Watching Out for the Zimmermans Around Us

Connecting dots between national outrage and nationwide celebrations of vigilantism

Next week, people across the country will be hosting block parties as part of National Night Out.

According to the City of Oakland's official guide (.pdf), National Night Out supports “police-community partnerships” with an aim to “generate support for, and participation in, local anticrime programs, such as Neighborhood Watch.” 

In other words, National Night Out supports community policing of the style that killed Trayvon Martin through the façade of block parties.

Let me explain…

"The Eyes and Ears of Law Enforcement"

George Zimmerman was patrolling a housing development in Sanford, Florida in the guise of a Neighborhood Watch member when he encountered, followed, and killed Trayvon based on false suspicions.

In the recent jury verdict acquitting Zimmerman, this killing was officially sanctioned by our legal system.

According to the national Neighborhood Watch website, the program "calls upon us to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement” and “allows citizens to help in the fight against crime.”

As incredible amounts of national protest have made clear, those stated intentions are vaguely shielded ways of decentralizing the police’s work of criminalization.

In a piece I wrote a few months ago, I described the violent racism displayed on listservs from a few of Oakland’s wealthier neighborhoods.

People on the email lists were vocally nervous, scared, and angry when poor, Black, and Brown people—who they often suspected of criminal intent—showed up in their communities.

The same people quoted in the previous piece are now sending emails in outright support for police participation in their National Night Out block party.

“I have no problem with OPD, OFD, or council members dropping by—as long as they don't use it as a platform,” wrote the same person whom I previously quoted as reducing Latino men to construction workers or criminals.

The fundamental premise of National Night Out is to promote a platform for police and city governments to build up the program, Neighborhood Watch, that Zimmerman aspired to be a part of when he legally ended Trayvon Martin’s life.

Some Oakland residents, like the responder I described above, scare me. Like the all-too-frequently racist listservs serving well-off Oakland neighborhoods, this passionate support for a program that supports vigilantes and police in criminalizing poor, Black, and Brown people cannot make the city safer for all of us.

Rather, it makes small groups of privileged people safer at the expense of the lives of others. It does so in the same ways the killing of Trayvon Martin appeals to our legal system’s racist understanding that Blackness is an attack on our (dominant white supremacist) culture, and we should defend ourselves from it with whatever Neighborhood Watch or other vigilante strategies we can come up with.

In April, when a court threw out a case against the officers who killed Derrick “Deedee” Jones in East Oakland, one of the cops, Eriberto Perez-Angeles, told reporters that he followed policy when he took Deedee’s life: “We were just doing our job, as we were trained to do.”

Whether or not those who advocate Neighborhood Watch actually try out vigilante justice for themselves is irrelevant when we realize that Zimmerman was acquitted because he did the police’s job for them.

We Can't Watch and Arrest Our Way to Safety

Our city councilmembers have become comfortable with the rhetoric that “we cannot arrest our way out of violence,” but they are quick to continue to try and do so.

Our city government is constantly passing legislation that widens the scope of police funding and power—whether in the form of gang injunctions, Operation Ceasefire, or high-priced consulting contracts.

Meanwhile, the city claims it can’t find the cash to pay for public safety programs. In May, the city council did not give a West Oakland teen center the last $340,000 that it would have needed to open.

Lynette McElhaney, one of the councilmembers who has repeated the phrase “we can’t arrest ourselves out of violence,” told CBS News: “Make no mistake about it, we are going to spend money on these kids. We will either spend it in a proactive way, through youth centers and positive programming, or we will spend the money on arresting them, incarcerating them, putting them in juvenile hall, or God forbid to treat them in emergency rooms because they’ve fallen victim to violence.” 

At the following city council meeting, the whole City Council supported spending $600,000 on body armor for cops.

Not two months later, the Public Safety Committee supported spending $2 million on a city-wide surveillance mechanism called the Domain Awareness Center. If used at all, it will be used to target, harass, and of course arrest people, all when we seemingly know that we can’t arrest our way to safety.

Neighbors Make Communities Safer Together

Neighborhood Watch groups support police practices, whether actively (by actually doing the cops’ job of criminalizing poor people and people of color) or tacitly (by calling on the police to back up their prejudices with force).

It is impossible for Neighborhood Watch—or, by extension, National Night Out—to be divorced from this very violent reality.

Having recognized the contradictions of these events, some people are creating alternatives.

One such project on the national level is called the Night Out for Safety, Democracy, and Human Rights, which offers a positive narrative for celebrating community strength and resilience: “I don't watch my neighbors. I see them. We make our community safer together.”

Oakland organizers are also planning a demonstration during National Night Out, dubbed “No More Zimmermans! No More Neighborhood Watch Vigilantes!” which will gather in the park in front of Lakeview Library (intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Grand Avenue) at 6pm on August 6th before it disperses to visit nearby National Night Out block parties.

Organizers are also calling for people to “bring propaganda,” and this author wouldn’t mind if you print out copies of this piece to bring and share!

Learn more about Night Out for Safety, Democracy & Human Rights

Jesse Strauss is a writer, activist, and musician. Born and raised in Oakland, he has studied social and economic development in Latin America and reported for Al Jazeera in Qatar. Now he's back home, making music and fighting the prison-industrial complex as a member of Critical Resistance.