A Reading List

One goal I always have for students is to have them read for pleasure. For the pure joy of reading. So often, in school, we drain every last ounce of possible enjoyment out of reading with lists of vocabulary words, essays on character development and plot analysis. Not that I don’t think those activities are critical to the reading process, but at the same time, it makes reading into more of a chore, and less of a journey.

So, I want students to read, but I also want them to read “well,” read the classics.  To me, food and literature are metaphorically interchangeable, and while it’s fine to snack on chips and ice cream, a really great diet should also  consist of more substantial and nourishing foods.

Likewise, a good diet of reading can certainly contain lightweight fare, but should certainly also include meatier stuff to include novels and essays that transport, suggest, move, inspire, guide and illuminate possibilities.

Lam and other students were given, as a starting point, a list of 101 books commonly read in high school –  although they were encouraged to go beyond the list. They were asked to choose 10 books to read, for pleasure, during the 2007-2008 school year.

In light of the crime Lam later committed, some of the titles from that list are particularly striking today, including BeowulfHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Dante’s Inferno, The Odyssey, and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Two by the Bay Area’s own - Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London. And, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer winner Beloved, plus A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Frankenstein.

I doubt that Lam (or any other student) had much more than the title to go on in making these choices. But whether by intent or random selection, I do see some patterns here. I see at least three books that deal with monsters of various kinds, and another that deals with anthropomorphized ghosts.

There are several which explore the dark side of the human psyche, and several accounts of survival under threatening circumstances. We have a tale of Hell, two tales of difficult journeys, and many chronicles of pain, cruelty, torture, hatred, fear and violence.  Perhaps the only hopeful one is the Shakespearean classic – which at least, despite mishaps, ends happily.

I do not know if Lam read any of these books, but I think he may not have read many, if any at all. And perhaps that’s part of what may have been lacking in the formation of his character. Because I believe that had he read these dark stories of human foibles, flailings and failings, maybe he would have had more food for thought. Perhaps his thinking would have been as much influenced by the fictional characters in the books as he was eventually influenced by the flesh-and-blood characters in the street.

Perhaps he could have seen the likely outcomes of his choices and chosen otherwise.  But in a real-life tale, more tragic than any in the storybooks, this was not to be.

Next time: The Alice Walker Essay Contest

Native American Mental Health More Than A Dream

Janet King relaxes in her office, her dream catcher in the background.

By Sabirah Mustafa

Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes asked the question,”what happens to a dream deferred?”

“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?,” goes his famous poem Harlem, “or does it explode?”

The dream of quality mental health care for many under served groups, including Native Americans, has been deferred too long.

Janet King is one woman working to resolve some of those disparities in care, and make the dream of improved mental health and the well-being for Native Americans a reality at the Native American Health Center in Oakland.

King, 55, works in the Community Wellness Department as the Project Director of the Children’s Trauma Grant, and her duties keep her very busy as she constantly responds to  staff inquiries or her ringing cell phone tucked tightly in her pocket.

“Interruptions help me clear my thoughts,” she says, the corners of her small azure eyes crinkling as she smiles and relaxes her shoulders.

King has plenty to smile about. She’s just finished a large report for the NAHC bringing to light health care disparities among Native Americans in  California.

The California Reducing Disparity Report (CRDP) is a major first step because it suggests ways to close some of those treatment gaps. It was created in response to the Department of Mental Health’s statewide initiative to improve access, quality of care, and increase positive outcomes for Native Americans.  Since 1972, the NHRC has worked hard to achieve these goals as a community-based organization.

The health center provides a full range of clinical medical services including pediatrics, women’s health care, teen health care, adult medicine, and perinatal.

The clinic also promotes self-care beyond clinical visits, which include offering a traditional Native American medicine person and healing circles, in addition to parenting classes, a relapse correction class and a woman’s support group.

NAHC is dedicated primarily to offering Native Americans care that is aligned with their cultural traditions. But many community members that visit the clinic are non-Native.  Many Latinas visit The Woman’s Support Group. The Women Infant and Child (WIC) class – which provides food vouchers and nutrition counseling – has mostly Vietnamese women, and there are many Tongans in the pre-natal program.

Still, King sees the clinic as particularly vital to the East Bay’s Native communities. “Native Americans will not go to other places if they don’t go here,” King believes. She says that Native Americans commonly choose traditional mental health rooted in their communities’ traditions which embraces the whole self, like Two Spirit Pow Wows and Healing Circles and Gatherings, which aren’t typically offered in traditional medicine. Or the youth, who participate in the Gathering of Native Americans, popularly known as GONAs, which empower them through decision-making.

King, an Oakland resident since 1976, facilitates a grief and loss group. She is empathetic and understands the unique decisions community members have to make in deciding between clinical or non-clinical services.

Many Native Americans in East Oakland choose not to use the clinic, and King thinks that is partly because  the clinic doesn’t have a large staff and gets a lot of help from interns, so it’s not able to see patients as quickly as other facilities. King says there is a great need to find qualified Native American practitioners who can provide these services.

Also, NAHC’s staff rotates frequently, and some individuals don’t like telling their stories over and over again to different people. Consumers rely on the groups for mutual support and guidance. “They become family to each other. They’re dealing with a lot of grief and loss.  Every time they change counselors, it’s a loss,” King adds.

Understanding the needs of the community in order to improve access, quality of care, and increase positive outcomes is a central role for community leaders like King in seeking to close health care disparity gaps.

She says that the US Census under reports the size of the  Native American population nationally, so those communities effectively become invisible to policy makers who base funding decisions on population size.

Also, some people believe Native Americans don’t need funding or any money at all because they all have wealth from operating casinos.

King explained that, until now, Native Americans were not often mentioned in mental health discussions and so the data on Natives was incomplete, obsolete, or non-existent.

The CRDP report is a unique opportunity to present these discussions in a public forum. It calls for emphasizing Native American cultural practices in all mental health services throughout California. King emphasizes that Native American communities need to heal from historical trauma, she says, and “culture heals.”

In its focus on providing traditionally-based health care services, the NAHC is already doing a lot of what the report calls for.

Of course, funding for these practices, as mentioned in the report, is crucial in order to continue and expand these practices to other non-Native American ethnic groups that utilize their services as well.

As the Native American Health Center and similar organizations continue to evaluate, customize, and listen to what communities want, the report will hopefully become more than just an opportunity to improve lives, but more personally, for King, a fulfillment of a dream.

‘Get a Straight Job’ & Stop Gang Banging!

Lam and I corresponded via email about his options during the summer of 2007 Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices 2012

I responded to the email Lam sent from Juvenile Hall within an hour of receiving it. That was more than 5 years ago, so I am trying to look back and remember what I was feeling and thinking about him back then.

I was very moved that he was reaching out to me, the clichéd “cry for help” that so often is overlooked or not responded to by those of us who should be the caretakers and guardians of youth.   I also had liked him as a student. In the classroom, I did not pick up on any clues that he was on a collision course with disaster. Then his mother came to see me at school, repeating “Lam, jail,” and that raised my consciousness.

Something I barely noted at the time, but leaps off the screen today, was his email name – lam300eso. Eso is a reference to “East Side Oakland,” and signals gang involvement.  I now wonder why it escaped my notice then.

Back in June 2007, I still didn’t know the details that led to his arrest and detention at Juvenile Hall. I believed that he was a good kid who had made a single bad choice. And from that naïve and uninformed perspective, I replied to him with this rather prosaic but predictable response:

Hi Lam:

 Thank you for writing.  I appreciate your taking the time to do so.  I was able to learn from your mother that you were in detention, so I was not completely uninformed. 

 I am sorry that you found yourself in trouble in this very serious matter.  The best path, of course, is to commit yourself to your education and make an effort to choose your friends and associates with great care.  From what you wrote, I get the impression that perhaps you were “just along for the ride,” so to speak, but wound up in the same trouble as the responsible party.  Perhaps, since you are still a minor, you can try to learn from this mistake rather than getting further into trouble. 

 I know it can be really tough sometimes to avoid the “wrong” people, but obviously, you can see that some people are just bad news, I’m sorry to say.  It’s not that I don’t think they also deserve compassion and a chance to start over, but it’s true that some people will choose trouble every chance they get.  I hope you will make other choices.  You’re very intelligent, and (something which you probably didn’t know), you passed the California High School Exit Exam.  So, you should be graduating in just two years.  Whether that happens or not will depend a lot on your next choices, including with whom you choose to associate yourself. 

I suggest that you get a “straight” job, such as a restaurant or in retail or construction and when you’re not working, devote yourself to things which develop your mind, spirit or body, such as the art and weight-lifting I know you’re already interested in.  Every choice you make brings you closer OR takes you further away from a “good” life as an adult. 

 Good luck, Lam. You are welcome to return in the fall.  Let me know if I can help you in any other way.

 Ms. Gordon

When we corresponded later that summer, I tried to help him enroll in a summer carpentry class at Laney.  I look back now and feel my response was inadequate, and for whatever reasons, I did not really give him the tools to help him get off the gangbanging track.

 Next time: Lam’s Reading List for 11th grade

GUNS Part III: Protection 2012

Recently, two Oakland Voices writers – Debora Gordon and Michael Holland – offered very different views on whether owning guns is a bad idea for Oakland and people in general, or just common sense preparedness for life in a tough town. But it didn’t stop there. They read each other’s piece, and replied.

Teenager walks past the scene of Oakland’s 100th homicide this year, on 57th Ave and Hilton St. Photo: Michael Holland, Oakland Voices 2012

By Michael Holland

As the Ides of October came and went and everyone began thinking even more about Election 2012, all I’m thinking about is Protection 2012.

As rational adults we have to take our safety very seriously. We can’t ignore what’s going on outside our doors. If you live in The Town, you have probably at least heard about the crime that has been well documented by the Tribune and other news media. If you have not witnessed the crime or its unmistakeable aftermath, just wait. You will. Never before has there been more of a need to arm ourselves than now.

My Oakland Voices colleague wrote a piece citing reasons why society should be gun-free. Although I agreed with some of the points presented, I strongly disagree with the thought of disarming US citizens. The right to protect life, liberty, and property is non-negotiable.

Both presidential candidates have expressed support for the core right to bear arms. A bi-partisan agreement speaks to the fact that Americans would much rather point a gun at an intruder than a house cat. Meow!

Home invasions, armed robberies and senseless shootings are a constant in the news. Knowing that, we as adults must do our part to curb crime. At least in our homes. I do not approve of  open carry. Guns in public would undoubtedly lead to even more senseless killings. But in your homes, you should feel safe, which comes from knowing that you and your family are protected.

As a convicted felon, I am not allowed to have guns in my place. But not only do I support everyone else’s right to have at least one gun in the home, I strongly encourage it.

Too many of us delegate the task of keeping our homes safe to the police. After all, that’s their job. But OPD cannot be everywhere at all times. Thus leaving citizens to defend their own. If all the would-be robbers knew that each house on the block had at least 6 rounds to dump back at them, they would probably reconsider running up in your house. Home invasions might decrease.

Forbes recently listed Oakland as the 3rd most dangerous city in America, based on FBI crime statistics. Just before that story ran, Oakland reached a sad milestone: our 100th homicide. When I learned of that shooting on Hilton Street – less than a mile from my house – I had to go look at the scene because I’ve always thought of that street as being quiet.

When I reached the scene 8 hours later, there were no markings of murder – no police tape, investigators, or memorial. I gathered that no one had time to leave candles or photos on the curb for yet another senseless killing. Or maybe no one cared. I spoke with a young man named Issac at the corner of 57th and Hilton as he walked home from school. “The green and white house near the corner has had a lot of police coming by lately,” he told me. I thought to myself, “Not enough cops came, obviously.”

KTVU reported last week that Oakland leads the nation in violent robberies. Knowing that, we as parents and people should arm ourselves.

I wish we could magically make all of the bad guys’ guns vanish. But since we can’t, I say to all of you – arm up!

I applaud all the people marching in Oakland trying to “Stop The Violence.” Good Luck with that! I have a saying. “You can march and protest, ’til your blue in the face. You’ll all turn into Smurfs with the time that you waste!”

Links in this series:

Debora Gordon’s original piece

Michael Holland’s original piece

Debora Gordon’s 2nd piece – a reply to Holland’s first story

GUNS Part IV: Still Strapped with Just My Wits

Recently, two Oakland Voices writers - Michael Holland and Debora Gordon - offered very different views on whether owning guns is a bad idea for Oakland and people in general, or just common sense preparedness for life in a tough town. But it didn’t stop there. They read each other’s piece, and replied.

By Debora Gordon

Michael asks the question “when your door gets kicked in, wouldn’t you rather rely on your own aim than the police response time?”  Well, actually, no. I’m not convinced that my aim would be that good, that I could actually lay my hands on a gun in the event of a surprise attack, that my own gun wouldn’t be used against me, or that merely seeing a gun, an attacker might be more inclined to use his.

But even if I could shoot first, the idea of responding to potential gunfire with a gun of my own raises a lot of questions.  In the example Michael describes, three guys broke in, stole what I assume are drugs, and left.  They had deadly weapons, but did not use them. So, they’re guilty of breaking and entering, theft, and maybe something like threatening people. 

I do not in any way mean to diminish or dismiss the gravity of this crime, including its fear and intimidation aspect. But in a court of law, as serious as these matters are, I do not think this crime would be punishable by death. Possibly not even by a life sentence. So, if I shoot first, and kill (intentionally or not), then I have become judge, jury and executioner.

Some might argue that such people deserve meeting such a fate because they have chosen to commit that type of violent crime.  I do not believe in the death penalty in general. Even if I were to somehow kill someone in the act of self-defense, I would feel that I had committed the serious crime of taking a life, no matter how justified I may have been.

It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. The streets are replete with mostly illegally obtained guns. But I still hold onto the belief that the culture can be changed.  For the youngest citizens, what we really need to do is give people the intellectual, emotional and creative weapons to solve their problems without guns. 

For the older ones, already steeped in the culture of violence, we use the collective force of the non-violent among us. We give them alternatives to prison, gangs, and early death. We describe a world view that offers some hope.  Each one, teach one.  I know this is possible because I have seen it. More than once.

Links in this series:

Michael Holland’s original piece

Debora Gordon’s original piece

Michael Holland’s 2nd piece – a reply to Gordon’s first story

‘Lam Jail, Lam Jail’

I have been teaching a long time – 20 years in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and five years elsewhere.  I have had, by conservative estimate, more than 1200 students since I started.   The ones I remember the best are those who distinguished themselves in some way – often by being star students. But sometimes by getting in trouble, occasionally serious trouble.

So, I remember Lam Vo in part because he was a study in contrasts even in the 10th grade, which is when I met him. I didn’t fully realize this until the last day of school in June 2007, when his mother came to see me.

He had been my student in the OUSD Independent Study Program, where I worked with my students individually and in small groups. Up until then, he had been an almost model student – prompt, prepared and polite, without fail.

I was always particularly interested in students with artistic bents. Lam was an artist, as well as a weightlifter. But I didn’t know him beyond the classroom. I was puzzled when he missed the last two weeks of school that year.

Towards the end of the very last week, his mother came to see me unexpectedly. No one on our staff knew Vietnamese, and she spoke virtually no English. All she could really say was “Lam jail, Lam jail.” I surmised that he was in Juvenile Hall.

About a week after school ended, I received an email – written as is – from Lam:

Dear. Ms.Gordon,
I’am sincerely sorry for not going 2 your class and not letting you know what happen. I was in trouble with the law to be truthful. I was with someone that had something that was illegal and i went down wit him. But spending my time in Juvenilen Hall made me thing a lot and think deep about things. I’am also sorry for not letting you know but I couldn’t contact anyone from in there. I know that I have let you down and I have put myself in a very bad situation.I also know that I haven’t respect my special privilege to go to Independent Study but i have thought it through and  that this is the school that I can do well in because I know I will be Distracked to skip school or cut if i was to go to regular school. So I’am hoping that I may be allow to return to Independent Study and continue my education there. Once again I would like to say I’am very sorry and I would also thank you very much for taking your time to read my letter .

                                                    Lam Vo

I thought this might be an aberration in Lam’s life – a youthful indiscretion, perhaps.  I did not find out for months what actually happened.

Next time: Reaching Out During the Summer Break

Cease Fire Redux: Oakland Relaunches Crime Plan, This Time with Broad Coalition

Members of City Team participated in the Lifelines program at Allen Temple. They have since started their Friday Night Walks. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Howard Dyckoff

Oaklanders are marching to demand an end to gun violence.  There have been youth rallies, peace marches and on-going night walks in the most violence-plagued areas of East Oakland. Many of these events are headed by church groups and community organizations banding together with the City to re-launch the Cease Fire program that Oakland first attempted 3 years ago.

Pastor Mike McBride is helping the city foster this new relationship with East Oakland neighborhoods. ”With so many young men being killed each year,” McBride said, ”we believe that as a community of faith, we have to take action and press for the full Cease Fire model.”

City leaders plan to kickoff the new program with its community partners before the end of this month. The Mayor’s Office and Oakland Police are working closely with several of these organizations to implement Cease Fire in several neighborhoods.

One of those is the national, faith-based  group Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO). Even though Oakland has gone for the last 3 years without an official Cease Fire plan in place, Oakland’s PICO office has developed its own programs inspired by Boston’s successful Cease Fire strategy.

PICO’s Lifelines to Healing project aims to reduce gun violence in high-risk communities through a coalition of community groups, local clergy, and government agencies at all levels. Lifelines first brought together local church leaders – including Pastor McBride and Rev. Billy Dixon, Jr. - to head Friday Night Walks, during which marchers listen to the concerns of, and show solidarity with, residents in East Oakland’s more violent neighborhoods. ”We are planning on going out rain or shine,” Rev. Dixon said, “and eventually we will be moving to all the parts of Oakland that need this kind of attention.”

The group has also coordinated with the recent Peace March from both East and West Oakland to City Hall that was planned by Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, a faith-based group in Oakland.

Oakland’s Lifelines is a new project. Mayor Jean Quan and activist Rev. J. Alfred Smith, Jr. announced the project last month at Allen Temple. But many residents who attended were hopeful for its success, including Marilyn Lawson. She works with youth in East Oakland and has been involved with the family of Hadari Askari – a 15-year old shot to death in Oakland in July.

Lawson said she hoped city officials and all of her neighbors would “come outside of their comfort zone and get out in the community.  I’m going to continue to work with people in my community, especially the youth, so that they can empower themselves in a positive manner, while continuing to work towards having a better dialog with the police.”

Police Chief Howard Jordan joined in announcing PICO’s Oakland Lifelines to Healing project at Allen Temple Baptist Church in mid-September.  Over 100 Oaklander’s attended the community meeting which outlined the Lifelines strategy and called for community members to participate.

Cease Fire Success & Failure 

Oakland first tried Cease Fire effort was incompletely modeled after a program created in Boston in the late 1990s. That city’s Cease Fire evolved into a long-term partnership between city administrators, the police department, and  black clergy who worked directly with gang members and offer alternatives to violence. Boston’s program put legal and social pressure on influential gang members.

In Boston, the program worked, according to the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) – an organization that helps implement Cease Fire and other anti-violence programs across the country. Because federal and county law enforcement agencies were part of Boston’s Cease Fire enforcement coalition, agreements were struck with gang members, and violations and bad behavior were met with stronger legal penalties. Failure to avoid violence meant strong enforcement and maximum sentences, both for the targeted gang members and others in the gang.  That added peer pressure helped the agreements work

Other Cease Fire programs modeled on the Boston experience also take this carrot-and-hammer approach, making it clear that no further violent behavior will be tolerated.

Boston succeeded in reducing juvenile shootings to zero for several months and Cease Fire programs in cities like Stockton and Chicago have show reductions in homicide rates of 30 to 44%.

“When the [violence] intervention is well implemented,” explained David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “there are significant results in  the target cities. And when these programs are reduced or stopped, the intervention that violence creeps back. ”

Cease Fire has worked, Kennedy explained, because it has focused on the small group of gang members most likely to engage in violence or to encourage others to engage in violence.  These individuals often cause over half the incidents of gun violence in a neighborhood.

“In some projects, only a few neighborhoods were targeted, so these can be compared with areas that were not targeted,” said Kennedy, who was involved in the original Boston Cease Fire program and has been a resource for Oakland’s latest effort. ”Some cities have compared reductions in gang violence by individuals and we see impact on the targeted individuals and not on others.”

Research on Cease Fire’s impact suggests that increased safety and order in a neighborhood encourages residents to follow legal and social norms and solve problems collectively.

Critics and city officials alike say Oakland’s Cease Fire failed in 2009 because there was no coordination between city administrators, neighborhood organizations, and sate and federal law enforcement agencies.

“[Oakland's first Cease Fire program] didn’t have full city support and no technical assistance or support from the powers that be,” Reygan Harmon, the mayor’s staff person focusing on public safety, acknowledged. ”Also, there were not enough [community] partnerships across the city.” Harmon also explained that, at the time, Oakland “was not under contract to provide services for Cease Fire, so it was not fully implemented.”

Another problem with the first effort was the lack of on-going support by community organizations to work closely with at-risk youth and returning offenders. For this latest effort, a broad coalition of clergy and Oakland churches is already active and taking to the streets.

Oakland Police Sgt. Christopher Bolton said the new Cease Fire will fix some of those mistakes by involving ”partnerships with the entire community.” Pastor McBride and Rev. Dixon are working closely with city officials to forge those relationships and get Oakland residents involved in Cease Fire-related programs. ”We don’t believe you can do Cease Fire without getting everyone on board,” explained McBride.

Bolton also called for collaborations between “criminal justice agencies, faith leaders, community organizers, youth and their advocates,” and other groups. Those alliances are critical in order “to span the often deep divisions among criminal justice agencies and the community,” Bolton explained.

To ensure Cease Fire’s success this time around, Bolton said that the Mayor’s Office is “enhancing” its partnerships with several city, county, and federal agencies, including Highland Hospital, State Parole, and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Bolton said the city’s main partner is the NNSC, which is providing technical assistance and direction on implementing Cease Fire to the city through the California Partnership for Safe Communities.

A Federal Grant

Oakland will fund the new Cease Fire program with a $2.2 million grant it received two years ago from the Department of Justice as part of the federal Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration – designed to offer cities several ways to reduce violence, including outreach and education, job training, and employment.

With this money comes strong planning and administrative help from community non-violence advocacy groups, and from John Jay University. The federal grant calls for the City of Oakland and its partners to conduct call-ins – face-to-face meetings with 250 parolees and probationers with histories of gun violence.

In September and October, there were on-going meetings with all participants in the Cease Fire coalition to hammer out working agreements. This is all led to a formal announcement  in late October when the program  finally started.

Community Critics

While many people are happy to see Oakland launch a well-funded, more robust Cease Fire project, there are also reservations about how the community will be involved.

Few people want to see an end to youth violence more than Kazu Haga, who has worked with Oakland youth.  Haga, an Oakland-based Kingian Nonviolence trainer and co-founder of the Positive Peace Warrior Network supports any effort to reduce violence . But he feels that ending gun violence in Oakland requires deeper and longer term efforts.

He spent several days recently working with youth at Castlemont High School after the ethnic violence there. “Their sense is that if the city can’t keep their own police force from killing Oakland youth, why should they? ”

“Cease Fire is very different in each city it’s implemented,”  Haga explained.  ”Boston’s had a very short term impact, before violence shot up again. I think the short term success is partially because of how law enforcement heavy it is. Increases in law enforcement have, at best, a short-term impact but you’re not really changing the conditions that create crime.”
Haga said Chicago’s Cease Fire model worked because it “empowered community members to work in their own community,” and because that city’s local Cease Fire projects “were not controlled in any way by law enforcement.”
In contrast, Haga said, many of Oakland’s Cease Fire advocates are directly connected to law enforcement and neighborhood policing initiatives including Measure Y, which “has a rep on the streets as being too tied into the city and OPD, so there are a lot of people that don’t trust them.”


More Than a Tattoo: Body Art Honors Lost Loved Ones

Miriam Mendez’s tattoo mural of her husband on her left shoulder.

By Sheila Blandon

Tattoos are a trend among the teenagers I know. But these are not just regular tattoos.

Mimi Mendez’s neck tattoo.

As more young people die on the streets in the Bay Area, it’s becoming common to see young people showing their respects to their loved ones by inking themselves with something that reminds them of that person –  sometimes simply an R.I.P. followed by their lost friend’s name or nickname.

Miriam Mendez recently lost her husband, Henry Faa’aloalo Tautolo, when he was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Francisco at a relative’s house party.

As Mendez grieves daily, she shows her respects to her husband with the tattoo of his middle name on her neck. Faa’aloalo means “respect” in Samoan. “He would always talk about the meaning of his name,” Mendez remembered, ”and I simply got it because he’s not here with me and it has a lot of meaning to it.”  She is also creating a large mural of her husband for a tattoo on her back.

Sarah Harris’ tattoo of her brother-in-law on her left arm.

Sarah Harris lost her brother-in-law in a 2009 shooting in front of his Hayward apartment complex. “I got him tatted because I would always have him,” Harris said. She also has a tattoo of her father’s name. He died from lung cancer in 2004.  This tattoo is a big cross in the middle of her arm, with “Dad” written in the cross.

“The reason I got him tatted is because I didn’t really know him that good,” said Harris. “But when I was around him, it was a pleasure. So when I look at my tattoo every now and then, all those good memories run through my head.”

Davone “Bones” August tattooed on his chest the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants – his older sister’s favorite TV show. “She loved him,” Bones said. Davone got the piece after his sister was fatally shot.

Ruby Johnson has two big tattoos of her grandparents – one on her arm and the other on her leg.

Ruby Johnson memorial tattoo of her grandpa on her leg.

The art, she said, ”is a sign of respect and shows that I miss and love them still. I feel happy knowing it is for them, knowing they are still a part of me.”

Ja’Quan Taylor has seven different people that have passed away tattoed on his body. All of the deaths were related to gun violence, and all of the memorials on his body are for those who recently passed away.

Two of the people he has tattooed on himself are uncles who passed away together at his mother’s birthday get together.

“They were just chilling in a car and two people snuck up to the car and started shooting,” Taylor explained. “They were in the car in a parking lot. It wasn’t a drive by; it was a planned murder. One was my blood uncle, and the other was like an uncle to me, too.”

Ja’Quan Taylor’s tattoo of one of his uncles.

After talking to these youth, a major trend I noticed was that most deaths were due to gun violence. These tattoos have such an influence on their lives. The art gives its bearer the motivation to go hard in life.



Modern Day Manifest Destiny, or Just Plain Old Getting The Hell Out Of Dodge

Teenager walks past the scene of the 100th homicide of this year on 57th and Hilton. Photo: Michael Holland, Oakland Voices 2012

This story has language that may offend some readers.

By Michael Holland

Recently I just lost another friend and neighbor. Not to violence or anything else newsworthy. I lost another friend to Contra Costa County. The promise of cleaner streets and more square footage was too much for my friend. He gave in. He completely uprooted his family and moved to Antioch.

He’s not the only one. I’m sure you the reader have lost someone to Contra Costa County. If you haven’t, that means you must have just moved here. In that case, don’t unpack. Leave. Go northeast, young man.

I know, I know –  that might not be the best way to welcome new comers, but the spiritual side of me wants to help whenever I can. Even if it means offending a few loyalists to The Town.

This city used to be the preferred destination for people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I was raised by my great grandparents, who came to the Bay in 1944. War time. They were part of The Great Migration. Back in those times, the Bay Area was booming in ship building and other manufacturing.

Now the only industry gas lighting the economy is computer software down in Silicon Valley, and if you don’t have the credentials to work in that field you are ass out. Oakland used to be a blue collar type town. We built things here. Now it is a ghost town for industry. Jobs are scarce.

Before my friend moved, we talked a lot about his new place, and one of the best reasons for moving: the street walkers. They still frequent the block that his family used to live on. He said, “There are no spots for hoes where we at now!”

Living in such close proximity to prostitution is also starting to take its toll on me. It is all over Oakland. My friend has daughters like me, and he cited the street walkers by his old house (47th ave. near International Blvd.) as the main thing that pushed him out to Antioch.

I joked with him that “20 years ago, we would have loved to live on the hoe strip!” We laughed, but it really wasn’t funny. I’m a father and the thought of my girls being exploited makes me cringe.

He also cited the shootings in East Oakland as a reason for his move to the scorched City of Antioch. Oakland has made national headlines within the last few years. From Oscar Grant to the three toddlers shot and killed. People have even been shot through walls. Emergency vehicles are always speeding to some crime scene. Sirens wind and roar in the background even as I type!

The sound of Crown Victoria cop cruisers can often be heard racing through the streets after shots are fired. Every few minutes, cars drive by with tremendous beat – Harley Davidsons with loud pipes – and all the gunshots.

Antioch is starting to look better and better!

With East Oakland seemingly spiraling out of control and a fiance reminding me that our child cannot grow up in Oakland and be safe, I decided to do a little research.

Currently, we are renting a 2-bedroom house for $1325 a month. In Oakley, there is a house  - 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a 2 car garage – for 1375 a month.

“Honey, it’s time to pack!”

The whole concept of uprooting my family and moving to an unfamiliar place is intimidating. But why? The Southern migrants of the Greatest Generation did it, and many of them prospered.

Maybe in time Antioch will be the new Oakland. Given The Town’s rep right now, I’m sure the good people of the Oakley/Brentwood area aren’t too thrilled about Oakland’s undeniable presence in their city. Because, by now, don’t we all know someone up in there?


VIDEO – An Oaktoberfest Poll: Obama’s Reelection Chances

By Ronald Owens

What are President Obama’s chances of getting reelected? With the election less than 2 weeks away, I posed the question to some revelers Oaktoberfest – Oakland’s take on the world famous German celebration of beer.

Held in East Oakland’s Dimond District, the 5th annual Oaktoberfest lured masses of happy people who only got happier as the perfect, sunny afternoon on 2012′s first  Sunday of October progressed.

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