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Letter from the Community: An Oakland mother’s story

on April 22, 2009

By Jilala Foley/Special to Oakland North

My son was shot this week; one bullet lodged in his back, beneath his kidney, and the other went through his arm, breaking the bone as it passed. He had made the not-too-wise choice to attend a side show in East Oakland. Consistent with past events, there were gun shots and my son was this week’s unfortunate victim.

If my laptop could absorb tears this account would be stained, but technology, like so many people today, is incapable of absorbing the pain and suffering that results from yet another young black man who has been shot.

My sorrow is broad and reaches up and down the coast of this state. The same weekend my son was shot, other young black males were shot and died from their injuries. My son told me of one who was a promising athlete, being recruited to play football on the same team my son played his freshman year in college. One son gone from this earth and the other punctured through-and-through and littered with a bullet from a low caliber pistol. There are so many others … young and black males.

It was approximately 6 a.m. and there was a loud pounding at my door followed by the ringing of the doorbell. I answered the door to the face of another mother who said “get your clothes on and come with me.” As I got dressed, I suspected this mother had found my son in the room of her daughter; my son’s longtime girlfriend. When we got into the car I was told my son was in Highland Hospital and that he had been shot.  It is difficult to communicate this experience because it was such a horrific moment that it hurts to even recall. It was as if I was falling and all I could do was scream, brace my feet and hold on to what ever my hands could reach.  No … no … please, please … no, please GOD GOD no no.

Jilala Foley and her son

Jilala Foley and her son

Over the past five years, I had experienced the most overwhelming sense of fear for my son. All the statistics said that his chances of going to jail or getting shot were better then his achieving a college degree. As he grew more and more independent and distant in a typical teenage way, my fears grew.  Sometimes it would last a day, sometimes weeks. Even though he was in the best schools, had great friends and generally did well, sometimes I would be struck by this fear and it would weigh on me so much that our relationship would become strained by my constant phone calls to him and overprotective demands.

Just before the housing market took off in California, I bought a house at 82nd and Ney Avenue in East Oakland. My son was in 5th grade. I had sacrificed living in a relatively good neighborhood in order to buy a home I could afford. The first week in this house my son came rushing in the front door. He was in tears. “I hate it here … we live in the ghetto … you can’t even ride a bike without a dog trying to attack you.” I sent him back out to play, empowered by a baseball bat for protection. We lived in that house for five years and experienced trauma after trauma: heads blown off in front of our house, cars crashing, burning, white sheets covering bodies, memorials in the form of liquor bottles and Guadalupe candles, babies dragging babies along on their tippy toes yelling at them to “shut the fuck up nigga before I whoop yo ass!”, gun shots, sirens, and side shows. A deep darkness settled over my spirit. I had never seen such sadness, misery and poverty. My mother and I were poor growing up but there was no anger, violence or hopelessness.

The year we moved to East Oakland my son was one of 35 out hundreds of applicants admitted to Saint Paul’s Episcopal School. He graduated and was admitted to Bishop O’Dowd high school just a half-mile away from our East Oakland home. Bishop O’Dowd Catholic School is a heavily fortified enclave to the crime, poverty and violence of East Oakland. I am a single parent – a high school drop out – without a college degree and all my resources went into providing my son with every opportunity to overcome the statistics. Although my son would rise to an average academic level, all his energy went towards sports, being cute, cool and the center of attention. He was and still is a follower. Whatever others are going, he will go. That is why I sent him to these schools but … we still lived in “the hood” and he is still a young black male. He is diverse.

Just before the housing market plummeted, I sold my little beauty in the ghetto and rented an apartment on the border of Piedmont and Oakland. I recall my son asking me why I was selling the house and I told him I couldn’t take the violence. He responded “I’m used to it now.” This is the problem … over years and years of exposure, we had become desensitized. I notice the same phenomena in myself. One night, not unlike any other night, I heard gunshots and began to count. I realized I had ceased to become unnerved by the sound but rather found myself counting “Mississippis” to determine how long it would take before I heard the sirens coming. I knew that night that I had to leave that place. By then, my son was a senior in high school. It is hard not to blame myself … I would give anything to take back those years of trauma and desensitization that I exposed my son to.

He is blessed. He will have a “full recovery” and he’s “extremely lucky” says the doctor, who looks at my 18-year-old/black/youth/East Oakland gun shot victim. He does not know that this boy is a kind-hearted, loving, college freshman, star athlete, 3.4 GPA, recruiter id’ed, smarter then he’s willing to show, most appreciated member of a large African-American and Irish Catholic family. My son’s experience gives weight to the statistic that says young black boys/men are screwed.

I go to the police department his second day in the hospital and I’m asked by officer 553, “Is he alive?” He makes some phone calls and determines that there was a police report made by an officer that questioned my son just before he went into the emergency room. My son does not remember talking to anyone. I’m given a report number, asked how old he is and I’m told, “He shouldn’t have been out at 3 a.m.” As I depart Oakland PD’s building, I take note of the new names added to the wall of officers killed in March of this year and open the door to leave knowing that my sons’ life means no more to Officer 553 then it did to the person who pointed the gun at him. Although the development of their indifference evolved from two completely different worlds, they both arrived at the same place.

What happened? He went to the side show with two other friends home for Spring Break. (Yes … college kids go to side shows too.) My son, being overly cocky and seemingly invincible, sits out the rear car window to see and be seen at the side show. I envision him waving his hands to the music and bobbing his head like I’ve seen on news reports about side shows. Although, this time the head I see is not some wild young person, it is my son. The cars are caravanning down the street; following and being followed by other cars of teenagers. As their car passes, someone pulls out a gun and fires several shots; two of which hit my son. He is hit in his lower back and, as he sinks back into the car, another shot is fired through the window and passes through his arm. Why? Why were they shooting? Did he know them? If he didn’t know them why would someone do such a thing?  He says “I don’t understand why … we didn’t even have a really nice car.”

Apparently there is such a phenomena as “hating” where people will shoot at another simply because that person has something admirable. Generally, what’s admired are cars and clothing. Sometimes it’s simply a cocky attitude that will make you a target. I can almost hear it: “Look at this mother fucker … (pop, pop).” Right into my son.

Still the question is WHY!! This question prompts so much speculation on so many causes and effects, spanning from the first slave to today’s racism, lack of family to family abuse, drug use to drug dealers, politics, economics, lack of education, lack of health care, lack of hope, lack of faith … it is so enormous this problem. We live in a society where if you are black, you know children/young adults who get shot and killed. Regardless of how well you try to live and love a child; the expensive schools or the distance you try to put between yourself and the statistics … you will know a young black male who is shot.

I am ashamed of my shame. I know that people will assess the experience my son had and place blame on him for his injuries. There are others who won’t even ask the story but will jump straight to, “Well, I hope he’ll change his ways.” I am ashamed that I have considered that my son is less deserving of this experience then someone who knows nothing other than “thug life.” I am ashamed because this thought leads me to the same place as the shooter and Officer 553; to devalue life.

In our society, the value of a life lessons to the extent that that life is denied what it needs to thrive.  So much so that the majority of the shootings in Oakland of young black men are not diligently investigated nor are they reported in the media. It is a reality — very real to the black community and as distant an experience to many as the ongoing battle between Israel and Palestine. The war in Iraq hits home to many middle class white Oaklanders but the eight gunshot victims in Oakland are covered only by white sheets as our media focuses on other horrors less typical.

Every day my son heals, I become more anxious and angry. I’m angry at myself for not doing more.  I’m angry at his father for being absent for most of his life and then dying. I’m angry at white people because I don’t think they could ever understand how it feels to wake up in the morning and pray your child does not get shot that day. I’m angry because if middle and upper class white people had these same experiences and fears for their children, someone would do something. It is so easy to go to these places; anger fills the void.

Both my son and I have been really lucky and given opportunities that have allowed us a chance to have a decent life. I am a high school drop-out but because of people who gave me jobs, taught me how to spell, file papers, answer a phone properly, a typing class or two and more help gave me the opportunity to get a decent job that allowed me to give my son the education I did not have. More importantly, my son lived through this experience and has no permanent injuries. He will return to school in two weeks and still aspires to play football.

It is the boy on the corner who shot my son and Officer 553 and all of their like that need our help.  My son and I will heal from this experience; however, if Officer 553 and random shooter do not heal, more people will suffer. Occasionally, there will be one that people actually care about because he was a “star this” or “star that.” Maybe, like Oscar Grant, the horror of the common experience will be captured on video and people will stop and take notice. Between those times, there is what the media, the police and society treat (through their lack of attention and care) as disposable victims.

People are always calling and emailing me asking if I need help. I do not want anymore food brought to my house, flowers or hugs. What I want is an answer to their question … “What can I do to help.”  I/we want to know what we can do to help the people who need it the most: those that have been denied nurture to such an extent that life becomes so insignificant that they would take a life for entertainment.

This is why I write … I want to know what we can do. If you have any suggestions, write me and I will do what I can and encourage others to do the same. We must do something before the horror that is happening not only spoils the image of Oakland but the life of yet another human being. Some believe that eventually “they” will kill themselves off and we will be free from those that would commit such a crime. However, everyday those children are killing and being killed, other are being born into the same situation that created the killers.

Please leave your thoughts in the comment box below.  If you’d like to reach Jilala Foley directly, you can email her at

Letters from the Community is an ongoing feature on Oakland North. If you would like to submit an essay for consideration, please email the editors at j201editors [at] gmail [dot] com.


  1. Lisa on April 23, 2009 at 6:36 am

    This story moved me to tears. I work with many young, black males as a teacher and feel such despair at times to know what they are up against to break out of the statistics. I know that it is inevitable that one of the students I dearly love will be a victim of this outrageous street violence in East Oakland. What can we do? I am encouraged by a new program called Brothers on the Rise in two Oakland middle schools — Edna Brewer and Frick. The boys work with trained counselors on their transition into manhood, building self-esteem and discovering tools to deal with conflict and emotions. I know this program needs more funding to sustain itself and to grow. One thing we could do is support it and encourage other middle schools to invite the group to work with adolescents. Waiting until boys hit high school may be too late.

  2. Commander Johnston on April 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

    OK.. I read this with much intensity, and I kept missing something.
    The answer to “Why was he out at 3 AM”? The answer to ” Why was he at this event?” I am never one to blame the victim(s), but I still am missing where she takes responsibility for her son’s situation. He may be a nice you man, but if he has no rules to follow; he’s a nice young man headed for trouble. She obviously works very hard and loves her son dearly, but he still appears to have no real set rules for his whereabouts and his conduct. I can assure you as a former Deputy Sheriff and a current law enforcement officer, that something is truly missing here. Limitations!!.

    To state that Officer 553 has the same attitude as her son’s assailant is ludicrous and disasteful to me. Officer 553 asked the question, “why was he out at 3AM?” She gave no answer, just lumped the officer in with the assailant as a way to justify her feelings and to rationalize the situation.

    I know that single mothers have one hell of a job, and I applaud all of them, including the author, who tries and succeeds in raising their children. But we, as Black people, need to stop blaming everyone else and look at ourselves. Why was he out at 3AM?
    Answer that seemingling inonocuous question and you get into a very deep situation of not taking responsibility for her son’s actions and whereabouts. I will not blame the victim if she will accept responsibility for her son’s actions and her lack of control of his life and time.

    Ensuring that he gets a good education is great, but if we as parents don’t set goals and limitations for our children, we can end up just like her and her son. Why was he out at 3 AM and not at home in bed, resting; preparing his mind and body for school, rather than “hanging out” unbeknownst to his mother.

    You ask for help and advice; try “tough love”. Try saying “No” sometimes, for not other reason than because you are the parent. Try asking him where he’s going and why he needs to go there and who’s going to be there. Do you know his friends? Ask yourself, “Why was he out at 3AM?”.

    I feel your pain, I feel for your son, but I have little sympathy for you based upon what I read. These are your failures that you are reaping, because you do not know “Why he was out at 3AM”.

    Blame the shooter, do not blame the police. Blame yourself for not knowing where your teenage son was at that time of the morning. Do not blame the police. But worst of all, recognize that your son and you MUST accept TOTAL responsibility for your son for just BEING there. “Why was he there at 3 AM”? and why did YOU not know his whereabouts?

    You want help and advice. Try doing the hard stuff. Set limitations and stick to them. Exercise parental perogatives and limitations and enforce them. Then you won’t have to avoid answering the question “Why was he out at 3AM?”

    My heartfelt sympathy to you and your son.


  3. Oakland North » What’s your story? on April 23, 2009 at 11:54 am

    […] feature on our site called “Letters from the Community.”  Our first letter is from Jilala Foley, who writes about her son’s shooting recent shooting at an East Oakland sideshow.  If you […]

  4. Lauren Matteis on April 23, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Jilala’s account of her son being shot in the streets describes the unrest in Oakland. Here is a woman of eloquence and grace describing what it is like to raise a son in our city of Oakland. She opens herself up to the community to share her story and implores us to answer the questions about violence and race in our city.

    The first response talks about Brothers on the Rise – you better believe, I will google that later – thanks Lisa.

    The second is from Owen who sends his “heartfelt sympathy” for a mother and her son when several lines earlier he tells her to blame herself. Interesting.

    Let me say first off – I do respect the hard work and the dedication of many of the police officers in Oakland but as a city, as a community, we have some issues – issues with violence and race.

    One sunny afternoon, I noticed a little 5 year old black boy dart underneath a table when a police officer walked into our homework center in West Oakland. When I questioned the kindergartener, I asked, “Why did you go under the table?”

    He replied, “Police officers shoot black boys.”

    That comment left me with a heavy heart. He was five and terrified. What are the lessons that he had learned already? How is he seen by the police? He was reading a book. He was not in trouble but he was scared, really scared.

    Here a mother writes her story. One filled with recent pain, questions, and obvious love for son. She questions how we, as a community, respond to violence. In Owen’s reply, her integrity as a mother is questioned.

    This is our community and there seems to be a disconnect. We are in this together. We share this pain – Many of us want the violence to STOP. We want the community to notice that one black boy shot is too many. Shooting someone is not OK, not acceptable, and the shooting of an 18 year old should make the bloody news if the blood is in our streets.

    I want people to dialogue about the racism that is prevalent in our city (and our country) – not just at the police dept. but in our businesses, our schools, our streets, our city. Why is it that if a white boy was shot, its news but a black boy shot is not news? What’s wrong with this picture?

    I want there to be healing in our community that have been wounded by this violence. I want to feel like the police are people who really do care for the community they work for? I know some do. I want 5 years olds not to feel like they have to hide from the men or women in blue. I want VIOLENCE IN OAKLAND TO STOP and I want everyone to know that we as a community are working to cease sideshows, child prostitution, drug dealing, gang violence, and the sale of AK-47s in our backyards. Let’s at least try together!

    We hear of being boys (and girls) dying in Iraq in uniform but we don’t hear of injured young men in East Oakland? Is it because of what they wear? Uniforms= important. Baggy jeans= not important? Why is that? Does anyone ever deserve to be shot? I don’t think so.

    Owen, did you go out late at night when you were 18? What are the options for the youth of Oakland? Should all black men from the ages of 16- 29 stay inside during those years so they don’t get shot? The last time I checked, a boy of eighteen is an adult and has the freedom to be out at 3am. He should not have to fear being shot due to the hour of night that he is out. If he is shot, I would hope that there would be an investigation into who shot him.

    As a white woman, I wonder if I had gone into that police station that Jilala walked into, would I have been treated the same way as my friend? Would my white face allow me the privilege of earning sympathy from the officers? Would people hear about my son’s injuries and offer loving words instead of blame? Would people question my parenting skills or my ability to set limits?

    White. Black. MIxed. Violence. Its bigger than simple words to describe skin color.
    Families. Love. Respect. Civic Pride. Dedication. Heart. Justice. Community. Children. What as a city to we value? Real dialogue and work. We can heal. Let’s listen.

    Until we can listen without judging, we can’t heal. Until we notice that the violence is a problem, more black boys will be getting sewed up at Highland Hospital this weekend. Some people will try to explain to the boys’ resilient strong mothers that they, the mothers, are to blame for the violence in the streets of Oakland. I disagree – we all have a part in this community.

    I will keep listening to students, parents, neighbors, cops, business owners, my family, my friends and to moms like Jilala. Thanks you for your story, Jilala.

    What are you willing to do to help end the violence against young, black boys?

    Love and Light,

  5. laura on April 23, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    im in tears. i am so sorry this happened. i love you. you are one strong single mother. your son and the community are lucky to have you.
    so happy your son has had a full recovery.
    my prayers on oakland.
    love you!!!!!!!!! laura (silverfoote)

  6. Up North! on April 23, 2009 at 8:34 pm


    Thank the Lord he is ALIVE!!!! Oakland, CA is no JOKE!!! it’s nice in the day but at dusk it time to get out!!

    This is only one of the short stories that is told everyday someone is dying in the Oak-Town!

    Richmond, CA as well!

    Amen to all

  7. Tom on April 24, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    “Commander Johnston”,
    Please seek professional psychiatric help. You are a sick man.
    Tom M.

  8. E.D on April 24, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    I believe it is our job as parents to prepare our children for audulthood before they leave our home. The bible says abstain from the appearance of evil, therefore hanging out at a “side show” falls in that catagory. Nothing good can come out of hanging out in the streets at night. I don’t really blame the children, they are only a product of their enviorment. They are angry, angry at their Dads for not being in their lives, angry at their Moms for being on crack and not providing for them. Those are the boys out there killing. We need “Men” to mentor these boys early in the game. So, men, step up to the plate and be there for our boys.

  9. Another Mom in Oakland on April 30, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    This is a very sad and very real story repeated every day here in Oakland. I can’t figure out how to stop it or change it either. Your son is like any young person who was in the wrong place and the wrong time. How many of us didn’t make foolish decisions to go somewhere or do something that wasn’t the safest feeling we’d be “fine”? This is normal young adult behavior. Judging your son or you for this is so not alright. I am so happy to hear that your son will survive and recover physically. But the emotional damage is done. Hopefully he will learn from this and make more mature diecisions in the future. I know that like is hard and uncertain for Black men in the US but your son has advantages; a loving mother, a great education, future aspirations. These are the things that will create the change necessary. More mothers who sacraafice so that their children can be educated, who understand the value of education and can teach peace. Don’t let your anger make you like them, those that kill….Have compassion for how empty a life must be without respect and awe of the people and world around you, for what makes a person so callous.

    Please also don’t think for a moment that there aren’t white folks here in Oakland and elsewhere that don’t understand the terror and the pain. I am in solidarity. Peace.

  10. Adam on May 1, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Jilala’s story is unfortunately not an uncommon one. To blame a mother for her child’s shooting, regardless of the circumstances is not only unkind but shows a certain ignorance to the truth of our fair city. Oakland is not in a state of upheaval. Oakland is in an ongoing state of disconnection. The wealthy and poor communities are disconnected. The white and brown communities are disconnected. Clearly, the police and the citizens that they are trying to protect are disconnected. Even the churches are out of touch with the children that they are trying to help parents raise. The local and state governments are disconnected from the statues they put in place to create equality, justice and equal access for out communities. I could go on for days but you all get the point.

    Gun violence and a lack of value for the lives of our boys and young men (especially those of color) is just a symptom of this disease… it spreads more quickly and quietly than any other because all it requires is a small dose of apathy. It has infected us all – made us insensitive and cold to pain and death. ‘Just another trouble-maker getting shot’, is not anything that should ever be said about a child, regardless of where they happened to be standing at the time.

    ‘Commander’ Johnston’s commentary reminds us of the dangers of viewing these very real and pervasive problems from an ivory tower of superiority and judgment. We are neighbors, we are fellow community members, we are friends and we all stand to gain enormously from changing these attitudes and reaching out to our children to guide them as a village does.

    Thank you for begin brave enough to speak out Jilala – we need more people to do so.

  11. Jilala on May 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Mr. Thuon Chen and other critics:

    I am not looking for sympathy nor am I placing blame. I am neither a “poor” woman nor am I an angry woman. I am simply trying to inspire people to take notice of what is going on in our city and to direct me and others towards avenues in which to help. I was relaying waves of emotion. During times of stress and fear, emotions are not always logical. Logical or not, “tired cliché” (anger directed towards white privilege and the police) or not, they are not uncommon amidst a city full of stressed and fearful people. My mother is white as are many of my friends; they are upper and lower class. They are the people who love and support my son and I. Police Chief Jordan has called me and was kind enough to offer any help that he can. He is a good example of a person willing to work with the community. I have met mother’s who have had similar experiences and have united with them to heal and find direction. This was the purpose of my essay…to find people who need support and people who are willing to offer guidance.

    Mr. Chen and critics of my experience…outside of making unfair and unkind comments and assumptions as to the meaning of my essay, do you have any solutions to the questions I pose? It appears some would rather take the time to criticize and distort the emotional context of my words rather than address the very clear point of my essay which is “what can we do” My son and I certainly have discussed safety and right action but there will always be more victims Mr. Chen and kids will always be kids, full of bad ideas and doing things they should not. I encourage you to turn away from blame and look towards a solution. I went through this process and tried (apparently unsuccessfully) to relay that in my essay. Blaming white peoople will no more lower the crime rate then blaming the victim. Blaming the police will no more save a child’s life then blaming the parents.

    Luckily, many responses I received were directed towards finding solutions and providing resources. There are too many for me to thank individually. They are all so very much appreciated. Unfortunately, there are a few people who would just assume to blame the victim and their families rather than take some action to help their community address and overcome the ongoing violence on the streets of Oakland. I pray the balance remains in the favor of those that would seek to create a change.


  12. samia on May 18, 2009 at 4:38 pm


    I am in Australia and read this . I am send my love and heart to you for this pain !

    Yes and we have echoes of the same , not with guns , as Guns are banned here in my country. But the legacies of violence that are passed on and on and in our Indigenous communtiy and we have much!!! TOO MUCH ! Lateral racism and violence and of course the overt and insidious kind that is in the cultural mindset , STILL.

    Each of us can only keep going with what we see aas the right way to live , to do what we can to break this chain for future generations, to instill good values and rise above hatred and dysfunction. SOME OF US WILL , some of us unfortunately will not. That is the WAR , WE ARE IN.

    I can only say , keep strong , keep your heart alive in the hope of better times. FEEL the love of those around you who do care . Never ever give up. Never !!!!

    Be well. AND ban GUNS ! that would help as well.

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