Loved ones and acquaintances attended an event in honor of the late Brandy Martell on Friday in Oakland. Martell, a 37-year-old transgender woman, was killed in downtown Oakland on April 30. Witnesses said she was sitting in her car parked at the corner of Franklin and 13th Streets when an unknown suspect shot her repeatedly through the partially open window. While members of the public have raised concerns that this was a hate crime, the Oakland Police Department is still investigating the case and no arrests have been made.
At Friday’s memorial celebration, images of Martell were spread out across a series of banquet tables at the Oakland Peace Center Fellowship Hall on Fairmount Avenue. The display was part of the “Celebration of the Life of Brandy Martell” organized by Tiffany Woods and TransVision, a program of Tri-City Health Center, a community-based clinic in Fremont. The people who called Martell “sister”—including her friend Janet Halfin—said they took their time choosing the photos, cried during the process and selected each photo with care. “I loved her dearly. She was a big sister to me,” Halfin said.
Before the event began, 24-year-old Brandon Blackman, who also goes by Brandy, helped Halfin adjust the images of clouds that were hanging near the bottom of the table. They placed a poster that would be used for guests to write special messages at the end of the table next to a bouquet of roses.
Blackman said he met Martell when he was 15 years old at the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County Youth Center, a LGBT center in Oakland that provides mentoring, health services and employment assistance. Martell was a friend and a mentor and made sure he didn’t forget important appointments, Blackman said.
“She was a very intelligent person,” Blackman said. “She was funny. She would brighten up the whole room. She was a beautiful person that’s gone. You never know when it’s your time and it was sad to see her go like that.”
Former supervisor Tiffany Woods worked with Martell for four years at TransVision. Martell’s upbeat personality was one of the reasons she was usually the first person anyone saw when TransVision had an event, Woods said. “She was great at manning a table; she would smile and hand out information about all our services,” Woods said.
Because the center stands for non-violence and social justice, Woods and Tri-City Health Center thought having the celebration at the The Oakland Peace Center was a good idea. “Brandy would like that,” Woods said.
“This is not a funeral,” Woods said to the people gathered around the room. She said they had fun with Martell in the office and that was what she wanted —the evening to be fun for everyone there.
Sitting in a half circle in the center of the room, one person after the other briefly spoke about Martell or about spending time in her company. As they talked, they dined on sandwiches, side dishes and chicken.
“For those of you who came into the office, she used to make fun of you the minute you walked out the door,” Woods said. “She could impersonate you in five seconds.”
Woods laughed as she recounted her trip into downtown Oakland to collect the chicken and the number of tricky U-turns she made while in the area. “We would be remiss if we didn’t have Popeye’s chicken there for her,” Woods said. Martell went to Popeye’s every week, Woods said. “Every Thursday, two pieces for a dollar.”
Several people started with a laugh before describing their relationship with Martell. The words “mentor,” “sister” or “inspiration” were mentioned multiple times during the evening.
“She kept you on point,” Halfin said of Martell. “She made sure you were looking good and that you were doing what you were supposed to do.”
“She would talk about you like it was the thing to do,” Halfin continued. “And if you were messing up, she would give you the blues. If I could talk to her again, I would say, ‘Thank you so much. You made me grow, you inspired me, you gave me heart and you gave me love.’”
Halfin said she had also attended the family’s funeral service for Martell. “She looked like Brandy, except she was dressed like a guy,” she said. “It was a nice service and most people there at the time referred to her as ‘Brandy.’’ That made Halfin happy, she said.
At the beginning of the celebration, representatives from Mayor Jean Quan and councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s office read statements from both expressing their condolences, acknowledging the continuing struggles in the LGBT community and pledging their commitment to continue to work for a healthy and safe community for all.
Earlier that day, Oakland Police Department spokesperson Joanne Watson said the Martell case is still active and ongoing. Watson said that lead investigator Brad Baker is following up on all leads, and the OPD is asking for assistance from anyone who may have witnessed the crime.
While there have been public allegations that Martell’s killing was a hate crime, Watson said, “We don’t have a suspect in custody, so we don’t have a witness to firm up and say, ‘Now we can categorize this as a hate crime.’ We still need to do more work in the investigation and have evidence present itself to steer us in that direction.”
Watson acknowledged the importance of this case within and outside the Oakland community. “We would like to announce that we have someone in custody and that we removed the criminal off the street who did this, but they [the investigators] are just not ready for that step yet,” she said.
Martell’s killing was a senseless crime, said Kari McAllister, who did not know Martell well, but who came to the celebration to show her support for Martell’s family, friends and the transgender community. Today, people in the transgender community who have been victims of a crime are more likely to report the incident and the public is more aware of these crimes because of increased news coverage, McAllister said. In the past if people were assaulted or victimized they didn’t say anything, she continued.
“I ran into Brandy maybe 20 times over the years,” said McAllister. “She was a wonderful glowing person.”
Neeta Gautan also works at Tri-City Health Center and attended the memorial with her husband because they also wanted to show their support for the community. “I unfortunately didn’t know Brandy,” Gautan said. “But if there is any message to be had out there, it’s that we should all try to love and accept each other.”
Like many others in the room, Tisa Hall, who worked with Martell at TransVision, said Martell gave her something when they were with her—friendship, support, a glow, and very often something to laugh about. “That girl used to make me laugh like nothing else,” she said.