Matthew Part I – What is Justice?

Matthew Avery Solomon, my stepson, was shot and killed while walking with friends on a San Francisco Street on September 4, 2008, an innocent victim of some gang related retaliation. His friend Noel Espinoza was also killed.


September 4, 2008 to September 4, 2018 – a decade, ten years – September 4th being an anniversary of a murder, the murder of Matthew Avery Solomon as he walked the streets of San Francisco with his two young friends, Noel and December, after work, just hanging out and having a good time.

As it turns out, just a few months ago, in the middle of this tenth year, three young Hispanic men were arrested and charged with the murder of Matthew and of Noel, his buddy. December survived to tell the story:

December’s eyes

Her ears ringing from the shots,
        She could not hear herself scream,
       “They shot Matt and Noel!”
       “They shot Matt and Noel!”        

People turned from the bar,
         and looked up from their conversations
         as if they could not understand
         what they saw and heard—
         this young woman
         standing in the doorway,
         calling for help,
         not knowing she, too, had been shot,
         blood flowing down her arm
         her sweatshirt clinging
         to her flesh—
         or perhaps they did know,
         all too well, what they saw
         and did not or could not move.

She tracked their eyes. looked down at her arm
              turned and ran back to her friends.
              who lay in pools of blood—
              Matt dead, Noel dying as police arrived.
              They told her Matt was dead, tended to Noel,
              and loaded the two of them and Matt’s body
              into the ambulances.

Noel died, too,
             but December, that was her name,
             lived to tell the story
             of the three of them hanging out after work,
             Noel doing his karaoke thing
             while she and Matt cracked up.
             She spoke of their decision
             To cruise the street when the next act up
             was a Country Western.
             They were just hanging out, being friends,
             walking back and forth a bit
             and she sat down on a Muni bench—
             the three of them just joking and playing around,
             helping each other in that way,
             never suspecting a thing.
             Then the shots rang out and it was done.        

The two masked gunmen, she was told,
             got in a van and drove away.
             She never saw them.
            But her eyes, now, her beautiful eyes,
            have a look that’s hard to hold.
            They’re not glazed over, not shut down.
            They’re simply eyes that know,
            know exactly what they’ve seen.                                                  

                                 Day 16, September 20, 2008

Saturday, April 7th of this year at 10:16 PM,
I received a text message from Ken Solomon, Matthew’s adoptive father. It says, in part:

“Hey there, Bill. Got a call from Homeland Security they caught 3 men who were responsible for Matt’s death. They said they were targeted . . . gang related. Don’t know anything else.”

Over the next six weeks, I talked with friends and with my son, Leslie, and with members of the Redwood Men’s community and I searched online for the indictment, which I found and read.

My son told me he had spoken to a “Homeland Security person” who had given him the name of a “victim’s counselor”. He had called the number and left a message and never received a return call. He told me that after thinking about it he had decided to not attend the trial, seeing no benefit for himself in doing so.

I brought my concerns about the accused young men to the annual men’s conference at the Mendocino Woodlands camp number two over the Memorial Day Weekend. The theme of the conference was “walls”. During our exploration of the various walls we construct for ourselves, by our own psychology, or walls that are constructed by our broader culture, we talked about the language of walls. One phrase that stuck with me was “up against the wall.” So that, in our last open circle, I confided that I felt “up against the wall” in three areas of my life, one of which was how to negotiate the “Bleak House-nature” of the federal judiciary system, to be able to find these young men and to begin a conversation with them. The task seemed overwhelming.

I’m not sure when or how the idea came to me but during that first week of June after I had gotten home, the thought occurred to me to look for the defense attorneys for these three young men—Josue Gonzalez, Eddie Urbina and Luis Rojas who were being charged, I later learned from one of the defense attorneys, with a capital offense, since the Justice Department was prosecuting them under the federal racketeering act. San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said of the arrests, “We hope that these arrests will bring a measure of comfort and healing to the families of the victims, many of whom have waited years for justice.”1 But somehow, to me, this did not seem right nor did it feel just. How could state sanctioned murder be just? It could only be considered just in a retributive system—and eye for an eye, a life for a life. But for me, the way I look at this world, that has nothing to do with justice. For me, the concept of justice involves doing right by someone or some thing and doing right by someone or some thing means taking care of each party—victim and perpetrator.

Luis, Josue and Eddy are accused of doing wrong, perhaps the gravest of wrongs, ending the life of Matthew and Noel, taking an entire lifetime away from them. And in Matthew’s case, taking a father away from two young sons. So, does it not seem reasonable to ask of them to give up their own lives to make it right, to balance the scale, so to speak? I don’t think so. That punishment looks to me simply like revenge. No one is truly helped. In the case of a murder, where a life has been taken, the survivors of the victim, may get a momentary sense of satisfaction when the perpetrator is killed by the state and the state declares that “justice is done” but that satisfaction does not last because revenge is not a motive that comes from our better angels, which is to say from our emotionally mature self, but from our worst angels, those parts of ourselves that desire to hurt another, from our anger and from our hatred, two emotions that are understandable when a loved one has been killed. But these are not emotions that we act upon if we are interested in achieving justice.

So, what is justice?

Let’s think about a metaphor, a metaphor that was introduced by Valarie Kaur in a TED Talk entitled, Three Lessons of Revolutionary Love.2  What if the darkness we are experiencing—whether it is the darkness of our present political climate or the darkness surrounding this murder—what if, she asks, it was not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb, What if it is the darkness that proceeds birth? This metaphor forces us to ask another whole series of questions, starting with “What can be born from this tragedy?” Which, in turn, demands that we look carefully at what are the needs of each individual involved in this experience? What are my needs, as one who cared for Matthew? What are Matthew’s two sons’ needs? What are Matthew’s siblings’ needs? What are the mothers of Matthew’s two sons needs? And equally important, what are the accused perpetrators’ needs? They have made a tragic mistake. What can they do to help repair the damage they have done?

So in early June, as I said, I searched for and found the names and addresses of the three defense attorneys for Josue, Eddie and Luis. And I started my own private search for justice by writing each attorney a letter. Here is a copy of that first letter.

Indictment Filed Under Seal 180320 (002) by Mission Local on Scribd (

22.  The defendant, LUIS ROJAS, a/k/a/ “Grizz,” a/k/a “Grizzly,” has been a member of the 19th Street gang since at least 2003. Among the ways in which he participated in the conduct of the affairs of the enterprise are the following. He has carried firearms and committed assaults in gang territory. On September 4, 2008, in the vicinity of 24th and Utah Streets in San Francisco, ROJAS, along with gunman EDDY URBINA and getaway driver,  JOSUE GONZALEZ, shot and killed Victim-4 and Victim-5, who they believed were rival gang members, in retaliation for the murder of a fellow gang member earlier that day. In this same shooting, Victim 12 was wounded . . .

Dear Ms McClure,

I found your name online and I have visited your website, read the entire thing.

I am Bill Denham, a 76 year old retired letterpress printer, living in Portland with my wife, June.

In September 4, 2008, I was living in Berkeley on MLK, north of University Avenue, in a small cottage behind the World Without War Council. Matthew Solomon, had lived there with me for about a year after he had gotten out of prison. His adoptive mother had rejected him and his adoptive father was then living in Canada. I was the only person Matthew had—so much so, that the police called me when he was murdered that day. They had found my name and number in his wallet. Though I have no legal familial relationship with Matthew, I call him my step-son because I was a part of an extended family that he grew up in and I functioned in a parental role with him. I knew him for 20 of his 23 years. He was adopted at the age of three—a conscious, painful memory for him.

I am a poet. After Matt’s murder, I processed his death, the grief I felt and the responsibility I felt for his death through my poems and in 2012, I wanted to honor Matt’s life by making something beautiful. So I designed and letterpress printed 55 copies of seventeen lyric and narrative poems in the form of a hand stitched book that chronicle my responses, my thoughts and feelings about his death. “the apocryphal press” in Berkeley offset printed 500 copies of the small book.

In the introduction to the book, I talk about my feelings upon receiving the police officer’s call:

Yet even as I felt the numbness come over me and knew the rage and sorrow that were to come—I am no stranger to loss—I knew a far greater grief, beyond the personal, a profound sadness for the lives of the two young men who murdered Matthew—two young men who must live without hope, like thousands of others, who see no future for themselves and have little regard for life—their own or another’s.

So, I am writing to you to ask for your help. I would like to get in touch with your client and the other two young men who are accused of killing Matthew and Noel and wounding December. First of all, I wonder if these accusations are accurate. Secondly, if they are accurate I would like to send Luis a copy of my book and see if we can’t have a conversation. I am not interested in retributive justice. I much prefer restorative justice. I would appreciate any help you can give me. If you would like I can send you a copy of my little book to the address below?

Thanks and blessings,
Bill Denham

PS: Here’s a copy of the title poem for the book:

Looking for Matthew

He’s gone . . . he is gone . . .
        yet, we must look for Matthew  . . .
        we must look for Matt
        where we can find him—
        in Jayvion and in Makai, of course,
        in that genetic and physical kind of way,
        but in ourselves, as well,
        in that other kind of way,
        in that way that’s always true,
        in that way that you are another me
        and I am another you,
        and there, in that place,
        I see myself in Matt
        and Matt in me
        and not just in the smile,
        the determination,
        the vision of what might be,
        for Matt and I
        shared all that
        but shared, as well, much more—
        the struggles, the darker side
        that sometimes brought us low
        but never held us there.
        So I look for Matt each day,
        where, now, he lives—
        inside of me and I say,
        “Whassssup bro?”
        and he gives me
        that look of his—
        a gift, in my mind’s eye,
        that’ll carry me,
        carry me through
        another day.
        It’s all I
        can do
        but still
        I hurt,
        still I

Matthew Avery Solomon, my stepson, was shot and killed while walking with friends on a San Francisco Street on September 4, 2008, an innocent victim of some gang related retaliation. His friend Noel Espinoza was also killed.

To continue reading, visit: Matthew Part II: The nature of being human

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