Interview with Robbie Clark by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Robbie Clark was born and raised in Oakland, California. They’ve worked with Just Cause for almost 10 years and have been the Housing Rights Campaign lead organizer for the last six years. Clark is currently transitioning into building up the Just Cause Black Priorities Project.
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor: You’ve defined some of that work as battling gentrification. A lot of people have a definition of gentrification, which is simply that it’s a case of taking an existing lower-to-moderate income, primarily African American neighborhood, and slowly or quickly replacing it with a middle-to-upper income white neighborhood. Is that your definition?
Robbie Clark: I think it’s definitely one that resonates with a lot of people and a lot of the ways that people understand it, and it is also a piece of gentrification. But we have to look at the entire process of gentrification in order to identify what are real solutions to the problem and to the issue.
Gentrification is state violence. You can’t talk about the state of Black people in the Bay Area without really talking about gentrification and talking about all the ways that state violence manifests itself: from the police, to housing, to what our education looks like, to our health and access to health, our economic health. All of those things are related to expressions of state violence. By saying gentrification is state violence, it really puts the role of the state at the forefront and names it as violence at the core of it.
I think that there are still some people that will say that there isn’t anything that the city can do about gentrification because that’s just how things are. You know, that’s just how things move, and that’s business as usual. As profit moves, as capitalism grows and develops, it has a detrimental impact on Black People. That’s just what it is. But that simplified definition really doesn’t hold the state or the city accountable in relationship to being able to do something to fight or stop that problem.
The more people see how much gentrification is related to and is just an extension of, or the way that capitalism works in a city, on a city level, the more people see that, the more we can actually agitate people to have a critique of capitalism and think about transforming the economy, transforming the way that money flows, transforming the way that development happens, and doing development from a place of preservation of human beings, and of Black People in particular, in cities like Oakland and San Francisco.
Also, working on trying to get some of our folks back, so really being focused on that. I feel like it’s comparable to the way that they won’t put money into rehabilitation. They don’t want to fix anything. They just wanna do something new. They want to forget there’s anything to fix. I feel like that’s what happens with gentrification. In fact, they just want to build new things in East Oakland, forgetting that there were older buildings that just need to be prepared, repaired and fixed. Those kind of material things or built environment are not the only things that have been neglected and that are in disrepair. The people who have lived there have been neglected, and the economic base there has been neglected. That is in disrepair.
The way that we want to do development, it’s not just about what the streetscape looks like or how tall they build the buildings. Even though that kind of thing’s important, it’s not just about the facade. It’s really about, like, everywhere our neighborhood could grow. We have to think about many existing institutions. You know, how are the churches, and how are the stores in the area? How are the local businesses in the area? How are those things that make a community what it is? Our goal is letting the residents of that city define that, not the economics define what happens in our neighborhood.
Allen-Taylor: How does that work on the gentrification issue with Just Cause relate to your work with Black Lives Matter? Is it intertwined? Or is it different?
Clark: A lot of the relationships that I have with both have been relationships that got built through me doing this work at Just Cause. And when we decided that we were going to do the Black Friday action and block the West Oakland BART station, in addition to responding to the call coming out of the people of Ferguson, was to be able to talk about the many dimensions of state violence, including gentrification.
Allen-Taylor: The popular perception of Black Lives Matter is that it either began or is a movement primarily concerned with the killing of African Americans, either by police or by non-African-Americans. Obviously, things that you’re talking about are much broader than that. Is it that the movement started out of those killing issues and moved into the broader area at some point, either quickly or later? Or is it that it was always involved with the broader issues and it’s just that the popular perception did not pick that up, for whatever reason, maybe because of the media?
Clark: When we started the Bay Area chapter specifically, we were very clear from the beginning that we really wanted our chapter to broadly take on state violence—in that we wanted to do our work in a way that really highlighted a number of different aspects of state violence. But the killing of Black People at the hands of police, at the root of it is capitalism. At the root of it is white supremacy. So I think that the killing of African Americans by police and non-African-Americans is definitely something that is going to get picked up and carried throughout the media. But if you see The Movement For Black Lives’ “Vision For Black Lives” platform online (policy.m4bl.org), that goes into a number of different issue areas: relationship to land, relationship to economic and Black institutions, education and health. I think that policy platform is an expression of the way that a number of Black People who have been organizing Black People throughout this country specifically see how the violence manifests.
Allen-Taylor: How would you describe your relationship to the Bay Area chapter of the Black Lives Matter? Are you in leadership?
Clark: Two years ago I was a part of some of the folks that first came together to create a chapter.
Allen-Taylor: So you were one of the founders of the chapter?
Clark: Yeah. There were a lot of us who were founders. I don’t usually talk about myself as being a founder, but I guess so. When it gets down to it, there were a lot of us who came together to make it happen and to make the Black Friday action happen.
The first thing that we did was the BART shutdown, and even though there were 14 of us, I was one of the 14 that locked up BART and was part of the Black Friday 14. I think people started to see us 14 as being kind of the leadership of the chapter because there was a lot of attention around our holding BART accountable, taking up some of the demands that a lot of folks had on BART after the murder of Oscar Grant, things like that.
But there were over 200 people involved and played a role and had a relationship to that action, and about a quarter of those folks were planning day-to-day [to make] it happen. So there’s been a lot of leadership roles in the development of the chapter.
Allen-Taylor: How should they view what you are saying in relationship to Black Lives Matter? Are you simply speaking for yourself and not for the chapter? I’m assuming that there are no specific leadership positions like chairperson and so forth.
Clark: Yeah, we don’t have any specific leadership positions like that. We have a team of folks who we call our core team, and different ones of us take up different roles to build us out. I’m part of the core team.
Allen-Taylor: Who is authorized to speak for the Black Lives Matter Bay Area chapter?
Clark: I think for me, for most of us who are actually in the core team of Black Lives Matter Bay Area, we have been doing work in more traditional organizations where it’s a lot more cut and dried in terms of who can speak for the organization and all these different things. I think what we’re trying to do is when we do specific actions, or hold specific events, we identify people for those actions, for those events, who are speaking on behalf of Black Lives Matter Bay Area. Sometimes those people are the same and sometimes they’re different people, depending on their relationship to the work.
When we’re putting out something and we’re making a statement, then those people are speaking for the organization. There are people who speak for certain projects who are part of building those projects, and if I wasn’t a part of the work, I wouldn’t talk to you about that program. So I think it’s a lot different from how people traditionally have done things in organizations. Our model is that the folks who are doing that work are the ones that are talking about that work.
Allen-Taylor: Is there room within Black Lives Matter for others to have differing views, slightly differing positions? Is that fair to say?
Clark: I think it’s fair to say that people are going to have different views and positions, but that we want to make sure that they’re aligned with the principles that we have. As long as everyone fits under those principles, if it isn’t a contradiction of those principles, then, yeah, there’s space for folks to have different perspectives and different views.
People have a number of different strategies on how we should get there. So what we’re doing is trying to make this space where as much of that can happen and in a way, where leadership is a little bit more decentralized, because we want people to take ownership of what it is that we’re doing and building and use that as a shield to do what’s going to be best. We’ve done a number of different events as Black Lives Matter Bay Area partnering with other Black organizations, and people will feel connected to Black Lives Matter because we worked together on actions. And they’ll also be building out their own specific group or affinity group or organization.
We’re not looking to be the place where all Black organizing needs to happen. What we’re really looking to do, what our hope is to, like I said, nurture more Black organizing, nurture more Black leadership, and support those folks that are already doing that organizing, that leadership. And having an all-Black space where we’re able to talk about, connect across different issues, different struggles, and really be able to imagine together. So often people are only thinking about how to do “x” thing, or this strategy, or this tactic, and sometimes we just need the space to be in Black communities and just build with each other; talk about our journey as Black People and utilize that to really shape our imagination and utilize our desires for our own self-determination, and for our own liberation.
Whatever kind of negative stereotypes we’ve learned, we try to create a space where we’re able to leave all of that outside and just bring Black love together. In that, there’s a lot of power—just being able to connect with each other and just have Black love and Black joy with each other—and [build] a space where Black imagination can grow. That’s really critical in the Bay Area.
The more that we get pushed out, the more it’s critical that we have that space to imagine what it would look like. To imagine those paths together of how we get to having more self-determined Black communities that are exercising their power politically and in other ways, to stay here, to stay alive, to be healthy.
Allen-Taylor: Getting back to your work with Just Cause, what is the Black Priorities Project going to be?
Clark: It started at POWER—at People Organized to Win Human Employment Rights. POWER merged with Causa Justa a little over a year ago. We were, like, we have to continue to do this work, so we continued to do the base-building work.
Allen-Taylor: To do what kind of base-building work?
Clark: The base-building work is the part of organizing that I think people don’t see as much as other things, like a direct action. There are different things like that which are a little bit more flashy, a little bit more kind of exciting to look at, but, really, the base-building work is what’s at the core of organizing—building out your constituency, building out the people who know and identify with your organization and also identify who are going to be the folks that are going to be a part of it, who are going to be leading the organization, who make the decisions about the direction that we go.
So, the base-building portion is really critical, and it’s also really very different from what it looked like when I first started at Just Cause in terms of, like, how spread out over the region the lives of Black People are now, due to gentrification and due to the housing problem. It’s accelerated over the past decade. So, yeah, that’s a lot of where that work is but, again, the goal is to build Black political power in the Bay Area. One of the racialized aspects of displacement and the impact that it has on Black People is that our political power dwindles, and that has a direct impact on our ability to access the social safety net, our ability to grow economic bases, specifically Black economic bases.
Our strength is our unity and the more that we’re able to come together, then that unity is actually at the core of our ability. Our base of power to be able to push these reforms into the next level really comes from the strength of the unity that we have built. That just takes time. It’ll take people being open. It takes a little trust in people.