Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




April 2, 2009

One universal human truth has been made manifest—once more—by the MacArthur shootings. While we can accept and even embrace flaws in our heroes, we are only comfortable when we can place those we wish to consider villains beyond all possibility of redemption and understanding. We wish no complications to dampen the fires of our rage. We want our bad men unsympathetic and monstrous, abandoned even by God and all the angels, like Grendel, the creature in the Beowulf:

“Thus Hrothgar's thanes reveled in joys,
feasting and drinking, until their foe started his persecutions,
a creature of hell.
Grendel, they called him, this grim spoiler,
a demon who prowled the dark borderlands, moors and marshes,
a man-eating giant who had lived in a lair
in the land of monsters ever since God had outlawed him
along with the rest of the line of Cain.
Abel's murder had angered the Lord,
who avenged that deed of violence on Cain,
driving him far from the dwellings of men.
Spooks and spirits are spawned from his seed,
elves and goblins and evil ghouls and those bold giants
who rebelled against God, asking for trouble.”
(Dick Ringler translation)

Witness how the San Francisco Chronicle dealt with Lovelle Mixon, the villain of the MacArthur tragedy.

Normally, you would think that criminals and suspected criminals in Oakland have little background other than their criminal records, our local newspapers most often dealing with such people almost as if they sprang, like Grendel, directly from the wrath of God. But on March 23, two days after the shootings and shootout that left Mr. Mixon and four Oakland police officers dead, the Chronicle published two stories exclusively on Mr. Mixon. One, “Gunman Had Spent Years In And Out Of Prison” by reporter Demian Bulwa, gave what could be construed as sympathetic details of Mr. Mixon’s family life, saying that his estranged wife was U.S. Army veteran who had served 15 months in Iraq, attributing to family members the assertion that “prison had seemed to make [Mr. Mixon] calmer and more respectful,” and offering an explanation of Mr. Mixon’s attitude towards police by his sister, Reynete, who was quoted as saying that “He didn't have no hate for them. He feared them as much as they feared him.”

Reynete Mixon was the young girl who was in the East Oakland apartment that was stormed by Oakland SWAT officers in the final shootout that killed two of the officers and Mr. Mixon. Reynete Mixon was slightly wounded by stun grenades thrown into the apartment by the SWAT officers.

A companion article, “Family's Account Of Oakland Parolee Who Killed The Four Police Officers” by Ms. Bulwa and fellow reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken, included a plea by another sister of Mr. Mixon’s, Enjoli Mixon, who was quoted as saying that her brother was “not a monster.” The Bulwa-Van Derbeken article also included information that Mr. Mixon’s wife had been his “childhood sweetheart” whom he married while he was still in prison, and added the family’s assertion that Mr. Mixon may have broken parole because of a feud with his parole officer stemming from Mr. Mixon’s allegations that that parole officer had missed several appointments, causing Mr. Mixon to lose the chance to get a job.

While neither of these Chronicle articles attempted in any way to justify the shooting deaths of the four Oakland police officers by Mr. Mixon—one of them, in fact, characterized the family explanations as “excuses”—they did seek to paint a picture of him as a human being, troubled and flawed, but human.

But this was in the period when the community was still in shock over the shooting deaths of four police officers by a single individual, and the Chronicle appeared to be attempting to understand what sort of individual might be capable of such an act, and what might drive him to it.

But you could feel all of that change the following day, when the Chronicle published an article reporting that the day before the MacArthur shootings, Oakland police had matched Mr. Mixon’s DNA to a rape that had occurred earlier this year. ("Oakland Killer Had Just Been Linked To Rape") A day later, the Chronicle reported that the rape victim had been a 12 year old girl, and that Mr. Mixon “might have committed as many as five other rapes in the same neighborhood in recent months, investigators said.” ("Cop-Killer Suspected Of Raping 12-Year-Old")

The allegation that Mr. Mixon may have been a rapist—a serial rapist, and the rapist of a 12 year old—appeared to end all further attempts by major Bay Area media to look into Mr. Mixon’s background. We had our monster. We were convinced we understood him, and needed to know no more. Though what actually may have driven Mr. Mixon to kill four Oakland police officers in a span of two hours remains a mystery, a Google search shows no other articles following the rape allegation that seek to discover more of Mr. Mixon’s background or what may have been in his mind.

In fact, the allegations of rape are generally regarded as true and settled, even though the March 26 Chronicle article indicated that “police could not (even) have issued an arrest warrant immediately for Mixon (for the rape of the 12 year old victim after the initial DNA match) because investigators first would have needed to gather another sample of his DNA for comparison purposes.”

In other words, standard police procedures dictate that the first DNA match could have—and we stress the words “could have”—been a mistake. But that line of query seems to have been put aside, at least in the media, at least for now, in a community-based decision that we feel we already “know” Mr. Mixon, so why bother?

So we are left with the question, what would lead a man to such violence?

A hundred years ago, a writer tried to describe a similar period of violence in the city of Oakland, and explain its causes and the effects upon its participants. The participants in the city’s violence in those days were striking union workers, not drug dealers, but the writer described the attitude of the wife of one of the striking workers in much the same tones as you hear in the flatlands neighborhoods of East and West Oakland today. After seeing police hunt and shoot down several strikers in her front yard, the writer says of the wife of the striking worker that “the police were new and terrible creatures to her now. She had seen them kill the strikers as mercilessly as the strikers had killed the scabs. And, unlike the strikers, the police were professional killers. They were not fighting for jobs. They did it as a business. They could have taken prisoners that day, in the angle of her front steps and the house. But they had not. Unconsciously, whenever approaching one, she edged across the sidewalk so as to get as far as possible away from him.” Seeing an old classmate on the street, she realized that “he was now a policeman, and [her husband] Billy was now a striker. Might not Ned Hermann some day club and shoot Billy just as those other policemen clubbed and shot the strikers by her front steps?”

The writer of a century ago described an even more profound effect of the Oakland strike upon Billy, the woman’s husband, who was routinely going out and beating up the men who had been shipped in to take the striking men’s jobs.

“He was rarely unkind to [her]” the writer explained, “but, on the other hand he was rarely kind. His attitude toward her was growing negative. He was disinterested. Despite the fight for the union she was enduring with him, putting up with him shoulder to shoulder, she occupied but little space in his mind. When he acted toward her gently, she could see that it was merely mechanical, just as she was well aware that the endearing terms he used, the endearing caresses he gave, were only habitual. The spontaneity and warmth had gone out. Often, when he was not in liquor, flashes of the old Billy came back, but even such flashes dwindled in frequency. He was growing preoccupied, moody. Hard times and the bitter stresses of industrial conflict strained him. Especially was this apparent in his sleep, when he suffered paroxysms of lawless dreams, groaning and muttering, clenching his fists, grinding his teeth, twisting with muscular tensions, his face writhing with passions and violences, his throat guttering with terrible curses that rasped and aborted on his lips.”

The 1913 book from which these accounts were taken, “The Valley Of The Moon,” were semi-autobiographical. The character of the wife was taken from Charmian London, and Billy was, of course, based upon her husband, Jack, who was the author, and who escaped the violent streets of Oakland a century ago to become a writer of some fame.

This is not to suggest that Lovelle Mixon might have been a Jack London, or that there are exact parallels to his life and the world in which he lived to that of the noted author. It is not a call for sympathy for Mr. Mixon, or an offer of excuse. It is only to suggest that we should not be satisfied with what we think we now know, and that our probing should not end, because at the end of that probing lies a better understanding of what Oakland actually is, not just what we would like, or believe, it to be.

In some sections of some Oakland flatlands neighborhoods, Lovelle Mixon has risen to the status of folk icon, an object of awe, the man who took out four cops. In other parts of Oakland and in the greater Bay Area, especially in the east-of-the-hills cities where the fallen officers lived, Lovelle Mixon is a demon, an object of utter despisement, the man who took out four cops. Somewhere, in the middle, there is the man, who still remains to us a mystery to be solved.

Or do we think it no longer matters?

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