Chants rang out along East 15th Street Friday evening as residents waved multilingual signs declaring, “No crime, no robbery, no prostitution!” and, “We need safe neighborhoods!”
“What do we want?” shouted a woman with a megaphone.
“Safe streets!” responded the mass of people clogging both sides of the street.
“When do we want it?” “Now!”
About 70 people attended the hour-long evening march celebrating the closure of the National Lodge Motel, on International Boulevard and 17th Avenue—a spot long known for prostitution—and the kickoff of a new campaign to reduce prostitution in the San Antonio neighborhood.
Named “Dear John,” because it targets customers by contacting them through form letters, the new program encourages neighbors to report anonymously the license plate numbers of drivers they believe are soliciting sex workers. After reviewing the information, the Oakland Police Department will then send a letter to the owner of the car, emphasizing that prostitution is unacceptable in the community. The tone is not accusatory, but more of a warning, said Jesus Rodriguez, an organizer with Oakland Community Organizations, which was a partner in the event.
“Our belief is that if we can reduce the demand for prostitution, there’s no customers, and then the pimps and the girls won’t be here,” said fellow organizer Andy Nelson, with the East Bay Asian Youth Center. “The hope is that this dissuades some of these guys.”
The letter sending will start this month when neighbors call in tips. On Thursday, the police department will hold a training session for neighbors wishing to participate in the program. The session will cover safety while calling in tips and how to send in reports, Rodriguez said.
Training will be held at the St. Anthony’s Church gymnasium at 1535 16th Avenue at 6 pm.
The Dear John program will last for six months, at which time its effectiveness will be evaluated, according to a press release.
Nelson said a similar program was used in Baltimore, Maryland, and that the neighborhood there was enthusiastic about the campaign.
Friday’s ceremony and march was a partnership between several local schools, community organizations, city officials and churches. Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan and District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan were also in attendance, and pledged the city and police department’s support.
“I really want to thank you for taking back your neighborhood,” Quan said during the ceremony.
After some short speeches, neighbors grabbed pre-packaged sandwiches from nearby tables and headed for the street, carrying signs and pushing children in strollers. With Jordan and a police car leading the way, the group chanted and cheered, eliciting peace signs and curious looks from neighbors.
“It has been such a satisfying project to work with the neighbors to shut down this motel,” said Kernighan, who marched with the group “It encourages me so much that there is so much power when neighborhoods work together.”
Many marchers were local residents who said they have seen the effects of prostitution first hand.
“We hear a lot of horror stories, and some are incredibly brave and want to get out,” said Suzy Kim-Tran, 44, an Oakland social worker who said sex workers often come to her clinic for medical or perinatal care.
Kim-Tran now lives in Fruitvale but used to live in the San Antonio neighborhood, as the National Lodge Motel area is called. “It’s not going to stop,” she said. “It’s a business—so we need to shut down the business.”
Other marchers said the prostitution in the neighborhood affected their daily routines.
“We can barely get into our house,” said Debra Long, 52. “From the johns to the prostitutes to the drug dealers—they’re out there. As many times as we can get out here, they’ll scatter.”
Long and other organizers went door to door, greeting wary residents with a cheery smile and friendly conversation in both Spanish and English. They encouraged neighbors to pledge their support for the campaign by writing down their names and phone numbers so that they could be contacted with further information.
Many of the residents on the block declined, opting instead for one of the informational flyers printed in various languages. Some even refused those. “Nothing works,” muttered a man, as he closed the door on an organizer.
While some neighbors were enthusiastic about the program, as they said they are already in the habit of calling police when they notice suspicious activity, others said they would not want to participate for fear of retribution. As long as their own families were not harmed, they said, they would keep their heads down.
Some expressed concern over police response times, as their current calls already took a great deal of time to be answered.
To every neighbor, regardless of the response, Long had encouraging words and optimism for the Dear John program.
“I think it’s important that they know someone in the neighborhood is active, too,” she said.
After stopping at the last house on the route, Long pointed toward the street, now devoid of marchers and even other neighbors as the sun began to set.
“I remember when I was growing up, the kids would be out here playing,” she said. “Now they’re locked up inside. It’s sad.”