The power of a picnic table

Moments after he was gunned down in an obscenely-senseless act of callow bravado by another 17-year-old blindly trying to impress an older member and mentor in what police categorize as a criminal street gang, 17-year-old Luis Miranda collapsed and died on a wooden picnic table at the southwest edge of Maxwell Farms Regional Park.

It was Oct. 22, 2007, and the Miranda murder did at least two things.

It galvanized the community into months of soul-searching meetings, committee formations, preventive measures and heightened law enforcement activities, the results of which are hard to measure and harder still to judge.

And it forged a bond of grief, celebration and hope between friends and acquaintances who knew, cared for or simply identified with the young man that some of his friends insisted was in the process of getting a somewhat misdirected life back on track.

The wooden table he died on was removed from the picnic area where it sat and, with permission from Regional Parks, and in a solemn procession, was carried up to the edge of the playing field near the parking lot for the Boys & Girls Club.

There it was planted, so to speak, under the canopy of some oak trees, adorned with a plaque dedicated to Miranda, and began the incremental transformation from picnic table to memorial.

Each year since then, on Oct. 22, people have gathered peacefully, within the cordon of a prominent police presence, to celebrate the memory of Miranda, and to honor his parents – Roberto and Oralia – who unfailingly appear to lay flowers and light candles for their son.

Last year, at the request of some participants in previous memorials, police backed off a bit and lowered their visibility. The service unfolded peacefully, as usual, but afterwards, by chance or as a consequence, rival gang members encountered each other just beyond the boundary of the park, and someone was knifed.

Then, in April, gang members drinking beer in the general vicinity of the former picnic area were confronted by a security guard, who they then taunted by exposing themselves and throwing open beer cans. Shortly afterwards, shots were fired from a 9 mm handgun close to the nearby Taco Bell on Highway 12.

Those incidents inspired renewed concern about gang activity in the vicinity of Maxwell Farms and suggestions that maybe the picnic table memorial wasn’t such a good idea in close proximity to both the Boys & Girls Club and the soccer fields where so many children play year round.

We understand that concern and we respect the impulse behind it. The safety of club members, and of the countless kids on the adjacent playing fields, is a preeminent priority.

But we’re not sure the memorial and public safety are mutually exclusive, and we think those deliberating its fate should take into consideration the possibility of transforming the table into a positive symbol, affirming the value of life and inspiring community efforts to peacefully confront the alienation, anger and ennui that infects those drawn to gang association.

Perhaps moved a further distance from the Boys & Girls clubhouse to a more open and prominently visible spot in the park, that table could inspire at-risk youth to ponder the consequences of gang behavior, while it elevates the death of Luis Miranda into becoming a monument of hope.