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Oakland's 'war zone': Bullets fly, bodies fall on MacArthur Boulevard - as fear and grief overwhelm families, police step up patrols and outreach

By Charles Burress
The San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. - "Baby Iraq" is one name they give it. "A devil's playground" is another.

It's a forlorn spot on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland where fresh grief erupts with each new burst of bullets from unknown guns.
Four young people have been slain on MacArthur near 83rd Avenue since April, including 18-year-old Kennah Wilson and the unborn child she was carrying, who lived for a short time after Wilson was shot. At least seven other people have been wounded. No arrests have been made.
This location on MacArthur, west of Interstate 580 and about a mile northwest of the Oakland Zoo, may be the most concentrated killing zone in a city where killing is common. Oakland, ranked America's fourth-most-dangerous city in a CQ Press study released in November, has seen 105 homicides so far this year, up from 104 at the same time last year.
Police blame the MacArthur Boulevard bloodshed on a pervasive problem - young men who fall into drug dealing and violence. In response to the killings, city officials recently made quelling violence at the location a priority, combining a stepped-up police response with outreach and job-finding assistance for youths.
But solutions remain elusive.
"We shouldn't be burying our children - our children should be burying us," said Verona McRae, one of the approximately 200 mourners at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Sept. 11 for the funeral of Wilson and her infant, Kamilah Donyea Robinson. The baby was delivered after Wilson was shot, lived briefly and is now listed as Oakland homicide victim No. 93 for this year.
Another young mother who lived at the same location, Shaneice Davis, 21, was sleeping in bed just before midnight April 7 when a bullet from outside ripped through the wall. She was homicide No. 38.
"That's the hole made by the bullet that killed my daughter," Davis' mother, Consuelo Starks, said in a flat voice as she held her now-motherless year-old granddaughter. The hole in the apartment remains visible from the outside, about 10 inches below a bedroom window covered by black anti-burglar bars.
"That's the second time bullets came through my house," said Starks, who was in the midst of moving. She declined to say where she was going.

Echoes of Iraq
Other holes from other bullets mark the building and a nearly identical apartment building next door on the 8200 block of MacArthur. Each has two stories and four units, occupied by ordinary people whose lives are being destroyed by extraordinary violence.
"It's like a war zone," sighed Linda Jones, 55. "Everybody calls this 'Baby Iraq.' "
Jones' middle child, 24-year-old Zaire Washington, was this year's homicide No. 67.
Spots of his blood still stain the wall under an exterior stairway leading to the family's apartment. That's where two bullets ripped into his back shortly before 7 p.m. June 30 as he tried to run from whoever was shooting.
"This was the worst thing in my life, to see my son shot," Jones said in an interview punctuated by tears at one moment, anger at another and deep sadness all the while at the cumulative misery wreaked by the guns.
Jones passes the spot where her son was killed - marked by memorial candles and deflated balloons - every time she leaves or returns home from her full-time job, from an errand or from sharing grief and support with her neighbors, at least those who remain.
Wilson lived in the building next door, and her mother, Donna Erving, hasn't been back to stay at the family's apartment since her daughter was killed, residents say.
Another memorial site - with candles, balloons, posters and empty liquor bottles - marks the spot where Wilson was killed about 10:15 p.m. Aug. 29, next to the 6-foot fence that separates the parking lot from the litter-strewn sidewalk.
Jones - who grew up in Berkeley, was a Berkeley High cheerleader and is still raising two boys by herself - is looking for a new place to live. A copy of the magazine Apartments for Rent sits on her living room coffee table.
On another table, there's an open Bible and a large sympathy card for her son signed by several people. Nearby, there's a photo of her cousin, William C. Turner Jr., fatally shot on the 3200 block of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland on March 5.

Bonds forged under fire
Residents of the two buildings form a micro-community, united not just by their proximity but also by family ties, their shared grief and the bonding of people trapped together under siege.
Jones' niece, Tommiesha Jones, was another resident and another victim, killed in 2005 in a hail of bullets that riddled a car in which she was riding in Richmond. A street memorial gathering for her exactly three years later, on April 7 of this year, in front of the MacArthur apartment building was suddenly punctured just before midnight by what sounded like firecrackers.
Bullets from a drive-by shooting wounded three men at the gathering and struck Shaneice Davis as she lay sleeping in her apartment. She died two days later.
Sometimes the bullets come from passing cars, and sometimes they seem to come from a darkened stretch of 83rd Avenue that intersects MacArthur, residents say.
Tommiesha's brother, Tommie Jones, 19, was one of the young people hanging out on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building one day recently.
"This area is very dysfunctional," he said as he stood next to the memorial to Wilson, his former classmate at Rudsdale Continuation High School. "We done been through a lot at a young age. We're traumatized. ... It's hectic out here. It's life."
Conveying the reality to outsiders is impossible, he said.
"You can explain to someone detail by detail, but they can never feel it until they live it," he said. "To see what it's like to hear gunshots, having bullets flying - until they live it, they're really never going to know."
Under his black hoodie, he wore a white memorial T-shirt with several photos on it. One shows him and Wilson together, another features his sister Tommiesha, and another shows his cousin, Raymond Chambers, 17, gunned down on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland in 2006.
Other young people come and go, some strolling down MacArthur past the small mosque and weedy empty lot from the direction of the nearby store advertising liquor and groceries. Some arrive in vans or cars.
A man on unsteady legs said residents of the area need help applying for and finding jobs. "We don't know where the jobs are," he said. "Mostly everybody gets turned down, so they get discouraged."

Seeking the cause
The people there say they don't know why the spot has turned bloody.
"I don't know what it could be," said Tommie Jones, who moved to MacArthur Boulevard from another part of Oakland in 1999. "It's not gang related."
Although the area has seen other crime problems in recent years - including a major drug bust in 2005 - Jones said the anonymous street shootings began this year.
Police say they can't discuss possible motives in the recent shootings because the investigations are in progress.
While homicide detectives seek the killers, the city is also trying to address the causes.
"It's really a societal issue," police Officer Jack Doolittle said. "We can't arrest our way out of this problem. We're trying to give these kids an alternative to hanging out, drinking, dealing drugs. A lot of these youngsters, if they don't know any better, fall into that lifestyle.
"The city wants to take a holistic approach to this," said Doolittle, who has been assigned by the Police Department to help coordinate a multipronged approach that includes police, the mayor's office, parole and probation departments, and community outreach.
Mayor Ron Dellums chaired a multidepartment meeting on how deal with the MacArthur Boulevard violence this month, followed by a second meeting chaired by Councilman Larry Reid, whose district includes the area, Doolittle said.
But city efforts are constrained by budget cuts, police shortages and residents' reluctance to help law enforcement, Doolittle said. He acknowledged that fear of retaliation prevents many residents from talking to police, but he said even the anonymous drug hot line - 510 238-3784 - received only one call from the 8200 and 8300 blocks of MacArthur between July 2007 and Sept. 3 of this year.
Linda Jones isn't waiting for a solution. When she finds a new place to live, she said, it won't be near a liquor store or where people hang out on the street.
"Everybody around here is on pins and needles," she said. "It's a sad situation over here. It's like a devil's playground."
To see a 360-degree view of this spot in Oakland, go to

Anti-violence rally and fundraiser

Two groups, Save Our Youth and Grieving Mothers on a Mission, are sponsoring a "Stop the Violence" rally to raise money for moving expenses for families in two adjacent apartment buildings on MacArthur Boulevard who have lost loved ones to street gunfire in the past six months. The event is also intended to be a way "for the community to come together and take a stand against these violent acts on our children and our city," said Sherri-Lyn Miller, founder of the Save Our Youth foundation. The rally takes place from noon to 5 p.m. on Oct. 11 at 8290 MacArthur Blvd. Those who wish to donate can also contact Miller at 510 228-5669.

Wire Service
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