What I Want You To Learn From Oakland’s Murder Epidemic

I’ve realized that in most contexts, we would not accept a reality in which senseless tragedy had become a normal part of life. Yet here we are.

This post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.

Image by Samuel Cain

On July 25, I woke up to five missed calls and messages from my brothers and more than 100 new messages in a group thread with my friends back home. They contained screenshots of social media posts, attempts to sort out the facts, and many, many raw feelings. Eric Hampton, one of my best childhood friends, had been stabbed and killed in the Bay Area the night before. I was interning in New York City for the summer, but the news of Eric’s death brought me back. He was the second of my childhood friends to die there in a single week.

Eric and I grew up across the street from each other in Oakland. Even as a kid, he always had a sense of humor. I remember his laugh and how he loved to do impersonations of songs we’d heard or movies we’d seen together. We spent countless hours playing tag football, baseball with a tennis ball (we definitely broke at least one window), and basketball, either in the middle of the street or in our other best friend, Swade’s, backyard. When we were at my house, we played Madden and NBA2K on my PlayStation 2. At Eric’s house, we played these games on his Xbox.

Image by Samuel Cain

As we got older — and he grew to 6’4” — Eric sprouted into a really good basketball player. After our high school graduation, he remained in Oakland, committed to working on himself and holding multiple jobs to make a living and learn what it was like to live as an independent Black man.

I last saw Eric when I was home over my winter break in December of 2015, when he pulled up to my parents’ house to say “What’s up?” Ever since I went off to college across the country and Eric had moved out of his parents’ place, our encounters had become less frequent. Still, we always checked in on each other, and even when we were far away, we stayed up to date on each other’s lives via Instagram.

I was heading into the second-to-last week of my summer internship when I learned about Eric’s death. Even before I felt sad, I felt numb, which, when I think about it, is sad in itself. Gun violence isn’t a new story for me. Attending funerals of young men I grew up with is starting to feel like an unwelcome summer ritual. As the temperatures heat up in the streets of Oakland, so do the barrels of the guns. Summer is a time when the conflicting sides of my life always seem to clash. I don’t go back to school ready to compare memories of fun, travel, and joy. Each year I carry with me another fallen angel, another childhood friend murdered, another reminder that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. And unlike many areas of life, past experience with loss doesn’t makes losing someone you love any easier.

In my immediate family, my dad and one of my brothers have been shot, and they both thankfully lived. I’ve had other siblings who have been shot at. I can name at least 30 childhood friends who’ve been shot and killed. Sometimes I go through my middle school yearbook or pictures of my old baseball teams, only to be confronted with the faces of young Black men who are no longer with us.

When I learned of the details around Eric’s death — he’d gotten into some sort of altercation with a stranger who had acted disrespectfully toward the mother of his child — I didn’t cry. Instead, I logged onto Facebook and watched six-year-old videos of us goofing around, dancing and rapping on camera. I caught the next flight home to celebrate Eric’s life and be with his family. I tried to stay focused on all the fun he and I had together. I tried to tell myself that I now had another angel watching over me.

I didn’t get choked up until the funeral, when I watched Eric’s mother and grandfather cry. I witnessed his newborn son, whose mother held him over the open casket, see his father for the final time. Eric’s son wouldn’t remember this, nor would he remember anything else about his dad. I thought to myself that I’d have to make sure to tell him about Eric when the time comes. As I allowed the tears to well up and fall from my eyes, the pastor said that he was glad to see some of us cry. He said he feared that our community had become immune to the feeling of pain that comes with death and mourning.

Eric’s pastor is right. Young men from Oakland, California learn to quickly pick ourselves up and keep pushing. What choice do we have?

Four days after serving as a pallbearer at Eric’s funeral, physically carrying his coffin and watching him be lowered into the ground, I boarded a plane to Ghana to study abroad for the fall semester of my junior year. Nearly a day of travel gives you a lot of time to think, and I find that planes are among the places where I feel most emotional. I went over the things Eric and I used to do together, and all the miscellaneous conversations we had. I remembered going to the movies on the weekends in middle school, learning how to talk to girls without being shy or nervous, and riding bikes all the way to Bancroft Park to play basketball. I found myself smiling at how hard my imagination was working; it felt as if I was reliving these moments in the flesh.

I’ve spent my first few months in Ghana trying to live in the moment. I haven’t really mentioned Eric to anybody, but in many ways, I believe I am at peace with his memory and the life he lived, no matter how short it was.

This isn’t actually a story about me or my pain. It’s about the normalcy with which large numbers of young men and women, particularly those who are Black and live in low-income communities across the nation, are enduring the very same thing. When you ask me how my summer was, I want you to know that I lost another friend to gun violence — and that I’m far from the only one for whom that’s true. Being at Yale, I’ve realized that in most contexts, we would not accept a reality in which senseless tragedy had become a normal part of life. Yet here we are.