Column: Undercurrents: Making Sense Out of East Bay Violence By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday July 29, 2005

We may never know for certain what Meleia Willis-Starbuck said to the two Chris’s—her friends Chris Hollis and Chris Wilson—to get them to drive out to College Avenue on the tragic night that Ms. Willis-Starbuck was shot and killed. The case has already entered into the realm of our judicial system, which may be concerned with exacting justice but is not always equipped to discover truth, not feeling the one is necessarily dependent upon the other. 

But if the various media accounts are believable—and being a working journalist, I am always skeptical of media accounts, my friends—then one of the basic facts of the Willis-Starbuck tragedy is that Ms. Willis-Starbuck said something on the telephone that caused Mr. Hollis and Mr. Wilson to believe that they needed to come to her assistance against a crowd of young men, and that—at least so far as the 21-year-old Mr. Hollis was concerned—a gun was needed as well. 

In the days immediately after Ms. Willis-Starbuck’s death, the Daily Planet’s letters to the editor pages were filled with (I assume) well-intentioned citizens who had already decided how the shooting happened, and who was to blame. 

Michael Hardesty called the shooter a “punk.” Eileen M. Mello labeled it “a misogynist hate crime.” And Mr. Gerry O’Brien painted with a broader brush, writing that “I shall never stop scrutinizing young men in the College Avenue environs … until that day … when the Berkeley Police Department apprehends the shooter and brings him before the court to answer for his conduct.” Presumably the type of young men whom Ms. Willis-Starbuck was reportedly arguing with shortly before the shooting, though Mr. O’Brien was, perhaps deliberately, vague on exactly who that means he would be scrutinizing. 

All of these letters were written within a day or two of the shooting, when people believed that the shooting had been done by the men on the street with whom Ms. Willis-Starbuck was having an argument, before media revealed that one of her close friends was accused of doing the shooting, that he may have done it while coming to her defense, and that she may have placed the call to bring him to the spot. But it is often in these first moments of a tragedy, before many of the facts are determined, that we blurt out unguarded thoughts, and we get an inkling into our true thinking. 

The need in humans to assign blame to tragedy is both powerful and understandable, because it allows us to neatly pack away in a safe closet of understanding what otherwise appears unbearable. But saying something is understandable does not mean it is necessarily right. 

And what seems understanding may actually be misunderstanding, once the actual facts begin to surface. One is reminded of the story—I have told it before, in columns—of the Texas woman who expressed surprise when learning that the suspect arrested in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City turned out to be a white American Gulf War veteran Christian American patriot terrorist, and not an Arab Muslim terrorist, as had been widely expected. “Now I don’t know who to hate,” she said, one assumes quite honestly. 

And so, now that it is less easy to hate Ms. Willis-Starbuck’s shooter (hate the sin, but not the sinner, I can hear one of my old ministers saying), what you hear more than anything is people calling the shooting “senseless.” 

But that would be a mistake, too. There is little that is senseless in human society. Mostly there are things which we have not yet figured out a way to make sense of. Or, perhaps, we don’t want to make sense of, because we worry about the implications. 

But let us try to figure, while the tragedy is fresh in our minds, and we have not yet moved on to other concerns. 

What is it that would have caused Mr. Hollis to carry a gun with him on the drive out to College Avenue that night, and to allegedly discharge it—as Berkeley police now say—into a crowd standing on the street? We don’t know because we can’t read Mr. Hollis’ mind, and he has not yet surfaced to give his side of the story. 

But we have some possible clues. We do know that the East Bay is an incredibly—almost unbelievably—violent place, particularly for young African-American men, such as Mr. Hollis. For those of us who are either too old or live far removed from the epicenters, it is difficult to understand the effect this violence and threat of violence is having on the young people most at risk. We see it in statistics and television reports—eight murders in Richmond in a two week-period, 41 murders in Oakland since the beginning of the year—but rarely from the point of view of those who are most likely to have seen a shooting, or know someone who has been shot, or be shot themselves. How does it affect their thinking? How does it affect their lives? 

Last February, 49-year-old Patrick McCullough shot and wounded 16-year-old Melvin McHenry following an argument in front of Mr. McCullough’s 59th Street home. The two men give different stories about the nature of the argument, and what Mr. McHenry was doing in front of Mr. McCullough’s house before the argument began. Mr. McCullough had previously been active in trying to clean up drug trafficking on his block, and because of it, he had received threats from alleged drug dealers. And so even though the 16-year-old Mr. McHenry had not been accused of drug dealing, and was not suspected in making the threats against Mr. McCullough, both Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and Oakland Police Lt. Lawrence Green, who oversees patrols in the North Oakland neighborhood where the shooting took place, came out in the shooter’s defense even before police completed their investigation of the case. Lt. Green, in fact, circulated a petition urging the Alameda County District Attorney not to charge Mr. McCullough in the shooting. 

“Realistically, given the threats [McCullough has] had, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for him to carry a weapon,” Lt. Green told the Daily Planet reporter. 

But if it is realistic—according to an Oakland police lieutenant—for a 49-year-old Oakland citizen to carry a weapon because he fears for his life and that of his family, why is it not equally as reasonable to expect Chris Hollis to carry a weapon as well, knowing the fear he might face as a 21-year-old African-American man simply trying to survive on the East Bay’s streets? 

Am I suggesting that either shooting-that of the 16-year-old Melvin McHenry or the 19-year-old Meleia Willis-Starbuck was acceptable, or even comparable? Absolutely not. 

But it’s a reasonable question to ask—why young African-American men feel that at times they must protect themselves and their friends with guns—because the answer might give us a clue as to how we might intervene to stop the East Bay street violence that is cycling, cycling out of control.