Out to Redefine Safety

With its annual alternative Night Out, the Ella Baker Center stands up for victims of mass incarceration and police brutality through a public gathering of artists and community organizers.

On August 4, communities across the United States will gather to celebrate National Night Out, an annual campaign to enhance ties between civilians and their local police departments. Cops will visit sponsored neighborhood barbecues and block parties. But the Ella Baker Center has something different planned for Oakland.

Next Tuesday, from 5-8 p.m., Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights will host a Night Out for Safety and Liberation at Lake Merritt Boulevard Amphitheatre (between 12th St. and 1st Ave., Lake Merritt Blvd., Oakland) that rejects the popular narrative that positions police as community caretakers, and instead highlights alternatives to mass incarceration and police brutality through speeches and performances. Organizers and artists hope that the event will spark a community conversation that reimagines the meaning of public safety. To open up the discussion, the hashtag #SafetyIs will be adopted at the event, as well as at similar alternative gatherings running nationwide on the same day.

This is the second year that the Ella Baker Center (EBC) has organized the event. Zachary Norris, executive director of the EBC, feels that there is an urgent necessity for an alternative to the nationwide Night Out. “Those who are supposed to protect and serve are not doing that. They are terrorizing communities of color,” said Norris in a recent interview. “We want to bring attention to the fact that relying on the police for community protection has made communities less safe.”

Norris described his understanding of safety as centered in equal access to employment, healthcare, and restorative justice. “Our whole public safety approach is an incarceration-first approach,” he said. Part of the event will be collectively developing alternatives.

This event comes at a time when the #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName movements continue to unfold in resistance to police brutality in the United States. The community gathering will recognize families and victims of police violence, lifting up the names of Demouria Hogg, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland and many others, as well as Oaklanders with similar stories.

The night’s program will include remarks by Cat Brooks, co-chair of ONYX and founder of the Anti-Police-Terror Project, EBC’s local organizer Darris Young, and Norris. Bay area songstress Naima Shalhoub will perform, along with ProjectWHAT! Youth advocate Arvaughn Williams and spoken word artist Camara Brown. For Shalhoub, who facilitates music sessions with incarcerated women in San Francisco County jail, “the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people is a direct reflection of an old, unjust ideology that continues to permeate the same communities of color.” According to Naima, safety is “when everyone’s breath is considered sacred, valued and respected.”

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously referred to Zachary Norris as a co-founder of the Ella Baker Center. He is the current executive director.

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