Oakland mourns

A long blue line of police officers, backed by a grieving city, gather to say goodbye to four cops who died doing their jobs.

Published March 28, 2009 9:32PM (EDT)

I first saw them as I turned from the Bay Bridge onto Highway 980, an endless line of police cars with their emergency flashers on, heading south. They were from Sacramento and Elk Grove, and each car was full of policemen in dress uniform. Soon they were joined by more police cars, from Napa and San Mateo and San Francisco, other places too, a thin blue line moving slowly toward the Oracle Arena, all on their way to pay tribute to four of their Oakland brothers who had been shot down in the line of duty.

The funeral was scheduled to start at 11 a.m., but by ten a.m. the arena's huge parking lot was almost full of cars. There were thousands of police cars, more than anyone had ever seen. The line of policemen standing solemnly in line, waiting to get into the arena, stretched on for hundreds of yards. They had come from all over, policemen and firemen and federal police and public safety officers from California and New York and even Canada, and they were joined by hundreds of citizens of all ages and races who stood under the sun in line for more than an hour to pay their respects to four men who died trying to protect them.

On an overpass near the arena stood a working-class black family, a man and his wife and their boy. The woman was holding a little white dog and the kid had two paper Oakland Police badges pinned to his shirt, and they were waving to the police and thanking them. The police waved back at them and smiled.

It was a glorious spring California day. You could see the East Bay hills in the distance. To the north was downtown Oakland and Kaiser Hospital, where I was born. If you were flying overhead you'd come to Lake Merritt, where I lived for years, with its great Chicago-style buildings and its unique mix of black and white folks strolling around the lake on nice days. If you turned south and east you'd come after a few miles to East Oakland, one of the poorest and most dangerous ghettoes in the United States, where at the corner of 74th and MacArthur, on Saturday, March 21, a 26-year-old convicted felon and parolee named Lovelle Mixon shot to death two motorcycle cops, Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege during a routine traffic stop, then fled to his sister's house, hid in a closet with an assault rifle and killed Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai when they and other SWAT team officers stormed the room.

From 74th Avenue and MacArthur to the Oracle Arena is only a few miles, but on Friday the two places might as well have been in different universes.

The four officers' murders stunned and saddened the broad Bay Area community, but there had been a few discordant notes. There's long been tension between the Oakland Police and the city's low-income black community, as in most other big cities. It was inflamed most recently by the New Year's Day killing of unarmed Oakland resident Oscar Grant, who was shot by BART police, not Oakland cops. Despite this tense background, most Oakland residents of every race and class were horrified by the killings, but there were a few examples of callousness and cruelty. The Associated Press reported that about 20 residents taunted police when they came to retrieve their fallen comrades in East Oakland on Saturday. The irrelevant resistance group Uhuru House even held a poorly attended rally Wednesday to defend Lovelle Mixon and criticize the police who killed him.

Friday was the day the rest of Oakland spoke for itself. Waiting in line to enter the Arena, I found myself next to a bunch of middle-aged and older men and women in motorcycle gear -- black leather jackets, badges, leather caps. They looked like respectable, aging Hell's Angel's -- law-abiding but still formidable. I asked the big, bald-headed, muscular guy next to me what the group was."We're the Patriot Guards," he explained. "It's a motorcycle group, made up mostly of ex-vets who go to funerals and homecomings of veterans, policemen and firemen." The big guy's name was Jay Cobb and he was a law enforcement officer at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. He had known one of the slain cops, Mark Dunakin, had played football with him, and had come with a bunch of his colleagues to pay his respects. He said that on the way in, people were lined up on overpasses showing their support.

Next to him was a friendly older couple, 68-year-old Larry Tyler and his wife Cleola from Pleasanton. "We came to honor the police and represent my son who's a fellow law enforcement officer, in Austin, Texas," said Larry Tyler. "It was the right thing to do," said Cleola Tyler. "When you think he's putting his life on the line every day, you want to support those who do the same thing, whether you know them or not. It's kind of a special group." "We wanted to be here, be part of the community," said Larry.

As we neared the Arena, a group of San Francisco cops was standing. To my discomfiture, I recognized one of the few truly terrible cops I've run into in this town, a little guy with a major authoritarian complex who almost arrested me when I was outside the ballpark with my 19-year-old son and was trying to unload, below face value, an extra Giants' ticket. When I apologized for my indiscretion and started to walk off, he snarled,"Did I tell you you could leave?" and summoned other officers over for backup against the ferocious 54-year-old writer. The other cops looked embarrassed -- I got the impression they'd seen his act before. As he ran a computer check on me, I put my hands in my pockets. He practically pulled his gun on me. "Did I tell you you could put your hands in your pockets?" he spat out.

Luckily he disappeared in the crowd and I never saw him again. Every profession has people who should not be in it, and he was definitely one of them. I didn't want even to think about him on this day. This was a day to honor the men and women who do one of the toughest jobs in the world and mostly do it pretty damn well, and who sometimes die doing their jobs.

I approached another group of San Francisco police standing by the entrance. A woman cop didn't want to talk, but the kindly looking man next to her did. He was Capt. Al Casciato, the 59-year-old head of the Northern Station in what used to be one of San Francisco's roughest neighborhoods, the Western Addition. He was a 38-year veteran of the force. I asked him how many S.F. cops had come over to Oakland. "We have 400 or 500," he said. How many police were there in the whole SFPD? "Nineteen hundred,"  he said. Who was minding the store in The City with a quarter of the force out? He explained that a lot of the officers had come on their off-shifts, on their own time.

I asked Capt. Casciato what this event meant to him. "It's a tragic event, but i's also a time for healing," he said. "It's a time for people to come together." Did he have any thoughts about the four policemen he was honoring? "The officers who died will be forever young and forever on their jobs," he said. "That's what they said about the soldiers who died on Omaha Beach, and that's true of anyone who dies in the line of duty."

Capt. Casciato said that the SF police were extremely gratified by the support people had shown them. "We were doing a demonstration yesterday, and my officers told me that so many people were coming up and saying, 'We appreciate what you do.' It does a lot for morale. We really appreciate the support of the public, every time that someone tells us what their feelings are."

Inside, the vast space where the Golden State Warriors play their home games was filled with cops, a huge rectangle of blue in the center seats, blue everywhere you looked. An organ was playing. Dozens of big bouquets of flowers were on display. A slide show showing scenes from the lives of the four officers was showing on an overhead screen. On stage, the dignitaries waited to speak -- Cal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Attorney General Jerry Brown, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and others.

Suddenly a voice cracked out. "Officers, atten-HUT!" Every one of the thousands of officers present sprang to attention. No one moved or spoke for two minutes. Then the voice cracked, "Officers, present arms!" Instantly, 10,000 arms saluted, and they held that salute for a long, long time. A bagpipe and drum band began to play, as one by one the four flag-draped coffins were brought out. The policemen stood saluting as the coffins were set down, as the families of the slain officers were guided to their seats. A crumpled-looking woman was supported from both sides, an image of grief as ancient as the world. From my seat in the nosebleed section, a couple of sections over to my left, I saw an odd figure in bright crimson, standing rigidly and saluting. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounties had come down from the north to pay their respects.

I was at the delirious, sold-out Arena when the "We Believe" Warriors smashed the Jazz in the playoffs, when Baron Davis posterized Andrei Kirilenko with a dunk so savage and unexpected that no one who saw it can quite believe that it happened. But that electric current was nothing compared to the one that ran through the building when those 10,000 men and women in uniform stood and saluted.

The Oakland Police Department Chaplain, Father Jayson Landeza, then spoke. His face filled with compassion, he said we had gathered "with heartfelt sadness, yet with a sense of hope, to honor our fallen brothers," that everyone present "longed for the day when violence will be no more." A choir sang the national anthem. Father Landeza said a brief prayer, then read a message he had received that morning from the White House. President Obama struck a Lincolnesque note, saying that the loss of the four men "reminds us that the work to which they dedicated their lives remains undone." In closing, he said of the four officers, "We will always carry them in our hearts."

I will not dwell long on the speeches by the assembled politicians. They were suitable, dignified, and moving. But at times like these, Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg are apt: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here."

The speeches that did stay in the mind were given by the fallen policemen's comrades. Perhaps the most powerful was given by Oakland Police Department Capt. Ed Tracey, who commanded both the SWAT and the traffic units. Tracey is one of those leaders who instantly commands respect, who blends toughness, compassion and consummate professionalism in a way that epitomizes a good cop. Thanking all of the law enforcement people who had attended, he said, "A senseless act of violence against any one of us is truly a senseless act of violence against all of us."

"We must not allow the selfish and cowardly acts of a criminal to taint the memories of these policemen,"Tracey said. He praised the slain officers for doing their duty in "protecting the citizens of the city." He urged his fellow police not to despair: "Allow their lives to lead you forward, not to take you back." His voice breaking, Tracey told his SWAT team, "I'm so proud of you all and I''m humbled by your courage." Of the fallen members of his traffic team, he said, "Physically, they will not ride with us," but they would always be there, keeping the ranks tight: "I love you guys."

Tracey closed by thanking the citizen who, risking his or her life, called in with information about where the murderer was hiding. And as the audience erupted in applause, he praised the other citizen who performed CPR on the dead and dying officers. "You showed us that these men did not die in vain."

Just as moving was the tribute paid by Lieutenant Anthony Banks, who was Mark Dunakin's superior and rode with him in the traffic division. Banks, who is African-American, described how Dunakin took his place and seemed to be in a hurry to move him out. "Can I at least have my last 30 days in peace?" Banks recalled thinking. But then, he said, he returned to work with Dunakin, and "Mark became my left-hand man." He waited a moment, then said, "And if you're wondering why I say that, it's because Mark rode on my left side." As he said this, Banks' face crumpled and he began to weep. The tears became general around this time.

Retired OPD Lieutenant Lawrence Eade was the only one of the speakers I saw (I had to leave before the end of the service to make deadline) to directly address the bitter relations between the Oakland police and much of the black community, especially its poorest parts, and the outrageous response to the murders by some people -- including some misguided "leftists." Saying angrily that he wanted to "set the record straight," Eade said "the citizens of Oakland showed up big time and demonstrated their commitment" to the police. Singling out some press outlets that said the Mixon shootings, following the unprovoked killing of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, by a BART cop, showed that there was a "civil war" going on between black people and the police, Eade almost shouted, "For those who manipulate the story, may your careers be extremely difficult until you tell the truth." As the audience loudly applauded, Eades said, "This is not about your ratings, this is about a tragic loss ...The citizens are not arming themselves against the police, there is no war between us and you cannot create one!"

As I walked out of that solemn sea of blue in the Arena, I looked towards East Oakland, and wondered what could happen to bring these two universes together. I know from a friend who works with them that many young black people in Oakland consider the police to be their enemy, an occupying force. Incredibly, some even support Lovelle Mixon, calling him an "insurgent" -- somehow forgetting that the main victims of murderous black thugs like Mixon are other black people.

I don't have the answers any more than anyone else does. I know that the police make mistakes sometimes, sometimes deadly ones, and sometimes they aren't mistakes. There are bad apples on every force. I know we need effective police oversight and review boards. We should legalize most drugs and stop locking up millions of black men for minor drug offenses, sending them into the Felon Training Schools known as prisons. I know we need better mentoring, better inner-city schools, better after-school programs, a better parole system. Mostly, I know that we need to start the long, hard work of getting rid of the ghettoes that blight our nation, so that screwed-up people like Mixon aren't around to wreak havoc on everyone, black and white -- mostly black. We need a lot of things, and we need them now.

But blaming the police for these problems is like blaming the paramedic for your heart attack. Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai did not die trying to take those things away from anyone. They died trying to protect us. And that means all of us -- black and white and brown and yellow, rich and poor, whether we live in $2 million homes in North Oakland or tenements off East 14th St. Today is a day to honor the memory of these brave men, and resolve to try to make the world a better place for their children. And for the children growing up in the killing fields of East Oakland. And for all of us.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------