Among Oakland's Dead, What's a 'Typical' Case?

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In Brenda Grishams home, photos and momentos of her son Christopher Jones, fill the mantel.  Jones was murdered on the front porch of their home on December 31, 2010.  Photo by Deborah Svoboda / KQED
In Brenda Grisham's home, photos and mementos of her son Christopher Jones, fill the mantel. Jones was killed on the front porch of their home on December 31, 2010. Photo by Deborah Svoboda / KQED

Tracking gun crimes in Oakland, the numbers are dizzying. In the past five years, there were more than 550 homicides in Oakland, most in shootings. Last month, a grandmother and a 15-year-old girl were among those killed. And according to data compiled by the Urban Strategies Council, 143 Oakland residents age 17 and under were shot in 2011 -- six of them fatally.

Behind those numbers are stories of lost lives and families left to fill their voids. Among them was 17-year-old Christopher Jones, who was killed two years ago outside his East Oakland home in a fusillade of stray bullets. 

Christopher played music for several church choirs and was the music director of one of them. He also played drums and piano and was teaching himself guitar. He got good grades and planned to attend Cal State East Bay, where he wanted to major in music and digital arts. "Chris did more in 17 years than a lot of people twice his age," his mother, Brenda Grisham, said.

Grisham said that more than 1,500 people attended Christopher’s funeral. But he wasn't spared the suspicions that often surround the deaths of young black males. Reader comments on news stories about Christopher's killing suggested the teen must have been up to something.

"Well, what was he into, y'know he had dreads, y'know, blah blah blah whatever,' " his mother said. Though police and policymakers often attribute deaths of young black males to gang violence, Grisham said that's just not the case. "There are more kids out there like Christopher, he’s not one of a kind. There are more kids like him, and unfortunately most of the murders in Oakland are actually innocent people."


On the day Christopher was killed, Grisham and her family were about to leave for dinner before attending church. She and Christopher sat in her car, waiting for her daughters. There were two young men across the street.

"I didn't pay 'em any attention," she said. "And then Christopher was handing me my car keys and we were talking and I looked up and one of the guys lifted a rifle and just started shooting."

The intended target was a man in a car parked near Grisham's house. In the spray of bullets, Grisham’s oldest daughter was shot in the foot, but both girls made it into the house.

"And me and Christopher, he didn't say anything, he just said, ‘Mom,’ and I told him to run, and as we were trying to get up the stairs, I was pushing him, but he had already got shot," Grisham said.

Grisham fell forward onto Christopher's back. She didn't know he'd been shot until her oldest daughter said something. "She said, 'Oh my god, somebody’s been shot,’ and I looked down and there was just blood all over the porch and he wasn't moving. I grabbed his hand, and I was trying to calm the girls down."


The fireplace mantel in Grisham's home overflows with mementos from Christopher's high school graduation. In front of a large black-and-white portrait of the handsome teen are his purple graduation cap, his diploma, a little teddy bear with the words "Congrats Grad" sewn on its chest, and his yearbook. "He actually won for best smile," Grisham said.

Brenda Grisham reads one of the many letters that she received after the murder of her son Christopher Jones, two years ago.  This letter was given to her by a friend of her sons.  Photo by Deborah Svoboda / KQED
Brenda Grisham reads one of the letters that she received after the killing of her son Christopher Jones, two years ago. The letter was among hundreds from Christopher's classmates. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

But Christopher died five months before graduation day, and in the end, it was Grisham who walked across the stage in his place.

After Christopher was killed, his classmates tried to return things Christopher had given them -- $5, pencils, even the shirt off his back that he gave to a classmate so she wouldn’t get in trouble for not having the proper uniform. "She tried to give me the shirt back, I told her to keep it."

These days, Grisham often comforts the mothers who have lost their children in shootings. When she heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Grisham says her heart went out to the victims' parents. She knows the questions that haunt the parents of kids killed by gunfire.

" 'Did my baby suffer, how many times was my baby shot, did they just gun my baby down?' " she said. "Those are in the back of a lot of people's minds if they weren't actually there, they try to imagine the situation and I think that bears a lot more on your process."

But as hard as it was to be there when her child died, there are some questions she doesn't need to ask. Christopher was shot in the temple and jaw. "I know he went instantly -- even on his death certificate it said he died instantly. I held his hand and told him that I love him whether he could hear me or not."

For Grisham, it's the little things that trigger her pain. Recently, when she sat down to undo her braids, she expected Christopher to check up on her as he always did. "And he didn't come, and I cried and cried," she said. "And it’s probably going to be like that forever."

Police haven't found Christopher's killers, but Brenda Grisham is keeping her son's generous spirit alive. She's an active member of several groups working to stop the killings in Oakland. And she started a foundation in her son's name, one that gives scholarships to promising young graduates.