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On Friday morning, I left home early, got on BART, and headed to West Oakland station to join the commemoration of Juneteenth. My day started with the West Coast Port Shutdown, organized by port worker unions from San Diego to Seattle in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Oakland, the shutdown was also meant to support local International Longshore and Warehouse Union members who are against the privatization of the Port of Oakland, which detractors say would put jobs at stake and further displace low-income residents from Oakland neighborhoods.
As I walked along the Adeline Street overpass to proceed to the port, I paused at its highest point to take in the humbling scale of the protest. Thousands filled the streets in support and police presence was essentially non-existent. This rally was particularly musical; a trio of horns got protestors dancing at one point, and a bicycle outfitted with huge speakers blasted old-school hip-hop. Most protesters who I saw wore masks and reasonably respected social-distancing guidelines.
Speeches were made from a huge red truck equipped with a makeshift stage, but for many, the highlight of the morning was when famed political activist Angela Davis’s unmistakable Afro popped up in the middle of the crowd from the sunroof of her Mini Cooper. In her speech, she noted that the ILWU has repeatedly stood up over the decades against acts of injustice, such as the South African apartheid system and the internment of Japanese-Americans.
“Thank you for shutting down the ports today on Juneteenth, the day when we renew our commitment to the struggle of freedom,” said Davis. “If I had not chosen to become a university professor, my next choice probably would’ve been to become a dockworker or warehouse worker, to be a member of the most radical union in history.”
For some protestors in attendance, the port shutdown also provoked deeply personal feelings. “I grew up here and I just moved back after being gone for quite some time and [the Bay Area] has changed a lot. I’m really hoping that this movement creates more equity for people who have been here a lot longer,” said protester Mareah Campo.
“I’m half-Black and half-Filipino. This is actually my first year celebrating Juneteenth, and this is important to me in realizing that I grew up with more privilege than other Black kids,” said protester Brianne Grey. She reflected on growing closer to her Black heritage as she’s gotten older. “Being a part of this movement will help me rediscover the person who I probably would’ve been otherwise. This is bringing me back to myself and the community,” she said.
For many, the holiday also sparks conversations and questions about reparations for past and ongoing harms. How do we honor this history and share joy in its commemoration, but remain accountable for what and who is owed? In recent years, and especially in recent weeks, we’ve seen more and more institutions and sectors wrestle with these questions in the Bay Area and beyond.
For example, last year, San Francisco expunged thousands of marijuana-related felony and misdemeanor cases dating back to 1975. The “War on Drugs” has been a key driver of mass criminalization of Black and brown people in the U.S., and marijuana legalization remains a racialized issue. How can we create opportunities that undo the damage of this country’s failed drug war and restore the rights of people disproportionately caught up in its wreckage?
As the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to gain steam in recent years, elite academic institutions such as Harvard and Georgetown have taken notable steps in grappling with their histories of using slave labor and accepting major funding from plantation owners. As the movement continues, how are these institutions creating pathways and supporting Black and brown students on campuses that weren’t built to include them? And how do we continue to support HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities who’ve seen a decline in federal funding and whose student bodies are largely made up of first-generation, low-income college students?
As a first-generation Guyanese-American, the celebration of emancipation holds a particular meaning for me. It has always been a unique experience of honoring and staying grounded in my Caribbean culture but being equally captivated by learning about and celebrating the African-American experience. For me, Juneteenth has always been about the spark of conversations that can take us in new directions.
Juneteenth first came across my radar when I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Dance Africa’s Bazaar during my early years of high school. I was at a vendor stand that was selling t-shirts with jazz legends such as Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. A scholarly elder gentleman and I got into a discussion, and he brought Juneteenth into my world. My understanding of Juneteenth has evolved over the years into a holiday that celebrates Blackness. Juneteenth is the day that I hold my head just a little bit higher.
Recent events have forced this country to critically examine our history and be attentive in the ways we move forward. It brings me immense happiness to be able to write that I feel Juneteenth is finally getting the consideration it deserves.