As we enter Black History Month, I am still reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am still overwhelmed by the hundreds who came out for the 8th Annual Reclaiming Kings Radical Legacy march (which is now a COVID-safe car caravan)— organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP). I think so many people came out—even in the midst of a pandemic—not just because we still believe in the possibility of King’s dream, but more importantly, because we see Oakland drifting further and further away from it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on a hotel balcony in Memphis in 1968. Murdered for being a freedom fighter, defender of human rights, justice, true democracy, and equity. Murdered for having a dream of America that included us all. As the world celebrated his legacy with feel-good press conferences and platitudes, I’m pretty sure Dr. King was rolling in his grave.
In a 1967 NBC interview, three years after his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said that his dream had become a nightmare, echoing the sentiments of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) just a few years earlier. That nightmare still plays out in Black and brown communities across the Bay Area—and the nation— every single day—54 years later.
Oakland said Happy New Year to its unhoused population by planning to shut down three homeless encampments with zero permanent housing plans for the people whose homes they were demolishing. The last (2019) biennial homeless count tallied 4,071 homeless people—a 47 percent rise from 2017; the worst jump in the Bay Area. And almost certainly a lower number than the actual numbers on our streets. In 2018, the United Nations toured the homeless encampments in Oakland and described the state of life on city streets as “cruel and inhuman treatment,” and “a violation of multiple human rights, including the rights to life, housing, health and water and sanitation.” A damning indictment on Libby Schaaf’s term as Mayor.
King said, “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horror of police brutality”
In 2020, law enforcement agencies in California killed 172 people, the vast majority of them Black and brown. Decades later, demands for an end to state violence are ignored by elected officials. Mayoral administrations work in concert with police associations to pit families who have lost loved ones to street violence against those that have lost loved ones to state violence, in an attempt to deaden a growing movement and interrupt organizing.
All violence is state violence, and when we end poverty, we will effectively end violence of all kinds.
Last year, tens of thousands of Oaklanders took to the streets following the police murder of George Floyd to demand Oakland reinvest in public services like cleaner and more equitable access to our city’s parks, affordable housing, and job programs. Despite this, the city doubled down and decided to spend even more money on policing––not less.Our parks are underfunded and not accessible. According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), Oaklanders in low-income neighborhoods have access to 78 percent less park space than those in high-income neighborhoods—a disparity that is 36 percentage points higher than the national average—and neighborhoods of color enjoy access to 69 percent less parkland than white neighborhoods: 25 percentage points higher than national average.
Our schools hardly have enough COVID tests and masks for all of our teachers and students. We are on the brink of closing down 19 neighborhood schools in the flatlands; uprooting and displacing hundreds of Black and brown students still reeling from surviving a global pandemic. Our roads have potholes. Our neighborhoods are segregated.
King declared a war on poverty—not the people—but in Oakland and across the country, local governments are doubling down on investment into the violent carceral system rather than into the lives of community members pushed to the margins of society. Adding insult to injury, the Schaaf administration and Chief of Police LeRonne Armstrong waged a disinformation campaign about OPD being defunded in response to an $18 million dollar investment in crime prevention, when in fact the Department saw a $38 million dollar increase.
We are light-years away from King’s dream.
We are experiencing an extreme, conservative, pro-police backlash to the people’s uprising of 2020, and strategic, organized efforts to stop progressive movements in their tracks.
We’ve been here before. We didn’t stand down then. We have no intention of standing down now.
To address the horrific number of homicides in Oakland, the people, in the spirit of King, are also demanding rational change: An end to throwing more money at criminalization while we systemically defund schools, childcare, violence prevention, jobs, housing, and other essential programs that create thriving communities.
Two years ago, the APTP launched “Mental Health First”—Oakland and Sacramento’s only non-9-1-1 response to mental health crises, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
We also fought hard for Oakland to create a similar city program, and in just a few months, the Mobile Assistance Crisis Responders of Oakland (MACRO) will launch this spring, offering free police-free service to folks experiencing mental health crises, as well as living wage jobs to Oaklanders facilitating the program.
We’ve seen civilian community ambassador programs set up to protect our vulnerable populations, Black and Asian communities standing together to defeat hate, students uniting with teachers demanding an end to school closures in Black and brown neighborhoods, and more recently, safer COVID conditions in their schools.
We will continue to fight to send trash collectors and case managers to homeless encampments instead of police; for development with community benefit agreements; for permanent low-income housing so Oaklanders can stay in Oakland; for living wage union jobs; for violence prevention experts in the neighborhoods that are hardest hit by violence, so we can prevent it before it happens instead of ineffectively responding; for clean air and water in East and West Oakland neighborhoods; and a Black New Deal that will provide for all of Oakland’s BIPOC communities.
Dr. King was a radical leader demanding rational change: An end to capitalism, to war, to empire, to poverty, and to white supremacy. For eight years, organizations like the Anti Police-Terror Project, and many others, have refused to allow the whitewashing and disrespect of the man who had his life stolen because he stood and fought for us. We will continue to do so believing fervently that his dream is not dead, just deferred.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
Cat Brooks is a playwright, actress, co-host of KPFA’s UpFront and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.