Josie de la Cruz Park in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood was bustling for five Friday nights in June and July. Kids jumped in a bounce house and chased baby goats in a petting zoo. Families ate free nachos and took home school supplies and diapers. DJs spun records, graffiti artists battled and event-goers admired the sparkling paint jobs on custom cars.
At the event series’ closer on July 15, Grammy-nominated, Oakland-raised rap duo Los Rakas delivered an arena-worthy performance in Spanish and English as attendees of all ages danced in the low-key neighborhood park.
“When they called us for this event, we tried to make it and perform for our people and give it 100%, like we’re performing for 100,000 people, you know,” Raka Dun, one of the MCs, told KQED while taking pictures with fans. “This is really the community that raised us and that made us.”
These gatherings weren’t put on by an entertainment company or backed by a corporate brand. They were part of a new event series called Town Nights, sponsored by Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention (DVP). Rather than sending in city officials, the DVP worked with trusted community groups like Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ, pronounced “courage”), which organized Town Nights in Fruitvale.
“It’s right there in their hood and it’s for the hood, by the hood,” says CURYJ co-founder and executive director George Galvis. “The people who are organizing it are their neighbors, are their community members, are people who’ve been there, done that, and there’s no otherization.”
Additional organizations—including Homies Empowerment, Family Bridges, Black Cultural Zone, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Urban Peace Movement, the Hoover Foster Resident Action Council and others—threw their own celebrations this summer with DVP funding in East Oakland, West Oakland and Chinatown.
While neighbors getting together and having fun may not immediately read as a form of activism, community organizers see these types of gatherings as a vital part of combating gun violence, which rose sharply during the pandemic in Oakland, San Francisco and other major cities nationwide. 2021 was Oakland’s deadliest year since 2006. In addition to the pandemic’s economic impacts, experts attribute the jump in homicide rates to cuts in social services and fewer violence interrupters on the streets while COVID restrictions were in effect.
For advocates, Town Nights and other free, inclusive community events are part of a larger effort to improve Oakland’s quality of life and, by extension, its public safety. To that end, community groups are keeping the momentum going with events this fall and into the holiday season, and studying the impacts of Town Nights as the political debate around public safety, mass incarceration and alternatives to policing continues.
Ingredients for public safety: jobs and community-building
DVP Chief Guillermo Cespedes says that using $1.1 million of his $25 million 2021–2022 budget to fund cultural activities was a “no-brainer.” Under his leadership, the DVP takes a public health approach to gun violence that focuses on prevention and active intervention alike. DVP’s violence interrupters mediate conflicts and provide support to shooting victims in order to stop retaliation, and the department also focuses on long-term, systemic changes. That’s where programs like Town Nights come in.
“The small percentage of people that are committing violence … we’re concerned with changing their behavior,” Cespedes says. “At the same time, we have to change the conditions in which that behavior takes place. To do one without the other, it’s not sustainable. So I’m really hopeful in the direction that we’re going in.”
To understand why events like Town Nights are part of Oakland’s public safety strategy, it’s important to look at the root causes of crime, activists say. “The safest communities do not have the most police. They have the most resources,” says Galvis of CURYJ.
He and other restorative justice practitioners see those underlying factors as lack of access to food, clothing and shelter, as well as social and emotional health, educational opportunities and jobs. In his view, both political parties in America are “guilty of treating poor people as disposable”—that’s visible in Oakland, where encampments line the streets and majority-Black and Brown schools are the first to shut down when the school district decides to downsize.
“And so when you are constantly treated in that manner, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes, and life feels more disposable,” says Galvis. “And people act in ways that are self-destructive and can be destructive to their community and their peers.”
Galvis knows this himself. He was incarcerated at age 17 because of his role in a drive-by shooting, but he went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Berkeley, and became a leader in his community. In addition to co-founding CURYJ, he has co-authored criminal justice reform legislation such as Prop 57, which increased opportunities for parole for nonviolent offenders, among other changes.
When it comes to interrupting cycles of violence, “we don’t necessarily subscribe to this white social worker paradigm,” Galvis says. “We are in relationship with [people]. We don’t see our people as cases to be managed. … We’re extending a piece of our heart to them. That becomes a very sacred agreement. And that makes all the difference in the world.”
CURYJ helps teens and young adults find purpose through life-coaching and internships, and holds healing circles to cope with grief and trauma. The group also empowers young people to lead change by educating them on Indigenous and Black traditions and history, and campaigning for legislation that combats mass incarceration.
Neighborhood gatherings have long been part of what CURYJ does. And this summer, city funding allowed them to hire dozens of young people to check in visitors, clean up Josie de la Cruz Park and run activities.
“The young folks we’re working with are actually helping out their families with bills, with rent or food, helping out their mom and dad,” says CURYJ’s other co-founder and community healing manager Michael Muscadine, noting the Bay Area’s cost of living is an even greater burden now because of inflation. “A lot of them are going to college, it’s very challenging for them—so anything that helps.”
Beyond employing these young people for five Fridays, Town Nights was designed to get them involved in CURYJ’s other programs, including paid Homies 4 Justice internships, which are still accepting applications through Sept. 24.
“I see myself in every single one of them,” says Muscadine. “I’m very patient with them. So when I see them show up for week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, and they’re out there just grinding, and then they’re checking in with me like, ‘Hey, what’s next? How can I get involved in the garden? What are you guys doing?’”
That’s when a party in a park becomes part of healing a community, or as CURYJ life coaches like to say, “La cultura cura.”
Tracking the impact of violence prevention
KQED spoke with community organizers from Family Bridges in Chinatown, BOSS and Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland and Urban Peace Movement in West Oakland. All shared powerful examples of Town Nights’ positive impact on their respective neighborhoods.
The events brought life back to Lincoln Square Park in Chinatown, an area shaken by high-profile attacks on elders in recent years. “It was an opportunity for community members to see [others] maybe not like themselves in a safe and playful environment,” says Heidi Wong, community health home program director at Family Bridges, which serves low-income, non-English-proficient immigrants. Their events were also a way to support local small businesses still struggling from the fallout of the pandemic.
At Verdese Carter Park in Deep East Oakland, near the San Leandro border, organizers were heartened to see people unselfconsciously having fun. “A lot of folks didn’t even have a chance to experience their childhood, right, because we’re dealing with just a number of things,” says John Jones III, director of reentry and violence prevention programs at BOSS. One young man Jones sometimes runs into on the street corner even jumped in the bounce house. “For him to feel safe enough to, what we call, ‘take his cool off’ and climb in our bouncy house—that for me was just so transformative,” Jones says.
When it comes to tracking the success of Town Nights, the anecdotal evidence is there. “I think the challenge that we have is that it’s terribly expensive to do our scientific evidence to prove the connection between all those activities and violence reduction,” DVP’s Chief Cespedes says.
Some data is already emerging. The Department of Violence Prevention shared its findings with KQED about crime rates during Town Nights. It counted the numbers of homicides and assaults with a firearm in the police beats where the events took place, as well as adjacent police beats. Then it compared those numbers with violent events in the same areas during corresponding dates in 2021. The DVP found that during Town Nights this summer, homicides and assaults with a firearm were down 40% during event hours and down 42% the entire weekend of each event. Across the four weeks that Town Nights took place, homicides and assaults with a firearm were down in West, Central and East Oakland by 37%.
But there’s still a lot of work to do. Despite an optimistic outlook during Town Nights, there have been 85 murders in Oakland in 2022 according to an Oakland Police Department report from Sept. 11—up from 83 at this time in 2021.
Still, violence prevention experts say statistics are only part of the picture. While it’s fairly straightforward for police to tally up the number of shooting victims in a given week, it’s more difficult to quantify how many violent incidents could have happened but didn’t, and why.
“How do you prove that person A was going to shoot person B, and I intervened?” BOSS’ Jones says. “Person A is not going to go to OPD and raise their hand or go to the media and say, ‘John is right, I was going to kill this guy.’ No, they’re not going to convict themselves.”
The future of violence prevention policies
Conversations about violence prevention are happening as inequality continues to increase in the Bay Area, which experts say is the underlying cause of many public safety issues. A history of civic disinvestment in marginalized communities has only gotten worse in the pandemic. The 2010s saw a drop in homicides across California, with a 30% decrease in the entire Bay Area. But when 2020 arrived, much of that progress reversed course. Joblessness and food insecurity soared, and people were cut off from social services and positive social outlets.
“That’s not an uncanny correlation,” says CURYJ’s Galvis.
Also in 2020, racial justice protests sparked calls to reexamine the role of policing and incarceration in public safety. Although the United States imprisons people at higher rates than any other country, research shows this isn’t successful at deterring violent crime. This prompted some Oakland residents to question whether increasing the police budget every year is the most effective way to spend city resources.
“Law enforcement is the only institution in the United States that could fail year over year,” says Sikander Iqbal, deputy director of Urban Peace Movement, an organization that works with youth to transform social conditions that lead to community violence and mass incarceration. “Crime goes up—‘We don’t have enough resources. We need more money.’ Crime goes down—‘We’re doing a great job. We need more money to sustain our resources.’ So it’s the only institution that gets money without even having to be held to the same standard around deliverables.”
Although the Oakland Police Department was never actually defunded despite calls to do so (it saw a $38 million increase in the 2021-2023 budget cycle, and a $5 million increase from federal COVID relief funds), Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force came up with 88 recommendations to divest from policing and invest in social services, which led to an influx of funding for the DVP.
Meanwhile, other parts of the Bay Area have recently swung back to “tough-on-crime” policies, as San Francisco’s recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin has demonstrated. In Oakland, the November election will show which way the political winds are blowing. The city will get a new mayor. Three city council seats are up for grabs. Alameda County will also get a new district attorney. Depending on those results, there may be an opportunity to make the kind of progressive change restorative justice advocates hope for.
As policy conversations continue, the organizations that took part in Town Nights are continuing the momentum of these warm-weather get-togethers. In addition to campaigning for legislation such as AB 503, which would cut down probation time for youth, CURYJ is getting ready for a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and some smaller neighborhood events this fall. Urban Peace Movement and Black Cultural Zone are planning an Oakland Family Reunion with live music and kids’ activities at the Bridge Yard in West Oakland on Sept. 17. And the city-sponsored Town Nights will be back across Oakland next summer.
“This is all part of changing that narrative of fear,” says Cespedes. “Coming together. Breaking bread. … All of that is good medicine.”