By Troy Williams
According to its website, “National Night Out is a cohesive effort to promote involvement in crime prevention activities, police-community partnerships, neighborhood camaraderie and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.”
Now, I’m sure everyone will agree that we all want to live in a safe community. When I heard about the National Night Out event, I got on the bus with my camera and headed to Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Upon arriving the first thing I noticed was how diverse the attendance was. People of every race, color, creed, and sexual orientation were involved, engaged each other in conversation and listened to music from Bay Area artist Naima Shalhoub, and conscious rap from Khafre Jay from the Hip Hop for Change.
Speakers expressed their desire to end the fear, trauma, and violence that continue to affect communities in Oakland and all over America. Noticeably missing were the police.
The event was organized by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and hosted by John Jones.
Jones expressed gratitude to Darris Young, a local organizer for the Ella Baker Center, who encouraged him not to return to a life of crime when things got rough. According to Jones, Young had told him, “Instead of us returning to the same trap that got us incarcerated, we can become instruments of liberation for ourselves and for others who find themselves in similar circumstances.”
Those words resonated with me. So I asked Young what had prompted him to help organize this event. I learned that he was also formerly incarcerated.
In 1998, Young was sentenced to 36 years to life for robbery. He explained how the judge at his sentencing took into account that he had a lot of bad breaks in life, but the judge still told him, “You could have been anything you wanted to be, but nothing stopped you but you.”
Young said he took the judges words with him to prison. One hundred and twenty days later, that same judge reversed his life term. He was paroled in 2012.
Having turned his life around, he wanted to make it clear to readers. “We are not anti police,” Young said. “We understand liberation to mean that we must make a connection with our neighbors. Violence has to stop on all sides. But sometimes National Night Out can appear to be about expanding policing through neighbors rather than expanding relationships.”
Echoing Young’s words, Cat Brooks, founder of the Anti Police Terror Project in Oakland, added, “There are alternatives to increasing the safety of our communities outside of policing and prisons.”
I believe this to be true. Policing is only one aspect of protection. Police usually arrive after the fact of a crime, after someone has been hurt. Ideally, community should arrive so far in advance that hurting someone in the community you love is not an option.
When I was leaving the event, I noticed several police cars stopped at a traffic signal. I walked across the intersection and asked a sergeant in one vehicle, “Hey, where were you guys?”
“We weren’t invited,” he responded.
Obviously, there is a major divide between the police and community in Oakland and I’m not sure how we can truly effect change without all the stakeholders sitting at the table.