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Councilmember Loren Taylor read their names aloud at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the last of the year.
William Blakeman, who was shot dead inside his home on Santa Rita Street on Jan. 1. Lai Dang, killed on Market Street in West Oakland a week later. Lashawn Buffin, a grandmother who died the week after when someone shot into her East Oakland home.
Reuben Lewis III, a former youth coach and mentor, who was fatally wounded outside a football practice at Concordia Park where his young son and others were playing. He died on March 24. By the time Taylor got to the names of people killed earlier this month he’d been reading for five minutes straight.
“You don’t realize the gravity of it until you are reading the names,” Taylor told The Oaklandside this week. “That reinforces the lives that we lost and the impact. We lost people ages 1 to 75.”
After years of steady declines in violent crime, homicides have been on the rise in many major U.S. cities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Previous annual homicide records have already been shattered this year in at least nine large cities.
Oakland is among the hardest hit. As of today, police have investigated 133 killings, marking the city’s deadliest year since 2006.
Shootings have returned to levels not seen in a decade as the number of guns being recovered by police also hit record highs last year and this year. Shootings had leveled off at about 277 in 2019 but jumped to 479 last year and are already at 587 and counting this year, according to police data.
Those grim statistics cannot capture the trauma inflicted upon family and friends of the victims, and the fact that while the police department’s homicide count starts over on Jan. 1, it never really does for those who have lost loved ones or are confronted with gun violence on a daily basis.
The youngest victim this year was Alia Musleh, who died just before her second birthday along with her father, 37-year-old Esam Musleh in an arson fire at their East Oakland home.
Not included in Oakland’s homicide count are five killings on Oakland freeways investigated by the California Highway Patrol, including the death of 23-month-old Jasper Wu, and two teenage women, 19-year-old Alayasia Thurston and 16-year-old Zoey Hughes, who were among seven women wounded while celebrating a friend’s birthday aboard a party bus.
The Oakland Police Department Homicide Unit has cleared 47% of cases, meaning detectives have arrested and charged suspects in nearly half of this year’s homicides. Since 2004, OPD’s homicide case clearance rate has fluctuated between 41% and 79%. The statewide clearance rate over the past decade is 62%.
Oakland’s violence prevention programs were swamped by the pandemic and continue to struggle to keep up with the rate of violence
Violence interrupters and victim counselors say trauma afflicted on family and friends of those lost to gun violence is even more crippling during the global pandemic. Beyond the headlines, homicides this year have led to families already struggling to get by losing a member whose income they relied upon. Housing instability among victims’ families and people who are no longer able to work because of injuries from a shooting, was on the rise this year.
Paris Davis, intervention director at Youth Alive, said his organization saw a record number of referrals to counsel and assist gun violence victims. Some victims were homeless or on the brink of losing their home.
“It’s life changing,” Davis told The Oaklandside. “Some of these people are caught in the crossfire. They didn’t have ties to gangs. These are people just trying to get home and god forbid got hit with a bullet.”
The surge of violence during the pandemic has further strained trust between the community and the city of Oakland. It has also stretched thin the city’s services that are geared toward preventing violence, especially shootings.
Youth Alive employs violence interrupters and other staff who provide support to youth on probation, counselors to help people deal with trauma, and other help such as housing assistance, for people affected by gun violence. But many nonprofits and other support services folded or scaled back because of COVID-19.
The city’s Department of Violence Prevention tripled its violence interrupter staff in November, from 10 to 31, but for much of the pandemic had a staff of less than 10. Even still, the department averaged about 50 responses a month and were called to 299 incidents since June, said DVP Chief Guillermo Cespedes. One worker went to 48 homicide scenes to meet with families, he said.
“Since COVID, the connection between city government and specifically Black and brown communities has been really compromised,” Cespedes said. “It’s not that the relationship was great to begin with but COVID exposed the vulnerabilities, so we are rebuilding trust.”
Cespedes has done similar violence prevention work in Honduras. In Los Angeles, he served as director of gang reduction and youth development after spending part of his early career in Oakland.
“I worked in Oakland during the crack epidemic. It was much more localized, it wasn’t as spread out as this is and it was a little bit more predictable,” he said, referring to recent violent crime.
Predictable, but violent nonetheless. There were seven straight years, from 1989 to 1995, when Oakland saw higher homicide counts than this year. The peak was 1992 when 175 people were killed. Police classified 165 of these as murders.
Two moments this year stood out to Cespedes: a colleague told him not to honk his horn at a traffic light because doing so may end violently, and there was a double stabbing outside his home because of an argument over loud music.
“We are frazzled as a community, we are very cranky, we are traumatized, we are responding with very short fuses,” he said.
Deputy Chief of Violence Prevention Dr. Sarai Crain said last year saw a 36% increase in gender-related killings and shootings, crimes that stem from intimate partnerships, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Crain suspects the increase is even sharper this year, but that data is harder to compile and not completed yet.
Oakland hospital staff, Crain said, have “stated they have never seen [as large] an increase in female identified victims being treated in the emergency department for gunshot wounds—ever.”
East Oakland has been hit especially hard by the surge in violence
In an interview with The Oaklandside on Thursday, police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said the main factor fueling the surge in gun violence is feuds between gangs and groups. According to the latest crime report, there have been 587 firearms assaults, a 23% increase over last year. The number of shootings into occupied homes and vehicles also saw a double-digit increase over 2020.
The surges in violence Oakland experienced around 2012 and 2006 were also very much caused by violent feuds between gangs and groups who make up a very small percentage of Oakland’s residents, as well people who live in other cities who come to Oakland and become victims or perpetrators of violence.
Armstrong said the city is awash in firearms. Police have recovered about 1,100 guns this year, about the same number recovered in 2020. Ghost guns are becoming more prevalent: 35% of firearms seized in 2021 are untraceable firearms, some assembled in people’s homes from kits purchased online.
While gun violence touched nearly every part of the city, East Oakland has been the site of much of the bloodshed. As of Dec. 12, police had investigated 76 homicides within police Area 4 and Area 5, which cover neighborhoods east of Fruitvale. Police officials this week said nearly 55% of firearm assaults have occurred in those areas of East Oakland.
“Even hearing it hurts,” District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid said of the gunfire. Reid, whose son was murdered in 2013, said the violence has been “tearing our hearts and our families apart.” “You go to North Oakland, it’s the fear and terror of having a home invasion. What we endure are gunshots.”
Taylor, who represents council District 6, said he has seen the trauma first hand while visiting crime scenes. One scene that hit him particularly hard was a double homicide, where an 8-year-old boy witnessed his mother’s murder.
“Seeing him in shock and the neighbors attempting to wrap their arms around him, just raw emotions,” said Taylor, who has a son that is the same age. “The thing that crossed my mind: This young man is going to rebound and recover and heal from what he just witnessed. But how do we ensure that the cycle doesn’t continue, that we are able to support him so that he can still live a happy, healthy, productive life without this experience completely spiraling in the wrong direction.”
Taylor said several victim families asked if he could acknowledge their loved one before the City Council broke for the holidays and he felt it was necessary to read all 133 names. When he finished on Tuesday, silence fell over the virtual council meeting.
“Some of us are just taking in all those names,” City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said. “I just want to create space for us to remember and reflect on those beloved ones who are no longer with us.”