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Oakland’s high homicide rate moves residents to do something about it

on December 16, 2021

Marilyn Washington Harris knew something was up when her son, Khadafy Washington, didn’t respond to her calls and texts. 

She was upset that he hadn’t told her where he was going. But since he was 18, she wanted to give him some independence.

That night, Aug. 5, 2000, Washington had gone for a bike ride before someone shot him from behind, killing him in front of his alma mater, McClymonds High School in West Oakland. 

For the next year, Harris felt confused, frustrated and devastated. She could not get any answers from the police about her son’s death; she fought with the coroner’s office on when she could see her son’s body; and she had no idea how she would pay for the unexpected funeral. 

“Nobody was of help. The people that I went to for help didn’t help me, they made it harder for me,” Harris said. 

But grief fueled her to do something so that other parents wouldn’t have to go through the same experience, in terms of dealing with gun violence and the devastation that comes with losing a child the way she did.

She started the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Nonviolence and organized a citywide march that advocated for Oakland to do something about the violence. She sent families cards and flowers after finding out their loved ones were killed. She even made a 24-hour call line for anybody needing help and had it printed in the Oakland Tribune.

Immediately, people began to call her.

Since Washington’s murder, many more families have gone through the same experience. This year marks the highest homicide rate in the city in eight years, with 127 as of Nov. 29. There were an alarmingly high 102 homicides in total last year. The situation has grown so dire, the City Council recently declared gun violence a public health crisis in Oakland. 

 

Harris eventually worked with police to get access to grieving families, even at crime scenes, and today works as a crisis responder at Youth ALIVE!, an Oakland-based organization that works to end the cycle of violence, including support for the wounded and grieving to help them heal from trauma.

In 2020, Youth ALIVE! served 159 victims of violence, of which 122 were gunshot victims. Meanwhile, its counselors provided 714 hours of individual therapy to community members . 

Kim Davies, a criminologist who studies homicides, said there’s so much violence because there isn’t equal access to healthy ways of dealing with stress.

“Negative events in their life may lead people to experience negative emotions and that leads them to act out,” she said. 

Davies added that the pandemic and recent political unrest have played a role. “It’s just like the wrong mixture of all this stuff happening at one time. It’s just a mess.”

The city has received funding to provide support groups for families and to create the Department of Violence Prevention. But Oakland residents like Harris have been the ones to have a long-lasting impact.

The foundation that Harris founded isn’t the only organization addressing the homicide crisis in Oakland. It is part of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, which includes violence prevention organizations. Antoine Towers, the coalition chair, also works for Youth ALIVE!.

As a violence interrupter for the organization, Towers said his typical work day involves mediating conflicts and encouraging people throughout the community to seek alternatives to violence.

Towers, 42, grew up in East Oakland and has been working in violence prevention for five years. “I believe that the number one issue is that no one knows how to communicate with each other,” he said. “The first response is to go get a gun instead of talking.”

Antoine Towers
Antoine Towers (Isaac Ceja)

In 2021, Towers started his own event called “Respect for Respect,” where residents are given a microphone to share their feelings about life in Oakland. The idea came to him after a rap performance, when Towers asked the artist to break down what he was rapping about. This elicited responses from the audience, which triggered a larger discussion, and Towers realized this platform was something the community needed.

Hospitals and schools are critical intervention points for Youth ALIVE!. The organization’s “Caught in the Crossfire” program sends violence interrupters to the bedsides of hospitalized victims, many of them traumatized or resentful and with the urge to retaliate.

Andrea Piazza, CiC’s intervention specialist, tries to persuade her clients, who range in age from 13 to 50, that retaliation isn’t worth it. She helps them to apply for compensation as victims of violent crimes and to receive therapy.

Many of these clients aren’t involved in crimes themselves but are simply victims of violence prevalent in their neighborhoods.

“Lots of clients we serve suffer from PTSD. Many of them don’t want to go outside or work because they’re afraid,” Piazza said. “Our mission is to get these victims back to stability, meaning counseling, mentoring, or whatever approaches that can help them feel comfortable.”

‘She was there … like family’

Bonnitta Jackson’s son, Harold, 22, was shot in early November. She still doesn’t really know how and why her son was killed, saying the police haven’t been any help.

“I really felt like it was one of those situations where they didn’t care,” she said.

Harris called Jackson a few days after her son’s killing. 

“I told her, ‘I work for you now, Ms. Bonnitta, it’s not gonna cost you anything. I’m not gonna charge you because there’s nothing to charge you for,’” Harris said.

Jackson was grateful for the help that Harris offered: “She was just there, like the whole time, like family,” she said.

Youth ALIVE! also receives referrals from juvenile halls. Many are minors who need to complete community service hours and find jobs to pay restitution, while others need help finding schools where they feel safe.

“People are talking about a person who’s a born criminal, but a lot of time those young folks who are justice-involved really might have made just one or two bad decisions in their life,” said Carlos Jackson, life coach at Youth ALIVE!’s Pathways program.

Jackson works with youth on probation by helping them create a life map that focuses on three goals. One of his clients successfully obtained his high school diploma through independent study, found a part-time job and got his driver’s license, all within a year.

Teens on Target is another program Youth ALIVE! offers. Twice a week, students from Fremont and Castlemont high schools gather to learn how to advocate and stop the violence in their neighborhoods. The curriculum covers violence, abuse, and poverty, which they present in workshops at Oakland middle schools. 

“When kids feel nobody cares and nobody is looking, they would mess up, they would be on the streets or fail at school,” said Sasha Long, an educator with the program, which is called TNT. “But we are the people that care. We’re trying to get them on track to being adults that can handle the real world.”

For many high-schoolers, TNT is their first part-time job, as the program offers training and money to encourage them to teach middle schoolers and to voice concerns during City Council meetings.

Teens on Target Program at Fremont Highschool (Photo by Chris Chang)
Teens on Target Program at Fremont High School (Chris Chang)

For Harris, compassion and love for the community continue to motivate her activism. Every week she cooks meals for people who have recently lost family members.

“I do get the satisfaction of knowing that I am participating to help another family or another human being figure out that there’s a way through this,” she said.

Since founding the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Nonviolence, Harris has connected with thousands of families in Oakland, helping them and hoping they heal from their loss. She maintains contact with some families she helped over 10 years ago.

“I always tell them that my phone number is never going to change, so you can always call me at this number,” she said.

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