Oakland, Calif., has long been a bastion of historical and cultural reverie in blackness. The “Detroit of the West” holds a special place in African-American esteem: Oakland incubated a nascent Black Panther Party; gave us Hieroglyphics, Too Short, and MC Hammer; and nurtured icons such as Elaine Brown, Zedanya, and Killmonger. It even has its very own dialect.
Yet, like so many historically black cities around the country, Oakland has been deeply affected by rapidly rising housing costs and hyper-gentrification, in large part because of the multibillion-dollar tech industry ensconced in Northern California. This past year, Oakland’s Merritt Park was the site of perhaps the most infamous incident of white folks calling police on black folks, a reality Cat Brooks, who is running to become the city’s first black woman mayor, thought unimaginable—until it happened.
“Who would have ever thought that a BBQ Becky incident could have happened in the city of Oakland?” she asked.
In the last few years, Oakland has seen its homeless population soar, in addition to high profile civil rights abuses visited upon its black residents via the police. Brooks says she’s not giving up her city without a fight—not just in terms of its geographical boundaries but perhaps its progressive soul. The Root was able to speak to the 42-year-old wife, mother and longtime community organizer who stresses that the most important place to fight against what ails us begins at the local level because “it’s where people feel relief the fastest.”
The Root: Why did you put your hat into the mayoral ring in May?
Cat Brooks: I have struggled with the incumbent [Mayor Libby Schaaf] since she was on City Council, primarily the way in which she treated families who are survivors of state violence*; and her consistent disregard of the most marginalized people and voices in the city of Oakland. Over the last four years, I have seen Oakland spiral downwards in ways I never thought possible for a city that is supposed to be one of the most progressive in the nation. With our exploding homeless crisis, housing crisis out of control … the UN just dropped a report, naming only Oakland and San Francisco as committing human rights violations against their unhoused community members. We’ve got a police department that’s out of control.
And being black in Oakland is being criminalized. Who would have ever thought that a BBQ Becky incident could have happened in the city of Oakland? And the mayor’s response to these violations is that she understands both sides of the issue. And then looking nationally at what’s happening at the federal level. I’m clear that the most important place for us is to fight at the local level. It’s where people feel relief the fastest. And also, across the country people with some say radical—I say rational—viewpoints, are running and winning. Thirdly, I was asked to by hundreds of Oaklanders to run for this seat. And so those three things combined made me say yes.
TR: What kind of inspiration do you draw from traditional activists like Amara Enyia in Chicago, and others, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in NYC. Are they an inspiration? Have you connected with any?
CB: We’ve tried to talk to Alexandria and haven’t been able to. Of course, she’s busy, but we definitely reached out. But yes an inspiration. For sure! When [her election] happened, we were like, if it happened there, it can certainly happen in Oakland. Even if I wasn’t running for office, to see women of color with left-wing views that are unapologetic about their politics, running and winning seats, is inspirational because it means we’re creating opportunities where we can both continue to organize and bang on the outside, but also organize and bang from the inside. Which to me, I’m excited to see what kind of results we can get from the people with that combination.
TR: The latest poll I saw show that Libby Schaaf was ahead by 20 points. How do you plan to close that gap?
CB: The same way we always planned to win, which is to out-organize her. We’re knocking on thousands of doors and talking to thousands of voters. Polls don’t count for ground game and all of the voters that we’re talking to. That was a chamber of Commerce poll. They certainly aren’t talking to the people here in Oakland where we call the Flatlands, which are the communities of color, and the communities most impacted by Libby’s policies. And again, you look at [Andrew] Gillum, you look at [Ayanna] Pressley, you look across the country—polls aren’t meaning very much in the races where there are real progressives in the game.
TR: What are the biggest issues affecting Oakland today and how will your mayoralty alleviate them?
CB: So the first thing we need to do is get everyone off the streets that want shelter. Yesterday, I was at an encampment with advocates and their thinking is that it’s close to 9,000 people living in squalid conditions. I went inside those camps and you’re talking about rats the size of small dogs; women, black women in particular, who are being repeatedly raped; people are living in feces…it’s horrific. We have dozens of city-owned buildings that we can open up, partition, put bathrooms and showers in them, and wrap those buildings with social services. But getting shelter cannot be conditional upon whether or not someone chooses to accept services. Right? That’s part of why our unhoused communities don’t want to go inside a lot of these places. In addition to the fact that what the mayor has been doing are more like open-air jails. But just because you’re unhoused doesn’t mean you don’t want or deserve self-determination.
The second is we need—I don’t even want to use the word affordable, because affordable in Oakland is insane—we’re talking about low, low income; low income and workforce housing. We’ve got land that we can build that housing on instead of selling it off to the highest bidder, who are going to build market-rate high rises for $8,000 a month. We need to be working in partnership with developers, and particularly non-profit developers to build the houses we actually need. I’m also very interested in working with the county to create county-wide land trust programs which would allow us to put thousands of units into the categories of housing we need. And then we need jobs, because 80 percent of the unhoused in Oakland are formerly housed. A lot of these people are going to work from encampments. We need living wage jobs, and so we’ve got to attract businesses that share Oakland’s values, that will pay living wage jobs. We need to invest city dollars in workforce development training which we don’t do right now.
TR: What’s your strategy between now and election day?
CB: I’m hitting the pavement. I’m hitting the phones. I’ve got house parties and fundraisers, more than I can imagine. House parties have actually been unique to our campaign; we’ve had so many house parties and people fundraising. So I just plan to be in the streets, with the folks, day in and day out for the next 10 days.
TR: How’s the money going?
CB: Money is going well. I mean, my folks want it to be better, and I want it to be better. But we have raised—raised, not given ourselves—more than any other challenger. So we just filed yesterday, and we have $154,000 and we still have several fundraising emails to go out, several fundraising events to happen. My guess is that we’ll close close to 200k. But no debt. We have no campaign debt whatsoever, which is very exciting.
TR: For those undecided voters, what do you say to them?
CB: My pitch to them is ... you came to Oakland for a reason, or you love Oakland for a reason. You love our art and our culture; our grit and our grind; our resistance; our political history; our diversity and our commitment to progressive values. If that’s true, you need to fight for it on Nov. 6 and you need to elect someone that’s not just a progressive Democrat in name only, but someone who was progressive and walking their walk before election season. Research people, check their receipts. See who’s been in the trenches and you’ll find that I’m the only candidate in this race that has a track record of accountability, transparency, and working in partnership with the people to build progressive change.
*When I followed up with Brooks for specific examples of Libby Schaaf’s treatment of survivors of state violence, she responded with this: “When 18-year-old Alan Blueford was shot in the back by then OPD Officer Miguel Masso and his father was pleading for justice in tears at a city council meeting, then-councilwoman Schaaf repeatedly tried to interrupt him because his ‘time was up.’ At the height of the BLM movement in 2015, Schaaf spent her entire first day in office with law enforcement and, subsequently, when seven black men were killed under her watch by OPD, she never once reached out to any of the impacted families.”