Brenda Grisham and her family were about to head out for a quick dinner at Burger King. They had just put Grisham's 5-month-old granddaughter into the back seat of their car when Grisham noticed two men nearby. One pointed a gun in their direction. Grisham yelled at her children to run. Grisham pushed her son toward the porch of their East Oakland home. She fell on top of him, not knowing that he had been struck by gunfire.
Christopher Jones, 17, a talented musician and devout churchgoer who had just graduated from Castlemont High School, was killed. His 24-year-old sister who was shot in the foot survived.
According to Grisham, the attackers were aiming at her neighbor's son who was in a car nearby -- a case of gang retaliation. After the incident, the neighbor quickly packed up and moved. To this date, no one has been charged in Jones' killing.
In an instant, Grisham joined an ever-expanding sorority of mothers who have lost children to Oakland's street violence.
How does a mother cope with the pain and rage over the senseless loss of her precious child? A young man who was a light to so many and who police investigators said had never been in any trouble. A good, decent kid who was set to attend Laney College -- murdered by cowardly, out-of-control young men who someone else did not parent and who have no regard for human life.
Grisham's answer is to honor her son's memory by trying to take positive action to try to address the roots of the violence.
She formed the Christopher LaVell Jones Foundation, a nonprofit that gives scholarships to promising high school seniors. In June, the foundation launched what Grisham calls a Life Enrichment Center. It is located on a stretch of Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland where there are liquor stores on just about every corner. The idea is to give people in the community -- children and adults -- a positive environment where people can go at low cost. The center offers literacy classes, SAT preparation, teen mentoring, family counseling and dance, among other activities.
Since Christopher was killed on New Year's Eve 2010, Grisham has emerged as one of Oakland's most passionate and vocal voices speaking out about the street killing epidemic in Oakland. She is as critical of Oakland leaders' anemic response to the violence as she is of the parents who have enabled their children's sociopathic behavior.
"These parents need to open their eyes and see that their kids are bad," Grisham says. "If the police come for your son, don't take him in the back and hide him. Let him sit in jail for a while and think about what he's doing."
Grisham gets calls at all hours from family members of recent homicide victims. "They'll say my nephew just got shot -- can you talk to his mother?" she says.
She is part of an informal team of mothers -- Marilyn Washington Harris of the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence and Paula Pringle-Wilson, founder of Save Our Lil Children -- all of whom lost their sons to gun violence. They try to help other mothers going through the same horror. That can involve giving emotional support or helping to raise the funds for an untimely burial -- as in the recent case of 8-year-old Alaysha Carradine, who was killed during a sleepover at a friend's when someone opened fire on an apartment in the Dimond district.
Grisham has participated in three of the four "call-in" meetings for Operation Ceasefire.
The meetings are part of a crime strategy where select violent offenders are summoned to a meeting with community and law enforcement representatives. They are warned that if their group doesn't stop shooting, a team of local, county, state and federal law enforcement will come after them with intensified enforcement. Grisham's role is to tell the felons how her family has been affected by the violence.
Grisham says Ceasefire has had some encouraging results. Several alleged gang members were arrested in a multiple-city law enforcement sweep. Yet the shooting continues and Grisham wonders -- as do many -- why Mayor Jean Quan still has not hired a director for the Ceasefire program if the crime strategy is of such high priority.
Grisham is gathering 14 families of homicide victims whose killings have not been solved to meet with Quan and police officials later this month in search of answers.
Grisham is determined to put a human face on the homicide headlines. Yet every new phone call from a distraught mother is a reminder of what happened to her son.
"It's painful," she said. "It's not for everybody."