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Dying for folks who just dont care
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Mourners Friday gathered from across the nation to honor four fallen officers in Oakland. More than  20,000 concerned citizens converged on the Coliseum to console the families and comrades of Sergeants Mark Dunakin (Tracy), Ervin Romans (Danville), Daniel Sakai (Castro Valley), and Officer John Hege (Concord).  Elsewhere, the family of Lovelle Mixon, himself dead, endured the double agony of losing a member whose eternal destiny lies in doubt, and knowing that his choices led to so much unnecessary suffering.

The senseless killing of the Oakland police reminds us all of what seems so absurd: good people, who have so much to offer their families, their community and our nation keep putting their lives on line for other folks  who don’t seems to care.   At the same time, it brings the chronic problems of the Oakland P.D. back into the international limelight. As one who served the Modesto and Ceres P.D.’s as a Catholic chaplain, I felt immediate sympathy for the officers and their loved ones, but couldn’t help but recall the BART incident of New Year’s Day.  There, an innocent man was shot, by BART Police

David Muhammad, an Oakland native who now co-directs Washington, D.C.’s juvenile detention system as Chief of Committed Services, Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services, wrote this commentary:

Disturbing text message “Us: 4 – Them: 1
“Four Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers killed, another shot, and a young assailant dead.  This is tragic and unfortunate.   Period.

“I begin this way to make sure that message is not lost as I also explain how so many others in Oakland saw this story.  I received a barrage of phone calls, text messages, and emails shortly after the initial shooting of two officers, and the messages kept pouring in after three more officers were shot and the suspect killed.

“Every one of the people I spoke with, young and old, all merged this tragic incident with the killing of Oscar Grant on New Year’s day by a BART police officer. It is quite possible that Lovelle Mixon had no thoughts of Oscar Grant.  Lovell was a parolee out from prison for assault with a deadly weapon.  He had apparently violated his parole, and a warrant for his arrest was issued.  Maybe he just didn’t want to go back to prison.   But in the minds of many Oaklanders, the two horrific shootings – that of Oscar Grant and that of five OPD officers – were connected.

“After the announcement of the death of the fourth officer, I received one very disturbing text message from a young man who was incensed by the Oscar Grant murder: ‘Us: 4 - Them: 1’

“I was born and raised in Oakland.  I grew up, like most of my friends, with a fair dose of fear, distrust, and animosity toward police.  I was a teenager in 1988 when NWA released its controversial hit, ‘F* the Police.’

“One night that same year, I was hanging out with a very large group of friends and fellow junior high school students.  There were approximately 25 of us standing on the corner when, unbeknownst to me, four of the guys tried to take the car of a couple who had pulled up in a nearby parking lot.

“Now, I participated in my fair share of delinquent acts as a juvenile, but this crime I wanted no part in.  I walked off with my cousin.

‘I anticipated being beaten badly’
“While walking home, an OPD car pulled up alongside of us – I immediately ran off.  I sprinted through several back yards, jumping over fences and leaping over bushes.  I ran right into a waiting cop on the other side of a fence. It was pitch black, in the back of an apartment complex, and I had angered the pursuing officers.  I stopped and put my hands up – I anticipated being badly beaten.

“The officer slammed me onto a bed of rocks, busting open my lip.  He stepped on my neck with his boot and when his partner arrived he stomped on my back.  And though that was clearly excessive force, when I was then picked up, handcuffed and led to the car, I was astonished that it ended there.  The officers took me to the couple who had almost been carjacked and when they said I was not involved, I was let go.  (Ironically, one of the handcuffs wouldn’t come off so the officers took me to the fire department to have it cut off before they drove me home.)

“I had many friends who were not nearly as fortunate as I.  Oakland is a town long known for the animosity between citizens and police.  Such strained relations gave birth to what the city is best known for in many parts of the country – the Black Panther Party.

“And it was that spirit of the Panthers that had so many people I spoke with connecting what Lovelle Mixon did to Oscar Grant.  Many in Oakland are still furious that, three months after Johannes Mehserle murdered Grant, he has not been convicted and sent to prison.

“The death of four police officers, who seemed to have been honorable servants of public safety, has the potential to fuel more disdain among cops for the black community.  This will, of course, create greater distrust of police within the community.  It can become like the deadly gang rivalries that go back and forth for generations that these same officers try to stop.

“There is great need for healing in Oakland.  A leading cause of on-going street violence is the lack of trust between the community and law enforcement.  The tension in Oakland since the murder of Oscar Grant had amassed into a powder keg, and it ignited.

“Whether Mixon lit it intentionally or not we may never know, but it was lit.   And now, before it gets even worse, a deliberate, public, sincere healing is needed in Oakland.”      (Posted March 24, 2009, Chicago Cop Watch)

All that needs to be added to Muhammad’s comments is to expand the playing field - or, better, battlefield - to a wider horizon.  Recall how the beating of Rodney King in 1991 - with the subsequent ’92 exoneration of those who took part - triggered L.A.’s riots, and how the ambiguous use of violence in a thousand municipalities throughout our country has generated negative public sentiment.  The dangerous result has been an unjustifiable level of empathy for criminals who commit violent crimes as a way of life.

The deeper tragedy here happens when really good officers lay down their lives for the sake of a community that doesn’t seem to care, and when their assassin is a criminal previously accused of victimizing innocent people.

Last Wednesday, several dozen Oaklanders marched to the spot where Mixon gunned down the motorcycle cops and protested on his behalf.  “If he was a criminal, everyone’s a criminal,” stated his cousin.  Their defense of a blatant killer played on the general public sentiment against the police.

But what’s lost here, in seeing the bigger picture, is the fact that Oakland lost four heroes.  Their senseless deaths remain a tragedy, no matter what.

I ought to know.  Shortly after moving from Ceres to Lathrop, I returned to bury a young Marine who called 911 in distress, then ambushed the two responding officers with a Soviet-made, high-powered automatic rifle. One officer survived in critical condition, and has never returned to active duty.

The other officer died in the street.  As a former chaplain of the Ceres P.D., I got to know his family and participated in the funeral services.  To this day, I maintain contact with one of them and, on occasion, visit the grave.

Ceres Police officer & his killer are buried just 40 feet apart
But only 40 feet from that tombstone lies the body of the young self-professed Norteño who gunned him down.  This represents a cruel, never-ending insult to the family of the young officer who died in the line of duty.

At the same time, I continue to be friends with the killer’s immediate family members and their cousins.  Just last Saturday, I performed the wedding of the girl whose Quinceañera I’d celebrated just months before the incident.  I troubled me that she’s always idolized her cousin, who died the night he shot the officers.  At the same time, she’d only known him as a loving, caring relative, Marine and hero who was planning to be a fireman.

Shortly after the January 9, 2004 homicide, insults and threats against the police began appearing on local walls and on the Internet.  This angered me to the point of going public.  In fact, during the assailant’s funeral, at which 600 people were present, I laid into gang activity as a malignant cancer in our society.   The beloved officer’s death would not be in vain.

There was another heroic figure whose death was wrapped in ambiguity.  

So controversial were his teachings, so radical his behavior, and so extreme his claims to a much higher authority, public opinion turned against him as quickly as the mobs had rallied to his cause.  The very one they’d declared as Messiah they suddenly condemned as a common criminal. After brutally torturing him, they executed the innocent man outside the city walls.  And as he slowly died, they mocked him, while his closest followers ran away.

Even one of the criminals dying at his side mocked him.   Seeing only his mother and a few courageous disciples nearby, he must have felt, if only for a moment, that the community he’d struggled to build would soon collapse.

This man sensed, as death approached, that he had been abandoned even by his Heavenly Father.  But he never lost hope that his death, however misunderstood and misconstrued by the media of his day, would bear fruit.

Left in a borrowed grave, the man’s brutalized body seemed to bear witness to a senseless universe: here, evil will inevitably prevail, and even the most sublime of motives for giving one’s life will yield to distortions and lies.

But he knew better.  His dying words were a declaration of faith.  And his faith proved true.  His triumph over death vindicates every hero’s sacrifice.