The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut has opened a new national dialogue about guns and gun violence. In Oakland, where a recent violent crime surge has residents anxious, a group of committed demonstrators are pleading to be heard by the police, policymakers, and their own community.
"Somebody died here, we need to care! Somebody died here, we need to care!" was the cry rippling through a busy intersection near Oakland's Lake Merritt on a recent chilly January morning. A dozen people spread out along East 18th Street and Park Boulevard, holding signs that read "Peace on the Streets." They passed out flyers and postcards to anyone who would take them. The few drivers who bothered to roll down a window got a card imploring them to "say something about the murder of our youth, the suffering of our families."
One of the demonstrators was Teresa Butler, who helped organize this coalition of residents concerned about the city’s deadly violence after her 18- year-old godson was killed by a stray bullet. The group is affiliated with the local church True Vine Ministries and goes by the name SAVE, which stands for Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere.
"We have to be soldiers, the way these people come out every week, in cold and rain," Butler said. "Every week, diligent--to me that’s a soldier."
Every Saturday they gather at the site of a recent murder to chant and pray. They've been at it for two years, in hopes of jolting a community exhausted by violence.
The new year has barely begun, and a half dozen more people are dead. In December, an Oakland grandmother was killed when gunfire erupted as she was walking home from a store. About two weeks later, a 15-year-old girl was fatally shot as she walked to a transit station. True Vine Ministries’ pastor Zachary Carey said with more than 550 murders in the last five years, Oakland's residents are living in a war zone.
“Our numbers are just so out of proportion that it's unimaginable the homicides and the depression that people are feeling in these communities," he said. "It’s alarming that we’ve seen such silence from the community, the community leaders and the local and state politicians.”
Oakland city leaders have vowed to address the recent crime surge in new ways. Amid budget cutbacks to the Oakland police force, they've hired former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton as a consultant. Pastor Carey and his church have been asked to take a leadership role in lobbying for a new bill by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, AB 48, which would limit ammunition sales. But Carey said he believes nothing will change as long as people see deadly violence in Oakland as a local problem.
“When you hear about violence in America on the news, the tagline associated with it is gang-related,” Carey said. “Then if you're living in Montclair, Piedmont, Walnut Creek then you're like, ‘I'm not involved in a gang, that'll never happen to me.’ But the reality is people that are being murdered now are not gang-related, they're innocent bystanders, they're collateral damage. So if they can be collateral damage, guess what, so can you and I.”
HOPING TO BE HEARD
The group gathered a few weeks ago to chant for 27-year-old Clifford Snead, who was shot dead nearby shortly after getting off a bus in October:
"Clifford died here, we need to care! Clifford died here, we need to care!"
“I think it makes a lot of difference that somebody cares,” Butler said. “We do care about your loss, we do, and we want you to rise above it. We want to make sure that you have hope, that people out here will not let your loved one's death be gone in vain.”
Snead's grandmother Nolla Beasley, was at the rally. She said she was touched. “I thank 'em for this, I like this, at least it makes the community aware.”
Beasley said Snead, who was the father of a young son, had recently left a telemarketing job to try to get something better-paying in construction. “Two days after he passed, the construction job called. I couldn’t do nothing but cry.”
Beasley has lived in West Oakland since the 1950s. She said her neighborhood has seen so much violence that in the last 10 years she's taken to keeping to her home with the doors locked after 6 p.m.
“I'm kind of leery just driving down the streets [wondering] who's pulling up beside me,” she said. “It’s like I’m scared of the people.”
As the group gets going on a new chant, SAVE organizer Teresa Butler peered at a spreadsheet to see who they’ll be remembering next Saturday. “We’re already three months behind,” she said.
Butler said rallies for the six people who were murdered in the first few weeks of January aren't even on her schedule yet. She said her group can’t keep up with the homicides. Still, they won’t give up.
“We have to do something,” Butler said. “We have to do something.”