I am a gentrifier, much like yourself, perhaps. Perhaps not. There are many types and degrees of gentrifierdom. But during my three years here in Oakland, I have spent a not-insignificant amount of time exploring, with others and alone, the labyrinthine rabbit hole that is the gentrification conversation.

One idea that caught my eye (and a lot of controversy) in both Dannette Lambert’s trend-tacular “20 ways not to be a gentrifier,” and in a bare-knuckled essay by Pilar Reyes, was the idea that by calling the cops, you are engaging, on your behalf, a systemically racist institution whose authority comes primarily from the tools of fines, violence and incarceration.

“It’s an ostracizing, anticommunity problem-solving method,” wrote Pilar, “If there’s one piece of advice I can give to out-of-towners, it’s to not call the cops.”

This is a highly debatable and heavily debated idea, especially when conveyed as an oversimplified imperative. But smooth your hackles and let’s move off on a tangent, to the topic at hand: Should gentrifiers experience any cognitive dissonance on account of National Night Out’s simultaneous promotion of both community-building and policing?

“Register Early!”

On the City of Oakland website, the page for NNO describes the purpose and justification of the event: “to build neighborhood spirit and unity–which is the first defense against crime. Research shows that when neighbors know each other and look out for each other, crime goes down.”

This is certainly true enough, and it is how most people have come to think of NNO: as an archipelago of community-building events. But the other side of NNO’s crime reduction agenda has always been there, the side that promotes neighborhood reliance on police. As the City of Oakland website put it, the events are “a way to strengthen the ties between residents and the Oakland Police Department. This year every party will receive at least one visit from a team of city officials, police officers, or city employees, so register early!”

But “policing” and “community development” are not universally considered to be complimentary solutions to crime. In fact, many people consider them to be outright antithetical.

The Case Against Cops

On August 5, organizers from Critical Resistance Oakland chapter, along with neighbors, gardeners, friendly strangers and organizers from other groups, hosted a barbecue at the once-vacant lot that is now the Fruitvale Community Garden. The event took place on the same evening as NNO, but they did not register with the City, early or at all.

Finding neighbors at Fruitvale Community Garden

Finding neighbors at Fruitvale Community Garden

I heard about the event from Jess Heaney. She is member of the Fruitvale Garden community, as well as a staff member of Critical Resistance, a national organization that works to abolish the prison-industrial complex. She was also, at least on August 5, the master of the grill–so clearly someone in the know.  I spoke to her, along with several other community members, about the subtext of policing and gentrification at NNO events.

“National Night Out and Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils facilitate a reliance on, and normalizing of, policing as a necessary part of the social fabric. And we see that policing then becomes the answer that will get prioritized,” said Jess.

Building a police force capable of solving Oakland’s crime issues takes up a lot of money: almost 50% of Oakland’s annual budget. Most local politicians would consider the problem to be that OPD does not have enough money, for more officers, new technology, new radios, new cars, new surveillance centers.

According to Jess, this situation makes it “actually impossible to invest in life-affirming solutions and community resources. City Council members have told us multiple times that they ‘believe’ in other programs, but they won’t prioritize them because the priority is the OPD and its current crisis.”

And more than just soaking up all the funding, OPD methods of solving crime aggravate many of the problems that contribute to crime. “It responds to social, economic and political problems–to people not having adequate job opportunities, prevention resources, good schools, extra-curricular programs–with escalations of violence and programs that function to lock people up and push them out of neighborhoods,” said Jess.

Police at the Party

There is of course the “de-facto” argument: cops aren’t going anywhere, and the more peaceful interactions between them and the community, the better. But what this fails to consider is that members of the community who have reason to be wary of cops are not going to participate, and so already a situation is created where, instead of building community, it is being separated into the those who feel protected by the cops and those who are afraid of them. Arguably, this is gentrification.

The Fruitvale Community Garden is a public space, free and open to anyone. At the barbecue, I talked with a longtime neighborhood resident, unaffiliated with any organization, who expressed his amazement at always meeting new people while working at the Garden. He called it a “find your neighbors” project of inviting people to come in an participate. Another community member, affiliated with Movement Generation Political Family, said of the garden, “it’s a cultural hub, an urban ecological space, and a place to reclaim our roots in self-sufficiency and sovereignty.”

Sagnicthe, Aurora and Jess pickup up dinner

Sagnicthe, Aurora and Jess pick up dinner

According to Jess, the people who led the founding of the Garden were the very people that the OPD targets with gang injunctions: young people, people of color, people who grew up in Fruitvale. Integral to the Garden’s community-building is the explicit understanding that, even if you are someone who has reason to be afraid of the cops, you are part of the community, and this is a safe space for you to participate in life-affirming activities.

More of the same, but without OPD

For what it’s worth, National Night Out should really be commended for the emphasis it puts on community-building as an integral part of safety. This much is right on the money. But what’s not on the money is the specious logic that equates the police with safety and community-building.

“Oakland residents are tired of gang injunctions,” said Jess, “and of police programs like Ceasefire that centralize community-member expulsion. A system built to rely on policing actually can’t and won’t commit strong and necessary resources to the vital programs that Oaklanders ask for. Even when cops claim that they are the ‘last resort,’ we actually see that they become the only resort.”

So the final answer is, yes, gentrifiers should experience some cognitive dissonance on account of National Night Out’s subtext of police reliance. But the solution to this ambivalence is not therapy, nor is it coming to terms with Big Brother’s 2+2=5.

The solution is to separate community-building events from emergency services, to unsubscribe from the politics of OPD’s endless funding crisis, and to use events like National Night Out to promote the many safety and community-building projects that do not rely on police.

About The Author

Eric is a freelance writer who covers Oakland's thriving New Economy movement, as well as local culture, community projects, and letters. As graduate of UC Santa Cruz he is essentially a socialist, but what does that even mean anymore, really? As a proud Oakland transplant from the PNW, Eric sees his work at Oakland Local as a small part of Oakland's battle to keep its identity, support all its peoples, and be prospering without plundering.

11 Responses

  1. OaklandNative

    I have a problem with the following statement:

    “On the City of Oakland website, the page for NNO describes the purpose and justification of the event: “to build neighborhood spirit and unity–which is the first defense against crime. Research shows that when neighbors know each other and look out for each other, crime goes down.”

    Many of us in Oakland know our neighbors. We’ve grown up together. We went to school with them, dated them, married into families, etc. We’ve gone to the same churches. I’ve known people whose grandparents lived on the same block for years.

    There have always been local bars, etc.

    These places have often had events as well.

    Despite what outsiders may think, we love our homes. We choose to stay in the area because we love our Oakland communities. NNO cannot make a community. Police don’t make a community.

  2. CWM

    “I am a gentrifier, much like yourself”— gentrification is a social process, not an identity.

  3. OaklandMofo

    I haven’t heard anyone say “Don’t call the cops”.
    I mean there is the don’t snitch thing, like if you neighbor sells weed so what. Your other neighbors are his customers.

    But if someone is on your block breaking into cars, pick up the phone. If someone is in danger of harm, call the cops. Use your head.

  4. SF2OAK

    Whatever happened to freedom & liberty? The idea that one cannot live where one chooses in a lawfully proscribed manner brings us right back to Jim Crow laws and laws that excluded minorities like Chinese, Japanese, Jews etc. whatever happened to a colorblind society espoused by none other than MLK, jr. ?

    I resent that you want to label me.

    What you are espousing is anarchy.

    The fact is that you have not built tge trust one needs to reduce dependence on OPD, nor any of the myriad government services programs.

    I will say that I look forward to each of you voting for candidates that want to shrink the ever expanding temtacles of government though.

  5. OaklandNative


    Whatever happened to freedom to enjoy one’s home?

    Your (mis)use of Jim Crow and MLK are red herrings. They have nothing to do with our comments.

    Also, you asked whatever happened to a colorblind society? Where did you see one? Certainly not in San Francisco. So should I live in your fairy tale? (By the way, that is another red herring)

  6. Chris Vernon

    What I would like to know from the ‘no police’ crowd is how do you propose we deal with the very real and constantly unfolding violence committed mostly by and upon the small minority of folks in the city that are engaged in this behavior. The hundreds and hundreds of Oaklanders that attend NNO events every year want the same thing you do – safe streets for ALL our citizens, rich and poor, regardless of color or station in life. Our event in North Oakland was a delight this year and we were visited by two officials from Public Works not police officers.

    Opposition to gang injunctions at least has a shred of logic whether one agrees with it or not, but opposing Ceasefire is simply assinine. What, pray tell, is wrong with engaging the most at-risk and offering them the chance to stop their violent and dangerous ways and making sure they are removed from our streets and neighborhoods if they choose not to take advantage of that offer?

    Are you really so blind and naive that you think starting a garden (a beautiful and wonderful thing) will in and of itself stop the immediacy of the danger that can be found in the poorer parts of town?

    Yes, to job training, better housing, early childhood enrichment, on and on, intervention and re-entry programs for people coming out of prison. But that will not stop the guys who are carrying guns NOW – that have made this their lives. That seems so GLARINGLY obvious, but I guess it isn’t. If a house is on fire, you call the fire department. When there is the threat of real and imminent danger, you call the police department. Of course, there have been real issues with policing in Oakland and they need to be addressed, but you still need a well functioning police department that can be called upon to deal with problems that have gone too far in the moment to be addressed by social programs alone.

    By the same token, policing alone is not the answer. That’s also obvious. We need a balanced, rational, and sane approach to what is a long festering set of problems – not wishful thinking.

  7. Bay Area Native

    1969 called and they’d like their drama back. Power to the People! Peoples Park! Let it go already.
    Some of us work hard everyday to be able to live in a lifestyle we feel comfortable with. That’s a choice and everyone gets a choice. I grew up the child of a single parent who was a school teacher – so no big economic advantages. I worked full time through college and then graduated and worked a full time job plus another job on the weekends for years to buy a home and get to a place I wanted to be. Stop complaining and get to it.
    If you would like to complain and whine some more about your disadvantages then that is more time wasted marching in place.

  8. OaklandNative

    I don’t know if I would be considered part of the “no police” crowd or not. I do believe that we have minimum resources, so it is up to everyone to do his/her part in maintaining his/her own safety.

    For example, I drove by a part at night where I would not dare get out my car. Yet, I saw a young women walking her small dog while talking on her phone. That’s very unsafe for anyone. If something happens to her, the police would be expected to show up. But that police could have been somewhere else.

    If she does not walk that part of town at night, safety is less of a worry for her.

    That’s just reality.

  9. Erica

    Exactly. Very small, tight-knit communities where everyone literally knows everyone (I mean villages of a few hundred people or less) can maybe get away without some kind of law enforcement. Anywhere else, you either need somebody officially tasked to respond to those individuals who choose to use violence, or you end up in a Wild West vigilante situation where everyone is armed to the teeth just to survive.

    I get the argument that community building doesn’t have to rely on the police and I am all for any kind of positive neighborhood gathering that brings people together with or without OPD. But afaik in the entirety of history there are zero, zip, no examples of any large city that has EVER functioned without ‘relying on policing’ of some sort.

  10. @ericjamesand

    OPD being almost 50% of Oakland’s Annual Budget was pulled from this 2013 article in EBX, via wikipedia, via OaklandWiki


    No one is saying that emergency services shouldn’t exist. I think this is often used as an connived a sticking point for the argument: “Well then, at what point do crimes justify calling the cops? Are you saying that we shouldn’t call the cops on the drug dealing, potentially dangerous criminals that I’ve seen breaking into cars?”

    The only solution available, currently, to this criminal situation, is calling the cops. What else are you going to do?

    The only solution available for dealing with people who are committing crime in order to make money (and regardless of what they use it on, most are criminals as a means of subsistence) is to call emergency services, put the criminals into long, expensive, dangerous, incarceration systems that will further limit there options for regular work, and imagine that this has solved the situation.

    The point of the article is not that there are no emergencies, it is that police are not actually a solution to the problems that cause emergencies.

    And what’s more, the ascendency of OPD as the “solution” to crime prevents alternative solutions from being funded.


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