Although the dreadful toll of random violence is often reported, rarely do we glimpse the human element behind it. News reports keep the tally of homicides, but as the occurrence of such violence increases, so does its facelessness.
Drive-by shootings are almost definitively anonymous, there are no fingerprints, no fibers, no hairs, nor any other telltale clues typical of most crime scenes. There is usually no hard evidence beyond ballistics and a car description so generic it is virtually useless.
In Drive-By, Gary Rivlin penetrates the anonymity of one such incident and creates an extraordinary portrait of the people entangled in it. He takes us behind the headlines, and through bold investigative reporting, finds the individuals so often left out of the story. In this real-life narrative, we meet the teens who, on Sunday, the eighth of July, were involved in a scuffle over a bicycle, and on the ninth became murderers and victims. By presenting the story of this murder in human terms, Rivlin challenges the stereotypes and indifference that allow the problem of inner-city violence to escalate.
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About the Author
Gary Rivlin is the author of Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award for Nonfiction and the Chicago Sun-Times Nonfiction Book of the Year. In 1993 he received the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance's Print Journalist of the Year Award for his reporting on urban violence. He lives in Oakland, California.
Gary Rivlin is the author of Drive-By and Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award for Nonfiction and the Chicago Sun-Times Nonfiction Book of the Year. In 1993 he received the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance's Print Journalist of the Year Award for his reporting on urban violence. He lives in Oakland, California.
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By Gary Rivlin
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Gary Rivlin
All rights reserved.
On a summer night several decades ago, in a home long since destroyed by the urban renewal wrecking ball, a half dozen people sat around a metal-legged kitchen table playing cards. A bottle of whiskey stood open on the Formica tabletop. Later, in court, several players would testify that everyone remained relatively sober throughout the two hours they played that night. Only O. D. Clay's clan would claim that the drinking was anything but moderate. What other possible explanation was there for all that followed the abrupt end to their game?
They were playing in the kitchen of a pale yellow Victorian on Fifth Street, in West Oakland, a part of town that had seen better days. The year was 1957. The great world war that had drawn tens of thousands of blacks to Oakland for jobs in the shipyards and munitions plants had ended a dozen years earlier, and this neighborhood, which had once bustled with an around-the-clock fervor, was home to people hustling for whatever work they could find. Poverty and the passing of decades had taken their toll on the wooden housing stock, built on the cheap during the city's previous big boom more than a hundred years earlier, when Oakland (and not San Francisco) had been designated the western spur of the transcontinental railroad.
In the name of progress and supposedly on behalf of the poor, the city fathers launched a "blight removal" program in 1955, a series of government-funded projects that — according to the city's own reports — destroyed many more sturdy structures than dilapidated, uninhabitable ones. Everyone but the residents of West Oakland seemed to benefit from the projects built in place of the destroyed homes, including a double-decker freeway (connecting San Francisco to the southern suburbs) that gouged the neighborhood like a vast wound and a new commuter train line, which was like another slicing. The final insult was the razing of Seventh Street, a bustling strip that was once home to the likes of Slim Jenkin's Place and the Creole Club. A forbidding and uninviting high-rise housing project was erected in its place.
The yellow Victorian on Fifth Street was destroyed in the sixties to make way for the city's new central post office. "The guv'ment took it like they always do in a minority community," said Jasper Newton, O. D. Clay's nephew and a resident of the house in 1957. "They knocked on the door one day and said something about imminent domain, and that was that. What can you do? You know they're going to bulldoze anyway, so you take their check.
"People talk about communist countries but far as I'm concerned, that's communism right there, the guv'ment ordering you out of your house like that."
Jasper recalled his uncle O.D. as a fun-loving man whose great flaw was his fiery temper. It flared up suddenly and violently, like the brawls in the bars lining the bay along the city's western edge, jammed with dockhands, steelworkers, and the unemployed. O. D. Clay was a stocky man, short and wide. He was born in a tiny town on the Louisiana-Arkansas border and served in the army during World War II. He moved to Oakland after the war, no longer wanting any part of the rural South.
He was the kind of man who worked hard at the same job for years — always blue-collar, unskilled work — then quit capriciously, without so much as giving notice. He gambled, he drank, he frequented the dancing clubs that once lined Seventh Street. His friends knew him to be an easygoing, goodtime Charlie — so long as you didn't cross some imaginary line of betrayal and disrespect. Then you were wisest to steer clear of him as best you could.
In 1957, O.D. was thirty-one years old, married, and the father of three. His wife, Vera, was twenty-one. O.D. always suspected the worst of his young bride, at least where men were concerned. She was friendly and outgoing in a manner that O.D. was inclined to see as flirtatious. By the night of that fateful card game, Vera was at home swollen and sore, eight months pregnant with their fourth child. "Ain't no time for messing around, with three small ones at home and a fourth in my belly," Vera would plead. But sometimes there was no reasoning with O.D., especially when he was full of drink.
When he wasn't out carousing at clubs, O.D. usually could be found playing cards at the yellow Victorian on Fifth Street. O.D.'s sister Rosie owned the house. Though Rosie never much cared for cards herself, there always seemed to be a game going on at her place. Her pleasure came in the small percentage she took out of every pot.
Vernest Parker — "Parker," even to those who knew him well — was the first to arrive on that September night in 1957. Parker lived a few doors down from Rosie, but he was no regular. He was a quiet and modest man who worked the late shift at the Ambassador Laundry Service and mainly kept to himself. But his car was on the blink and his buddy Jimmy King had promised him a ride to work. Jimmy, a regular at Rosie's, suggested that they meet there. It'd be a friendly neighborhood game, Jimmy told him, just some of Parker's neighbor's family and some of their friends. Parker took him up on the offer.
Jimmy drove a bus at a nearby military base. He was a large man whose bulk was matched by an oversize personality. He was six feet one, if not taller, and large around the chest. He towered over O.D. Jimmy was more easygoing than O.D., but he was loud and blustery and a real talker just the same. Jimmy knew Vera — enjoyed flirting with her, if the truth be known, just as he enjoyed flirting with any number of pretty young women around the neighborhood. O.D. figured Jimmy to be one of those no-good bastards sniffing around his wife — and not without cause, at least according to his nephew Jasper. O.D. didn't really know Parker, but he immediately disliked him anyway, if for no other reason than the company he kept.
On that late summer night, the willowy palm trees that once lent Fifth Street a regal air would have been bristling with a slight, warm breeze off the bay. People around the neighborhood would have been sitting out on stoops and on front porches, soaking in the delight of something resembling a summer night back home in the South. The Bay Area doesn't have Indian summers so much as mild, sometimes chilly Julys and Augusts followed by hot September and October days that end in evenings so delightfully pleasant they take your breath away.
The preferred game at Rosie's was blackjack. O.D. was dealing when Parker decided to split a pair of fours. His play was a foolhardy one, but O.D. busted and ended up owing him double his wager. O.D. paid Parker off, but not without first telling him what a stupid ass fool he thought him to be. And just like that, it seemed as if a fuse inside O.D. had been lit, an explosion inevitable.
"None of you black ass niggers mean shit to me," O. D. Clay told the table.
"I'm too intelligent a person to be spoken to like that," Parker responded, "and you're too intelligent a person to be using them words." Rosie immediately stepped in. She knew her brother's temper. She ordered him out of her house. O.D. started cursing his sister, so his brother-in-law grabbed him by the elbow and steered him outside. There, just outside the house, he still stood when Parker and Jimmy King left a short time later.
In O.D.'s hand was a small, pearl-handled .22 that his nephew Jasper had pawned a few days earlier. O.D. had lifted the pawn ticket and redeemed the gun without Jasper's knowledge. O.D. raised the gun to fire; his brother-in-law tried knocking the weapon from his hand. Presumably O.D. was aiming at Jimmy King, the true object of his ire, but the first shot struck Parker square in the chest.
"Now why'd you go and shoot that boy for?" Jimmy asked O.D., plain and calm as could be, as if they were still sitting around the table and Jimmy was asking him to hit him with another card. "That boy ain't done nothing to you."
"I'll give you more of the same," O.D. said. He fired the pistol five more times. Jimmy was struck three times in the gut, once in the arm, and once in the face. Parker survived the shooting, but Jimmy was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
O.D. was drunk when later that night he turned himself in to the police. He first told the cops that he had been outside, sure, but some unknown assailant had been standing behind him. Then he confessed to the double shooting, but he claimed that he fired the gun in self-defense, that Parker and King had each pulled out a knife. But witnesses standing outside that night — including O.D.'s own people — contradicted his version of events. O.D., everyone agreed, had started shooting without so much as a word or an action by anyone else. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and sent to the state penitentiary, leaving Vera and the kids to fend for themselves.
* * *
Vera Mae Clay was a strong woman, compact and sturdy. She worked a series of backbreaking, low-wage jobs while O.D. served his time. She worked as a domestic in the homes of well-off white ladies; she mopped up after hours in a nearby bar; she worked as a janitor in a nursing home. Her biggest headache was her third child, Carol, the baby of the family when O.D. killed Jimmy King. One could say Carol's problem was her father's hot blood coursing through her veins, but the truth was Vera had been no angel herself. She had taken a serious misstep or two in her life, disappointing her own mother just as Carol would disappoint her.
Vera was born in the backwoods of Arkansas, the youngest girl among five children. She was still a small child when, in the early 1940s, her parents shuffled her off to kin so they could work war-related factory jobs in Saint Louis. When a man came to their factory offering free one-way train tickets to anyone wanting work at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California, her parents seized the chance. They moved the entire family west to Oakland when Vera was around seven years old.
Her father worked as a welder; her mother was assigned to a cleanup crew at Mare Island. The clean-up crew didn't offer much, but Vera's mother felt like she had reached the promised land. West Oakland was like a small slice of heaven then, alive and friendly with people aspiring to something beyond day-to-day survival. Even after the shipyard laid off the two of them after the war and her husband left her, she looked on Oakland as far superior to what she had left behind in the South. There was less overt prejudice, more opportunities. Vera's mother found a job as a psychiatric technician at the county's public hospital. She heard the scuttlebutt about the menace creeping through West Oakland, but she never witnessed any signs of it herself. She was a devout Pentecostal who spent her days working at the hospital and her nights attending one church function or another. She lived in a cocoon with other middle-aged black southern expatriates for whom the year's highlight was the church's national revival meeting.
Vera was a short and scrawny kid, hardheaded and strong-willed. But she was outgoing and friendly and also a good student who seemed to enjoy school — until she reached the tenth grade. Then Vera suddenly lost interest. She pleaded with her mother to allow her to drop out. Her grades slid. Only months later did her mother learn that the real problem was that Vera was pregnant.
Vera dropped out of school at fifteen. Her mother treated her as if she had been bitten by Satan himself. O.D. seemed nice enough, even charming when he wanted to be, but Vera's mother saw him as the kind of man no decent woman should be seen talking to. He drank and cussed and seemed more interested in raising Cain than in providing for a family. He was a grown man and her baby just a little girl. By the time O.D. murdered a man, she couldn't say she would be surprised by anything that no-good man did.
O.D. was released from prison after serving only four years. By then Vera had moved away from West Oakland, distancing herself from the bad memories and any lingering bad blood. Besides, affordable places were increasingly hard to come by in West Oakland. In Oakland there are the flatlands and there are the hills. The hills were off-limits to the Clays, because of both race and economics. The hills were for those with enough money to buy a little bit of paradise, and they were almost exclusively white. The city's working class and its poor lived in the flatlands, divided into west, east, and north. Those displaced from West Oakland tended to move east — like Vera, her kids, and O.D. — joining the swelling legions of former West Oaklanders making a home in East Oakland.
They tried rebuilding the life that O.D.'s temper had shattered. Through a brother-in-law, O.D. got a job driving a forklift. Vera worked when she could, but that proved difficult with her expanding family. She and O.D. had four more kids to match the four they'd had before his incarceration.
Their marriage was no better than it had been before. There were several breakups over infidelities, real or imagined. According to Vera's best friend, a woman named Bobbie who became like a sister to her in the years O.D. was away, O.D. regularly hit Vera. Eventually Vera walked out on O.D. for good, in no small part because of Bobbie's support. She didn't mince any words when speaking with Vera: "He's a good man, honey, but he's a drunk. And when he drinks, he's got himself a temper." Vera would talk about how hard life was when he was away, but Bobbie always offered the same rejoinder: at least no one hits you. Bobbie, who knew troubles of her own, planned a trip downtown to place her name on the waiting list for public housing. She convinced Vera to do the same.
* * *
In November 1966 the voters of Oakland, for the third time in two years, rejected a proposed hike in the city's school tax, burdening future generations of kids with a system that by 1990 would be described by the state's auditor general as the worst he'd seen in fifteen years on the job. On that same ballot, voters approved a bond initiative proposing that scores of "turnkey" housing units be built around the flatlands. The turnkeys were Oakland's approach to scattered site public housing. They were four-, five-, or six-unit buildings, funded by the government but built by private developers who then turned the keys over to the Oakland Housing Authority upon completion.
The appeal of the turnkey plan, pushed by the white Republican regime that ran the city through the mid-1970s, was that it removed government from the construction phase of public housing. But the plan had inherent flaws. The units were built on the cheap by people who knew that any calamities down the road weren't theirs, but government's. Countless corners were cut by private developers eager to maximize profits.
The other major flaw was in the design. There, among neighborhoods of modest-size single-family homes, were scattered these unsightly anomalies that looked like shrunken versions of a 1960s-era, two-story motel. Yet, no matter how regrettable, the turnkeys offered salvation, a cheap new place to live in a city in which affordable housing had grown increasingly precious.
Vera's name reached the top of Housing's waiting list in 1969, around seven years after O.D.'s release from prison. That's when she decided to walk out on her husband for good. Vera and her friend Bobbie walked through East Oakland looking at the available units, which is how Vera and her kids came to be the first residents of the new turnkey built on Ninety-second Avenue near Holly Street, a three-bedroom apartment that struck Vera as maybe the nicest place in which she had ever lived. She was, for the moment at least, overjoyed.CHAPTER 2
There was nothing remotely resembling joy the day Ann Benjamin moved into that same turnkey on Ninety-second Avenue near Holly. The dense gray air on that ominous day in February of 1980 matched the feeling that lay heavy on her slight frame. Ann had been bad with dates her entire life, but the month and year she became a tenant of the Oakland Housing Authority she would recall forever, just as a prisoner would remember the day a judge pronounced her ten-year sentence.
She was twenty-three years old, with two little ones and a third on the way. That depressed her more than anything else, the thought of her children growing up on Ninety-second Avenue, only a block from the lures and dangers of East Fourteenth Street. East Fourteenth was one of the two main arteries running the length of East Oakland, a river of addicts, prostitutes, and down-and-outers drifting by the good people of the community who called the area home. She asked herself for maybe the thousandth time whether she was doing the right thing, whether she should have waited to see if Housing could come up with something better. But at the same time she knew it was either there or someplace worse or nothing at all. It hurt even to think about it.
The turnkey was a two-story, five-unit stucco building surrounded by cement, presumably because concrete was easier for Housing to maintain than grass. The apartment Ann was assigned — on the ground floor and in the front of the building, maximizing her exposure to the streets — had pale brown linoleum floors marred by a huge slash, as if someone had taken a knife to it in rage. The walls were painted a lusterless yellow. Chunks of plaster had been gouged from the walls.
Excerpted from Drive-By by Gary Rivlin. Copyright © 1995 Gary Rivlin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Families,
3. The Reed Clan,
5. From Out of the Pavement,
6. Bad Influences,
8. King of the Corner,
9. A Sense of Belonging,
10. Kickin' It on the Corner,
11. No Way Out,
Part Two: The Murder,
12. Bad Blood,
13. The Killing Zone,
14. No Mercy on a Sunday,
15. Down for a Friend,
16. Murder Victim No. 84,
17. "Pop Them Fools",
18. The Chase,
20. Dermmell at the Crossroads,
21. Throw Away the Key,
Part Three: Two Years Later,
22. "Just One of Those Things",
23. The Price of Pride,
25. John Jones,
27. (CDC#) H38804,
28. The Good Son,
Also by Gary Rivlin,