School administrator Moses Omolade and educator Maurice Andre San-chez share an embrace inside of Westlake Middle school's library on February 18, 2022-- the day the OUSD school board voted on the planned closure of a number of schools. (Andre Singleton)
They cleaned the site at Westlake Middle School, held a restorative justice circle and planted two avocado trees. They chose the non-messy fruit that yields healthy fat after the duo asked themselves, "What's a fruit that we both enjoy that can be really beneficial to the community?"
Omolade and San-Chez's hunger strike lasted 20 days, and left San-Chez hospitalized for a short period and Omolade requiring medical treatment.
"We initially went out on a hunger strike, and there was a deep, deep, deep commitment to death," Omolade tells me during a phone call. "That shit was, like, really wild, to look at one another in the face—and to look at ourselves individually—and be like: 'I'm willing to die.'"
But that perspective shifted over time, and for that he's grateful.
He credits his changed perspective to community. The students and elders who visited them during the strike spoke words that resonated. "People were coming by," Omolade says, "being like, 'Hold up, what ya'll are doing here is actually important for the longevity of this fight. So, if you can find it within yourselves, take a step back from a commitment to death—because these folks will allow you to die.'"
Along with San-Chez, Omolade is now recharging and strategizing. The fight is much larger, he says, than the closure of a few schools. It's about systems of racism, structural oppression, and the privatization of schools and public land.
They're currently gathering signatures to recall the school board seats of District 1 and District 7, held respectively by Benjamin "Sam" Davis and Clifford Thompson. And on Saturday, March 5, they'll participate in a protest and march against the proposed East Oakland school closures—gathering at 1390 66th Ave. (the site of Coliseum Prep Academy) at 10am, marching at 11am, and arriving at International Community School with music and performances.
So much for rest.
As of now, the school board plans to close fewer schools than initially suggested, but still closing seven schools. Despite that, I'm intrigued by San-chez and Omolade's efforts. In effect, they were laying down in front of the machine and willing to die for their cause.
It resonated with me. Finding the fuel to keep fighting is something I had been struggling with for a while.
As February flew by, the Oakland school closures, war abroad, COVID's sustained impact and a few interpersonal issues had been weighing on me.
Somehow, I still took a bunch of photos, from the first day of Black History Month to the Black Joy Parade on its final Sunday. Fly shots. Birthday smiles and nature blossoming. Memories etched in the digital archives.
But there's one image from February that sticks with me. I have no photo of it, but it paints a picture of my recent mind state.
At about 2pm on Feb. 5, I sat at the light on West Grand Avenue and Northgate Avenue in Oakland. A middle-aged African American man sporting a bomber jacket with “Security” printed across the back and the word “fuck” written above it in Sharpie started to cross the street.
The man halted after a few steps into the crosswalk and turned to square up with a white Tesla that, in its attempt to make a right turn, came too close for comfort.
I watched as the driver, an older white woman, threw her arms up and urged the man to move across the street. The man stood his ground with words I couldn't hear, but with a posture I definitely recognized: he was daring the driver to do something. The car swerved far enough around him so as to not hit him, but close enough for the man to pull off a textbook right-legged roundhouse kick to the driver-side door as the car sped past.
The mental snapshot has been inside my dome ever since.
He almost get run over by a machine 20 times his size, so he kicks it in protest. Only to see the machine turn and keep rollin', while he's left with an injured foot.
Add race and class to that simple synopsis, and it's a metaphorical breakdown of what I see damn near everyday.
The intersection where the punt, pass and kick-a-Tesla competition went down is just around the corner from one of the larger unsheltered encampments in Oakland. For a solid few blocks, tents are strewn down Dr. Martin Luther King Way; a lot of African American folks over there.
How many? Well, we don't know. But we do know that in 2019 about three out four of the 4,000 unsheltered people in Oakland were Black, according to the Point in Time Count data from that year. The first survey of unhoused individuals since the pandemic started just got underway last month, so we'll see the current numbers soon enough.
Even without the data, the image is enough to make you want to punch one of the new luxury high-rises casting shadows over people living on the street.
Add to that a few interpersonal issues of loneliness and detachment that often come during the winter months, plus news of international war and the potential for a third year of a pandemic, and you can see why being an arts writer and covering the latest rapper with a hot mixtape isn't always inspiring work.
I quit my job like three times since Jan. 1. I'm tired of kicking the machine to keep it from running us over. It always swerves and drives away. The work ain't working.
So I quit. Well, mentally. I'm not officially part of the great resignation, but similar circumstances. Call it burnout, fatigue, soul-searching or whatever you want, but man, I struggled just sending emails. Gravity got really heavy.
Trying to kickstart my ambition the day of the great electric car-kick-and-connection, I was on assignment: taking over KQED Arts’ Instagram stories to give a glimpse into “a day in the life” of what it’s like for me running around town. I figured some inspiration might find me.
I posted images of murals and matched them with music from local artists. A shared a quick meeting with a movie maker named Nijla Mu’min, who shared her message about her forthcoming film named after Mosswood. A few shots taken by Lake Merritt at sunset.
And then it was time for the evening's main event: a retirement celebration for the former head of East Oakland Youth Development Center, Ms. Regina Jackson. I stood in the back of the room, underdressed and hiding behind my camera, as the decadent Rotunda building in Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza swelled with elected officials and community members praising Ms. Regina's 27 years of fighting against the machine.
I've seen Ms. Regina's work in Deep East Oakland and in the Far East. In 2014, I served as chaperone on a trip where she took a group of young African American men to China. I didn't get a chance to give her a hug and some appreciation at her retirement celebration, but if I had, I couldn't have thanked her enough.
I posted a beautiful dance performance by educator and artist Queen Imïnah, and I headed home. There were a bunch of photos left untaken that day, more than just the assault of the battery-charged car.
While en route to Ms. Regina's celebration, for example, I passed something else that lingered on my mind all month: Westlake Middle School, where Omolade and San-chez held their hunger strike. I saw their tents, and didn't stop. But I followed their story all month.
When I finally I talked to Omolade earlier this week, the first thing I did was apologize for not covering their story earlier. At the end of our talk, I told him about the interaction at the intersection—the man kicking the Tesla. Omolade knew about tenacity. I asked him: how do you keep fighting the system? I figured that someone who was willing to die for what they believe in might have some guidance for a struggling writer.
"Love," said Omolade. "Love was centered, big time. The community really centered love—and it is currently centered. It's continuously the fire that we use."
You know what might be wiser than trying to kick against a machine? Investing in organizing, strategizing and community—specifically community love. Note to self.
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