Twanisha Brewer was home cooking dinner for her kids last week when she heard there had been a shooting in her South Berkeley neighborhood.
Alerts had just come in through an app on the phone, one of her children told her. Someone in a black car had been shot. It was about 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21.
Brewer knew several members of her extended family — including 19-year-old Sereinat’e Henderson and Henderson’s mother, Salima Wyrick — had been on their way to see her. They were driving a black car. Brewer got worried when she couldn’t reach them.
She walked with some of her relatives up to Prince and Ellis streets, where the shooting had happened. The intersection, right by Malcolm X, her children’s elementary school, was a familiar location.
When she arrived, people were standing all over the place, she said. They told her a girl had been shot. The girl’s mother and baby had been in the car when it happened, they said.
Her phone rang.
“It’s Salima,” a cousin told her.
“No, no, it can’t be them,” Brewer said. “They just went to get something to eat.”
Brewer told Berkeleyside she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“We don’t lose people like that in our family,” she said. “It was just like somebody had stabbed me in my heart.”
The night of the shooting
Wyrick described the events of that night to Berkeleyside during an interview at the Continental Funeral Home in East Oakland earlier this week. She and Brewer — who are first cousins but feel more like sisters — were there to make arrangements for Sereinat’e Henderson’s memorial service.
They planned to wear purple and white for the funeral, and were selecting a coffin to match.
On the night of the shooting, Henderson, who was two months pregnant, got a craving for a spicy noodle bowl and fried chicken, her mother said. They decided to go to the corner store to pick it up.
At some point on the drive, they saw Henderson’s 14-year-old brother walking down the street. He was heading for Brewer’s place. They offered him a ride and he hopped in the back, settling himself in by the car seat holding Henderson’s 10-month-old son. It was just getting dark.
After picking up the food, Wyrick said, they had come around the traffic circle at King Street and were driving along Prince Street when a white car pulled up beside them. Henderson was in the driver’s seat. Suddenly, there was gunfire.
Henderson’s younger brother snatched the baby from the car seat, pushed him down onto the floor and shielded the little boy with his body.
One officer later said over the radio that he counted at least 17 shots in just 20 seconds.
A neighbor performed CPR on Henderson until first responders arrived. She had been shot in the head and was unresponsive. She was rushed to Highland Hospital and placed on life support.
Brewer said medical staff did everything they could, but Henderson never regained consciousness. There was no way to save the baby. But, at one point, Henderson’s pulse rate seemed to improve.
“She’s fighting, she’s fighting,” Brewer hoped. But it was just part of the process: Her organs were shutting down and she had no brain activity. Her head, where she had been shot, was wrapped in bandages. A towel was draped over her body.
“I held her hand,” Brewer said, telling Henderson: “Baby, keep fighting. Baby, fight for your son. Baby, fight for your mom.”
Brewer told Berkeleyside she had been with Wyrick in the hospital when Henderson was born. And she had helped raise the little girl as if she were her own daughter.
In the private room at Highland, Brewer rubbed Henderson’s cold feet, trying to warm them. She told the young woman she loved her.
Wyrick was struggling. She had just survived a harrowing attack and seen her daughter critically injured in front of her eyes. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Outside her daughter’s room, Wyrick broke down and fell onto the floor, Brewer recalled, wiping tears from her eyes. Brewer told her cousin it was time to say goodbye.
“She was like, no, no, cousin, I can’t,” Brewer said.
Ultimately, at Brewer’s urging, Wyrick went to her daughter’s side and kissed her on the forehead. She told her daughter: “I’m so sorry, baby, I couldn’t save you. I’m so sorry mommy couldn’t save you.”
The doctors thought Henderson would go quickly that night after Wyrick gave permission to remove her from life support. But Henderson held on until 6:11 a.m., Brewer said.
“The violence needs to stop,” she said this week, adding, of Wyrick: “She shouldn’t be making funeral arrangements for a 19-year-old kid.”
Brewer continued: “We need to be the change that we want, and that will never happen with all of that gun violence. This girl died for nothing. Her baby died for nothing. These men need to grow up and stop being cowards.”
Sereinat’e Henderson: An outsized personality
As her mother describes it, Henderson, who stood just 4 feet 7, had a bit of a “little person’s complex.” She was feisty and, at times, Wyrick said, she had to tell her daughter to reign it in.
“Calm down,” she would tell her. “You don’t need to be like that.”
Once, Henderson cut off her own ponytail just to get one of her cousins in a jam.
“I’m not gonna get in trouble for this,” she taunted him. “You’re gonna get in trouble.”
Brewer recalled how, when Henderson was little, she would come over for family sleepovers every weekend already in her pajamas. One of her favorite activities was picking play fights with another cousin who was much taller than she was. The smaller girl would push the taller one again and again, undeterred even when she got knocked down. When the pushing didn’t work, she tried another approach, running at the other girl and jumping into the air so she could make contact up higher.
“Sereinat’e never gave up,” Wyrick said. “If she put her mind to it, she was gonna do it.”
Henderson loved to sing and do hair. She also loved fashion, and would shop with her mom at Pink and Tommy Hilfiger, Ross and Target. Shoes, especially Jordans, were another passion: She might even be called a shoe hoarder, her mother said.
Henderson loved watching movies, like Class Act and Class Act 2, Happy Feet 2 and B.A.P.S. (an acronym for Black American Princesses).
Brewer described Henderson as adventurous. She liked going places. She had recently taken her son to a pumpkin patch. And she liked taking her younger brother and sister — ages 14 and 15 — to the beach.
“She was the light of her mom’s life,” Brewer said. “And her son was her world. She loved him more than anything.”
Before she became a mother herself, Henderson had a lot of practice with younger kids. As a child, she attended Malcolm X Elementary School and, even after graduating, she would return to the school to pick up her younger siblings.
Lisa Kelly, an Oakland teacher who used to teach at Malcolm X, said Henderson had been in her fifth grade class the first year she taught school. Henderson made an impression and it lasted.
“I was brand new to everything,” Kelly said. “She was, like, tiny in stature, super little, but she was like a firecracker. She was super energetic, super peer-oriented, a very loyal friend and quite a leader in the room.”
The other kids in the classroom looked up to Henderson and would listen when she told them to pay attention, Kelly recalled. Henderson always advocated being kind and compassionate to others, even as a child.
Once, Kelly said, she was instructing the kids in a reading curriculum that had to do with relationships. Kelly was dating a woman at the time and told her students about it.
“All the kids were like, ‘what what?’ ‘She’s gay.’ ‘She’s a lesbian,’” Kelly recalled. “Sereinat’e told all the other kids to shut up and be respectful. ‘Who cares who the teacher is dating?’” she told them.
After class, Henderson walked up to her and said: “It doesn’t matter to me who you’re dating. But I really thought you were going to tell us you were pregnant — because you have a belly!”
Kelly was not, in fact, pregnant. But that candor was not out of character for the little girl. She was “thoroughly honest,” Kelly said, “and super compassionate.”
Henderson tried hard in school but it didn’t come easily to her. Still, she was curious and always wanted to learn, Kelly recalled.
“She was more people-oriented and relationship-oriented,” Kelly said. “How things matter between people. Building relationships, that’s what she really, really cared about.”
Kelly, who is a Black woman, as was Henderson, said the death had been particularly hard to grapple with. As a Black woman, she said, “there’s a lot of violence aimed at us in general.”
“Women raising babies is what their family really is,” she said. “It just breaks my heart that they’re not safe and they’re not protected.”
As Wyrick and Brewer described it this week, Henderson was at times in a vulnerable place before her death due to the tumultuous relationship she had with her longtime boyfriend. She met the boy who would become the father of her son and the baby inside her when she was 14. He was 16. Henderson’s relatives said it was an abusive relationship both verbally and physically.
But Sereinat’e Henderson had a lot of love around her. She was part of a large, extended family with roots going back generations in South Berkeley. Her great grandmother, Ora Lee Small, was active in Berkeley politics: She served on Berkeley’s rent board and also its Police Review Commission.
For five years or so, when Henderson was growing up, her family lived on Ellis Street about two blocks from Malcolm X. Every day, Wyrick would walk her daughter to school, their former landlord recalled. He said Wyrick’s devotion to her daughter stood out. He hadn’t seen many parents in the neighborhood walking their kids to school.
The landlord described the young Henderson as “nothing but dynamic” and recalled how she had played in a soccer club when she was little, which was also atypical in the neighborhood. He remembered her standing outside in her uniform waiting to get picked up for practice, and told Berkeleyside he had been saddened to learn of her death.
“She would come down to our building manager and have him sharpen her pencils,” he recalled. “He gave her paper for her homework. All those little things come right back.”
“We don’t educate kids to bury them”
Jocelyn Foreman, a site coordinator at Malcolm X Elementary School who got to know Henderson’s family well when she was a student there and organized a fundraiser for them after the young woman died, said Henderson had always treated her with the utmost respect.
Other students would sometimes call her “Joc,” Foreman said, but Henderson always called her “Ms. Jocelyn.”
Berkeley teachers have been struggling with the loss, she said.
“We don’t educate kids to bury them,” Foreman told Berkeleyside. “There’s not been a day that a teacher hasn’t called me crying.”
Foreman said Henderson had stood out in many ways, but in part because of the amount of responsibility she took on to help with her little brother and sister. She would braid her little sister’s hair and always helped her get dressed. She was very protective over both of her younger siblings.
She was also a caregiver for her great grandmother, who is 86. Foreman said Henderson always had “a lot of adult-like qualities,” adding: “She was a 15-year-old but she was posturing like a 30-year-old.”
“She was a beautiful little chocolate star, she was gorgeous,” Foreman said. “I’m so sad for all of her teachers. I’m so sad for her baby.”
The baby has been having a hard time himself, Brewer and Wyrick said. The boy, whose name is Jah’hadi, will turn 1 in December. Brewer said she worries about how hearing all that gunfire might have affected the little boy.
The baby, who isn’t even walking yet, had been waking up often crying for his mother, Brewer said. And he had been crying more than he used to.
“He’s always calling ‘mama,’ looking up in the sky,” Wyrick said, reaching both hands up into the air the way her grandson does now. She said she’s the only one who can put him to sleep these days.
“If I get up to go to the bathroom, he’ll scream and cry,” she said. “I can’t go anywhere without him crying.”
Brewer said everyone has been having trouble since Henderson was killed. Wyrick hasn’t been eating much, or sleeping.
The women said they believed Henderson’s killer was either targetting her or targetting the car she was driving, which her boyfriend also used at times. They said police told them that whoever did the shooting was trying to kill everyone in the car.
The women said whoever is responsible should turn themselves in.
“If they get caught, it’s going to be worse,” Wyrick said.
“We were just going to get something to eat,” she added, trailing off and looking away as she shook her head. “For what?”
Police have offered a $50,000 reward to help solve Sereinat’e Henderson’s homicide. At least two fundraisers have been organized to help the family.