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Mourners at Oakland baker’s memorial stand firm on restorative justice

Dana Perls, a friend and co-organizer of Jen Angel's memorial, holds a sign in front of the procession that followed Angel's celebration of life along Lake Merritt in Oakland on May 7, 2023. | Courtesy Brooke Anderson

On Sunday, over 550 people hailing from places across the country came together at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland to celebrate the life of Jen Angel. During her 48 years, Angel was many things to many people: a baker, an activist, a publisher, a partner, a friend who brought people together. But her life was cut short by a brutal robbery in Downtown Oakland this past February. 

In the days and weeks following her death, Angel’s community made clear its resolve to embody her values. Angel was a strong advocate of restorative justice—a worldview that seeks to upend traditional American ideologies about the punishment individuals convicted of a crime deserve by prioritizing reconciliation, rehabilitation and healing over incarceration and disenfranchisement. A statement announcing Angel's death said that if an arrest was made, her loved ones were "committed to pursuing all available alternatives to traditional prosecution."

Both locally and on a national level, Angel’s life and death have brought forth difficult questions around what justice means when a senseless tragedy strikes, as well as the hope that can be derived from it.

Angel’s family and friends said that over the past few months, her community has only grown stronger through days and nights spent together over meals, support groups and, now, at her memorial. In the wake of a brutal act of violence, a community has found strength—not from retribution, legal recourse or traditional prosecution, but from within.

A crowd of nearly 600 people gather at Jen Angel's memorial in Oakland on May 7, 2023. | Courtesy Brooke Anderson

Angel’s celebration of life was exactly that—a joyful gathering with stories, art-making, music, donated pizza, cupcakes, a zine created in Angel’s memory and a march led by the Brass Liberation Orchestra along Lake Merritt. A Christmas tree lit up the lobby, reminding guests of Angel’s love of the holiday. 

Her partner, Ocean O’Dowda Mottley, recited a unity prayer. A friend called LB explained the “yes, and” philosophy exemplified by Jen’s ampersand tattoo—a symbol of expansive thinking represented in pendants that were later passed around to the guests.

LB remarked that each January, Angel sent a message to her “closest people'' with updates to her will. The letter, she wrote, was a “cheerful annual reminder that you’re gonna be responsible for handling all my stuff if I am incapacitated or die unexpectedly” and that she hoped her community would “all work together and support each other no matter what happens.”

Tragically, Angel did die unexpectedly. She was robbed while sitting in her car in Downtown Oakland on Feb. 6. After pursuing the suspect to retrieve her stolen belongings, Angel’s clothes reportedly snagged in the suspects' car door, and she was “dragged more than 50 feet,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

A spokesperson for the Oakland Police Department told The Standard that there were no new public updates on the case.

Speaking at Sunday’s memorial, Angel’s mother Pat Engel shared memories of her daughter's very first protest—her refusal to dissect a frog in high school—and urged everyone to donate their organs. Longtime friend Jeremy Adam Smith later pointed out that as a result of her organ donation, Angel’s heart now beats in the body of someone else. 

“She was my best friend—always,” her mother said.

Friend and baker Makana Muanga, left, and Jen Angel's mother, Pat Engel, right, speak at Angel's memorial in Oakland on May 7, 2023. | Courtesy Brooke Anderson

In the days leading up to the memorial, The Standard spoke to four close friends of Angel’s, including Nupur Modi-Parekh, about the aftermath of her death. The East Bay resident described how Angel’s group of friends had often struggled to find time to see one another as they had gotten older and some had started families of their own. Modi-Parekh told us that over the past three months, he’s seen her community reunite. 

“It definitely was a catalyst for us to reconnect and spend time together to process and grieve,” he said. “It’s been really important.” 

Christy Pardew, a friend who flew in from Boston to attend Angel’s memorial, said she hadn’t seen Angel in over a decade. After meeting through mutual friends who worked in radical communications, Pardew and Angel remained long-distance friends. Though Pardew said she didn’t see Angel regularly, when she did, it was because Angel offered to host Pardew and her two children, or gathered disparate groups of friends together.

When asked why she chose to make the cross-country trip for Angel’s memorial, Pardew didn’t hesitate.

“Jen was a person who really showed up for people,” she said. “She made everyone feel so welcome and held her community together. I wanted to honor that memory and be part of her community in this particular way.”

In February, Angel’s friend Moira Birss responded to dozens of media requests and organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to help cover Angel’s medical expenses and support her family. Birss said that in the process of grieving her friend, she has grown closer to Angel’s guiding principles. 

“It feels so Jen to really be pushed to live out my values and our community’s values,” she said. “It’s been really tough and really instructive. And it feels like a beautiful way to honor Jen.”

Birss told us that another close friend was robbed and assaulted about a month after Angel died, personalizing the same question of how to confront an act of violence without involving the police. She said she couldn’t fully separate what happened to this friend from what happened to Angel.

“It’s definitely reinforced the understanding that the current system we have doesn’t address harm,” she said. “Convicting somebody isn’t going to bring Jen back.” 

Musician Casey Neill performs at Jen Angel's celebration of life in Oakland on May 7, 2023. | Courtesy Brooke Anderson

The policy director for Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Emily Harris spends her working days in discussions around restorative justice, reducing prison sentences and trying to reintegrate people back into the community. When her friend died, she was suddenly facing these same tough questions in a highly personal and public way.

“Until Jen’s death, I had never been so deeply faced with a huge loss and an experience of violence, where the question and the need for alternatives to the prison system had been so stark,” she said. “It’s brought out all of these new layers of understanding of how flawed the current system is, how it’s not helping us build a better world.”

Harris said that when she receives pushback against her approach to restorative justice, she feels it’s often because people can’t completely envision how it would work. Citing local organizations like the Ahimsa Collective, the Anti Police-Terror Project, Critical Resistance and Restore Oakland, which facilitate conflict-resolution circles, support groups and community-care hotlines, Harris said alternatives to carceral punishment are both abundant and evolving. 

“There has been a lack of resource investment, and while people can’t always fully picture it,  they know we need it,” she said. “To me, what better way to support Jen’s legacy than to push to build something that doesn’t yet exist at the scale we need. 

“I’ve had other people who have died, and there’s a real lack of structures and rituals to hold people in their grief,” Harris added. “The depth with which everyone has embraced each other has been incredible. That’s one of the ways we’re making Jen proud.”