By Charles Burress
“It’s not just walking,” said Betsy King when asked about her participation in the Friday Night Walks in high-crime neighborhoods of Oakland.
Since January, King, who lives in Piedmont, and several other members of the Montclair Presbyterian Church have joined the growing number of people from faith-based organizations and other groups who gather at 6:30 p.m. on Friday nights to walk for an hour or two in communities plagued by street violence, including areas around International Boulevard.
“We talk to people,” King said. “We have a message. We care. We want you to be safe. We want people to start caring for each other.”
The program is part of the city’s relaunched “Ceasefire” initiative, a policing strategy that also involves meeting with gang leaders and members with promises of assistance for cooperation and a crackdown on continued crime. The current incarnation of Ceasefire was launched in October.
The night walk strategy originated 20 years ago in Boston as a group of ministers in that city sought a way to quell a crime surge, according to a January presentation by Ben McBride, director of City Team Oakland. (His remarks can be seen on YouTube.)
King said the turnout on the Night Walks has been growing steadily, with about 15-25 people last fall, up to about 35 in January, and a record-setting 75 on April 19, which was the most recent walk when she talked to Patch.
She said the group contains members of several faiths and houses of worship from across the city, including Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue. Other organizations, including schools, also participate, she said.
Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) plays an organizing role in the walks, which OCO calls ” Lifelines/Ceasefire Night Walk.”
Participants wear white jackets identifying them as Lifelines/Ceasefire walkers, and some may bring handmade signs, King said. Past signs have carried a variety of messages, such as “Be safe.”
One sign said, “Honk if you like Oakland Ceasefire,” she said, adding, “We had people honking the whole time.”
Those on the walks can readily see how tough life in the high-crime neighborhoods can be, King said. Some homes have large, fierce dogs in the yard that look as though they could chomp off a hand put through the fence.
“You really get the sense that people are under seige,” she said.
The walkers have become familiar sights in the neighborhoods they visit and are welcomed by the residents, King said.
“A lot of people now know us and wave,” she said.
The walks rotate around the various neighborhoods and begin at one of four churches. A list of upcoming walks can be found on the city’s Ceasefire web page.