Shared from the 1/1/2022 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Oakland events try to calm fears, take back parks

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Photos by Jungho Kim / Special to The Chronicle 2021

Youngsters play basketball during the Town Nights event at Elmhurst Park in Oakland in December. Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention put on the programs at eight locations.

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A local resident looks through free clothing at a table set up for the Town Night program at San Antonio Park in Oakland.

A meal, activities for kids and conversation with neighbors drew families and other residents on a recent Friday evening to a park in central Oakland that some began avoiding after several shootings in the past year.

A dozen youths played volleyball. The Grinch played on a large screen for children. Two boys rode their skateboards through groups of people eating a free dinner of nachos, chicken and hot dogs.

It was a far different scene than one earlier in 2021 in the park, where community members and others had gathered for a healing circle after a man was shot and injured, a shooting that was followed months later by another. City leaders hope that the more festive event held in the park in December will help them begin pointing the neighborhood, and the city — ravaged by the highest homicide toll in 2021 in more than a decade — in a new direction.

“It will take time to build, but we are building it,” said Guillermo Cespedes, chief of Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention, who began the Town Nights program in November. It’s modeled after a similar program that Cespedes started in Los Angeles that is credited with significantly reducing violent crime in the areas where the events are held.

The idea is to bring people together who have seen violence disrupt their communities and perhaps attract young people who might otherwise engage in those crimes. Though not everyone is convinced — Oakland’s police chief voiced support with reservations — organizers hope that building relationships among community members, some of whom are victims while others are potential perpetrators, will help reduce crime in these communities.

At San Antonio Park on Dec. 10, Antoinette McCullough looked through a rack of free clothing set up on the tennis courts. Her 11-year-old son handed her a free hoodie before running over to grab some free chicken and nachos.

“Since COVID has happened, people haven’t had too many outlets,” McCullough said. “There is a lot of destruction. This lets people come out and have natural-born fun. It’s not all terror and violence.”

For three Fridays and one Monday — between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17 — community organizations, with the support of the violence prevention department, hosted the first Town Nights at eight locations throughout Oakland with the highest level of shootings and violent crime. The events occurred mostly in the evenings when parks are typically otherwise empty. Another series of Town Nights will be rolled out in June because city leaders say crime spikes in the summer.

As homicides continue to climb in Oakland and nationwide, and an unrelenting pandemic enters its third year, the Department of Violence Prevention’s strategies are being put to test. For 2021, Oakland recorded the highest number of homicides through 51 weeks since 2006 at 123 — not including 11 deemed to be in self-defense, accidental or otherwise noncriminal.

Town Nights is modeled after a gang reduction program that Cespedes started in 2000 in Los Angeles called the Summer of Success, which similarly hosted events in city parks. The program was implemented for two summers and preceded a 82% reduction in homicides the first summer and 34% in the second. In 2007, the program was relaunched as Summer Night Lights. Now, it’s held in 34 city parks every summer. In 2019, the most recent data available, the program reduced gang violence at more than 70% of the sites that held the event, according to the Los Angeles mayor’s office.

Cespedes said that the department decided to begin the first installment in Oakland this winter given the surge in violent crimes and the dire need for alternative activities for residents.

“We are building a strategy ... in pieces,” Cespedes said. “Even though we would like to reduce violence immediately, we have to be thoughtful and methodical about the way that we do it. We are trying to get neighborhoods to cooperate with each other and not get involved in violence.”

The program is possible in large part after the City Council added $17 million to the Violence prevention department’s budget — a historic investment — which will be distributed in two installments of about $7 million in the first year of the budget and about $10 million in the second year. The department also receives $8.4 million per year in funding from Measure Z, which will be used to maintain current contracts.

Cespedes said success will take time. The city is partnering with violence interrupters to build relationships with residents — whether they are victims or the perpetrators of violence.

“Give me an audience with the shooters,” said Kentrell Killens, a life coach and case manager for the Department of Violence Prevention. “Give me an audience with the juvenile population.”

Killens said part of the strategy is engaging those who commit acts of violence and convincing them to “now become the protectors of community.” These conversations happen in secret — in people’s homes or in parking lots — and require trust.

“In this model, we don’t need guns, we need voices, we need commitments, we need agreements, we need lines drawn,” Killens said. “If we are not entrenched in community, we don’t get the benefit of having this conversation.”

The hope is that eventually those who commit crimes will instead choose not to. Town Nights is an outlet for people to make a different choice, Cespedes said.

In a November interview, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said he was hopeful the Department of Violence Prevention’s strategies would make an impact and that Town Nights would “give young people in our community a place to go.” But he questioned whether it would draw people who would otherwise commit crimes.

“What I don’t believe is that those that are involved in violence will participate in those types of programs,” Armstrong said. “I don’t believe they will be at the parks.”

On Monday, Armstrong said he attended several Town Nights events and was encouraged by what he saw.

“I believe it is a help,” Armstrong said when asked about whether the events can prevent crime. “We are working collectively to figure out how we can get our arms around our community, and I think programs like that have really been helpful.”

It’s this kind of model that Council Member Carroll Fife, an outspoken advocate for more violence prevention services, said she wants to see more of. At the last council meeting of the year, as members discussed more potential investment in police, Fife urged the council to give violence prevention a chance.

Fife attended a Town Nights event at the West Oakland Youth Center, which had a toy giveaway and a Santa, as well as a free dinner, groceries and clothes. The event was hosted by the Urban Peace Movement, a youth organization, and Hoover Foster Resident Action Council, a neighborhood organization.

“It felt good to see so many people smiling and laughing and be in community together, especially at a time where there has been so much loss,” Fife said. “And to see different groups making sure people are being taken care of.”

Andrew Park, the executive director of Trybe, a community organization in Oakland that put together the Town Nights event in San Antonio Park, said he was surprised by the turnout there. In the days leading up to each Town Nights, his staff called residents, knocked on doors and put up flyers in the neighborhood urging them to come out.

“The families, the children, the young men and some of the older men who came out, who normally might not come out to events like that — all of those things highlight why it’s so important to do it,” Park said.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

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