Fruitvale's Noel Gallo Walks the Walk
A councilman strolls his Fruitvale District hoping to reduce crime.
Volunteers and business owners walk the street with Noel Gallo on Friday nights in Fruitvale.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
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On a rainy Friday night in December, Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo addresses about 40 residents as they prepared to walk International Boulevard and promote public safety.”Don’t worry about the rain; it won’t hurt you,” Gallo tells the crowd.”It might even wash away your sins.”
Since being elected in 2102 to represent the District 5 seat on the Oakland City Council, Gallo has been known as a tough-talking councilman who leads a weekly brigade of residents combating the city’s persistent illegal dumping problem, one discarded mattress at a time. But, starting in December, Gallo began using a similar tactic to boost the Fruitvale corridor’s profile by leading neighbors and small business owners on Friday night safety walks from around the Fruitvale BART station to up to 15 blocks north up International.
“This is old-fashioned organizing,” says Gallo, who is wearing a fluorescent yellow safety vest issued by the city’s public works department.”It says you have to be held accountable for your streets.”
Gallo has worked over the past months to encourage many small businesses lining International near Fruitvale Avenue to stay open later on Friday and Saturday nights. And, if not, to ask them to at least keep their stores lit overnight. The residual light makes a difference in persuading potential criminal acts from occurring in the neighborhood, he says. Streetlights have also been fixed recently, adding even more light as well as creating the sense the city cares about the area.”I tell people they need to take over their neighborhoods,” Gallo adds.”Don’t rely on the police.” As Gallo’s group passes through the small shops and Mexican restaurants near 36th Avenue and International, women exercising to thick Latin beats follow the throng with their eyes, and a small line of patrons ordering food at El Farolito turns and stares. In each case, Gallo sticks his head in and greets them with a quick hello. On the other side of the street, a man in his car screams profanities at the group, believing they are protesters who have taken to the streets of Oakland and Berkeley in recent days over police brutality.”We love you, too!” Gallo yells back.
Additional eyes on the streets will undoubtedly deter crime in the district. But as of today crime persists, whether through robberies or the sex trafficking that still occurs along International. Most area robberies, Gallo says, occur on Friday nights. During the safety walk, he routinely greets young, hooded teens walking past the group with a stern,”How ya doing?” Most scurry away or change the direction of their paths toward the other side of the street.
“I know a lot of these kids,” Gallo says.”There’s no reason for them to be out here alone at night.” One inherent problem with robberies in Fruitvale, he adds, is the prevalence of day laborers in the area who are often paid under the table. Criminals know these groups are prime targets for shakedowns since they carry cash.
The farther the group moves away from Fruitvale Avenue, the more the streets become what Gallo calls a”ghost town.” Long stretches of empty lots and unoccupied buildings provide cover for additional illegal activity. Nearing an establishment that Gallo and others in the group suspect is hosting illegal gambling in a back room, a small man begins to close the entrance with a large wrought iron door. Gallo has a kind word with the man and continues.”This is the one,” Gallo says knowingly as he gestures toward the people inside shooting pool.”We know what they’re doing, but we don’t stop it.”
However, the most vexing problem in this area is sex trafficking. Over the past year, all levels of local government, led by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, have pushed a full-court press against johns. It doesn’t take very long to see some of the women meandering along International; some in pairs, some alone.”These girls belong to someone,” Gallo says.”Why isn’t someone taking responsibility for them?” He believes the incidents of sex trafficking in his district is decreasing, but he admits his efforts, and those of the police, are only pushing the problem further north into another council member’s district. Starting in October, Gallo now receives a monthly report from the police department listing the number of arrests for human trafficking and other crimes occurring on International. That month, 82 johns were arrested, the report showed, including one-fourth of them hailing from Oakland.
During this safety walk, a contingent of volunteers representing the Christian organization Victory Outreach, keep an eye out for women caught in the sex trade. They admit approaching some of the woman can inadvertently be dangerous to the person they are hoping to help. Sylvia Vigil, an Oakland resident affiliated with the ministry, says some women often will tell them they simply can’t talk right now. Instead, they try to break the ice by simply handing them small flyers containing ways for them to get help.