Redefining Safety at Night Out for Safety and Liberation

What does true safety look like? Last night, the Ella Baker Center tried to answer that question with Night Out for Safety and Liberation.

The Lake Merritt Boulevard Amphitheater was packed with a diverse group of Oaklanders and people from around the Bay Area watching performers, getting to know each other, creating art, and learning about community groups.

The event was an alternative to National Night Out. Every year, more than 30 million people in the U.S. participate in neighborhood block parties as part of the National Night Out sponsored by the National Association of Neighborhood Watch.

Traditionally, National Night Out events focus on community-police relations and neighborhood watch and surveillance programs, but Night Out for Safety and Liberation emphasizes that #SafetyIs about more than policing and crime; it's about reinvesting resources to build equality, power, and opportunity in our communities.

Dozens of organizations in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis, hosted Night Out for Safety and Liberation events last night, in a coordinated effort to change the conversation about safety. 

The event in Oakland included a wide range of performers and speakers. John Jones, the MC and new Ella Baker Center Outreach Coordinator, grounded the event in his experiences with the system, and shared his own ideas, saying the problem with the “hood” is that it’s missing the “neighbor” part of neighborhood.

Patricia from Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) opened the program by reminding attendees that they were all standing on Ohlone land, and singing a Mohawk song. Then, EBC Executive Director Zachary Norris shared his vision of what safety looks like: jobs not jails, books not bars, and healthcare not handcuffs.

Hip Hop for Change rapper and poet Dom Jones read a poem she wrote to Oscar Grant’s daughter and performed her song “Pure”, which poignantly asked, “America, am I pure enough to live?” in the wake of the lack of indictment of police officers who have killed people.

Anti-Police Terror Project director Cat Brooks also spoke powerfully on police brutality in Oakland, reflecting on the deaths of Demouria Hogg and Richard Linyard. Brooks invited Jamison Henderson to speak about his sister Yvette, a black woman killed by Emeryville Police. “My sister was a human being, not the animal they try to paint her as,” he said. 

EBC intern and spoken word artist Camara Brown read a poem she wrote about a necklace her sister gave her for protection and safe spaces. And musician Naima Shalhoub provided a call to action with “Ferguson Gaza Blues”, in which she sang “gotta keep our fists raised cause it’s time to rearrange."

At just 16, Arvaughan Williams was a powerful performer. He was part of Project WHAT, an organization that works with youth who have incarcerated parents. His spoken word performance reflected both on the difficulty of not getting to grow up with his incarcerated father and the homophobia he experienced from his father. He illuminated the complexity of incarceration and how its effects ripple outwards.

To further illustrate our vision for safe communities, Nwamaka Agbo, a consultant with the Ella Baker Center, shared information about Restore Oakland, a joint venture between EBC and Restaurant Opportunities Centers-United. Nwamaka explained how the multipurpose hub, which will include a restaurant, restorative justice space, and worker training programs, will create opportunities for people and lead to a safer community.

EBC Local Organizer Darris Young was the final speaker of the night and brought things full circle. At last year's Night Out event, EBC kicked off our campaign for Jobs not Jails in Alameda County. Darris shared the campaign victory we and our partners from the Alameda County Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform won by getting the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to direct 50% of public safety realignment funding toward community-based re-entry programs and services. 

Darris reminded the crowd that work still needs to be done to ensure that the directive is implemented, and that by joining the Ella Baker Center as members, community members can engage in our campaigns to end mass incarceration, criminalization, and state violence. 

To close out the program, Khafre J, the director of Hip Hop for Change, rapped his song “Propaganda”, which features a Malcolm X sample and addresses overcriminalization and police brutality.

In addition to the program, community organizations tabled and shared their materials. Participating organizations included the Anti Police Terror Project, Community Works West, the Alameda County Public Defenders Office promoting their Court Watch program, Roses in Concrete, Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, and Critical Resistance.

At another table was a mural-making project where children and adults drew what safe communities look like to them. 

As music played, community members talked to each other, ate, or just enjoyed the beautiful view of Lake Merritt. As several people noted on Twitter, the Night Out for Safety and Liberation was what safety looked like to them.

Earlier in the day, the Ella Baker Center hosted a #SafetyIs Twitter chat to spark conversations about what safety means to people. Participants in the chat offered a wide range of perspectives, sharing thoughts on the importance of a living wage, safe work spaces, mental health treatment, decriminalization of people of color, safety from street harassment, an end to the school to prison pipeline, and much more. Check out the hashtag on Twitter and read our Storify to see the perspectives people shared.

Photo credit: Brooke Anderson