Over the past month, as protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement have swelled in Oakland and beyond, local Muslim communities have repeatedly come together to raise their voices against police brutality and anti-Blackness.
Four days after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the Northern California Islamic Council, a “peer-to-peer network” of Muslim nonprofit organizations, issued a call to action in solidarity with Black communities. In a letter posted online, the Council decried the harms of white supremacy and urged local Muslim organizations, masjids (mosques), and Islamic centers to participate in a statewide “Day of Outrage” on Jun. 5.
“It was an immediate response to the horrific murder of George Floyd, but also, coming on the heels of COVID-19, seeing the impact on the Black community in Oakland,” said Dr. Hatem Bazian, chair of the Northern California Islamic Council and a co-organizer of the event. “It points to the systematic and structural racism that is generational.”
About a week before the Day of Outrage event in downtown Oakland, the Muslim Anti-Racism Coalition hosted a virtual discussion with ten prominent Black Muslim leaders across the state. Out of that discussion came five action items that Muslims can use to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They included attending the Day of Outrage, writing letters of solidarity with the Black community, addressing anti-Blackness in local mosques and Muslim organizations, and coordinating a phone campaign to pressure Minneapolis prosecutors to seek justice for George Floyd.
“In the tradition of Muslims, we believe in standing up for people who are oppressed,” said Abu Qadir Al-Amin, Imam of the San Francisco Muslim Community Center. “The Prophet [Muhammad] cautioned us to stand in unity with our people. That means we’re going to have to argue in court, stand up in our neighborhoods, and protect and defend ourselves.”
Al-Amin, who is Black, said he has been witnessing events of violent injustice toward Black Americans his whole life. “I was five years old when Emmett Till was murdered,” he said. “When we gathered in protests when Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, I was 18 years old. I remembered the oppressive treatment that was met on people who were just voicing their hurt and discomfort. That’s still coming to the surface.”
“We really want the Muslim community as a whole to be in solidarity now with the African-American community,” said Sundiata Al Rashid, a member of Oakland’s Lighthouse Mosque and co-organizer of the Day of Outrage, during the live-streamed discussion. “We feel like it’s imperative that we have one voice, and that voice is for justice. We need Muslims to come together to seek justice for African-Americans that have suffered at the hands of anti-Black racism coming from the men in uniforms whose job is to protect and serve, and not murder people.”
On the afternoon of Friday, Jun. 5, members of nearly 30 mosques from across the Bay Area, including non-Black-led mosques, gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland as part of the statewide Day of Outrage. Representatives from Oakland mosques including Lighthouse Mosque, Masjid Al-Islam, and Masjid Waritheen helped organize the local event, working with the Northern Californian Islamic Council.
Al Rashid said statewide coordination was organized by a small group of African-American Muslims from Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Imam Faheem Shuaibe from Masjid Waritheen, located not far from Fruitvale BART station and the oldest mosque in Oakland, led the event’s outdoor Jummah prayer. He said the Prophet Muhammad had a tradition of pointing out injustices in society.
“He gave us three things to do,” said Shuaibe. “He said to first stop [injustices] with your hand. If you can’t stop it with your hand, then speak out about it. If you can’t speak out about it, you can feel bad about it in your heart—but that’s the weakest of faith.”
Shuaibe said the Day of Outage resonated with The Prophet’s second recommendation, that of speaking out. “We’re not going to simply sit there and feel bad about it in our hearts,” he said.
Following that event, another Muslim faith-based event centered around the Black community was organized at De Fremery Park in West Oakland. The next planned action is a car caravan on July 4 beginning at Lighthouse Mosque, traveling to different locations in Oakland where police have killed Black people.
Muslims of different backgrounds working together
The Arab Resource and Organizing Center, or AROC, is based in San Francisco. Along with Oakland’s Anti-Police Terror Project, AROC was involved in organizing an early-morning march on Jun. 15 to the homes of several Oakland city councilmembers. According to AROC executive director Lara Kiswana, the organization is currently involved in efforts pushing for the defunding the Oakland and San Francisco police departments, and developing trainings on alternatives to policing in Arab and Muslim communities.
“AROC comes from a long tradition of internationalism that is very much based on Black and Brown solidarity,” said Kiswani. “We understand Black liberation as necessary for all people’s freedom, including the freedom of Arab people, and have worked alongside Black liberation organizations since our inception.”
On Jun. 19, also known as Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the liberation of Black slaves in the United States, AROC was one of the organizations involved in coordinating a mass demonstration and march from the Port of Oakland, which was shut down along with 29 other ports on the West Coast, to the Oscar Grant Plaza. Protesters at the march called for the defense of Black lives and defunding of local police.
Kiswani says solidarity between Black and Palestinian communities is nothing new, and is a part of the story of struggle and resistance against racism and militarism around the world.
On Saturday, Jun. 20, a partnership between various Muslim groups and the African-American Muslim community resulted in the distribution of 35,000 pounds of fresh produce for the East Oakland community.
A future collaboration between local Muslim communities will feature a leadership summit, projected for July 25. The summit will focus on highlighting Black Muslim leadership in the areas of sustainable development, business, education, and nonprofit organizations.
Babalwe Kwanele, a licensed family and marriage therapist and a member of Lighthouse Mosque in Temescal, spoke about trauma at the Day of Outrage earlier this month. She said some of the challenges faced by the Black Muslim communities in Oakland are brought on by economic challenges, and that gentrification has exacerbated the problems. “It is heartbreaking to see a lot of violence in the community because of gentrification, unfair practices, and unfair policing,” she said.
Kwanele said trauma can be brought on by repeated exposure to police violence, and can take on many forms, including rage, pain, and grief, and deteriorating physical and mental health. She said this trauma can pass down through generations of families.
“The trauma I’m witnessing [during the protests] is definitely multilayered,” said Kwanele. “It’s trauma produced by systematic racial oppression, institutionalized racism, and a lack of an opportunity to heal.”
As inspiration and source of healing, Kwanele pointed to Oakland’s rich activist history with the Black Panther Party and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, which Kwanele joined at the age of 15.
Kwanele lived in East Oakland for roughly 20 years and comes from a family of activists. Her father was a member of the civil rights group CORE, and her mother was a community activist. Before converting to Islam, Kwanele was a founding member of the Young Comrades, a group mentored by Black Panthers.
If she could speak to the larger community, she said, she’d want to remind people of faith—to remember the power of prayer, especially in times of despair. “I feel when we are praying collectively, and you have a group of people feeling that sense of pain, the beauty of that process is just beyond words. It’s healing, is what it is.”
In 1959, Malcolm X arrived in Oakland and opened a mosque on West Oakland’s Henry Street. W. Deen Mohammed, who was Malcolm X’s advisor, eventually took over, and then founded Masjid Waritheen in East Oakland, the first and oldest mosque in Oakland, and second oldest in the Bay Area.
Amir Sundiata Al Rashid of Lighthouse Mosque says this history is one example of the ways in which the American Muslim experience is, for many, inextricably tied to the movement to protect Black lives. “When you gonna have African-American leadership, it’s going to be in step with the Black freedom struggle,” said Al Rashid. “Other places might concentrate on different struggles, like in Palestine and Syria.”
Today, there are five African-American-led masjids in Oakland: Masjid Waritheen, Oakland Islamic Community Center near the Oakland airport, Masjid Al-Islam in Eastmont, Jammatus Salam near Highland Hospital, and Lighthouse Mosque.
Several Muslim schools serving the Black community in Oakland—including a full-time primary school and a middle school—have closed in recent years, which Al Rashid said has been hard on local families. He hopes that the Black Lives Matter movement, and the energetic participation of local Muslims in recent actions, can help set the stage for renewed investment in programs and institutions to serve Black Muslims of all ages.
On Saturday, Jun. 13, Al Rashid helped organize a meeting at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. The meeting was led by Suzanne Barakat, Abdul Rahman Jandali, and other local parents trying to combat the effects of systematic racism and neglect on inner-city communities.
The plan carved out at the meeting centered around renting out the 38,000 square-foot mosque and implementing new programs, including a women’s center and a teen center. Al Rashid said the coalition could meet up every Friday night to work on issues around health, social justice, and harm reduction.
“We want this to be different from a masjid youth group,” he said, where discussion is largely limited to issues related to the mosque and to religion. The traditional youth groups, said Al Rashid, aren’t always the “safest place for people to discuss things.” He also hopes the conversations will be welcoming to diverse Oakland residents. “They don’t necessarily have to be Muslim.”
A plan is also in the works, said Al Rashid, to organize a West Coast council of Black Muslims from different mosques that could weigh in on matters of racism and police violence from a community perspective. The coalition could include leaders from Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.
“We want all Black Muslims to be represented by one body and one governing coalition that everybody has input on,” said Al Rashid. “We want to make sure that Black Muslims have a seat at the table when things are being discussed.”
Al Rashid said police violence has “been our story since we been here,” and that he has personally observed police violence toward Black Muslims in Oakland. The violence, he believes, is worsening. He noted that while Black Muslims were involved in the Oscar Grant protests, that participation wasn’t as widespread as the recent alliances mobilized in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“The Muslim community in America is often very active, but a lot of their activity isn’t centered around anti-Blackness,” said Al Rashid. “I feel like in the wake of what happened to George Floyd, that’s woken up a lot of people.”