Deborah Thompson takes a breath. “She was scared,” she says.
She stops. Another breath.
“We never thought anything like this was going to happen,” she says.
Her cheeks are wet. She wipes one with a tissue, and puts the tissue back in her lap.
“She called me and said, ‘Mom, I want to come home, but I’m caught up.’”
Around Thompson, in a circle of green-cushioned, metal-framed chairs, are six other women. Each has lost a child to homicide. Some have damp tissues of their own in hand.
“She texted me, asking me to pick her up,” says Thompson. “But she never told me where she was.” Less than six hours later, Oakland Police would find her daughter’s unconscious body on the 3700 block of Webster Street near Mosswood Park. Tamara had been raped and strangled. Four weeks earlier, she had run away from home. She was 17.
Thompson pulls a silver flip phone from her pocket.
“I was sitting in the living room one day when she took my phone off the table,” she says. “And I said ‘Girl, give me my phone.’ She said, ‘Hold on,’ and took this picture.” Her fingers punch at the keyboard before she displays the phone screen, with its picture of Tamara staring at those around her. Then Deborah hands the phone to her left, to Maria Sisneros, a 65-year-old East Oakland resident. Sisneros’ son, 28-year-old Jorge Sisneros, was Oakland’s 98th homicide in 2006. Forty-seven more people would add their names to that list by the end of the year.
The phone makes its way around the group.
“She’s pretty,” Patricia Harris says. This is Harris’ first support group for relatives of homicide victims. These are the first words she has mustered without sobbing.
The phone makes a stop in the hands of Lorrain Taylor, the group’s founder.
Taylor has her own story. Ten years ago, one February afternoon, her 22-year-old twin sons were both killed in the same shooting on an Oakland street. This city has recorded more than a thousand murders over the decade since then, and for a time, Lorrain Taylor made her way alone as one part of the wreckage these homicides leave behind. She buried herself in her job. She suffered an emotional breakdown and left work on disability. Then in 2004, she founded an advocacy group she called the 24/7 Gospel; it’s now called 1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, and part of its mission is this support group, the Circle of Prayer and Empowerment, or COPE.
The group meets every other Saturday, near Lake Merritt, at Regeneration Church. These days it’s easier than it used to be for Taylor to look at the pictures of other young people who have been killed, and to hear their loved ones mourn. That is her main job at these support groups, that and simply inviting family members to come and sit with others and talk, or just listen. Reaching out to families of homicide victims is Taylor’s full-time job now. She hears about them through news reports, word of mouth, and the police department. When needed, she shows up to their doorsteps with groceries, a smile, a hug, kind words. She is a gospel singer, too, and sometimes—to bring some peace to them, and to herself—she sings.
When she talks about her sons, she does so in short sentences, taking a long pause between each.
“I never really healed,” she says. “But I stay busy.”
Taylor is from a Mississippi town called Centreville. In the 1970s, she moved to the Bay Area, where she met her husband. They had fraternal twin boys, Albade and Obadiah; and then another son named Greg. The relationship with the boys’ father fizzled, forcing Taylor to raise her sons as a single parent in Alameda. She juggled motherhood, undergraduate and graduate work at the University of San Francisco, and then her social worker job in Hayward. After the twins were killed—shot by a lone gunman as they worked on Obadiah’s stalled car near Diamond and Sloan streets in East Oakland—no one was ever charged in the shootings. Prosecutors told Taylor they did not have enough evidence.
Greg moved away, to Houston, because Taylor asked him to go. “He’s the only son I have left—my only living son,” she says. “I had to get him out of Oakland. I wanted him as far away as possible.”
The year the twins died, 2000, Obadiah and Albade were two of 80 homicide victims in Oakland. Taylor still wakes up many nights after dreaming of them.
“For many years, I woke being greeted by my tears,” Taylor says. “I have not gotten over losing my boys.”
So this is one way she manages—by helping others try to manage. “There are so many people, so many mothers that need to be embraced,” says Taylor. Her assessment, reports suggest, is accurate. In 2009, more than 13,600 were murdered in the United States, according to data from the Department of Justice.
The group started its meeting in 2007 at the Jack London Inn, until the hotel changed management. Then they moved to the East Bay Community Foundation, until Taylor was told, she says, that the foundation could no longer afford to provide the facilities for free. Now the women sit in a warmly lit room flanked by glossy black kitchenette cabinets on one side extending the length of the room, and rows of leftover pews and a piano on the other. Behind them, a portrait of Jesus sits above a fireplace mantle.
Deborah Thompson tells them about something she saw, in her imagination, while she was at a choir practice. She’s a gospel singer, too. “Everybody grieves differently, nobody is the same,” Thompson says. Her daughter was one of Oakland’s 104 homicides in 2009. “Last night, I was at a rehearsal, and I closed my eyes,” she says. “When I opened them, all of a sudden I had a flash in which I saw a casket with my daughter in it.”
Tamara’s cremated remains rest in an urn in her mother’s three-bedroom duplex in Mountain View.
“This isn’t easy for me because it’s so new,” Patricia Harris says, adjusting herself in her chair. Her back is now straight against the chair’s cushion.
“I miss my son,” Harris says, as she fixes her posture, arms at her side and hands at opposite edges of the seat. She’s composed now. She tells the group her story.
Jamal Harris was 27, she says, when he was shot while sitting in a car at an intersection in Stockton, California, on Aug. 20, 2010. He had left his Sacramento home to pick up his daughter for the weekend. Jamal would include his name on the list of 51 homicide victims so far this year in Stockton.
“He was stopped at a street light, a car came up and just shot,” she says. “I think the first bullet killed my son. He didn’t suffer.”
“The last time I saw him was on a Sunday evening, a few weeks before,” she says. “Next thing I knew, someone was calling me and telling me that he had been shot.”
She was asked to come identify him, she says—not at a hospital, but at a coroner’s office.
“I had to make sure it was him,” Harris says. “I’ll never get that picture out of my head. That was a bad sight.”
Thompson looks at her phone one last time before putting it away. She turns to Harris. Her voice is low. “Every time that people say that they saw their kids in the hospital, I wish that could have happened, but it didn’t happen for me,” she says, shaking her head as her voice cracks. “They just killed her and dumped her. I never got to see her.”
Taylor adds to the conversation. “Part of my grief is that I never got to see them,” she says. “But I’m not sure if I could’ve handled that.”
Harris brings the subject to a close. “My blessing was my family,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it without them.”
For Harris, outlets for grief, like this one, are important. “I just need to let it out,” she says. “I plan on coming back.”
Do that, Taylor says. It will help. “We come together to support one another,” says Taylor. “If you need to talk, and shed your tears, and feel safe—this is the place for you.”
She turns to Thompson, smiling. “Deborah,” she says. “Are you ready to sing?”