.Bearing Witness to a Tragedy

When someone is slain in East Oakland, Larry Reid often drives to the scene. The councilman has logged a lot of miles.

It’s a bad omen when Larry Reid’s home phone rings late at night. It usually means that someone — and it’s almost always a young black man — has been killed in Reid’s district.

When that call comes, the vice mayor, whose East Oakland city council territory has accounted for more than half the city’s homicides this year, leaves his wife and four children at home and does what he’s done hundreds of times since 1990. He drives to the scene.

Election night, November 5, was one such night. The call came shortly after dark while Reid was helping his eleven-year-old daughter Quiyamma with her homework. There’d been a street party at Tyrone Carney Park, a cheese-wedge of open space in the East Oakland neighborhood of Sobrante Park. Shooting had broken out, and four were hit. One of them, 38-year-old Jayway Theson, was dead. Down at the OPD’s homicide division, a piece of paper bearing the number “96” was added to a bulletin board, next to another one that said “95.”

Standing behind the police tape, a Raiders hat pulled low over his eyes, Reid converses quietly with Sergeant T.L. Slade, taking in the details. Police say two-thirds of the killings in Oakland this year have been drug-related, and this one was no exception. More than a hundred suspected dealers, Slade reports, had gotten together to memorialize friends killed over the years and to celebrate a symbolic date: 11-5. That’s short for 11-500, Slade says, police code for drug-related activity.

The revelers had hung signs in the park. An orange one, five feet by three, reads: KEEP IT LIT, R.I.P., CHILL, LOVED BY MANY, HATED BY FEW. Another, on white paper bordered by brightly colored balloons, says simply, “11-5 DAY.” Theson’s body was found nearby with multiple gunshot wounds. He was hit first in the chest and again in the back as he tried to flee. The wounded were taken to Highland Hospital, one in critical condition.

Reid knows the score. He’s a child of the Cincinnati projects, a Vietnam vet, and an Oakland city employee since 1990. And though unnatural death has been a recurring theme in his life, its frequency fails to dull his emotional response. “I know what an AK-47 or a sawed-off shotgun can do to a human body. I know what a Glock or a handgun does,” he says. “These things are just beyond my comprehension. How can someone just walk up to another human being, put a gun against some guy’s head, and just blow his brains out? I think about it all night. I come into the office depressed. And now it’s happening on an almost daily basis.”

For the vice mayor, this year has brought a dreadful sense of déjà vu, a reflection of the bloody stint from 1986 to 1995 in which the body count hit triple digits ten years running. By the late ’90s, the economy had improved, jobs were plentiful, and things were looking up — the city had just 60 homicides in 1999. But that reprieve was short-lived. The count jumped to 80 in 2000 and 87 last year. And now, for the first time since ’97, the toll is back into the triple digits.

“It’s not just about the number,” says Elihu Harris, the former state assemblyman and Oakland mayor who ran the city during the worst of those years. “Each death is tragic. But when the figure climbs over one hundred again, it is certainly time for action.”

Reid, who started his political career as Harris’ assembly aide, became Mayor Harris’ chief of staff in 1990. That was the year when the two men, both African American, fell into the grim routine of driving to the homicide scenes, often arriving before the corpses were carted away. “We felt it was important to try to connect to the community,” Harris says. “I felt it was part of the job, and Larry felt the same way.”

One night in 1995, there were nine killings in Oakland, Slade recalls. Harris and his assistant dutifully made the rounds. The mayor would often cry on these occasions, Reid remembers, because try as he might, he could not find a way to stop the killings. Reid also felt at a loss. Wanting to do something — anything — he began raising money for families too poor to cover the funeral costs. He stopped doing it after being elected to city council in the fall of 1996. Too depressing, he says.

The councilman has acted in small ways to help the neighborhoods — getting parks built in East Oakland, donating part of his salary to children’s programs, and raising funds to send poor kids to sporting events and on field trips to Sacramento.

Of course, none of that has affected the bloodshed. On the scene of the 11-5 killing, Reid was visibly frustrated, and near tears. “Some folks will say it’s the economy,” he said, “but if the Latinos can work two jobs to make ends meet, and so can the Asians, why can’t young brothers do the same? The Latinos aren’t out here killing each other, neither are the Asians. The people getting killed are people who look like me — African Americans.”

Two days later, at a council retreat in the Oakland Hills, Reid was still feeling emotional. “Young black men are terrorizing the community I represent,” he said. “I know some of the things I say are not politically correct, but I don’t care. It is troubling to me that my community is not as outraged as I would hope and expect. I can’t see how they could stand by while all these murders take place.”

The killings are clearly taking a toll on Reid. His staff says privately that after each killing, he comes to the office depressed and withdrawn. Harris, still close to his protégé, calls Reid “sensitive.”

“He has been involved in a war and involved in the taking of human life,” Harris says. “Larry understands tragedy. He understands the impact of death. Given his different perspective, having seen friends killed in a matter of seconds, perhaps it is something that has heightened his sensitivity.”

But along with that sensitivity comes tough love. The councilman responded to the 11-5 incident by having police erect a six-foot fence around the park where the shootings occurred. The San Francisco Chronicle called the fence a “symbol of defeat,” but Reid defends his action. “This park was supposed to be for families, for children,” he says. “But the drug dealers and the thugs have taken over. There is no choice but to shut it down.”

In one emotional moment at the crime scene, Reid had this to say: “If it takes locking up young African-American males to keep the streets safe, so be it.”

Reid is simply frustrated and angry, says Harris. “When I was mayor, people said, ‘Well, he doesn’t seem like a happy person,’ but you know what? It’s a lot of weight to bear. It is hard to deal with.”

And how, indeed, is it to be dealt with? Even as the numbers mount, Reid is at a complete loss on that account. “I pray every night and every morning for God to give me the ability to say something that will touch the people and stop the killings,” he says. “All I know is that every night when I’m at home with my family, I hope my phone doesn’t ring.”


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