Last Saturday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf invited Arab and Muslim leaders to voice our concerns about the political climate. It may come as a surprise that we spent the hour-and-a-half meeting focused less on the federal policies that have been dominating the headlines, than on the long-standing issues facing Oakland residents, particularly in working-class communities of color.
Yes, the Muslim ban is an extreme form of anti-Arab, African and Muslim violence. Yes, our places of worship and organizations are at risk of attack. Our safety and livelihood are under threat, a threat faced by many who call Oakland home. The two main issues, by no means new issues, consistently raised in the meeting were policing and displacement.
How can we talk about protecting communities from federal police when local police have a notorious reputation for violence? Currently, nearly 60 percent of the city’s budget is sucked by the Oakland Police budget. How can a department that voluntarily collaborates with federal law enforcement, including the FBI, which systematically targets us, protect us?
Particularly when it trains in the federally-funded Urban Shield exercise, the infamous police war games training and weapons expo that teaches them to relate to us as enemy combatants.
How can we talk about protecting people from the federal government when many cannot even afford to live in Oakland anymore? How can we discuss safety without addressing shelter? Whether we are sitting around the table with public officials or around our kitchen tables, conversations about the travel ban against Arab, African, and Muslim countries are inherently connected to our conversations about displacement.
The death of Yonas Alehegne, a homeless man with mental health issues from Ethiopia shot and killed by Oakland police, is a part of this conversation. Yonas’ country wasn’t listed on the travel ban, but his life was taken by law enforcement, and we suffer that loss and trauma in our communities.
The mayor asked us for ways to address problems. Yet when offered solutions like redirecting funds away from the police and into community alternatives, she dismissed them as “ridiculous.” When pressed on affordable housing, she insisted that we cannot build “a wall” around Oakland and keep wealthy people out. And, even when asked to follow the lead of San Francisco, and end the local police collaboration with the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, she seemed to prioritize protecting police over people.
For us, more law enforcement does not equal more safety. I hope that the mayor heard our request for the city to protect our mosques against hate violence. I hope she also heard us insist that we don’t want to be “protected” at the expense of the further criminalization of people of color, that so often comes with increased police presence in our neighborhoods.
The city should invest in the leadership of impacted communities who can guide conversations about building sustainable and holistic initiatives that will keep our neighborhoods safe.
Reducing law enforcement and damming the flood of displacement would protect and strengthen Arab, Muslim and other targeted communities. The city can resource schools, community organizations, cultural spaces and mental health programs instead of maintaining a budget that is overwhelmingly weighted toward policing.
If we want to talk about ways to protect people from the Trump administration’s federal policies, we must first ensure that people’s basic necessities and livelihood that aren’t threatened by our own local institutions.
Only then will our city’s residents be truly equipped to protect one another and effectively resist racist policies. Let’s make sanctuary a real practice in Oakland.
Lara Kiswani is executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in Oakland.