Number 77: The Short Life of Katrina Survivor Desiree Davis

Number 77: The Short Life of Katrina Survivor Desiree Davis

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One year ago on Labor Day, 17-year-old Desiree Davis became Oakland’s 77th homicide victim for 2009. Prior to the shooting that killed her in broad daylight, her classmates knew little about the shy teenager or the trauma she had already escaped. Many didn’t know her family had moved to California for refuge, hoping to rebuild a new life in Oakland after they lost everything to Hurricane Katrina.

This year, as the nation remembers the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Desiree’s family members are grappling with a lot more than renewed memories of failing levees and looting.

“I think, okay, where can we go and live now, where we’re safe,” said her mother Dru Ann Davis, “and I can’t think of one place, anywhere.” For Dru Ann Davis, each day is a struggle to cope with her daughter’s absence, and with life in a city where local officials are calling for federal aid to stop gun violence.

Even before her murder, Desiree was struggling to fit in at her new school, Oakland Technical High School. She was an attractive girl but bullies ridiculed her because she had a blind eye. Many of her schoolmates misread her quiet demeanor for snobbery.

“They didn’t know she was coming from New Orleans, where the hurricane had happened,” said Akeem Wynn, her former classmate. “So you know, they just judge a book by its cover.”

In the summer of 2009, the torture turned physical, when a group of classmates robbed her near an ATM machine in downtown Oakland. According to friends, that incident was unrelated to the Labor Day shooting, but it was one of many incidents that foreshadowed Desiree’s violent death. Police have yet to arrest a suspect.

A life in the margins

Violence didn’t just kill Desiree in one fell swoop. Instead it stalked her throughout her lifetime, from Louisiana to the west coast.

The brutality began in New Orleans, where classmates singled Desiree out not only because of her blind eye, but also because of her multiracial background. As the granddaughter of the legendary jazz trumpeter, Howard McGhee, and the daughter of acclaimed saxophonist Jesse Davis— she came from a family that did not fit into any easy definitions of beauty, class or ethnicity.

Howard McGhee, Desiree’s grandfather, was a man of Native American and African American ancestry, who married a German-American woman. Boots McGhee, Desiree’s uncle, says that wasn’t a popular decision during his father’s era, even in the open jazz culture of the 1940s.

McGhee was a star trumpeter who cut records with jazz giants such as Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker, but during his lifetime, many of his African American peers would label him a sellout for marrying a white woman. Harassment was common for interracial couples.

“There was an awful lot of racism at the time, and it seemed like everywhere they went they were hassled by the cops and other people,” said McGhee, 62, a contractor who lives near Santa Cruz.
Decades later in New Orleans, the same kind of prejudice haunted Desiree. At her predominantly African American school, many of her schoolmates simply assumed her family was white, said Taiisha Davis, Desiree’s sister.

“We used to get called white-washed,” said Davis, 20. “We used to get made fun of for our hair. We got made fun of for a lot of stuff.”

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed Dru Ann’s furniture business in New Orleans’ Garden District, the family moved to Oakland, hoping they would feel at home in a city known for its diversity. Instead, Desiree suffered from a new type of hatred—this time the kind that arises out of class tensions.

Jimmie Hayes, 17, says Desiree ran into trouble at school because her peers—many of whom came from Oakland’s most impoverished neighborhoods—often mistook her for a rich person.

Hayes was with Desiree in July of 2009 when several girls surrounded her in downtown Oakland and beat her before taking off with her wallet. When they left, Desiree had a bloody nose and swollen face. Hayes and other friends were surprised she didn’t want to respond to the incident with violence.

“She didn’t know people would be so stupid like that,” said Hayes. “I told her, ‘now you’re officially in Oakland, because people do that.’ She still didn’t understand it.”

Taken by a “lost” generation

Friends and family members say 2009 was a turning point in Desiree’s life. Determined to avoid a repeat of the robbery by staying off the streets, Desiree overcame her blindness and got her driver’s license. She then impressed her friends by buying a used 1997 Nissan Maxima.

Desiree and a small group of friends enjoyed drives around Oakland, and looking forward to escaping town to pursue their careers.

“We were planning on going to San Francisco Community College and living together, trying to get an apartment together,” Hayes said. “That was it, basically, just trying to motivate each other and graduate.”

It was a summer of hope, but all of that melted away quickly on Labor Day, as the girls walked out of a corner store near a friend’s house in North Oakland, ice cream cones in hand.

The girls happened to be across the street from a group of boys—one of whom was rumored to be involved in street violence—when a gunman appeared, opened fire on everyone within range, and fled in what witnesses described as a red car. Hayes recalls a barrage of gunfire that reminded her of something out of an action movie.

“They just started shooting at whoever, just to hit whoever,” said Hayes, who returned to the scene moments later to find Desiree dying of a gunshot wound to the head. “After everybody was in cover, they still kept shooting.”

Sgt. George Phillips, the investigator handling Desiree’s murder, said the shooting exemplifies a new generation of criminals in Oakland, where murder suspects are getting younger, more brazen, and less selective with their targets.

Phillips, who joined the Oakland Police Department in 1976, blames that trend on the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, which created a so-called lost generation. He says community leaders now face a wave of teenagers and young adults born into heavy drug use, dysfunctional homes and a street life in which prison time is considered a rite of passage.

Changes in Oakland’s underground drug economy also perpetuate the killing, he said. An industry once dominated by a pair of distinct drug cartels has more recently splintered into smaller units divided along the lines of neighborhood, block, and even household. Young people involved in this increasingly atomized market will kill one another over any perceived slight, sometimes just for the sake of credibility, Phillips said.

“Incarceration is not a deterrent to them,” Phillips said. “They’ll gladly go to jail for doing these crimes.”

A lack of remorse also breeds an environment in which innocent bystanders and shooting victims aren’t willing to cooperate with police, says Thomas Rogers, Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County. The unofficial law of Oakland’s streets, Rogers says, is that crime witnesses can’t testify, even if the victim is an innocent bystander.

“We have men and women and young persons just literally terrified when they come in,” said Rogers. “We found out they have some knowledge of the case, they were a witness. They cry, there’s genuine, palpable fear, and they just say, there’s no way I’m going to testify.”

That’s one of the reasons Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts wants the federal government to step in. In August, not long after budget cuts and failed labor contract negotiations led to the layoffs of 84 police officers, Batts made an emotional appeal to national leaders.

“Today, I put out a human cry,” Batts said. “We need help, we need assistance, and we can’t to it alone.”

Yet whether federal aid comes or not, Dru Ann Davis fears she’ll never see justice for her daughter. She says the uncertainty of ever seeing the killers arrested is an overwhelming force that leaves her prone to panic attacks and rages.

“I want to know who they are,” Davis said. “I want to look at their parents, and say to them, ‘look at what you’ve raised.’ Look at what you’ve done, or your lack of care has done for them. I want that moment.”

“Lost but not useless.”

For Lorenzo Franklin, who preaches at a church just across the street from the scene of Desiree’s death, there’s still some hope to be found amid the bloodshed.

Franklin, a youthful-looking man now in his forties, frequently presides over funerals for Oakland murder victims. He happened to be in the neighborhood the day Desiree died, and came to her side just moments after the shooting. The scene struck a personal chord with Franklin, who grew up in a violent section of South Berkeley and nearly died in a drive-by shooting in his youth.

“I think of that, how I could have been gone a long time ago,” Franklin said. “I could have been dead 21 years now.”

Desiree’s murder spurred Franklin and the congregation at Humanity Baptist Church, where he preaches, into action. Since the murder, he’s held prayer vigils and organized a street fair on the location of Desiree’s death to call for an end to violence.

Franklin wants Desiree’s death to become a force for change in Oakland, where he says leaders need to think of today’s troubled youth as missing coins—lost but not useless.

“There are children who were abandoned or left to raise themselves, or raised by the system or raised by strangers, or raised by gangs, and they were fairly neglected,” Franklin said. “So you have this generation that could be deemed lost or useless, but still valuable, because they can be salvaged.”

Desiree’s uncle Boots McGhee would like to see Desiree’s death become a catalyst for change across a nation riddled with divisions. The country may be more pluralistic than ever, he said, but the details of Desiree’s short life demonstrate that it’s a society that is still uneasy with difference.

“I think America needs to learn a lot about the most basic attributes to being human,” said McGhee. “It goes beyond Dez, it goes worldwide.”

Other people aren’t sure that either police or social programs can bring about such sweeping change. “Programs and keeping kids out of trouble, that can help, but there’s still gonna be gangs,” Desiree’s friend Jimmie Hayes said. “There’s still going to be that handful of people that want to go out and kill somebody.”

Hayes is looking for path out of the danger through creative work. Although her grades suffered after Desiree’s death, she recently graduated from high school and will be attending school for fashion design in the fall.

“That’s going to take up all my time,” Hayes said. “I want to open up a boutique and name it after Desiree.”

S. Howard Bransford is an independent journalist who has worked throughout California, often focusing on the issues of youth violence and affordable housing.

For reprint permission please contact the author via his website

Listen to an audio version of this story on CrossCurrents on KALW 91.7 FM.