One day alongside the racket of the BART train going by I walked toward a street shrine with dried up flowers, airless balloons, and unfinished candles. As I approached the silver lamp pole at 59th Street and MLK Way, the eyes of a young chocolate brown girl stared back at me. My stomach jumped as if the girl was standing there, as if the photo I saw was actually her. My stomach jumped again as I moved closer. I was sure she had died by gunfire because there is a street shrine and she was young and black. Plus street shrines were for those whose death was untimely and violent, whose death would go unnoticed if it weren’t for the shrine. She would just be another statistic. Number 70 what? I studied the photo, perhaps too long, as I felt nauseated, thinking she may have been only 16, 17 or so. I began to read the writing on the lamp pole thinking I would discover her name. I was stunned by messages to the girl addressed Dear B—-, signed B—-. Every epithet to her used the derogatory “B” word, further establishing in her death that she was a “B—-.” With much distress of not knowing her name, I wobbled away feeling somehow as an African American 54-year-old woman that I had been lost inside my own world afraid of the killing of black youth going on around me. Finally, the murder of someone’s daughter haunted me.
Later, a new friend of mine name John, also haunted by the story I revealed, emailed me that he had discovered the name of the young girl through a blog. Even though her face appeared young as a teen she was 21-year-old Kiesha Brooks gunned down on an early afternoon July 22nd, blocks from my house. She was about the fourth killing this year in my neighborhood. No, I do not live in East Oakland or West Oakland, I live in North Oakland on the border of the city of Berkeley which is now delineated with so-called artistic signs naming Oakland as “There” and Berkeley as “Here”. I live “There.”
I live “There”, in a place where there is no running from 80 murders. However, I work “Here,” five minutes from “There,” in Berkeley as the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). Although I had been practicing Buddhism for 19 years, the word “peace” was now part of my everyday life. Could this be why finally I have come to face my fear and sense of being haunted by the dead faces of young black people? Although there is much talk about the Iraq War, the Rwanda Massacres, I can’t help but feel as I did during the Vietnam War that there is no difference between wars here and there. There can be no peace there without here. “There is no there there,” says Gertrude Stein, I say, there’s no here here either. Somehow Kiesha’s face has erased any border, any separation from me and the deaths surrounding my everyday life.
Somehow I had managed to sleep my way through the nightmare of living in Oakland, lifting my head only for a moment to see and listen when it all was too loud and too bloody. Was Kikhiesha sleep too? What in her life made it okay for her to be in the danger zone, to not run from it all? Unconsciously did she think it was okay for her to die? The cries in the streets of black mothers have only mixed with the blood of their children, and have gone on as if it were ordinary life.
Murder is not ordinary life. Some might say as I have many times that Oakland is not all that bad. There’s lots of good here. But I cannot say that any longer without acknowledging that something is out of balance in the city of Oakland, where even the oak trees are dying. How can we regain a balance of life and death among us?
People are innately peaceful but when hindered with fear and ideas of superiority and power, the natural appearance of peace is lost. Adding more police on the streets is one of those ideas of superiority and power fueled by our fear. Building more jails and prisons is another idea fueled by fear. What would emerge if we were moved by understanding, by the wisdom to end suffering instead of adding to it? By understanding I mean being aware of the suffering conditions of being human, knowing that when one suffers we all do, and that because of impermanence what arises as suffering will pass away.
If we were moved in our lives by understanding instead of fear I imagine then that the police force would not use guns. With understanding and not fear, the jails and prisons would be become intensive educational institutions. Children in public schools would be attended to with the care and nurturing one would give to their own child. The music industry would not fear losing money by ending their support of artists whose work is purely to arouse hate. Fueled by understanding every child would be able to read, every overburdened mother would be given a family caretaker. We would begin to see human life as valuable beyond status and worldly possession. This is the kind of consciousness that surfaces when understanding, and not fear, is the catalyst for our actions.
I learned from an early Zen master named Dogen that each moment is not just a segment of life that one takes passively, but that each continuation of life, which is birth moment after moment, must be creatively and actively engaged. How do we engage? We return to:
• Speaking in ways to each other (especially our children) that avoids harsh speech, divisive talk, lying or senseless chatter,
• Acting in ways that avoids harmful intent such as killing, stealing, and misuse of our bodies, and
• Thinking in ways that does not separate us from each other.
With these actions and intentions solutions to the murders will come from a place of insight and compassion rather than merely trying to protect ourselves with bigger weapons.
We are afraid as a nation. We might even be the most fearful country on this planet and therefore afraid of such a weakness being discovered by all. Fear or not no one can afford to just sit back and accept the death of black youths or the increasing murders in this country. Take time to explore what it is that you understand about anything in your world. Do you support those things that feed into your fear? I am certain that Kiesha was afraid simply because she was a human being. Perhaps she was afraid to live a life different from her peers, and maybe even afraid to live the life she did. What kind of understanding do we have of life itself?