How Grieving Becomes Healing

On the evening of Jan. 19, 1996, Jo Jo White, 23, a teacher, ball player and community organizer pulled his car over on a quiet street in San Francisco so one of his friends could relieve himself. Suddenly, an agitated young stranger approached the car and asked if anyone was trying to "mess with him." Jo Jo said no. "Peace, brother. One love," said Jo Jo. The man responded by shooting him through the heart.

Nearly a decade later, on December 13, 2005, Jo Jo's father, Derrel Myers, stood outside in the cold shadow of San Quentin prison to protest the imminent execution of reformed gang leader, Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

Derrel held a large sign with a picture of him and Jo Jo. The sign read: "My son was a murder victim. He opposed the death penalty, and so do I!"

There were hundreds of mourners at Jo Jo's memorial; a mix of young and old, white, black, Latino and Asian; developmentally disabled and at-risk-youth; kids Jo Jo grew up with, some of whom had attended his mother's day care center; and colleagues from his several jobs. He had obviously touched many people. In the crowd and performing onstage were Jo Jo's buddies, members of the hip-hop group Board Stiff.

I was with some co-workers from Global Exchange, a human rights group that had organized many educational trips to Cuba, one of which had a big impact on Jo Jo's life. We cried and we laughed, we sang and mourned. That day was also the birth of a new relationship between Jo Jo's family and many of his friends.

Derrel Myers and Jo Jo's mother, Naomi White, opened their homes and their hearts to their son's friends and community. They channeled their pain and anger into empowerment and personal growth. With Global Exchange, Derrel and Naomi organized a trip to Cuba in Jo Jo's memory. They had heard many stories from Jo Jo's friends about his trip to Cuba in 1993. One of the things that inspired him most was how much love and how little violence he saw there. Jo Jo's family and friends spent many Sundays over the next several months getting to know each other, planning, meeting, figuring out trip logistics and fundraising so that everyone who wanted to go could go, regardless of their ability to pay.

In July 1996, dozens of Jo Jo's friends and family members went to Cuba. For many, it was the first time they had ever traveled outside of San Francisco. I will never forget the connections we made with our Cuban brothers and sisters. One evening Jo Jo's friends and some Cuban rappers performed together onstage. Although the two groups couldn't speak each other's language, the communication was loud and clear.

Jo Jo's killer has never been found. For Derrel and Naomi he will always be another victim in this tragedy. What was his life like? Why was he so angry? They believe that society bears some responsibility for their son's murder, and for the tragic life his murderer has led. They do not believe that putting to death the man who killed their son would bring them closure or fill the absence in their hearts.

In a letter Derrel and Naomi published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian after their son's death they asked the question: "Who Killed Jo Jo?"

"Who, then, besides the gunman, is responsible for this outrageous crime? Jo Jo was killed by the same social system he was trying to change; a system that takes food, music, health and recreation programs from school children so that the wealthy corporate executives and stockholders can pay fewer taxes. It's a system that closes factories in California so that stockholders can earn greater profits from the labor of children in Mexico and other parts of the Third World. It's a system that denies social services to the homeless and working poor to feed the hogs at the Pentagon feeding trough. … It's a system that, in the name of peace, wages endless war at home and abroad, militarizing our society and promoting more violence in the form of the death penalty and war on drugs. It is criminalizing poverty, youth and dissent, making justice even less accessible to the poor."
Derrel and Naomi will never completely heal from the loss of their only child. But they can teach us all something about grieving and healing, about creating a world in which no parent has to bury a child killed by gun violence. I have seen the impact they have on the people in our community. They have decided that the best way to honor Jo Jo is to strive for a world that respects all children, and for a society that offers equal opportunity, liberty and justice for all. They are showing us how to grieve in a way that helps heal everyone.

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