A stray bullet killed Terrence McCrary Jr. in Oakland last year one month before his 23rd birthday. Friends and family are determined to keep his name, and his memory, alive.
McCrary, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2011, was shot outside an art gallery in August 2016. No arrests have been made, but authorities have offered a $25,000 reward in connection with the shooting, which also took the life of another Berkeley High graduate, Craig Fletcher-Cooks.
Saturday, one day after McCrary would have turned 24, hundreds of family members and friends celebrated his life at the Berkeley skatepark that now bears memorial plaques in the young man’s name. McCrary started skating at the park when he was 13, then went on to work there through the city’s YouthWorks program.
“I’ve never met someone so caring,” said close friend and longtime neighbor Jack Thiebaud on Saturday. “You would walk down the street with him and literally every single person he saw he would know. Every single person, he would be like, ‘Oh, how’s your mom?’ ‘How’s your sister?’ He knew everything about everyone and it’s just because he was so loving and cared about everybody.”
The event Saturday was the second annual Terrence McCrary Jr. Skate Jam. The birthday and memorial event featured skateboarding, as well as free screen printing by DLX of a symbol SF streetwear designer Benny Gold created in honor of Terrence, a brief talk about safety and gun violence, and a lunch buffet. Inside the skatepark, there was a contest with prizes, and a large wooden art wall to paint on.
“He was a skateboarder. He loved skating,” said Terrence McCrary Sr. “He wouldn’t have done anything else but skate and draw.”
“Today we come to celebrate and merge those two passions that he had … to bring people together that he loved and that loved him,” added the young man’s mother, Florence McCrary. “Terrence was just a beautiful light.”
Earlier in the summer Florence sat down with Berkeleyside at the Gilman Street Whole Foods café, a few blocks from the skatepark, to share stories about Terrence and talk about her own struggles since his killing. From time to time, the conversation was interrupted as young people, friends of her son, paused to offer a hug and to ask how she was doing.
McCrary described Terrence as “someone who received a lot of love and gave a lot of love,” adding, “we were very, very close.” The family still lives in the Berkeley Hills home where Terrence grew up alongside his older sister, Erika. Terrence Sr. and Florence have been married 34 years. Both were born and raised in Berkeley.
Terrence Jr., who was enrolled at Berkeley City College at the time of his death, was fun-loving and happy. He loved “the joy of being outside,” especially at Lake Merritt. Terrence came from a family of excellent baseball and basketball players, but “that was not his thing,” his mother said. “He never could play.”
But he could skate: “He found his peace in skateboarding,” she said. And the skatepark “was his domain. He loved going there. The people at the skatepark, they loved him.” Terrence had dreams of opening a cafe with his friend Albert, and designing clothes. He loved fashion, and was known for his sense of style. Some of his friends even asked his mother, after he died, if they could have some of his clothing if she planned to give it away.
Terrence’s funeral, she recalled, was a standing-room-only affair. Outside, people asked, “Can you get me in?” and said, “You need a ticket to get to this boy’s funeral.” The church had a capacity of 1,000, and another 200 people spilled out into the streets. Friends painted his coffin to create an artwork in his honor. The crowd was a multicultural rainbow of “every hue known to man,” Florence said, because that’s the type of wide net her son cast.
“He was just all about making sure everyone is happy. He’d always want to hug and kiss me, and say, ‘You’re gonna miss my hugs,'” she said. “And I do, I really do.”
Florence said she’d always known how much love her son had for others — once making his own way, at 15, to visit a relative in the hospital with cancer — but she hadn’t known just how many people had been impacted by her son’s life. There was a musical tribute to him, and two other young lives lost, on “Conan” shortly after Terrence’s death. Rolling Stone and numerous other national music news outlets wrote about the show. Thrasher, the skateboarding magazine, also shared the news of Terrence’s death and helped promote a fundraiser for the family. Nearly $40,000 was raised in just a week.
“He was just running like everybody else”
Florence said, before Terrence was killed, she’d seen friends lose children, life partners and other loved ones. But nothing prepared her for her son’s death.
“These were not feelings I thought I was ever going to have to be exposed to,” she said. “I lost my parents, but it’s not the same to lose a child who was ready to start the rest of his life. And that just gets blown away by one single bullet. He was somebody who was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Police said, at a press conference last month, there were about 300 people outside the art gallery birthday party where a fight broke out when Craig Fletcher-Cooks tried to defend his girlfriend from a group of young men who were hounding her. Fletcher-Cooks, just 20, was fatally shot inside the gallery, at 322 15th St. The gunfire — described by police as “many, many rounds” — continued into the street. One young man was shot but survived. Terrence did not.
“There were a lot of people in the street,” Florence said. “He was just running like everybody else.” The 22-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene, hit by just one bullet. It came out near his heart.
The family did not attend the press event in August.
“It gets to be too much sometimes,” she said, that morning. “I won’t forget him. But it’s just too much.”
The challenges come in many forms. Fighting, hard, to keep your child — a young black man killed in Oakland — from becoming a statistic. Spending days at the cemetery, a place you’d rather never go. Receiving a father’s day note from the city when your only son is gone, or a memorial cross with the date of his murder on it.
Or the times you want to learn new things about your child, and realize there’s a limit to how much you can ever know. Florence said she was well aware, for example, her son was deeply interested in art and photography. But she wishes she could have found out more about his vision, and about what he wanted to accomplish.
“His eye was so keen to different things,” she said, recalling some of her son’s creations. “It made me full but also so sad. I didn’t share it with him at the level I would have liked to. I feel he had a lot of promise to do many things.”
Just going into Oakland now, particularly near the site of the fatal shooting, can bring back the trauma of the loss.
“For me, I cried when I had to pay my taxes because it was so emotional to be there,” Florence said.
“I kept seeing him walk away”
The last time Florence saw her son was in her rearview mirror. It was Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, around 11 a.m. She had just dropped him off at work on Telegraph Avenue at Bows and Arrows, a shoe and clothing shop.
On the car ride, she’d told him she needed help with the cable box, which wouldn’t stop speaking Spanish. They stopped so Terrence could grab a bite at McDonald’s — but the line was too long so they left.
“‘Let me bring you some lunch,'” she told him. “Which I would have done, but he didn’t want it.”
“What do I look like, my mom bringing me food?” he asked her. Once they got to Telegraph, he hopped out of the car and walked away.
“I looked at him in the rearview mirror,” she said. “I kept seeing him walk away.”
She usually called her son daily at 4 p.m., Florence said, but she had a baby shower to attend that Saturday.
It was much later, after 1 a.m. Sunday, when Florence got a call from the mother of one of Terrence’s friends. The women were close. They had known each other since high school. The caller asked if Terrence Sr. was home. Then she told Florence that Terrence Jr. had been shot.
“Where is he?” Florence asked, several times. “Where is he? Where are you?”
She wasn’t expecting what came next.
“I thought I was going to go to the hospital and get him. I didn’t know he was dead,” Florence said. “She told me he was dead. I fell apart.”
She and Terrence Sr. rushed down to 15th Street. No one would let them through the yellow police tape so she could hold her son, which was the only thing she wanted to do. They stayed on the block for hours.
“It was a horrible night,” she said. “I just don’t believe it. It just doesn’t make sense when I think about it.”
Florence said people tell her, these days, she seems to be doing well. But what can you say to that? She walks a lot. She goes to church.
“I have to say: It’s grace. Because there is no other way,” she said. “So it’s by the grace of God that I’m able to walk through it. And I have to walk through it. I have no choice.”
But the level of despair has been profound.
“Does it hurt me? Does my heart feel broken? Absolutely,” she said.
Florence has been working to bring the issue of gun violence to the attention of sympathetic politicians, and to find ways to support efforts to get guns, and bullets, off the street. She’s gone to city officials for help to keep the case moving. Police have said they have some information but need to collect more.
“We’re not sure of where they are in the investigation because we’re not hearing much more about that,” she said Saturday. “And that’s tragic.”
The family is also finishing up the paperwork to create a foundation in memory of Terrence to help support youth who are passionate about the arts and skating, as Terrence was. They want to find a way to bridge those interest and help others foster their creativity and ideas. As he built his own brand, Terrence coined the phrase, “BAD,” which stood for “being absolutely different.” It factored into his art and also reflected his philosophy of life. It’s that kind of spirit and approach the family hopes to help encourage with the foundation.
Florence said she knows her son, who was tenacious and gregarious, would want to see her fight for justice, to find ways to help other young people find their own peace in the world. He’d want her to help them be their best selves through the creation of art, “where they’re building a story around the gifts and talents they’ve been given, and that can be cultivated as opposed to being mocked — not taken away because there’s no support,” she said. “How do I do it? I have no idea. But I’m not letting his story go unnoticed and untold. I’m trying to support him in every way I can.”
“People are still a little shell-shocked”
Vanessa Nguyen, who worked with Terrence and several other friends as part of art collective Le Vanguard, said the group has tried to make some of his ideas a reality.
“He’s not here with us, so we’ve been just doing some projects that he talked about so they can still come to fruition,” she said. “It’s been kind of hard. It’s been weird, being at the scene [of his death] and stuff. People are still a little shell-shocked from the whole situation.”
Nguyen said Le Vanguard put on an art fair and fashion trade show in March that Terrence had wanted to make happen in the Bay Area — because nothing else like it existed locally. They invited Terrence’s skateboard friends to the event. Many people have expressed wanting to make the community stronger, and safer, in the wake of the tragedy that took Terrence’s life.
Nguyen recalled how, in 2016, Le Vanguard found an unused warehouse and set up a concert there.
“We built a stage, set up all the lighting. It was pretty cool. No one had ever used the space before,” she said. Terrence “was so proud,” she added.
Of Le Vanguard, Nguyen said Terrence was “really crucial to the group,” which is now working on making its events “more conscious and safe, and influencing kids who are younger than us. We don’t want them to go through what we went through.”
She continued: “If we’re throwing parties, we have to promote party safety even harder. We lost our best friend.”
Saturday, Terrence’s cousin, Robert Preston, said it was good to see the event bring people together and help promote some awareness about the violence happening in the streets. And he said he hoped it would be a reminder to young people to be careful when they go out, and be aware of their surroundings. The young man also said he would like anyone with information about the shooting to share it with police in case it might help with the investigation.
He said his cousin’s death continues to be painful: “Nothing really helps it,” he said. “It kind of helps a little bit to go out and remember him and celebrate life. But nothing will really be able to heal it.”
Designer Benny Gold said Saturday that Terrence came to him as a high school student interested in fashion, street culture and skateboarding. As an intern, he packed boxes, and later moved into the shop. His passion was evident “because he came and found me when he was in high school,” Gold said, and he “always had an eye” for design.
“Terrence became kind of the voice of youth for the brand for awhile,” he said. “If he told me he liked it, I knew it was going to be good.”
After Terrence was killed, Gold created a memorial piece for him: Terrence’s name, in cursive, surrounded by a rose and a heart that extends out of a skateboard. The design appeared on many T-shirts Saturday, as well as on memorial signs at the skatepark. Gold said he wanted to come up with an image that was timeless.
“It was actually the hardest design I’ve probably ever had to work on in my life,” he said. “And I put a lot of heart into it. I wanted it to be very special for him.”
The signs were mounted at the park last year for Terrence’s birthday-memorial event. Apple Maps, too, designates the location as the Terrence McCrary Jr. Memorial Skatepark, though the city has not officially changed the name.
Berkeley native Jim Thiebaud said Saturday he’s not too concerned about that: “As skateboarders, we can do anything we want,” he said. “We changed the name of the skatepark. Maybe the city might want to keep up with us.”
Thiebaud, father of Jack and co-founder of Real Skateboards, said he and the two boys for years spent every weekend going out on trips devoted to skateboarding.
He described Terrence as “one of the most positive, friendly people, and able to be in different groups of people and kind of bring them together: artists and musicians and skateboarders and scholars.”
And he said he’s certain the annual skate jam will continue far into the future.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “It’s only going to get bigger. It’s only going to get momentum and be a special day.”
On Saturday, Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said she would not give up on the investigation.
“We’re going to keep fighting for justice in this case,” she said. “We’re not going to rest. Because we need to find that broken one and bring them into a place of accountability and healing and wholeness.”
The Oakland Police Department can be reached at 510-238-3821 and the homicide tip line is at 510-238-7950.
“Time waits for no man, so time wasted is time lost. If opportunities come your way, take them and don’t look back… So, I urge everyone to spend time with your loved ones ’cause just like that they can be gone — leaving so much unsaid and unlearned.”
—Terrence Paul McCrary Jr. (June 2015)