The Sunday before I went to Texas, the girlfriend and I spent a pleasant day in Sonoma Valley, tasting wines and enjoying the spring weather. Then we headed back for a going away party for some friends who are bound for rainier climes.
On our way back from Sonoma, we passed the scene of an horrific car accident. One car was absolutely crushed, the entire engine compartment crushed like a beer can on the head of an avenging god. It looked to have spun at least a full 180, but thanks to seatbelts and careful engineering, the occupants seemed to have exited the car safely. The same couldn’t be said of the driver in the other car, who I only caught a glimpse of as we drove by. The EMT standing next to the car seemed resigned, the bloody and immobile driver’s vacant gaze suggested that he had taken as much damage as his car, and that neither would survive.
Shaken, we drove on, unable to quite process the contrast between the joy of a spring day in the country with the scene of mayhem we’d passed.
At the party, we were saddened to learn that one of our friends was likely to be much delayed. He’s a doctor, a specialist in emergency medicine, and was caring for two police officers who’d been shot in the line of duty that day. When he got off his shift a few hours later and joined us at the party, it turned out that two more officers had been brought to the hospital, that three of the four were already dead. The fourth was in dire straits, and died the next day.
The first two were killed during a routine traffic stop, when a parolee decided to fight his way out of a traffic ticket. He then headed off to the closet of his sister’s apartment, where he barricaded himself in with an assault rifle. A concerned citizen tipped police off to his location, and two SWAT team members died as he sprayed the assault team with his AK-47; he was, of course, shot and killed as well.
Returning from the airport yesterday, I passed a billboard from the Oakland Police Officers Association, honoring their fallen brothers. And I passed the Oakland Coliseum, where on Friday, March 27, thousands of people, including at least 10,000 police officers from across the continent, including a representative of Canada’s Mounties, saluted those fallen officers, men who died trying to keep the streets safe for the rest of us.
It’s hard to know what the death of that poor man on a rural road means, nor to discern lessons in Lovelle Mixon’s suicidal standoff, or even to make sense of the righteous, unavoidable, and tragic deaths of Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege, shot for pulling over the wrong car, and of Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai, who knew they were entering a room with a crazed gunman, and who did so, and suffered the consequences, bravely.
I mourn them, and am moved by the show of solidarity described in Gary Kamiya’s touching report from the memorial:
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.…
I approached another group of San Francisco police standing by the entrance. … the kindly looking man … 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.…
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.
Why did those officers die? Why did that man die on a road in Sonoma? How do EMTs and emergency room doctors face these irrational and inescapable deaths? How can the rest of us do the same, and have these people or these deaths got any lessons to offer the rest of us?
Those officers surely died to hold their thin blue line intact. But my friend Jesus, the doctor who treated the officers, also held that line intact, taking on the enormous weight of that day without stumbling. And whether the woman the EMT in Sonoma was comforting was a passenger in the dead man’s car or the driver of the other car, he too bore an enormous burden with grace.
There’s no doubt that the line separating society from chaos is thin and frayed in places, and that many strands making up that rope are police blue. But others are the white of doctors’ coats. And on days like last Friday, the people who showed up at the Coliseum in civilian cars and wearing no uniform remind us that we all stand on that line. Oakland is bigger than its tragic crime rate. We stand together, we mourn our losses together, and we will build a better city in which we can all live together.