On the first Tuesday in August, police officers and neighbors come together on sidewalks and in parking lots around the country for National Night Out.
Part barbecue, part block party, these yearly events are meant to create a sense of security and to help support community policing. National Night Out, which grew out of a volunteer’s efforts in the Philadelphia suburbs in the late 1970s, began in 1984 in 400 places around the country as part of a drive to increase community and neighborhood watch efforts.
Zachary Norris went to a few National Night Out events with his sister. “For years she went, not because she was excited about the way police were treating communities, but because she saw break-ins on her street,” Norris said.
Norris, now the head of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, sometimes went along, but something about the event made him feel uncomfortable. “As police are passing out these little buttons and badges for kids, I’m thinking to myself, ‘How do you view this young person? How do you view this young black child that you’re handing this button to?’ ”
Then, in 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student on his way home from the store.
Norris and his team at the Ella Baker Center started to think about what it means to watch our neighbors, and about the connection between safety and National Night Out.
“At those events, people are told you are the eyes and ears of the police, but people have more than eyes and ears,” he said. “They have hearts. They have hands. They have minds. And all of those things are needed to build safety.”
So they planned an alternative event on the same night, but separate. They called it a Night Out for Safety and Liberation. “Our aim is really to redefine safety, beyond policing and punishment and prisons,” Norris said.
The first one happened in 2013, but over the past five years it has grown and expanded. This year there were five events in the East Bay and one in San Francisco, and more than 20 cities in the country participated. Norris said it has only become more necessary now.
He pointed to incidents this summer, even here “in the so-called progressive Bay Area,” which have shown how white people use police or the threat of police to restrict the movement and activities of people of color. For example, in May a white woman in Oakland called police complaining about two black men having a barbecue at Lake Merritt. In June, a white woman in San Francisco called police on a young girl selling water.
“Calling on police to exclude and push people out of communities — that is actually the opposite of safety,” Norris said.
Tuesday night, in San Antonio Park in East Oakland, about 100 people gathered to eat pupusas, listen to music and Ohlone songs, and hear East African blessings. Balloons were tied to trees, foldout tables manned by local organizations lined the park’s walkway, and people danced into the evening.
“This is what safety and liberation looks like on a Tuesday night in Oakland, California, y’all!” shouted out Tenika Blue, known as SheBeLadyBlue, who emceed the festivities.
“It’s a lot of positive energy out here, people are feeling good! There’s lots of hugs,” she said.
“My community is very important, safety is important,” Blue said, but she added that for many who have grown up in the black community, safety isn’t represented by police. “Safety is health care. Safety is children being able to play freely and be children.”
There were hundreds of official National Night Out block parties across Oakland. Some black elders argue police are needed and the biggest problem is when officers don’t arrive in time. They say events like National Night Out are imperative to creating a collaborative relationship with police.
Norris said he understands where they are coming from. “We understand that we need first responders, but they need to respond in the interest of community.” Police, he said, can often act in a militarized manner, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods.
“This is absolutely not an anti-police event,” Norris said. “But we need to look at different kinds of first responders.” The community, organizing together, can often provide the best response to people in crisis, he said.
In that way, Night Out for Safety and Liberation is part of a larger conversation happening in Oakland and across the country about finding alternatives to policing.
Lisa Paige was watching her young grandchildren hula-hoop on the park grass. “I grew up around here,” she said. “This is where I bring my grandbabies to play.”
At first, when she smelled the food and heard the music, she thought it was a National Night Out event, not being aware that there was an alternative. She said she does not have problems with police. “I don’t discriminate. Police do everybody like that,” she said.
But she understands why some people want to get to know each other without law enforcement. “Police take it to extremes to solve the situation, especially unarmed people,” Paige said. “And they shouldn’t do that.”
She came with her grandchildren on this warm August evening not because of politics or to make a statement. She was just there for the community, the music and the food.