Alternative event to National Night Out shifts focus away from surveillance

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Aug. 5 marks National Night Out, an annual event promoted by local governments and law enforcement agencies geared toward ending neighborhood violence and promoting public safety.

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee is scheduled to join Police Chief Greg Suhr and District Attorney George Gascon at a Visitacion Valley playground for a National Night Out gathering. A host of other neighborhood block parties are scheduled throughout San Francisco and Oakland as well.

National Night Out gatherings, which are sponsored by the National Association of Neighborhood Watch, are scheduled to take place nationwide. Block party attendees are encouraged to come out and meet their neighbors as a way of banding together against crime. Yet some have questioned the heavy emphasis this event places on suspicion and surveillance as tools for promoting neighborhood safety.

To offer a different perspective, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has organized a community gathering Aug. 5 at the Lake Merritt amphitheater, billed as the Second Annual Night Out for Safety and Democracy.

“We still want to have a celebration of the community – but we really want to reframe the message that it’s not all about setting up a neighborhood watch program,” said Maria Dominguez, a community organizer with the Ella Baker Center. She added that a mass effort to encourage suspicion and neighborhood surveillance can lead to unintended consequences, such as actions that are unnecessarily based in fear, or racial profiling.

Instead, the Ella Baker Center hopes to emphasize restorative justice practices, youth job training programs, and reentry services as tools for promoting community safety. The group is also highlighting the need for more resources to be dedicated toward these programs as state funding becomes available.

“Safety really goes hand in hand with the lack of economic opportunity in our communities,” Dominguez said. This coming fall, she noted, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will begin discussing allocation of some $30 million in state realignment funding. Historically, only about a fourth of this has gone toward community-based organizations focused on efforts such as reentry services, with the rest being devoted mainly to law enforcement agencies.

“We want to make sure there’s more funding allocated for community based organizations providing restorative justice initiatives, and other organizations that focus on employment and workforce development opportunities,” Dominguez said.

“With the recent rise in local surveillance initiatives and private patrols, it’s more important than ever to encourage neighbors to build connections with one another so that they can see each other,” said Ella Baker Center executive director Zachary Norris, “rather than watch each other.”

The evening’s event will feature talks by practitioners in restorative justice practitioners and representatives from organizations working around reentry programs. There will also be food, art, voter information, and a performance by Turf Feinz. They're turf dance performers whose moves – consisting of “elaborate footwork, gliding, gigging, contortion and acrobat,” according to the event description – have been known to liven up BART commutes. 

“Rain,” Turf Feinz' video from 2009 created in memory of a friend, got more than six million YouTube hits.

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