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.
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.
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