I struggled mightily last night trying to decide what to write about today. I remain dumbstruck over the tragic events of Saturday afternoon.
Should I return to my normal subject matter? It seems callous and wrong to turn around so quickly and write about policy as if nothing had happened. But what more is there for me to say about the slaying of four Oakland policemen in the course of their work? While the deaths are a terrible municipal tragedy, one surely felt deeply by many members of our community, myself included, I can’t help but feel that by saying anything at all, I’m intruding on the intensely private and unimaginable grief the families and friends of the fallen officers must be experiencing. After all, what do I know of their loss? It seems indecent and presumptuous, and belittling to their pain to go on about how all this makes me feel.
So as I struggled to write something, trying to come up with a topic that was neither selfish nor dismissive, beginning and discarding at least a dozen drafts, I found myself turning, as I often do when I find myself in need of comfort and counsel, to ancient Greece. Specifically to the funeral oration given by Pericles in honor of Athens’s fallen soldiers in book 2 of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. It made me feel at least a little bit better, and I hope it will have a similar effect on at least some of you.
Pericles begins his speech by talking about he doesn’t want to say anything about the fallen soldiers, feeling, like me, that his words would be inadequate (“Then the reputation of many would not have been imperiled on the eloquence or want of eloquence of one, and their virtues believed or not as he spoke well or ill.”). But he soldiers on and ends up delivering like, the greatest speech ever, which is mostly not about the dead at all, but about the greatness of Athens, and how we best honor their sacrifice by honoring and serving the city they died fighting for.
The speech is pretty long, so I won’t copy the whole thing here, although I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. But I’ll share my favorite part with you below:
Such was the end of these men; they were worthy of Athens, and the living need not desire to have a more heroic spirit, although they may pray for a less fatal issue. The value of such a spirit is not to be expressed in words. Any one can discourse to you for ever about the advantages of a Pave defense, which you know already. But instead of listening to him I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.
The sacrifice which they collectively made was individually repaid to them; for they received again each one for himself a praise which grows not old, and the noblest of all tombs–I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives, and is proclaimed always and on every fitting occasion both in word and deed. For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war. The unfortunate who has no hope of a change for the better has less reason to throw away his life than the prosperous who, if he survive, is always liable to a change for the worse, and to whom any accidental fall makes the most serious difference. To a man of spirit, cowardice and disaster coming together are far more bitter than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and animated by the general hope.
Wherefore I do not now pity the parents of the dead who stand here; I would rather comfort them. You know that your dead have passed away amid manifold vicissitudes; and that they may be deemed fortunate who have gained their utmost honor, whether an honorable death like theirs, or an honorable sorrow like yours, and whose share of happiness has been so ordered that the term of their happiness is likewise the term of their life. I know how hard it is to make you feel this, when the good fortune of others will too often remind you of the gladness which once lightened your hearts. And sorrow is felt at the want of those blessings, not which a man never knew, but which were a part of his life before they were taken from him.
The picture Pericles paints of Athens in his speech is no doubt an idealized one, but to fault him for ignoring the city’s many simmering problems would be to miss the point entirely. It’s an exhortation to service, meant to remind citizens of what a great place Athens can and should be and inspire them to work to make that ideal real. Which is exactly how one should deal with great civic loss and pain, and I think, exactly the response Oakland needs right now.
So ahead and mourn the loss of our officers – make your donations, bring your flowers to the police station, go write in the condolence book at City Hall today, attend the vigil tomorrow night (PDF) and the funeral. Then once you’ve done all that, don’t just move on or forget. Honor their memories and the city they died serving by going out and figuring out what you yourself can do to create a better Oakland.
Sending condolences: A condolence book will be available in the main lobby of City Hall downtown on Monday from 10:30 AM to 6:00 PM. You can also communicate your sympathies online with the Trib’s online memory book: Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Erv Romans, Dan Sakai Additionally, you can drop off condolence cards at any Oakland public library.
Tuesday vigil: Join the Mayor and City Council Tuesday at 6 PM at 74th and MacArthur, the site of the shootings, for a vigil to honor the four officers who were killed.
Memorial service: I heard a service is being planned for Friday at the Coliseum, but I have nothing solid on that so far. I’ll update when I do.
Financial assistance: The OPOA has established trust funds for the families of the fallen officers. Information is available on their website. To contribute:
Individual Checks made out to families and mailed to
Attn: Rennee Hassna
555 5th Street
Oakland Ca, 94607
Make checks out to the following:
“Dunakin Children’s Family Trust”
“Romans Children’s Family Trust”
“Sakai Family Trust”
Wire transfers directly to Merrill Lynch Accounts…
“Dunakin Children’s Family Trust” a/c #204-04065
“Romans Children’s Family Trust” a/c #204-04066
“Sakai Family Trust” a/c #204-04064
You may also want to consider giving to the 100 Club of Alameda, an organization that provides immediate financial support to the families of police officers and fire fighters killed in the line of duty in Alameda County.
Funeral: March 27, 2009 11:00 AM at the Oracle Arena.