By Omar de la Cruz
Having spent my entire life in Oakland, I know the many faces and channels of the city. As a resident of the Fruitvale district, there is no bigger channel than International Boulevard.
International exists in two phases alien to one another, coexisting yet not often touching.
During the day, International is a busy thoroughfare for commuters and the sidewalks are bustling with students, small business activity, families, etc. Once daylight fades and streetlights illuminate the scarcely populated streets, the nightlife takes over.
Nightlife in the Fruitvale is not marked by clubs, restaurants and bars, but by the unfortunate souls caught in the cycle of human trafficking. The paths to prostitution are as diverse as the city itself – some abducted, others tricked, many join voluntarily – but regardless of how one gets there, the fact remains that International Blvd. is one of the nation’s hotspots for it.
For decades, people have debated the causes of prostitution to what the correct legal and social response is. Unfortunately, there has been an alarming lack of meaningful action.
On November 21, 2014, Oakland City Councilmember Noel Gallo’s initiative to rehabilitate International Blvd. began. Councilmember Gallo, who lives in the heart of the Fruitvale, was frustrated by the lack of visible action taking place in the district he was elected to represent.
With Gallo’s weekly Friday night Safety Walk program, it can no longer be said that Oakland residents remain inactive, at least not in the Fruitvale.
The project is an alternative response to waiting for policing. Its aims are not punitive but rehabilitory and focused on deterrence. Every week since the projects inception local volunteers and activists of all ages have marched alongside Councilmember Gallo down International with a rallying cry of “Safe streets, safe kids!”
The project has been a collaborative effort with the faith-based organization Victory Outreach, which offers a lifeline out of prostitution through shelters and safe houses. Every night, the organization makes a point to peacefully approach every prostitute (sexually exploited women, mostly minors) on the street. Of the countless women approached, many have accepted the help.
In a city that moves notoriously slow, in one of the nation’s sex trafficking highways, we must challenge ourselves to be better. With issues like prostitution that germinate in the city’s seedy corridors it will take a similarly grassroots effort to combat it.
The problem used to be that no such effort existed. Now a call to action has been issued and an opportunity for change has presented itself and it is our job to respond.
For more information on joining the Safety Walk program, or dates and locations, contact Councilmember Noel Gallo’s office at (510) 238-7247.
Omar de la Cruz is a resident of Oakland and works in Councilmember Noel Gallo’s office.