By Leila Day
When it comes to sending a message to the community, one way to do it is to simply stand together. That’s what one Oakland organization is doing buy organizing a walk every Friday evening in some of the city’s most crime-heavy areas. Since 2012, Oakland has averaged around 860 aggravated assaults each year, with many of the incidents concentrated in East Oakland. Although these walks are organized by churches, they’ve attracted hundreds of secular participants.
Almost 30 men and women sit in long red pews at First Mount Sinai Baptist church in East Oakland. It’s 6 o’clock and this group is preparing for a weekly ritual.
Frank Kellum, a community organizer, stands in the front of the room. He’s wearing a white cap and matching jacket like the rest of the group. He asks people to recite the rules. Hands shoot up from different directions. Some of the rules are: pray with your eyes open, do not approach cars, and do not proselytize.
Heads nod in agreement. It feels like everyone’s preparing for a dangerous assignment. But, they’re just getting ready for a neighborhood stroll.
Not everyone here is a member of this church. People have come from all over the Bay Area to participate in what they call Oakland Night Walk. It’s part of the city’s violence prevention strategy called Ceasefire. The idea is simple: gather in a group to express a message of support in areas of the city with lots of crime. Before leaving, the volunteers put on their white jackets and join hands to pray.
Once outside, the group splits up, each walking on separate sides of the street, but always in the same direction. The walk starts off slow, as if they’re in a procession. They walk holding signs with phrases like ‘Alive and Free, Stop Gun Violence and Stay Alive.’
“Right now we’re walking in the community and we’re making our presence known to the community,” says Derrick Battle, one of the group leaders. “Actually the community already knows who we are, but we’re out here every Friday night to just reinforce our love,to just be present,” says Battle.
Battle guides the group down a street of small cottage houses where Pit Bulls and German Shepherds jump at chain-link fences. No one walking tonight is from this neighborhood. Erika Seid is from North Oakland, she’s been walking with her husband for almost a year
“I feel like I wanted to be part of the solution and it seems to be relaxing and a good way to spend a Friday evening,” she says, as a car zooms by with the stereo blasting.
Seid says she’s learned a lot about this neighborhood through these walks.
“I knew nothing about the neighborhood except that it has a reputation for being dangerous,” says Seid. “I didn’t know there were single family homes. In the summer everyone’s barbecuing and kids are running around.”
Seid says there’s light crime where she lives and her neighbors are considering hiring private security guards. But, she acknowledges that it isn’t a viable solution for neighborhoods like this one.
“I heard people express that they have the impression that this is a patrol and it’s not,” says Seid. “It’s kind of being there in the community and saying we see you and you’re not forgotten. People come to our neighborhood to go out to dinner, we don’t live in a neighborhood that feels forgotten,” Seid says.
Stepping it up
We pass a church service in Spanish. Then walk on to busy International Boulevard. The walk starts to feel lighter, more relaxed. Small conversations come up between the walkers, many of them have never met before. Cars whiz by, beeping and people waving.
Some residents look on, wondering what we’re doing. Duke Boyd is standing next to his car with his son. I ask him what he thinks about the group walking through the neighborhood. “What are they doing?” he asks, unsure about the objective of the walk. I tell Boyd they are showing their support for the community.
“I love it, I love it. Anything to help my kids walk safe,” he says. “ I appreciate it. I like the presence. Let everybody feel it and it will be a better place for us as far as I’m concerned.”
When I stop to talk to Boyd and his son, the entire group stops. They fall silent and watch me. I realize, I broke a rule. I apologize. The group needs to be notified to stop. They stick together for protection.
Marku Heikkila is here walking with a group of other young men that are here with a group called Cityteam. All of them have buzzed haircuts and have had some run-ins with the law.
“I’m from the Central Valley,” says Heikkila. “I had a good friend killed with the gunshot to the heart. I used to be part of the problem and now I want to be part of the solution.”
Heikkila tells me he’s also trying to make some changes within himself. “I’m a felon. I decided to make a change six months ago. I got an opportunity with Cityteam and I’m trying to do what I can.”
For Heikkila, the night walk is part of a program that’s helping him stay out of prison, but he says his presence here isn’t only important for his future. “I notice when I give my testimony and talk to people they listen a little bit more. I’ve been here when there’s eight people and 80 people. I just think by repetition and showing up all of the time they’ll start trusting us and start supporting us even more.”
Power in numbers
It’s been about 45 minutes, and the group starts heading back to the church. Neighbors are peeking out of their windows at us. Kids come out to their porches, wave and run back inside, laughing. Back in the church, Reverend Danita Davis- Howard, coordinator of the walk, starts the debrief.
“Anyone else have conversations with people outside the walking group?” she asks.
No one raises their hand, but Reverend Davis-Howard says that’s not so important.
“A lot of people are surprised just how welcome we are in the community. This is not just something that is abstract,” she says.
It’s a tangible gesture of support for these residents, says the Reverend, and the motivation behind this gesture? That isn’t abstract either. Many of the walkers are here because they’ve experienced much of the violence first hand. Like Tiarra Earls who is a graduate student in San Francisco.
“I have a cousin that was shot, point blank, in broad daylight and it gets me emotional when I talk about it. Because of that, I wanted to get involved and find a way to reduce the type of violence that affected him and caused his murder. That’s essentially why I got involved.
Even Reverend Danita Davis-Howard is here because of her personal loss.
“When I was 27 years old I had a brother shot and killed. When I was in my thirties I had a second cousin, two of them, in a car riding together, shot. One died and one was hospitalized,” she says. “I had a niece about two years ago in West Oakland who was on her way to a friend’s house who got shot by a stray bullet. I’ve had that much loss of life because of gun violence and it has to stop.”
People pile out of the church, and start heading back to their own neighborhoods. I ask Reverend Davis- Howard if it’s problematic for her that so many of the people who walked tonight live elsewhere.
“If you love Oakland, you love everything about Oakland. And if you love Oakland you care about everything about it. Even though you don’t live in the immediate area, if you love Oakland you want to help in those spots where violence is prevalent.”
The sun sets and the families that were sitting on their porches are now inside. The dogs are quiet and the street lights are coming on. Next week in another Oakland neighborhood the group will gather and walk again, with the hope that they’re moving the city forward together.