There’s bad news today in the Planet’s old neighborhood in south Berkeley. Kenny Warren, nephew of Don Warren who’s been running the very popular Don’s Headquarters barber shop on Shattuck for four decades, was gunned down last night as he stood on the balcony at a friend’s apartment on Emerson, around the corner from the shop.
The gunman is reported to have fired many many rounds of bullets, perhaps as many as 80, from a pair of automatic weapons, the super-lethal variety which make it possible for any fool, without need for target practice, to hit his mark with at least one bullet. Forty shell casings were recovered from the sidewalk alone.
We say “his” mark here because neighbor accounts suggest that the shooter, like his victim, was a young African-American man. This is sad but not surprising.
Don’s shop is iconic in the African-American community. My son-in-law has gone there for years, as has my friend, a minister and professor who lives a block away, along with his two sons, now in their forties.
“They never knew any other barber shop,” until they left home, their mother told me. \
And it’s not just the expert haircutting, though that counts too. Don is known to be a political junkie with an opinion on anything and everything, his TV constantly tuned to CNN and any other source of news available.
My professor friend, says his wife, will sometimes sit there for a while just to listen to the repartee among barbers and patrons. In other words, it’s a classic Black barbershop of the old school, with all the rich cultural trappings made famous in novels and films.
And as long-term tenants next door, we at the Planet always appreciated Don’s steady presence on the corner. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy, so we were confident that no bad behavior would be tolerated, at least on our block.
This kind of thing simply should not happen to a family like this. By all accounts Ken Warren, known to family and friends as Junior, was a good guy, no troublemaker at all. When he wasn’t barbering, he operated loading equipment at the Port of Oakland—he had five kids to support, so he worked hard.
Some theories floating around suggest that the many shots point to a professional or gang-affiliated killing, but my professor friend's wife thinks that it’s just the opposite. She says that with automatic repeater weapons like these the most trivial beef easily escalates into a bloody murder—no particular intent needed. Often enough, it’s even a case of mistaken identity.
You just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has given her plenty to worry about, as the mother of two sons, even though they’re past the most dangerous age range.
Statistics abound, for all the good they do. The reason that the murder of Kenneth Warren, probably by another young Black man, is no surprise is that “homicides are devastating black teens and adults across the nation,” according Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, DC.
On Wednesday the VPC released an analysis of FBI data from 2009,” Black Homicide Victimization in the United States, an Analysis of 2009 Homicide Data.”
One of its conclusions: “The homicide rate for black victims in the United States was 17.90 per 100,000. In comparison, the overall national homicide rate was 4.76 per 100,000 and the national homicide rate for whites was 2.92 per 100,000.”
And the study places the blame on, guess what, guns: “For homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 82 percent of black victims (5,065 out of 6,156) were killed with guns. Of these, 74 percent (3,723 victims) were killed with handguns.”
Sometimes people think handgun murders are caused by drugs or gangs, but most of the time that’s not true. Another conclusion: “For homicides involving black victims for which the circumstances could be identified, 71 percent (2,812 out of 3,937) were not related to the commission of any other felony. Of these, 54 percent (1,524 homicides) involved arguments between the victim and the offender. Thirteen percent (355 homicides) were reported to be gang-related.”
That’s another way of saying that handgun homicides are mostly crimes of opportunity. Handguns just make it so damn easy for what 75 years ago might have been a fistfight to turn into slaughter.
Blog commenters were ready to blame Kenneth Warren’s murder on the cannabis store around the corner, but it’s most likely not connected. Any small argument could have provoked a heedless murder.
We stopped by Don’s this afternoon to pay our respects. He wasn’t there, but gathered on the sidewalk outside the barbershop next to the impromptu shrine which has been created as custom dictates, friends and neighbors were talking about their disbelief that a tragedy like this could even strike an upstanding family like the Warrens.
One visitor was an off-duty City of Berkeley Traffic Control officer still in her uniform, who said she’d known “Junior” since he was two years old, and also his whole large extended family back to his grandfather. She emphasized the solidity of this family, and her shock that even they could be hit by handgun violence.
In truth, I don’t know a single African-American family that has not been touched, in one of its branches, by senseless death attributable to this cause. The cities where most of them live are awash in guns, ready to tempt hot-headed youth to settle their differences the worst way possible.
The VPC study reaches this conclusion:
“Blacks in the United States are disproportionately affected by homicide. For the year 2009, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 47 percent of all homicide victims.
“As noted at the beginning of this study, the devastation homicide inflicts on Black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities.
“For blacks, like all victims of homicide, guns—usually handguns—are far and away the number one murder tool. Successful efforts to reduce America’s black homicide toll, like America’s homicide toll as a whole, must put a focus on reducing access and exposure to firearms.”
That’s a job for the whole community, Black, White or In-Between. Until we all can, by working together, get the automatic handguns off the streets in the cities where we live, we’ll go on losing promising young men like Ken Warren. And that’s a crying shame.
PS: We received the following email from "a f firstname.lastname@example.org" after this piece was posted:
"very disturbing to read such strange inaccuracies regarding weapons in your article. An "automatic" is a machine gun, is not at all legal in California, and requires extensive permits in the states they are allowed. They are NOT classified as handguns, and do not even remotely resemble them in appearance."FYI: From Wikipedia:
"An automatic firearm is a firearm that loads another round mechanically after the first round has been fired.In either case, a human pulls a trigger of some sort to start the firing. The fact that California laws don't adequately regulate semi-automatic firearms is something that needs to be remedied, unless, of course, we want to see even more people gunned down in cold blood.
"The term can be used to refer to semi-automatic firearms, which fire one shot per single pull of the trigger (like the .45 "automatic"), or fully automatic firearms, which will continue to load and fire ammunition until the trigger (or other activating device) is released, the ammunition is exhausted, or the firearm is jammed."