By Scott C. Johnson
It was still light out when the thirty or so volunteers set out from the At Thy Word Ministries in East Oakland last Friday. Most wore white shirts or jackets, and a few of them had come decked out in white from head to foot – the unofficial uniform of the Project Ceasefire “night walker.”
In a short briefing before departing, veterans of previous walks conveyed the do’s and don’ts to the newcomers. The walkers were to go forth into the night with three main messages:
– We Care
– Stop the Violence
– How Can We Help You?
Those are the do’s.
The don’ts are a little more complicated. Volunteers are discouraged from making promises. Instead, when people ask for help – and they very often do – volunteers are told to take their names and numbers and then follow up individually with one of the appointed service providers in Oakland. The reason for this is simple, says Reverend Damita Davis-Howard, one of the organizers. “We don’t want to be seen as just talking and not doing.”
Volunteers are also discouraged from proselytizing. “We’re not here to save their souls tonight,” said Davis-Howard, “We’re here to get in touch and connect with the community.”
And so, duly briefed, they set out.
Two groups of about thirteen each headed north, one on each side of International Boulevard. The route on this night would take them through at least four known gang areas, or hangouts, according to Davis-Howard. This stretch of deep East Oakland, south of our hotspot, has been the focal point of the Ceasefire folks since last October, when the program started.
The organizers have plans to expand it into other areas of Oakland, including deeper into the hotspot, but for now they’re focusing on an area where a large number of shootings occurred, and in which data collected by the Partnership for Safe Communities has indicated shootings have been particularly problematic. Overall, the Ceasefire people have said that the area of Oakland that stretches from High Street down to San Leandro Boulevard and then south to the border of San Leandro itself, is where they want to focus their resources over the long-term. So tonight the walkers would head down International to 84th, then over to Beach, then up to 98th and back to the church.
As we walked I talked to Davis-Howard.
“I believe a lot of the people who commit the violence live in very isolated hubs,” she said, “I think they don’t even understand that they have a community, that they can make a difference in their lives.”
Sometimes people engaged, other times not. But overall, she said, the sense of community in these streets has grown stronger over the last few months. It was a difficult thing to measure or quantify, but the feeling was palpable. As we walked people came out to watch us pass. Many waved. Kids came pouring out into the streets and clung to our columns for a while before drifting back home.
“What are y’all protesting?” yelled one woman as we passed, “I see you out here before, what are you protesting about?”
“We’re not protesting,” said Davis-Howard, “We’re just walking, saying stop the violence.” The two talked for a while and then the woman, satisfied, said she supported the walkers and smiled.
It’s that simple, said Davis-Howard.
The further we got into the “Ceasefire zone” being targeted, I started to notice something interesting. Nearly every house had two things: a fence and at least one dog, and sometimes more. Virtually every house we passed had a “Beware of Dog” sign.
I asked Davis-Howard about this. “I’m a sociologist,” she said, “And what I see is that these dogs and these fences are the first line of defense. They’re for protection. And you need them when you’re living under siege.”
We passed one block that looked familiar to me from a previous reporting trip. I’m fairly sure we were in Border Brothers territory. I had come here once before, many months ago, and interviewed a guy whose family had been Border Brothers members for at least three generations.
“People live behind these fences and these dogs,” she said, “They’re just watching and observing.”
After a while I left Davis-Howard’s group and joined the one on the other side of the street. There I found Justin Sexton, a 27-year old Oakland native who discovered the night walks through his church earlier this year. Sexton had done his fair share of street living in an earlier time but says he left it all behind in 2006 when underwent a powerful conversion experience.
Sexton says the neighborhoods have improved since the walks have started. Again, he says it’s more a feeling than anything, but that little by little people have begun to respond to the outreach.
“We’ve extended our hand first,” he told me, “People are more willing to talk to us. A month ago there was way more prostitution and crime right here, and now it’s gone.”
I pointed out that perhaps the criminals and shooters had simply moved elsewhere. Yes, he agreed, perhaps, but Project Ceasefire was never intended to be an overnight solution, but rather a long term plan that might take years. He said it took six years to have any kind of effect in next door Richmond.
Oakland city planners have said just the opposite at various times, of course, claiming that Ceasefire’s attractiveness is precisely that it can offer short term results.
In any event, the walk went off without a hitch. One man, a Jehovah’s Witness, complained loudly that the walkers should leave him alone, which they did. Most people shouted their approval, or honked, or gave a thumbs up sign, or simply smiled and watched us walk by. It was a pleasant, comfortable evening in a neighborhood like any other. More than anything, it reminded me that walking through a neighborhood, any neighborhood, should be this easy, whether it’s in Montclair or East Oakland or anywhere in between.