by Anneli Rufus
After her second son was murdered in Oakland, Ora Knowell realized "that my grandchildren and other children like them were afraid to go to sleep at night, afraid that the killers who killed their parents would come and kill them."
Even so, they wouldn't talk about their fears. A practiced textile artist, Knowell started doing therapeutic art projects with kids whose fathers had been murdered. The more she met, the more she saw how poor most of them were.
"Everyone says education is free," Knowell says. "Education is not free, believe me." Going even to public school, even with free lunches provided, still means needing clothes, shoes, pens, paper, backpacks, bus fare - and soap and shampoo so as not to be mocked by mean classmates. "I see kids walking across the stage to graduate with no socks on because they can't afford socks. Some of these kids don't even have a tissue to wipe their butts with," Knowell avows. So she founded the West Oakland Lower Bottoms Fatherless Children Foundation, which collects donated school supplies all year and distributes them at an annual march/lie-in/back-to-school giveaway that starts around noon in DeFremery Park - where 35-year-old Daniel Knowell was slain in 2002 - and travels to Center Street Baptist Church, with free food and other goodies for all attendees. This year's event is set for Saturday, August 30. Over 100 backpacks have already been donated by various groups; the Port of Oakland has pitched in seven cases of notebooks. Folders, rulers, calculators, crayons, and other supplies are still welcome. To donate, email Knowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop items off at the church parking lot before noon on Saturday.
"I take my bullhorn to the march," Knowell says, "and all along the way I'm walking down the street calling out to people to come and join us." She is convinced that Oakland's skyrocketing crime rate is largely the result of fear - that the perpetrators are themselves terrified of life in this city. "They grow up not understanding why violence happened to their loved ones and why no one protected them. These kids see killers walking the streets every day. They think of City Hall as a gang. They view the police as a gang. So they think they need to get into a gang themselves" because they don't know how else to stay safe, Knowell says. It scares her too, because "they're our future." Last year's event drew marchers from all over the state. "I've got my head up and I'm still yelling," Knowell says. "I'm just an ordinary person who's lost two sons to gun violence."