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With Police In The News, National Night Out Goes Alternative


Police departments and many communities have had a rough year, to say the least. So it's no surprise that an event aimed at bringing together police and the people they serve could come with some complicated feelings. And that's what happened in Oakland last night. The event was National Night Out, sponsored by neighborhood watch groups in conjunction with local law enforcement. NPR's Code Switch team has this report from Sandhya Dirks.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: In her East Oakland neighborhood, everyone knows Jessie Mae Brown as Mother Brown.

JESSIE MAE BROWN: Hey. How you doing? Good - did you enjoy yourself?

DIRKS: Mother Brown has been organizing National Night Out events since just about when they began in 1984.

BROWN: See, I come from the old school. In the neighborhood, everybody looked after everybody's kids in the community, and everybody knew everybody.

DIRKS: And that includes the longtime neighborhood jokester.

DAVID LELAND MEANS III: David Leland Means III - aristocratic name and broke (laughter).

DIRKS: Means keeps Mother Brown and the other ladies here laughing, but he's dead serious when it comes to safety in his neighborhood and who he sees as threatening it, some of whom are young men on his corner who are dealing drugs.

MEANS: I'm not ashamed to call my people thugs, but we can't get to them now because they are so shell-shocked. I can't do this. I can't do that. If I see a cop coming he thinks - I think he might think I've done something wrong.

DIRKS: Shell-shocked is a pretty good way to describe Jameson Robinson. He's scared whenever he sees the police.

JAMESON ROBINSON: I get to hyperventilating. I kind - you know what I'm saying? I have to get away. I can't even be - really be close to police even though I know there's good cops. There's bad cops.

DIRKS: The reason Robinson reacts this way is the death of his sister Yvette Henderson. She was killed by police last February in nearby Emeryville. That's why tonight, he's in downtown Oakland speaking to a crowd of about 100 at what's being called Night Out for Safety and Liberation.

ROBINSON: I don't know what else to do but to fight for justice and fight for my sister and fight for everybody else, all the victims of police brutality. For them to just stop - sorry.

DIRKS: Robinson shakes his head and wipes away tears. He says he, like others at this event, just want the police to see everyone as human beings.

ZACHARY NORRIS: Jobs, not jails.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Jobs, not jails.

NORRIS: Health care, not handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Healthcare, not handcuffs.

DIRKS: This alternative night out was started by Zachary Norris, who leads Oakland's Ella Baker Center, a social justice nonprofit. Norris says he first began to question National Night Out after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

NORRIS: I subscribed to one of those neighborhood watches where I could get all of the information flooded into my email about suspicious person on this street or that street. And I can start looking at my neighbors differently as a result of that. I don't think it would make us one iota safer in this neighborhood.

DIRKS: Back in East Oakland, block after block was closed off for the official National Night Out, and streets were filled with bouncy castles and barbecues. Resident Brittia Johnson says, here, the problem is not enough police.

BRITTIA JOHNSON: We need them. Most of the time we call, they do come. We know they got to have back logs sometimes. Certain times of the month is more activity than others.

DIRKS: Johnson's a block captain, which means she gets to know her neighbors and tries to keep an eye on her street. As for some community members, distrust of police...

JOHNSON: We have to drop that. We can't get anywhere until we leave the past behind us. I ain't say sweep it under the rug. Leave it behind us. Start afresh, and work collaboratively.

DIRKS: But just what that collaboration should look like depends on who you talk to. For NPR News in Oakland, I'm Sandhya Dirks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.