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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Violence Comes to Cole Coffee

Whether your taste is for the exotic or the more regular cup of coffee, you will find the best of the best at Cole Coffee on College Avenue in the Rockridge District of Oakland, California.  This is the in-place for meeting up with interesting people who are as varied and interesting a blend as you will find anywhere in the country or around the world.  On any given day you can converse with artists, musicians, scientists, professors, lawyers, businessmen and women, massage therapists, tradesmen, bikers, runners, bicyclists, dog owners, young parents, students, walkers, psychologists, architects, shop owners, doctors, the famous and the not-so-famous, an occasional politician or movie star the rich and not-so-rich but most of all each interesting in his or her own right.  I met former DNC Chairman Dr. Howard Dean and actor Danny Glover on this very corner. Truly Cole Coffee offers great diversity and brings richness to the lives of all who frequent the cafe or those who are casual drop-ins or newbies.

I love Cole Coffee, the people, the vitality, the friendships, the great conversations, the loving support system.  I've frequented this spot for a number of years on an almost daily basis.  It feels like home to me and is reminiscent of my childhood days at Stout's Store in Stickleyville, Virginia where I went with my Grandpa to hang out with his friends, drink RC Colas, spit and chew tobacco, and swap stories.

While the weekends are hustle-bustle, Mondays at Cole Coffee generally get off to a quiet and peaceful, slower paced start than any other day of the week.  Fewer customers, mostly regulars, come by in the earliest hours between seven and nine.  Most of us quietly read our the New York Times or local rags and enjoy one of life's simple pleasures -- a great cup of coffee in peace.

This Monday differed from every other Monday in the years that I have frequented Cole.  I arrived on the scene at about 8:45 a.m. to find the cafe bustling with customers enjoying a sunny respite and amicable reparte both indoors and out.  I went inside the front cafe and ran into some friends for a quick hello.  Suddenly absolute chaos erupted outside the window -- tables, cups, plates, and chairs flying as people jumped out of the way. Several of us screamed for the baristas to call the police.  I walked out the front door and ventured slowly past several men to a spot by the stop sign where I could observe the commotion. I took in the customers, male and female of varying ages and stations in life, who were basically standing around with fear-riddled expressions, hands in their pockets, looking frozen and doing nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to intervene in what had become an extremely tense situation.

Before me flat on his back on the concrete sidewalk adjacent to the curb and a large stationary garbage can a man whom I'll call Muscles, a muscular white male  in his thirties or so -- lay with his knees pulled up defensively over his torso.  Another man whom I'll call Dreads --  even more muscular, a heavily tattooed pale-skinned black man with dreadlocks down to his waist and wearing a black leather vest with a motorcycle club emblem on the back worn over a white tee shirt -- straddled Muscles in full front throttle attack mode. Whether or not they had, both gave the appearance of men who had done hard time and had spend their days and nights for years doing nothing but working out and/or riding their "rats." As they say in the South, each looked as if he had probably been rode hard and put away wet a time or two, or vice versa.  Overcome with well-focused  rage Dreads viciously pounded Muscles who attempted to fend off the menacing and fierce blows to his head. The violence dramatically escalated and I could see from my vantage point that Dread's rage had taken control of all ability to reason.  Dread with his large hands grasped Muscle's thick neck, giving every indication that he was going to to snap Muscle's neck.

Dazed by the violence I looked about at the crowd that had gathered around. I observed a petite Mexican barista employee at Cole Coffee who was visibly shaken, struggling to fully take stock of the situation as tears welled up in her eyes. I noted that none of the sensitive Berkeley and Oakland types were going to intervene though one man in the back yelled out that someone should hit Dreads over the head with a chair though no one came forward to that or anything else to stop the violence.

As an experienced mediator with fourteen years conflict dispute resolution experience but certainly with no halo over my head,  I automatically intervened. I yelled at Dreads:  "Stop what you are doing! You do not want to kill this man!  Let him go right now!  Stop before you destroy your life!  Leave him alone! This is not the answer."

Dreads hesitated as the lights appeared to be coming on in his dense skull.  For a moment he came back to his senses.  He loosened his grip on Muscles all the while hovering over him, speaking in harsh hushed tones right into his face -- nose to nose.  The petite hardworking barista stooped down next to Dreads and Muscles and in her broken English quietly talked to them, telling them this was not the solution. 

From the distance came the familiar blare of a police siren.  Someone screamed,  "The police are coming."
Suddenly Dreads jumped up.  He yelled down at Muscles:  "I am coming back to finish you off tomorrow!"

Dreads  ran through two lanes of oncoming traffic to the Safeway parking lot where he jumped into a beat up old Toyota Corolla or something close akin with an open passenger door and a driver waiting with the engine revved.  Dreads and his accomplice sped away in the direction of Claremont Boulevard as another customer and I raced across College Avenue and together took down the license plate number of the get away car.  

Blaring sirens of the Oakland Police Department blasted us to our senses.  It didn't take much effort to realize that this was no "youthful indiscretion" or casual argument with boys being boys.  This was a preplanned, calculated attempt by a man carrying a grudge pent on revenge to do bodily harm to another human being.  One does not need a motor-running get-away car with door wide open if one has just come for an innocent cup of coffee.

As the police car came to a halt, Muscles gathered himself up off the concrete and collapsed onto a wooden bench next to am anorexic looking, heavily tattooed artist of some renown appeared to be waiting for him, wearing an expression of nonchalance on her pale face as she stared into the nothingness as if it was the usual order of business and was of no importance at all.  Two of Oakland's finest police officers professionally took charge of the situation and removed Muscles some distance away and tried to restore a sense of calm to our little corner of the world though few of us will soon forget that violence had come to Cole Coffee.

I had never seen either man before though others had, one being a rather full-of-himself Watcher, a neighborhood merchant who followed me into the back section of Cole Coffee where regulars can get a straightforward cup of Joe.  He barked that Muscles and Dreads were equally bad men and that I should have just let them have at one another, that nobody would have killed anybody. When queried as to his own whereabouts, he confirmed that he had not personally witnessed the fight nor the severity of it.  It rather upset me to be chastised by someone who would probably not lift a finger to help anyone and who would just stand by and watch.

This is how I see it:  No man no matter how bad he is deserves to be harmed or murdered at the hands of another person.  If an individual, having a skill set that could break up the violence, did not do something to intervene, stop the violence and do what could be done to save a life or prevent bodily harm, then that would make that individual no better a person than the perpetrator. I believe that we are responsible to and for one another. Sadly not everyone feels this way.

Gentle reader, what would you have done?  
What will you do if such an opportunity to serve your fellow man comes your way?

I pray that Dreads and Muscles can make a certain peace between themselves and find a way to get along with one another and with others..  And if they cannot control their violent urges, may they find some other place to drink coffee and mingle with their friends.  If these two violent men choose to pummel each other in the future, perhaps they could take it to their own "clubhouse" or where the public peace will not be disturbed so that innocent bystanders will not be harmed or have their sense of safety violated.  Cole Coffee will be a better place if we never see either of these violent men ever again.

Violence is never the answer.  Just walk away.



PS:  I still love Cole Coffee and all her players, great and small.

This is the personal perspective of the writer.