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For seven straight days, Oaklanders have taken to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality toward Black Americans. In some ways, these events feel wholly unprecedented. In other ways, this moment is reminiscent of previous chapters in the Bay Area’s deep history of political protest and social-justice movement building.
Oaklandside contributors Jeannine Etter and Sarah Belle Lin interviewed four seasoned Black activists with deep organizing experience in Oakland. They reflected on the past week’s demonstrations, and offered advice to younger activists and anyone interested in better understanding this moment.
Their interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
“We have an opportunity to grow something”
Carroll Fife is the Oakland regional director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and a co-founder of the Community Ready Corps. An activist in Oakland for 20 years, she’s helped organize tenant strikes and house homeless people during the pandemic, and has been active in the Moms 4 Housing movement.
It is so inspiring to be in the streets with young people and people who are fed up with conditions we’ve been screaming about for years. That our parents were fighting for and that the Black Panthers who were once in the same streets were fighting for. Now, we’re at an intersection where diverse groups of people are coming together and recognizing that the dial hasn’t moved much.
Right now, the old systems of patriarchy, oppression and racism are dying. I think it is the job of those of us who want to rebirth systems steeped in equity and justice to stay calm and remember to keep our eyes on the prize; to stay focused on what we’re trying to build and create: that which is regenerative, life-giving and nurturing. Because systems are stressed [by the pandemic], we have an opportunity to grow something from the fire and ashes. We’re not accepting ‘no’ for an answer.
I truly believe it is an intention of provocateurs and police forces at the protests to engage in destructive behavior to justify bloated police budgets and more cops on the street, versus investing in solutions that people actually need, like community oversight of enforcement agencies, investment in public education, affordable and no-cost housing, living wage jobs, city workers who actually take care of our city, and stewarding our city resources in ways that are beneficial for all of us.
The same folks who are calling for quiet protests are the same ones who have been silent on creating the policies that need to address these conditions in the first place.
“The chips are gonna fall where the chips fall”
The current protests signal a progression in the people’s politics, and the people in mass are moving in a certain direction. It’s a subtle but significant difference. The state response, it’s just the same pattern. The significant difference is that you have more of the masses engaged.
Political activists, organizers — none of us really do shit. What we do is we move with the people in a certain kind of way. Yes, we do cultivate. We do agitate. We are the catalyst; that’s all we are. But at the end of the day, we’re nothing without the mass. So we have to find a way for everybody to be involved. And when we create these ‘either-or’ positions — “Either you’re standing with my politics, or you’re deficient” — that approach can sometimes be detrimental.
I’ll say to folks sitting at home, there are multiple things they can do to engage. Not the least of which is to be critical of narratives that are presented that criminalize folks who are doing the work. Organize and consult with some folks who have been organizing, and have some understanding of how to create structure.
At the same time, we also have to let the young people do what they do. We have to let the people’s anger be the people’s anger. The chips are gonna fall where the chips fall.
“Be at the protest, but don’t make it about you”
John Jones III is the Director of Community and Political Engagement at Just Cities. Born and raised in East Oakland, Jones has been an activist in his hometown for seven years but has fought for his community for many more. He is a third-generation East Oaklander.
I believe, as someone formerly incarcerated, that we have to center the leadership of directly impacted people, because they know what it’s like to experience these issues.
I don’t see a lot of Black folks being interviewed [by the media]. I’ve seen white folks holding up signs with “I Can’t Breathe.” That bothered me on a deep level. That didn’t look like allyship to me; it looked like people making it about them. When we talk about race, we’re talking about deep-seated emotions and trauma. Be at the protest, but don’t make it about you.
I believe white allies should go in their communities and protest in predominantly white cities. Sometimes there’s a tendency to always come to a city like Oakland. We don’t need people generating awareness. The awareness is already here. We need that in Alameda, Orinda and Lafayette, for example. Disrupt the systems that contribute to it.
We need organized effort as it relates to protests at Google and Apple, for example, to bring this awareness to the corporations. As a part of the community, they should have an inherent responsibility and address all forms of injustice, and not come into communities just to generate profit.
White allies can do that in addition to financially supporting those who already have been on the ground doing the work. Participate in local governments. I think every white ally needs to explicitly state, “I am a white person who will not remain silent on this issue.”
“There’s nothing normal about oppression”
Refa One is the director of AeroSoul, a member of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, a Panther “cub” (the child of a Black Panther Party member) and the artist behind the Oscar Grant mural at the Fruitvale BART station. He comes from a family of community organizers, and has been organizing in Oakland for over 20 years.
The righteous anger that people have, and the police repression of people expressing that righteous anger, is similar to the past. There’s a lot of ideological confusion, and that lack of growth I see has worked its way into this particular moment. It speaks to how much more work we need to do in terms of politically educating the general public.
I think there’s a lot of confusion in terms of not focusing on what the problem is, and just focusing on what the symptoms are. We [African descendants] represent the biggest threat to the system and philosophy of white supremacy. It can’t exist if we’re healthy, and we are the ones to destroy it, which we will. There is no such thing as going back to a normal for an oppressed people, because there’s nothing normal about oppression.
We have to be organized. I understand the righteous anger that gives people a knee-jerk reaction to want to run out in the streets and turn things upside down to bring attention to the issue at hand, but we have to come up with strategies that are sustainable, that are going to reach the masses of our people and transform the minds of our people, which will transform our behaviors.
That’s going to come from rigorous study. We have to use the strategies and tactics and philosophies of the past and see which ones work, which ones don’t work, which ones need to be refined, which ones need to be completely done away with. This is the time for us to do that.
Our ancestors laid it down for us. Master what they learned, stand on that information and improve it. We owe it to them and we owe it to the next generation. So we must do everything within our power, wherever we are, to organize our people in whatever fields we work in that are conducive to our health, growth and wellbeing.