State of Black Oakland Picks Up Where Black Lives Matter Leaves Off
Oba T'shaka participates in the politics listening circle. He's lived in Oakland for 22 years. (Adizah Eghan/KQED)
Nearly 500 people gathered at Geoffrey's Inner Circle for the first State of Black Oakland assembly in late March. The meeting picked up where Black Lives Matter left off, applying universal frustration over systemic racism to local problems in Oakland.
A crowd of healers, artists, young professionals, elders and parents, met in the downtown Oakland club to discuss ways to move the community forward.
Greg Hodge stood on a stage in a red Patrice Lumumba T-shirt and beat on a djembe as he led the room in a joyful opening ceremony, the crowd dancing and chanting along.
Behind him was a poster with a picture of Ghanaian freedom fighter — and Ghana's first president — Kwame Nkrumah. paired with a quote: "All people of African descent, whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any other part of the world are Africans and belong to the African nation."
It set the tone for the gathering, which was put together by a coalition of black organizations. State of Black Oakland will host two more neighborhood assemblies -- one in East Oakland and one in West Oakland -- at the end of the summer.
Many of those at Geoffrey's Inner Circle had assembled when Oscar Grant was killed in 2009. And now they’re not simply protesting. They want to take action to make sure the evolving city still has their back -- in key areas like economics, politics, health, family, self-defense and self-determination.
Phil Hutchings was involved in the civil rights movement in college and moved to Oakland in 1977. He compared his involvement then with what's happening now.
"The older folks were saying, 'Go slow, we shall overcome someday!' And I was in SNCC, Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, and we went out and did stuff right away," he said. "Now I’m one of the seniors, and I’m watching Black Lives do stuff now."
Hutchings hopes there’s a role for folks like him in what he sees as a new movement. And that movement is about black unity, according to 26-year-old Akiba Bradford.
"After Black Lives Matter, we’ve seen an influx of people organize on behalf of us," she said. "So it’s important for us to organize for ourselves. And what does that look like? It’s going to look like us getting on the same page, and creating a plan that can move us from the talks and from the marches to actual action."
Action would focus on local problems -- such as gentrification, police brutality and neighborhood violence.
Veteran organizer Oba T’shaka agreed. T'shaka was a leader in San Francisco in the civil rights movement in the early ’60s. He’s lived in Oakland for 22 years.
T'shaka said Black Lives Matter demonstrates that black culture is stronger than people think, despite the identity crisis that characterizes the "death culture" afflicting black youth. He pointed out that the challenge for this generation is creating a unified national movement out of an online movement that varies from city to city.
Wilson Riles Jr. was on the Oakland City Council for 13 years. He no longer believes that electoral power leads to self-determination in the way people once thought it could. After all, Oakland has had three black mayors, and the black community continues to struggle with housing, unemployment and racial profiling.
"We’re disappointed because a lot of the black elected officials didn’t make any difference — in terms of what was going on in communities — and a black president hasn’t made a lot of difference to what’s going on with black people," he said.
Riles said the black community is a lot more fractured than it was during and before the civil rights movement. Generations don’t talk or work together like they used to.
But, Kweli Tutashinda and his daughter, Chinyere, do. Not only did both attend the conference, but the two of them are also worried about what’s being lost in the city where he raised her.
Kweli remembers an Oakland where black businesses thrived and anyone could get by on a part-time job. Since then, he’s watched the black population dwindle from 47 percent to 28 percent, and many of those businesses close by the dozen. He worries how Chinyere will cope with the fallout of gentrification.
The issue is whether or not locals will be priced out. "Many people like in my daughter’s generation, they’re able to make it here, but many of them are struggling. And these are people who have master’s degrees," he said.
That’s why Chinyere is one of the core organizers of State of Black Oakland. She grew up mingling with black political legends like Angela Davis, Ericka Huggins and Ron Dellums in North Oakland. She has been advocating on behalf of black folks her entire life. Now Chinyere lives in West Oakland, a neighborhood she loves for its strong concentration of blackness.
But despite this, she's not planning on raising a family here. "No, I’m not planning on staying," she says. "I can’t afford to live here. It costs too much. I have a full-time job, I can’t afford a home, I couldn’t raise children here."
She says she goes back and forth on the idea of staying. But for the most part, her mind is made up.
If home-grown organizers like Chinyere are leaving, then what does that mean for black Oakland? In an ideal world, change will come fast enough for Chinyere’s friends and family to stay.