Healing a City Afflicted With Police Brutality: A Conversation With Oakland Activist Cat Brooks

Today we bring you a conversation with Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and the executive director of the Justice Teams Network. Brooks discusses her organization’s work in reining in police violence and providing healing justice to the families of those killed by police. She also explains how she is running for mayor of Oakland, California, and how she would govern in partnership with the people.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s talk a little bit about the Justice Teams Network and how this idea came to be.

Cat Brooks: It really has two beginnings. One is the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) in the city of Oakland in December of 2014 … we developed our rapid response model to officer-involved shootings because we felt like there was a pattern that was happening following the murders of Black people by law enforcement that was not acceptable, and that included only having one version of the story: the cop’s. Two is the demonization of the person who is shot, and three is the targeting and attacking and non-support of the family. We rolled it out in December of 2014 and we were doing it in Oakland.

Then, Patrisse Cullors, who is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, was also doing rapid response in her community and had been doing some version of it, formally or informally, her entire life. And so she, too, wanted to formalize a rapid response model and had this idea of, “What would it be if we had a series of people across the state that were doing this work?” and our model, the model I just mentioned, we decided to utilize that as the primary model that we would train people on, and combine that with her organization’s Healing Justice Model because as much as we need rapid response physically, [we] also … need to deal with the trauma not only inflicted on families but also on the community. So, that is two years ago, we started meeting with people around the state and coming together in retreats and having phone calls and we were finally officially able to launch on Wednesday.

Can you talk a little bit more about what goes into the rapid response model? What are the pieces that you have to bring together in order to respond to these, unfortunately, all-too-common moments?

Sure. This is what happens: When the cops kill somebody … our Facebook pages go off, our Twitter pages go off, our personal phones go off. We then send an email out to a list of about 500 people who are trained and are active in the database, who are trauma-informed investigators. That means they have been trained on how to engage communities and people that have dealt with various traumas. They go to the scene, they talk to community members. They look at the pictures. They scour the scene for any video footage that might be in existence of the incident. Sometimes they will pick up evidence that might be helpful that the cops leave behind.

Then, hopefully, they find someone that is connected to the family at that scene. If they don’t, they come back … and they scour social media. Because, inevitably, in this day and age, someone who was there has posted something to Twitter. Once we have connected with the family, we have got two primary agenda items. One is to, within 24 hours, either hold a vigil or support the community in holding their own. The second, of course, is to see what they need. Then, in talking to the family, it is about finding everything out about the person that was killed. So, the news by that time, of course, has come out and said, “Oh, the police shot a Black man — “Black suspect” is actually how they say it most of the time — he had a gun and he stole a lollipop and he stole a lollipop in 1922 from Samuel Adams,” as if whatever happened in 1922 has anything to do with why he’s dead now.

We then come out with our narrative — the family’s narrative: “They liked the color blue, they went to church on Sundays. They were parents. They took care of their mother.” Just humanize them, because … when you talk about people, like dentists, students, mothers, lawyers, cashiers, whatever, we are having a different conversation.

Then, from there, we connect them to our legal team, which is pro bono legal support, and then we support them with communications, legal, fundraising — they have to hold a funeral, often have to raise money for independent autopsies because often the one you get comes from law enforcement, they’re not going to challenge what law enforcement said happened. Then, we walk with them, and that is a long walk because while the story is in the media for a week, maybe two, for families, this is years and years and years, it never ends. The pain never ends.

That brings us to the question of the Healing Justice Model and how and why it is so important to provide spaces for people in the community to heal and be supported in these times.

The Healing Justice Model works in a couple of ways. One is the vigil — that is not only a media moment, it’s also a space for the community to come together, to pray, light candles and collectively grieve. We also have a database of healers that do everything from energy work to reiki to licensed psychologists, and those things are always free of charge. We have people that are on a 24-hour hotline. If somebody calls in, we can connect them to life and mental health assistance. Then, we do things like what we are going to do today, actually at Santa Rita Jail, where we are going to go deal directly with the impact of militarized policing and incarceration and provide healing support for people coming out of jail and families and loved ones.

So, it takes on all sorts of things, but the point is to insert organizing, protest, rage — to insert healing into that, talking about mental health, “How are you doing today? What do you need?” and walking with the people throughout that process.

We hear a lot about self-care these days, but not so much about a model of collective care.

Yes, actually that is a great point. Melina Abdullah, who is the founder of Black Lives Matter LA chapter, said something that I like to quote wherever I can: Self-care is problematic in the way it manifests a lot of times because it usually means that the two or three people who aren’t going to let the work lay down for any reason end up carrying an unfair burden. Honestly, it can insinuate that, “Okay, so Marlene is having issues, so she is going to go deal with those issues by herself.” As opposed to Marlene coming to people and saying, “I am having a hard time. This work is impacting me and the group figures out what my needs are,” and that is done in the community and not in isolation.

The other thing you’re working on is also focusing through this on policy changes and particularly on these Police Officer Bills of Rights. Could you talk a little bit about that?

I think this work that we are engaging in is radical…. It is radical legislative shifts both at the state level and the local level. At the state level, there is this thing called the Police Officer Bill of Rights that provides law enforcement with what I call a blue wall of secrecy. An impenetrable blue wall. You can’t know anything about officers, you can’t know the details of an investigation, you don’t know when a cop comes to your community, does he have a history, a record of utilizing brutality? The first thing that families say is, “Why? Why did this happen to my loved one?” We then move from the whys to the whats, and I often have to tell them, “I can’t tell you that. No, you can’t know the names of the officers. No, you can’t know what is going on with the investigation because of this law, a state-wide law.” And so, we are working on three pieces of legislation — two that directly deal with that at the state level that would radically shift the way our bodies are policed.

Then, we are also doing a public information campaign because a lot of organizers and activists and families know that the Police Officer Bill of Rights exists, but don’t really know what it is; it’s written in legalese. We’re doing a guide, a video series, and then we are going to do town halls around the state so people know what it is. Then, ideally, we will get it on the 2020 ballot to vote on repeal.

Talking about repealing things like that, what are some proactive policies that would help prevent these things rather than just have to respond to another person killed?

So, there are two…. One is an active bill right now. It is called AB 931 … that would change the legal standard that cops can use to justify lethal force. It means they can no longer say, “I feared for my life” or shoot first and ask questions later. It means that they really could only do that when there was literally no other option and it would criminalize police officers who put themselves inside of a situation, i.e. jumping in front of a car and then do harm. So, that is one, you can change the standard that the state uses.

We also advocate for accountability. Cops kill, taxpayers in the city that they’re in cover their civil suits. What would it look like to law enforcement if they had to cover that out of their pension fund, for instance? Then, there is also, at the local level, a strong divest/invest movement. So, in Oakland, for instance, the Oakland Police Department gets over 40 percent of the general fund, and then, on top of that, every year they clock millions of dollars of unauthorized budgetary spending in overtime. We are working to implement resolutions that would move those funds from law enforcement — not all of them. Right now, we’re starting with half, but they get 40 percent of the general budget. We want 25 percent to go into mental health issues, to go to restorative justice programs that don’t rely on law enforcement to solve conflict.

So, you are running for Mayor of Oakland.

Oh my god. Yes.

Talk about how you made that decision.

The people asked me and for almost a year, I was getting inquiries on Facebook, I was getting inquiries from faith leaders, educators, “Cat, you should run. Cat, you should run,” and I had no interest. I like my life and I like activism the way I was doing it. That said, I spend a lot of energy and time, and my organization spends a lot of energy and time pushing back on policies of the administration. The last three years have brought us nearly 3,000 people sleeping in the streets, a police department mired in a rape scandal and a musical chairs of chiefs. So, I really went “Okay”

I think that people … call it the Trump Effect. People like me say, “What is happening to our country? What has happened to our communities?” and are ready to imagine a new way of governing and a new way of living. So, I said, “Yes.”

I know you just made the announcement, but what are some of the things that are going to be key to your platform as you run?

So again, I want to reimagine community safety. What does it look like to not spend so many resources on law enforcement and spend more resources on communities? You can tell a city’s morals and values by what they put their money into. What would it look like to develop budget priorities in process with community and communities could decide what we spend our money on?

There is a lot of chatter around sanctuary. What is sanctuary for all people? What would it look like for a city to have the real power to stop the harassment and intimidation of, yes, undocumented people, but also LGBTQIA people, Black people, Brown people and Indigenous people?

Education. Our city government and our school board government are completely disconnected. What does a closer partnership look like? Then, how do we protect our teachers? Teachers are being pushed out of the city because they can’t afford to live here. Developing a teacher training and retention program and prioritizing affordable housing for our teachers. Those are a couple of the things, but we are going to spend the next six to eight weeks doing community town halls on a variety of issues and develop the platform with the people, because it is not the Cat Brooks campaign, it is the people’s campaign.

How would it change, do you think, your relationship with the movement, to be in elected office?

That is the scariest part. I think that by and large, I am trusted by the community. I have a track record and I have deep relationships. Activists tend to have an antagonistic lean towards politicians, for good reason, and of course we’ve seen over and over again that we put our people in office and … I don’t know if there is a special brand of water that gets delivered to their homes, or what happens, but they turn into these people that we don’t recognize.

I had a deep conversation with people before the campaign. I said, “Alright, y’all, if I do this?” and I am remaining in this conversation. We know that being in office is a trade-off, is a compromise in a way that I haven’t had to do compromise before; but working in the next six months putting in … that accountability measure. [To] my anarchist friends who tell me they’ll still love me if I take office, I say, “You hold me accountable … and I will be accountable to you.” And that is collective governing, I guess. I don’t see it as, “If I win, then I go in and I start making decisions.” The same model that we’re using developing the platform is how we govern, in partnership with the people.

Anything else you want people to know about your campaign, about the Justice Teams Network?

I think the part of the campaign I’m excited about is the organizing. When in Oakland we say that we have got 3,000 unhoused people on the streets — they can vote. They don’t need a physical address. All they need is an intersection. We are going to register and transport unhoused people to the polls. People that are sitting in Santa Rita Jail and North County Jail, if they’re not actively on parole or have a felony conviction, they can vote. So, I am excited about that. Yes, it’s going to be six months of organizing, not six months of campaigning. I think that that can be exciting.

How can people keep up with you and the Justice Teams Network and your campaign?

JusticeTeams.orgCatBrooksForOakland.com, and we are on Twitter [@JusticeTeamsNet] and Facebook.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.