Friends and family gather to remember shooting victim Isaiah Sudan: “The violence needs to stop”
on December 1, 2014
For three months, Phyllis left her house every night at 9:30 p.m., stood on the sidewalk and looked around, the streetlight illuminating 54th Street in a fluorescent haze. She studied the windows of the homes next door and across the street, wondering if anyone inside might have peered out and seen what happened on the night of June 5.
Her gaze would drift to the ground in front of her driveway, stopping on a fist-sized square drawn in chalk. If the lines were faint, Phyllis would go over them with a fresh layer of white, tracing the outline the police made during the beginning of the investigation, the line that marked the spot where the bullet casings from the ammunition that hit her son had landed on the concrete. She didn’t want to forget, in case the police, or anyone else came back to that sidewalk to figure out who shot those bullets. But they never did.
“It happened right here,” she said, standing in the driveway. Five months had passed and now, in the early November sun, she stood in the place where her son had been murdered. He was 22.
A spray-painted portrait of a young man with a wide bearded face was mounted to the garage doors, watching over the street. White wings sprung from his back. The words were scrawled in an arch over his head: R.I.P. Isaiah “Whiteboi” Sudan, 1/22/1992-6/04/2014.
Sudan was known by his friends a “Whiteboi”; he was half-black, but had reddish hair and pale skin like his mother. This afternoon, she wore a white T-shirt with his photo printed on the front. Danielle and Sonseeahray, her two daughters, and several other close family members wore the same. People trickled onto the sidewalk, greeting one another and offering food. Others wore rubber bracelets, temporary tattoos, and lanyards bearing the same name and dates. They milled around the street talking, eating, greeting one another.
“Well, who are you?” Phyllis asked a tall young man with a tinfoil tray of spaghetti and seven-layer dip.
“I’m a friend of Leon, Jay-shawn’s little cousin.” He was helping to carry the food from the car for Florence, the girl who used to date Isaiah in middle and high school.
“Oh, Dirty,” she said, with a southern drawl that lingers from her childhood in St. Louis. She thanked him, took the tray and placed it on the potluck table next to the grill.
In the backyard, behind a narrow path and padlocked gate, two volunteers began digging a hole in the soil, where they would plant a fruit tree in honor of Sudan. Mallika Nair, the founder of Growing Together, a local nonprofit that began in February, 2013, asked Smith if she liked the spot. The tree would eventually grow figs, she explained. She intended it to be a place of peace, a gathering place.
The North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, a group of local residents working to address community violence, had sent out invitations to the event weeks earlier: Join the family for a block party to honor the life of this young man. Smith and her daughters had handed out fliers and posted the event on Instagram and Facebook.
The council members approached Phyllis after the shooting–that’s what they usually do. In the last year and a half, the group has thrown five of these memorial parties. One of their members, who lived on the next street over, heard the gunshots back in June. So the group, not knowing the family, collected donations and brought Smith the money, no questions asked, inviting her to another block party for a neighbor, 29-year-old Lorenzo Ward, who was killed in 2012 in the 800 block of 53rd Street. After attending, she was inspired, said Max Cadji, a member of the council. She wanted to be involved.
“We do these gatherings to acknowledge the violence,” Cadji said. “We are trying to talk about supporting victims of crime. We try to give people an outlet to be positive instead of fearful.”
Ward’s mother, who goes by Princess Beverly, came to Phyllis’s block party in return. The gathering brought up memories of losing her own child, she said, but it also made her feel resilient, empowered even. She said the mothers in the neighborhood desperately need to stick together.
Cadji commissioned Desi Mundo, a graffiti artist and co-founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project, to paint Isaiah’s portrait based on the photo the family chose for the obituary. Mundo has done memorial portraits all over Oakland. In April of last year, he painted Donitra Henderson, who was 21 when she was shot and killed in her car on the corner of 54th Street and Shattuck Avenue. Henderson’s memorial block party in May had a tree planting too.
Mundo never met Sudan or Henderson. “I kind of have to imagine these people and what they were like,” he said over the phone from his home in East Oakland. “I don’t put a whole lot of thought into how they died, because that would make it lot harder. I just think about what their lives were like while I’m painting. I think of the family members and what they are going through. I try to do a good job for the people who are living.”
Next to the mural, which was mounted on two boards against the garage, leaned a framed photo of Sudan in an A’s hat, smiling wide. In his arms was a bottle of Hennessy.
“Isaiah was a guy who like to have a good time, so I’m sure he would want everybody to eat and enjoy themselves,” said Kwame Davis, a friend of Sudan’s from middle school who was helping dig the hole for the tree. “He got a big family around him and he messed with everybody on the same level. If you came around, he’d take care of you. For somebody to do something like that to him, I don’t know…I didn’t believe it. Sometimes I still feel like it’s a dream.”
Sudan was known as the funny guy, a “jokester” as his mother called it, but his short life wasn’t carefree. His older brother, Thomas Muhammad, passed away from complications with diabetes in 2005; he was never previously diagnosed. Thomas was 15 at the time, Isaiah was 13. When his brother was unable to stand, it was Isaiah who dressed him to go to the hospital.
“I still see him as a little boy,” said Phyllis. “He was really goofy. Everybody loved him. He cheered everybody up.”
Daisy, Sudan’s golden retriever, wandered into the backyard where Davis was helping Nair dig a spot for the fig tree.
The dog doesn’t like to go outside anymore, said Phyllis, who bought Daisy for her son in 2003 as a Christmas gift. “ They grew older together,” she said, “She knows he’s gone.”
The shooting wasn’t an accident, said Kwame. “Somebody knows who did it,” he said, “The streets talk.”
Phyllis was home when the shooting happened. Isaiah worked nights at the Oakland Airport, so even though the two were the only ones living in the house, they often passed each other heading and in and out (“We was like ships in the night,” she said). On June 5 he was going to Wing Stop to pick up dinner.
“When he left, he called me ‘old lady’– he liked to call me that,” Phyllis said. “I was in my chair, where I always sit, and he said, ‘Go to bed, old lady.’ And I looked at him and closed my eyes, and that’s when I heard the shots.”
She immediately opened the front door, she said, because she remembered that her son had just stepped outside. Sudan was running back up the stairs to the house. She could hear his feet pounding on the ground “like an elephant”, she said, but before he made it, he collapsed in the doorway, a pool of blood forming around his body. A few neighbors began to gather around the house. Phyllis was the one who called 9-1-1. She turned her son over and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth.
The police arrived first and wouldn’t let the paramedics reach Sudan until they checked the area to make sure it was safe, Phyllis said. She doesn’t know exactly how much time passed, but she swears her son was still breathing when the police arrived.
“When the ambulance came, they didn’t do anything,” she said, “I said ‘You gotta jump start his heart!’ and they said that he was gone, but he had just died. I was giving him mouth-to-mouth on the porch and I said ‘I know when he took his last breath.’ They didn’t even try to connect him to a machine or anything. But I said there was still time, there’s still time to save him.”
Nair interrupted Phyllis in the driveway as she recounted that night to ask what time she wanted to have the tree planting ceremony. Friends and family were arriving and Nair wondered if there was anyone who would like to say a few words.
Phyllis raised her head to see up and down the block. She looked tired. “I thought a lot more people would come out,” she said. “I thought this was gonna be real big. I’m surprised. I don’t know if people don’t want to show up because of what happened or because the police is gonna be out here.”
It was still early, Nair said. People always show up late to these things. She asked Phyllis whether she wanted to say anything during the planting, or make a request for support from the community.
“No, I’ll do it alone,” Phyllis said,” I’ve been doing things alone for a long time. “Aside from my daughters, I deal with life by myself.”
Phyllis doesn’t want anyone to see her as fragile or needy. “If I cry, I fall apart,” she said, “I’m either/or – if I don’t hold it together, I’ll lose it and I won’t be able to function, I won’t able to work or do anything. I’m stubborn. I don’t let anyone see me crying.”
Phyllis rarely left the house after her son’s death, although she still goes to work as a peer educator for special education students. But other than her remaining children and her sister, she rarely socializes. After the shooting, she said, it’s hard for her to trust people in the neighborhood.
“It’s hard when something happens and you don’t know who did it,” she said. “ You know, it could have been a stranger, it could have been someone close. Until I find out, everybody just about is a suspect. I just keep to myself. I play the game. I go to work, but it plays in my head everyday– the shots, his last breath. All day, everyday. And in my sleep.”
Sonseeahray, 36, no longer lives in Oakland, but she and her 12-year-old daughter don’t like to visit her mother’s house, Phyllis said, especially at night. It brings back bad memories for them, Phyllis said, “and my granddaughter is scared of this neighborhood.” Sonseeahray was worried that “something bad could happen” at the block party she said, so she left her daughter at home.
The Oakland Police never caught Sudan’s shooter. The case is still under investigation, said Officer Frank Bonifacio, and for public safety reasons, they can’t release any details. No police reports, no evidence, no suspects.
In 2014 so far, five men have been shot and killed in the Longfellow neighborhood in Oakland, bordered by San Pablo Avenue to the west and the 24 freeway to the east. On November 1, the same day as Sudan’s memorial block party, Terryl Rucker was shot on Agpar and West St. He was 26. Less than a month earlier, on October 19th, Eric Harvis, 41, was shot on the 800 block of 46th Street during a family barbeque outside his home. In March, Shamarr D. Owens, 27, was killed on 43rd and Market. In May, a week before Isiah was killed, Eugene Chew, 37, was shot on the 900 block of Aileen.
This is a brutal sequence, but not an especially unusual one; in 2013, five people were fatally shot in the same neighborhood. The oldest among them was 22.
Five years earlier, a girl who went to school with Sudan at Oakland Tech, Desiree Davis, was shot half a block away from his house. They were both 17 at the time. Isaiah had biked from school that day and stopped home to use the bathroom. He was about to go back outside to meet Desiree and their mutual friend, when he and his mother heard the shots and ran to the door. The friend was running away from the shots when Phyllis called her and another young man into the house, who had been shot in the leg. Phyllis says she saw the girl whisper something to Isaiah; he headed to the door, but before she could stop him, he saw Desiree’s body on the ground. Phyllis ran to the body to help before the paramedics arrived, she says, and when he looked back at her son, he was sitting on the porch, face in his hands. That was one of the only times she ever saw him cry, she says. He was rocking back and forth on that porch.
Isaiah had a tough exterior, his mother said, not unlike herself. He made jokes. “But inside, he was real sensitive,” she said. “He didn’t want people to think he was a softy.” Florence Price, Isaiah’s girlfriend at Oakland Tech, said that after Desiree’s death, he started to change. He put a guard up. “I only saw him cry one time,” she said. “He cried about Desiree and I knew he was really hurt, he was really angry.”
The police never caught the people who killed Desiree either.
Price is still close with Phyllis– the younger woman calls her Mommy and wore a jean jacket to the party with a glitter-framed photo collage of Sudan on the back. At the time of his death, Isaiah had been dating another woman he had known since high school, Abria Shankle, who is now 21. The two were together for almost a year and had recently travelled to Hawaii. It was difficult for Shankle to speak about Sudan at the block party – she didn’t want to get too emotional. The couple was planning to move out of Oakland and had talked about starting a family, Shankle said.
Sonseehray said that two months before the shooting, she had gone with Sudan to visit prospective apartments. “He was planning on moving up out of that neighborhood,” she said, “He came to me to get my advice, since I was his eldest sister. Now, everyday, I see Isaiah dead on the ground in front of my mother’s house in my head and I am sick.”
A big part of the frustration, said Phyllis, is the uncertainty; they still don’t know why any of this happened.
“Nowadays you never know about these guys on the streets,” said a friend of Isaiah’s sister, who asked that her name not be used. “They’re either jealous or you know, on drugs. They just do stupid stuff and the wrong people get caught up in it. It’s really sad and unfortunate that guys take each other’s lives like they have no value.”
In Sudan’s case, Phyllis said that aside from the block party organizers, the community didn’t really come together. “It’s funny about this neighborhood,” she said. “People say hi and bye but I don’t’ think a lot of people here hang together.” She has been living on 54th Street since 2003.
Isaiah’s killing felt redundant, said Kwame Davis in front of the house, after digging a hole deep enough for the tree to take root. When it happened, he said, everyone “acted like how they act when a loved one passed—they cry, they get mad. But two months later, somebody else dies.”
There wasn’t a lot of media coverage of Sudan’s death, aside from two short pieces in the Chronicle and the Mercury News, detailing the time and place of the shooting. Neither piece included details about Isaiah as a person– who he was or what his family was going through.
“The news didn’t do anything,” Phyllis said. “It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think they care. I think they figure, let the young men kill each other off. Maybe they think it’s so ordinary that it happens all the time.”
At 3pm in the backyard, about 50 family and friends of Isaiah gathered in a circle, hands linked. Sonseehray thanked everyone for coming and her sister-in-law, Simone Smith, said a short prayer, reminding those gathered before her that the memorial, organized by Sudan’s mother and sisters, was a testament to how strong women can be. “We’ve all lost friends to violence,” she said. “But don’t focus on your anger.” Small pieces of paper were handed out and each person wrote a private message to Isaiah, one by one dropping them into the earth where the tree would grow.
A week later, Phyllis sat on her steps in slippers and a sweater, looking at the tree as dusk fell on her backyard. This time she was alone.
“This stuff is happening everywhere, not just here,” she said. “No one has the answer. Isaiah never had the chance to marry, or have kids.”
Daisy paced around the landing over the stairs. Her hair is starting to grey. “Lay down, big ol’ girl,” Phyllis said, patting the dog’s sagging belly. “Nowadays kids pick up a gun and kill someone, they don’t even talk about it,” she said. “I think Isaiah would have wanted to talk this through. All these guys, its like they’re so tough behind the gun. It’s like nobody wants to see anybody doing good. They get jealous. Every time somebody seems like they’re gonna make it out of the ghetto, they end up getting killed.”
She paused, thinking, “I don’t know where these kids have got so angry from.”
Phyllis and her daughters requested to have their last names omitted from this piece, for the sake of anonymity.
Anyone with information about Isaiah Sudan’s death is asked to call an anonymous tip line at (510) 238-7950 or Crime Stoppers at (510) 777-8572.
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