Editorial: Oakland leaders need to step up

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday March 22, 2023
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Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo: Courtesy Sheng Thao
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo: Courtesy Sheng Thao

Two gay Black men were killed in Oakland in the span of about nine days, and the East Bay city's LGBTQ community is on edge. While the two incidents appear unrelated — the suspect in the first case was in jail when the second killing occurred — we can't recall a time when there was this much violence against gay Black men in the city in such a short period. While Oakland police have said that, so far, evidence doesn't point to a hate crime in either case, the two killings cry out for more action by Mayor Sheng Thao and the Oakland City Council.

Curtis Marsh, 53, was a hair stylist and a former member of the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus. He was also known by his drag persona, Touri Monroe, and was a Miss Gay Oakland emeritus. Marsh was found stabbed to death in his home in the city's Adams Point neighborhood near Lake Merritt March 4. A suspect, Sweven Waterman, 38, was arrested March 9 and charged with homicide. He has not yet entered a plea. It is not yet known how or if the two men knew each other.

Devonte "Tay" Davis, 27, was found shot to death by a homeless encampment near the Oakland Coliseum March 12 (). So far, no arrest has been made. Friends remembered Davis as someone who went out of his way to help others.

The Oakland LGBTQ Community Center held memorials for both Marsh and Davis. But it's the relative silence from city leaders that has us concerned. After declining to comment on the Marsh killing, Thao's office finally issued a statement after Davis was gunned down, stating, "Our office is in contact with the Oakland Police Department for updates on this case, which is currently under investigation. This is a tragic loss of life and our hearts go out to Devonte's family, friends and the entire LGBTQ+ community. Mayor Thao and our Oakland Police Department are committed to working each day to make sure all our communities are safe in our city."

We understand that the police need to investigate these incidents, and, in Marsh's case, prosecutors and Waterman's attorney have begun assembling information. But, as Joe Hawkins, a gay Black man who co-founded the Oakland LGBTQ center and is its CEO, told us, there are little in the way of resources in the city for LGBTQs, especially queer people of color. "Few victim services exist in Alameda County for the kind of crimes queer people and men of color, particularly men, are most likely to experience, such as threats of violence, acts of violence, robbery, or that take into account their specific cultural, sexual orientation, or gender identity experiences," Hawkins stated. And he noted that the epidemic of violence hits home. "The actual number of Black gay men who are victims of homicide is severely underreported due to homophobia and stigma in Black communities," Hawkins stated. "Many families will not disclose the sexual orientation of their family member who was murdered. This is also true of Black transgender individuals. It is critical that advocates, friends, and allies provide a holistic description of queer victims of homicide in order for authorities to determine if a hate crime has been committed."

That's where Oakland's leaders need to step up. They should be working more closely with the LGBTQ center, especially now after this recent spate of violence. Many in Oakland's LGBTQ community need time to grieve and to attempt to understand what is happening. The center, always in need of resources, has established itself as the place in which LGBTQ people can safely gather. City councilmembers who represent the districts where Marsh and Davis were killed — Carroll Fife and Kevin Jenkins, respectively — should hold a joint town hall at the center. So far, neither has responded to our requests for comment.

The council's two out members have been silent as well. Lesbian at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan has not issued a statement, nor has queer District 4 Councilmember Janani Ramachandran. While she doesn't represent the areas where the killings occurred, Ramachandran has been touting a public safety plan for her district — some of those ideas might be good to implement citywide.

Oakland leaders are grappling with major issues like other Bay Area cities, including homelessness and public safety. Thao is in the process of appointing a new police chief. Yet when these senseless killings occur, leaders must step in to help ease people's fears. In other words, they need to lead. That seems to be missing in Oakland right now.

In San Francisco, leaders routinely hold community town halls after major events. Gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio had one shortly after a house exploded. More recently, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman organized one in Noe Valley with public safety leaders. We'd like to see similar efforts in Oakland, especially after violent incidents occur.

In the meantime, kudos to the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center for not only getting information out to people but also for holding the two memorials. Those events gave family members and friends a chance to connect and pay tribute to Marsh and Davis — two gay Black men who didn't need to die.

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