, ‘Well, at 8 p.m., it’s 130, but I don’t know what it’ll be tomorrow.’ Minutes later a 15-year-old girl was murdered by a 13-year-old.”
Family members who lost loved ones to violence on the streets of Oakland convened in a separate room before the services over cake and coffee, and said that the remembrance ceremony—now in its 10th year—was a chance to take action to stop the violence.
“I came here because my daughter was killed three months ago, while she was sitting in a car with her friend—she was found with six bullets in her,” said Mallie Latham, 57, who lives in East Oakland. “Part of my healing process is getting support from others who have gone through what I’m going through.”
Latham said Monday that the crime that he’s witnessed firsthand has sparked him to do something. “I’m starting a men’s group for people who have gone through this, because men don’t traditionally deal with grief like women do,” he said. “I’m organizing them to be able to talk, and to have somewhere to go to let go of some of the stresses and issues, but I also want to get the community together to figure out how we can prevent the violence before it happens.”
Latham’s eyes filled with tears as he held hands with others who lost family members to violence, as they prayed in church pews at St. Columba. Outside, as he walked toward the garden filled with crosses, he brought up the subject of recently-adopted city programs to combat crime in Oakland, including Project Ceasefire and how to spend Measure Y monies.
Project Ceasefire is a nationally acclaimed data-driven violence prevention program that targets a small number of violent offenders in the city, and offers them a choice to either stop breaking the law and get help, or else face focused attention from police. Local elected and police officials relaunched Ceasefire in October, after failing in 2009 largely because of lack of penalties for criminal offenders. The program has been successful in Boston, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.
“I believe the combination of police strategies, and community involvement is what’s necessary,” Latham said. “You can’t just have the department’s top-down approach—there has to be community involvement, and that takes talking to neighbors, to our sons and daughters, and to the city. Then we can come up with something that works.”
Monday’s service, put on by a collaboration of Oakland crime prevention groups and congregations, including Oakland Community Organizations, or OCO, as well as Catholic Charities of the East Bay, had one prevailing message: Peace in the midst of tragedy. “We gather today because even in the midst of the violence and the horror and the trauma, we choose to hold on to hope,” said Marian Castelluccio, a clinical case manager with Catholic Charities of the East Bay who provides crisis response to family members of victims of violence. “We teach people that they can live with a hole in their hearts.”
Ursula Hogan-Gadlin, who lost her son, Demariae Marguise Clay on August 16, 2012, to violence spoke at the remembrance ceremony, and she took deep breaths and long pauses in between words. “My son was a father of four, a loving son, a great brother, and a great friend,” Gadlin said. “I want to encourage the rest of the parents who are grieving along with me to find a better tomorrow, but it won’t be easy.”
Gadlin echoed what Latham said—that working to prevent violence works only with outreach and communication. “We have to start at home, and let our children know that they have family, and that there’s a solution to this,” she said.
Michael McBride, a pastor with The Way Christian Center on University Avenue in Berkeley, is working with a group of clergy members to walk the streets of the most crime-plagued parts of Oakland, including East and West Oakland, talking to residents about how to avert criminal activity. He said about 20 people are working, some weekly and some monthly, in East Oakland, and that 50 church members have vowed to participate in outreach efforts—which are called for under Project Ceasefire.
Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan came to Monday’s vigil to support local crime prevention programs and to commemorate those who lost their lives to violence.
“It’s important we honor and remember the lives of the people who died because of these senseless acts in the city,” Jordan said, surrounded by the crowd outside St. Columba, as crosses were passed overhead to mothers and fathers of crime victims. “The community sees what crime looks like—these aren’t just statistics, they’re people. I’m here to represent the officers of the Oakland Police Department, and to let the community know that we are working around the clock to catch the killers responsible for these murders.”
Editor’s note: The police department confirmed that the death toll in Oakland reached 131 in 2012, but the official homicide count is 126, because five of the killings are considered “justified” by the department, according to a spokesperson.