Creating “Safe” Neighborhoods: A reflection on my neighborhood’s private patrol — and what to do with my disapproval

Cross-posted with permission from The White Noise Collective and used in promotion for the upcoming 2nd Annual Night Out for Safety & Democracy, hosted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, CA.

Like many Oakland progressives, my political alarm went off last year in response to the trend towards middle income and affluent neighborhoods hiring private security guards. For Oakland at least, the private patrol debate is relatively new, but it raises many familiar concerns about racial profiling and the feeding of racialized fears by misrepresenting the dangers of city life. Here I reflect on my learning from engaging in the patrol debate in my own mostly white, mostly home-owning neighborhood.

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Since the hiring of private security strikes me as yet another example of those with class privilege investing precious time and money in methods that disproportionately target black and brown people and contribute to the increased privatization of our lives,  I felt grateful not to be in a neighborhood contemplating a patrol — but soon enough it was my turn. In mid 2013 some people in my area began meeting to plan the hiring of our own security guard. 

night-out-bazant-eng_275Bringing the beautiful poster shared by Justice for Families in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin had helped me identify like-minded neighbors at our street’s National Night Out gathering (an event which I had thought of simply as a block party but learned was promoted by the Association of Neighborhood Watch, which in “primarily white middle income areas…uses the coded language of ‘fighting crime’ but in practice… often amounts to monitoring the movement and activities of people of color in and out of their racially exclusive enclaves”). One such neighbor and I, fearing the increased racial profiling that a private patrol could bring to our doorsteps, put our heads together in an attempt to organize a more community-oriented plan to address neighbors’ safety concerns – one that we ultimately hoped could address the racialized and misinformed nature of many of their fears.

We canvassed a four-block area around our houses in the Oakland foothills to share the nature of our concerns and to propose that we work together to create our own improved sense of security – a plan we believed was more inclusive, empowering, and effective than having a security guard. We’d planned to invite residents from an even bigger area to a meeting at my house, but managed only the four blocks when the energy of the four kids we had in tow ran out. It turned out to be a good thing that we’d started small, since we packed my living room with standing room only at our meeting. Our discussion went over-time as our neighbors shared what they loved about our area and what they would like to improve. But it quickly became clear that most of those attending did not share the dream of my co-organizer and I to overthrow the patrol plans.

Instead, many attended because of the momentum created by our neighbors organizing the private patrol. They attended because safety was of concern to them, because they wanted to connect with each other, because they care for our neighborhood, and because they happen to know us (I’ve lived here for over 12 years and my co-host, Cory, is often on her busy corner with her two highly-social four-year-olds).  Cory and I spoke to our group from a belief that we had much of the means in our own hands to address desires for improved safety, and that hiring a patrol would merely increase the disconnect between our actions and their consequences, such as expanded targeting of people of color. However, we we were up against fear as the dominant motivation for attending the gathering. Fear of being mugged, fear of having homes broken into. People had different levels of interest in looking at the greater causes of crime in Oakland, such as studies showing that “high rates of criminal violence are apparently the price of racial and economic inequalities.” But irrespective of their concern for the causes of crime, most of the neighbors in my living room that night felt that hiring a patrol was a simple, appealing deterrent.

OaklandPrivatesecurity2-thumb-640xauto-9541Looking around our city, we could see ourselves as part of a pattern. People we respected were questioning the patrols. As Zach Norris of the Ella Baker Center points out in a Colorlines article, “Bay Area residents pushed for more police in the streets and for longer sentencing, starting in the 1970s—but that hasn’t translated into making for a safer community for those who are being displaced or for those who are moving in.” But at the same time, the majorities in affluent/gentrifying neighborhoods moved quickly to establish patrols, without taking into account the disapproval. In other words, once again there has been a push for a more “policed” response to fear, one that is not guided by a plan to treat the safety of all people equally, nor to address, in particular, the concerns of people of color who are so often made less safe by these efforts.

In our case, many of the people we had felt were “on our side” were deciding to give the patrol a try, even while expressing enthusiasm for our community-building efforts. And the most vocal opponent of private security of all in our neighborhood, a white male, wrote long accusatory public emails to the patrol board but declined our efforts to meet with him. An anonymous angry anti-patrol letter was mailed to all of us on “Season’s Greetings” stationery. Many neighbors were upset by the secretive nature of the letter and were not inclined to take the content seriously. Cory and I were in agreement with much of the letter but confused about how to build on its sentiment. Many people asked – directly or indirectly — if the letter was from me. And meanwhile during that period, dismissed by a potential ally and suspected by longtime neighbors of behaving in direct contrast to my efforts to be out-spoken, we hosted more meetings which revealed we were outnumbered by those who were enthusiastic to try the patrol. While maintaining a continued desire to address our concerns about the private security – which received a comfortable majority vote and is now in place in our neighborhood — we decided that a fight to prevent the patrol would be unsuccessful.

So what were our other options, in the face of what we felt would be a losing battle against the patrol? How could we continue to build community and trust while at the same time maintaining a vocal disapproval of a program the majority of our neighbors pay for every month?

We continue to ask ourselves these questions, and continue to host community-building meetings which have come to include small working groups focusing on several topics of concern. Some of the projects which have arisen feel closer to my heart, such as a thoughtful one by the “Extending Support Beyond our Blocks” group. Interested in “being helpful,” but concerned not to impose their own understanding of need, this group approached the rec center down the block to ask if there was something the center would like from our group. The resulting project, then, which invited neighbors to help decorate for our local rec center’s winter fundraiser, maintained the centrality of the rec center’s autonomy, and at the same time supported relationship-building with an organization many of us walk past every day and which therefore stands to benefit all of us.

But it is the projects that don’t feel close to my heart that have offered the most significant learning opportunities for me. For example, the “Safety and Security” committee chose to begin with an element of security unrelated to crime: gutter cleaning. Our most popular event to date, the committee organized neighbors to troop from house to house cleaning gutters, while others stayed back with the kids and set up the potluck. Participants were downright giddy with the pleasure of doing physical work as a team and helping out grateful neighbors who wouldn’t want or be able to do this work themselves. A group of gutter-cleaners even organized themselves later to help an ailing neighbor to clear masses of dead leaves and fallen fruit. While this activity feels in itself a far cry from the political work I had intended, I have come to see a connection between the gutter cleaning and my broader concerns. My neighbors, like all of us, lead diminished lives due to the racism that teaches us fear of our streets and the commercialism that promotes our increased isolation. The pleasure that we are finding in working together is, I believe, a step towards an understanding of what brings people a deeper sense of security: connections with others. My hope is that a taste of the community that is so hard to come by in our fearful society can provide an opening for me to pursue discussions, with my neighbors, of a key white anti-racist principle: the losses that racism causes to white people.

My own committee, the smallest, focuses on “human rights and language” concerns. Much of my time has been spent in one-on-one discussion with the head of the patrol board, in an effort to share feedback from those of us against the patrol and to mitigate some of the problems of having the patrol. We’ve had some requests honored: to not have racial descriptions reported by email of people allegedly engaged in “suspicious activity;” to not have security company signs posted around the neighborhood. Fortunately, we did not have to request that guards not be armed, as there was broad agreement on that point from the outset. These conversations have been fascinating and have taught me a lot about finding common ground with people who are in various ways my political opponents.

There are certainly times when we oppose people with whom we disagree so significantly that compromises do nothing to serve our agenda. This does not feel like such a case. I will not give up, but I recognize that I do not yet have a large enough group of allies in my neighborhood to win a campaign against private security.  While I can do other sorts of political work outside of my neighborhood, if working effectively within it is also important to me then I must acknowledge my role here, as a political minority on this issue as well as many other issues. And working with my neighbors is important to me, much in the same way that family members are often important to us. These are the people I see every day, for whom I’ve come to have affection not only as individuals but as a collective that holds the power to shape a life closer to the one I dream of for all people, a life in which we accept and benefit from our interdependence.

I am not talking about withdrawing to my privileged neighborhood and abandoning the fight against injustice for teatime discussions of “political differences.” I am not talking about letting the Zimmermans and Dunns of the world live next door to me without consequence. I am talking about a commitment to accountable, persistent, one-on-one conversations within my sphere-of-influence: similarly privileged white people whose will to change, like mine, is essential for progress towards social justice. So my agenda is not to “go along to get along,” but to continue advocating for greater awareness of the effects and dangers of racism and classism, in sustainable dialogue with my mostly white, potentially anti-racist neighbors.

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Questions of where to go next and how we might push back against the private security and other related problems continue for us. And yet the small-scale work of investing in neighborhood relationships – both with an intent to pursue difficult conversations around race and class as well as for the intrinsic value of stronger community – offer us continuous lessons on the nature of the struggle.

Here are some of the questions that have been raised for me as part of this process:

  • How do we engage our neighbors in localized democracy when we are all accustomed to specialists taking action for us?
  • How can our neighborhoods do a better job of including marginalized voices than do most institutions?
  • How do we best acknowledge fear and recognize the legitimate dangers, and at the same time question the fears we’ve been taught, especially as women? 
  • What do we make of responses that private security is safer for people of color than allowing potentially violent residents to take safety into their own hands?
  • What would improved community-run safety programs look like, given what we already know about police and racial profiling?
  • How do we best connect the relatively new debates about private patrols to longer-standing conversations around racial profiling, privatization, and other relevant topics?
  • What are the most successful methods for people with white skin privilege to engage other white people in their lives in acknowledgement of and reflection on that privilege?
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