Interview with Cat Brooks by Eric K. Arnold
If you live in the Bay Area, it’s practically impossible to ignore Cat Brooks. She’s seemingly everywhere; on any given week, you might find her leading women’s marches against state-sponsored violence, holding press conferences at police headquarters for the Anti Police Terror Project (APTP), co-hosting KPFA-FM public affairs show “UpFront,” writing op/eds on how to correctly protest for the East Bay Express, speaking about the Black Panthers in a video installation at the Oakland Museum of California, pushing back against Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf on Facebook, or starring in a Lower Bottom Playaz stage production at theater venue The Flight Deck. And you thought your life was busy.
Brooks, whose background is as an attorney and actor, first came to prominence as a community activist as a member of the Onyx Organizing Committee (OOC), whose blog describes it as “an Afrikan liberation organization dedicated to the empowerment of all people of color.” OCC was active in the struggle against police violence in the years following the murder of Oscar Grant. During Occupy Oakland, the group maintained a POC presence at demonstrations, and occasionally clashed with would-be allies like the Revolutionary Communist Party over tactics —OCC spoke out against the destruction of small businesses and low-income communities of color, arguing that such actions would be more appropriate in affluent neighborhoods which lack diverse populations. OOC is currently on hiatus, but the same cannot be said of Brooks, who is highly active in both Black Lives Matter Bay Area and APTP. Recently, Reimagine! RPE caught up with Brooks. Here’s what she had to say.
Eric Arnold: Now, you’ve stated in past interviews that the murder of Oscar Grant was a catalyzing moment for you. Since then, we’ve seen similar scenes of police murder and violence against Black Americans caught on video all across the country. What needs to happen for this to change?
Cat Brooks: The first thing that we have to all come to a consensus on is that policing can’t be reformed, and it can’t be fixed. It can’t be fixed or reformed because it’s not broken. It’s not like policing was going along working well for Black, and Brown, and poor people in this country and then something went awfully awry and now we have to get back on track. Most people know that policing in this country was born out of the slave trade, the slave-catchers in particular, whose job then was to hunt, catch, kill, and/or incarcerate Black people. And that’s what it’s continuing to do. This particular moment in time affords us an opportunity to have some bold, and what some would consider crazy, conversations. And what I mean by that is: admitting that policing (and prisons for that matter) don’t work for anybody—Black, Brown, white or otherwise. White supremacy has done 600 years of damage. We’re hurt people. We need something as we try to unpack and heal from the last 600 years, but punitive and militarized policing and prisons is not the answer. So that needs to be the long game.
In the short term, we do believe that radical reforms need to take place in the meantime. This is the system we have now, so how do we create the conditions that stem the tide of Black and Brown bodies that are falling all over the streets of America at the hands of law enforcement? Radical reform looks like arresting, convicting and jailing police officers who murder unarmed citizens. It looks like leave without pay. It does look like body cameras but not in the sense that body cameras are the answer, right. And we have to really talk about what regulations around body cameras and consequences for not turning on cameras and where that footage goes, and all of those things. It looks like police commissions that are community-controlled, and by that I do not mean what is happening in Oakland. I want to be really clear about that. I mean what the Panthers were calling for 50 years ago and what we need to continue to call for today, which is community control of the police with the ability to hire, fire and discipline.
Arnold: Why, in your view, is it so difficult for police to comply with accountability regarding misconduct?
Brooks: I don’t think anybody is really seriously holding them accountable. I think that we’re getting paid a lot of lip service. The police in and of themselves aren’t the problem. So we should start there. Law enforcement, police departments across the country in and of themselves are not the problem. They are the frontline troops that enforce the mandate of the larger political. There are systems and institutions of white supremacy that impact who lives where, who gets what education, who has access to what jobs, who gets pushed out when, who gets incarcerated, etc., [and] the police are mandated by other people to utilize force.... Nobody’s having a serious conversation about dismantling systems of white supremacy and inequitable opportunity in this country; nobody’s serious about holding police officers accountable and they know that. The policing can’t be fixed, because it’s not broken, and tinkering around the edges of it are never going to get us the results that people are looking for. It’s only the kinds of courageous conversations that will actually start to push the needle towards really looking at what policing is and has always been in this country. Why, in a country that believes in democracy and equitable opportunity for everybody and, you know, land of the free and home of the brave, that model does not work along with those messages. They’re not conducive to each other.
Arnold: You’re a member of both the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) and Black Lives Matter (BLM). What’s the difference between the two organizations, and how do their platforms intersect?
Brooks: The first difference is that, while APTP is definitely concerned with Black liberation as a whole and engages on a variety of issues in solidarity, we have decided that our primary focus is to deal with base; engage and combat what we feel is the immediate threat to the physical safety of Black and Brown people in this country. The other difference is that, while we are Black-led, we are not an all-Black organization. We work across race and nationality. [An]other difference is that we’ve got a much more structured leadership formation than BLM. And I’m saying all this with no judgment.
Arnold: What do you make of the comparisons between the Black Panther Party and BLM, and what lessons can we learn from the Panther struggle?
Brooks: I don’t compare Black Lives Matter, as an organization, and the Black Panther Party, as an organization. They are completely separate organizations that exist in two different time frames and two very separate conditions that dictate the type of organizing that needs to happen. What I think we can compare is the Movement for Black Lives right now and the movement for Black liberation that was happening then.... One of the things that I hear people say [is], this isn’t your grandfather’s civil rights or your grandparents’ civil rights movement. You’re right. Ain’t nobody being lynched. Ain’t nobody being drug out of their house by the Klan. Ain’t nobody being set on fire on buses. Ain’t nobody being bitten by dogs, turned on by fire hoses. That said, the levels of surveillance that we’re under are so much more intense, and the complexity of the beast that we’re fighting is so much more intense and violent that it’s caused folks to really think through how, when, where they engage. The other lesson that we need to be pulling from the Panther Party that nobody is doing a very good job at—and actually APTP is in the process of pivoting our work to focus more on that—[is] the survival program. We’re really rooted in the theory that if someone is worried about their life, or they’re worried about feeding their kids, or they’re hungry, that there’s not a lot of room to think about liberation. We need to get back to the basics. In Oakland, we need to be east of 73rd [in the Acorn], organizing those folks, meeting their needs, lessening the boot of oppression on their neck a little bit so they can move around some and think about liberation, and deliver them the tools and the skill sets that some of us have been privileged enough to [bring] into those communities, so that they can rise up and they can lead the next steps of the revolution.
Arnold: You’re also known for your confrontational tactics. Why is confrontation and direct action necessary?
Brooks: Interrupting business as usual is normal because what we’ve learned, as can be seen in the 50-year drought of having conversation about racial equity in this country, unless Black and Brown folk are taking it and shoving it in the face of the establishment and in the faces of mainstream America, nobody’s going to talk about it. It isn’t until we interrupt your daily flow, until we interrupt your commerce, until we make you as close to uncomfortable as we can, to understand what it feels like to be Black or Brown in this country, that anybody’s ever willing to have a conversation.
Arnold: NAACP leaders have called actions like the BART shutdown “counterproductive.” Assuming you disagree with that statement, why is that not the case?
Brooks: You know, it’s unfortunate to me to see the way that some of our more established civil rights organizations in this country have responded to the current moment. Again, these are tactics that they were engaged in when they were younger and more active.
Arnold: You called out Barbara Lee on her support of Libby Schaaf.
Brooks: I called her out specifically around a grant that is coming to Oakland to put 15 “community-oriented police” on the streets of Oakland, and she’s saying that she’s doing it in the name of improving relationships between community and police, in the name of stemming the tide of violence that Black communities are facing at the hands of law enforcement. So how do you use a quote from a mayor who, in the face of an international movement—screaming about police violence—spends her entire first day unapologetically with one of the most corrupt and bloody police departments in the country? Who [stands] by their side as they murdered seven Black men in 2015, one of whom was asleep in his car?
Arnold: Where BLM is concerned, how important is it to have a national platform to address the same issues we’ve been dealing with in Oakland since the Panther era?
Brooks: Movement for Black Lives put out the platform, which is a coalition of a bunch of groups. I personally believe that we’ve got to be moving simultaneous paths. What I was talking about earlier in terms of specific police reform—we’re really talking about liberation for Black people in this country. We have to both be divesting from the system and investing in our own communities, and, by that, I mean trading models by which we can rely on the state less and less and empower the people that take care of our own business because the truth is that America is never going to treat us like full human beings. In the meantime, we do need to be articulating and fighting for policies that make it less oppressive for us to live in this country. I believe it’s a policy platform providing opportunity for folks who may not want to engage in direct action with some of the other tactics that we’ve been using to still fight for liberatory conditions in this country.
Arnold: What inspired you about the BLM organization or the Movement for Black Lives?
Brooks: I was inspired by what the organization ignited in the hearts and minds of thousands of Black people across the country and the world. I’m inspired by the numbers of people willing to put their bodies, and their freedom, and their money on the line in the name of Black liberation. I’m inspired by the unapologetic love that people that are working The Movement for Black Lives have today. For BLM, specifically... they bravely and boldly came out and said we’re talking about all Black lives, including our queer and trans brothers and sisters. I thought that was a critical pivot from where we had been previously to where we need to move towards.... [I’m also ] inspired by the unapologetic support of and upliftment of Black women as leaders in this movement. That’s also particularly unique to BLM.
Arnold: What do you say to people who say BLM and APTP should address Black on Black violence?
Brooks: As far as BLM is concerned, and the platform makes it evident, BLM is not just concerned about police violence. BLM is concerned about all of the ways in which the war is being waged on Black lives. If you look at the membership, or the affiliates or the allies that are working in concert underneath that banner, you’ll see that reflected in the work that’s happening across the country. Similarly, APTP is part of the Black Power Network. The Black Power Network is a coalition of Black organizations that are working for Black liberation on all fronts. We work in three areas in particular: reform, reactive and revolutionary. Reform is a policy arena. Reactive is definitely when we’re out in the streets, but that has not just been around policing [but] also around housing, gentrification and other stuff. Revolutionary is the longer term work that we’re doing in creating models for disengagement from the system that we currently have and investing, demonstrating for the people, and empowering the people with alternate models that don’t rely on the state as much.
Black on Black crime. Our value system is that all violence is state violence, and we have reacted repeatedly to inner communal violence locally here in Oakland and there are other groups that are doing it across the state, with the narrative, the understanding, the analysis that it’s the conditions of white supremacy [which] creates and perpetuates inner communal violence. I won’t even call it Black on Black crime. We hurt the people we live closest to, and no matter what lies America tells the rest of the country about the fact that we live in a desegregated society, America is incredibly segregated. So we harm those we live closest to. White people kill mostly white people. Latino people kill mostly Latino people. Black people kill mostly Black people.
Arnold: Any thoughts on the attempted coopting of the BLM hashtag, such as “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter?”
Brooks: Yes, all lives do matter. [But] it should say something about the levels of anti-Blackness and the ways in which white America, and others, see Black... the assertion of the importance of Black lives as such a threat and the unwillingness to really examine anti-Blackness in this country and the way it plays out for Black people in particular, that we would have to have that kind of response. The truth is that’s the courts, the powers that be, the police, the school systems, our local elected officials, [who] aren’t clear that Black lives matter too. If they were, Black people would not be subjected to the conditions that they’re subjected to. So we’re going to focus on Black life right now, and what we promise y’all is that your liberation is intertwined with ours.
Arnold: Any final thoughts?
Brooks: I do know that movements ebb and flow and that we’re flowing right now. This is not a new movement. It’s a continuation of the resistance that Black people have been engaged in since the first wave of revolt. That said, what we do know is that at some point the state is going to react in a violent, harsh, dramatic manner and that will let us know what happens next.
Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of oakulture.com.