‘All This Does Is Make Us Stronger’: Oakland Activist Cat Brooks on Reckoning With This Moment and Forging Ahead

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Cat Brooks is the executive director of the Justice Teams Network and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. (Courtesy of Cat Brooks)

It takes a lot of work to undo white supremacy. For many who have been committed to this work, it’s a lifetime of protests, campaigning, donating and showing up. And sometimes, it can feel like an impossible task.

Following the attack by the pro-Trump extremists at the U.S. Capitol last week, we invited longtime Bay Area activist Cat Brooks to talk with us about how she’s been processing everything and how to build a sustainable movement.

Guest: Cat Brooks, executive director of the Justice Teams Network and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project

Read the transcript here.

Find all of our "By the People" episodes here. Subscribe to our newsletter here


The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Devin Katayama: So my first question is just how how are you doing with all this? How are you processing it?

Cat Brooks: From the moment things hit the fan, I was working. I was doing interviews or writing statements or, you know, all of the things that were required for a response. And I started to say, 'I'm fine.' And then I just started crying. That's odd for me.

The shenanigans of white supremacy don't surprise me. White violence against our bodies doesn't surprise – like none of it – it's my job.

What is sitting with me right now as we're starting this conversation is how little room there is for organizers, advocates, activists, Black folks, brown folks, queer folks to actually have human moments inside of things like this, because we're, you know, immediately trying to figure out how to respond, how to protect ourselves, how to protect our communities.

There's buckets, right? So, there's how I'm doing as an organizer. There's me as a mom, right? I've got a teenager that I'm sending out into the world in just a short two years. And she's also, you know, becoming an organizer in her own right. And then there's me as a Black woman, right, and as a human being.

Was there something about the events that happened last week that hit you particularly hard?

[Trump's] whole reign of terror has just been exhausting. And we're at this point where it's almost over. And I think a part of me is just like, can we just be done with this already?

But let's be clear, Trump gone is not being done with this. Some of the tears were not necessarily for me as much as they were for all of the bodies, Black bodies, and the bodies of our allies that are permanently disabled because of police reaction.

When you think of folks that were traumatized with tear gas and flash bangs and dragged to arrest and beaten and are facing serious charges. And then the reinforcement, of course, of conversations that we've been having forever about the collusion and the infiltration into law enforcement by these groups and the fact that they felt so emboldened.

Did the events that happened in D.C. remind you of anything that you've seen or experienced in the Bay Area — whether it was the threat of white violence or the role of law enforcement?

Well, I'm of course reminded of the umpteen amounts of protests that I've been at or been a part of where we were tear gassed, where we were dodging flash bangs. My daughter jokes — jokes, air quotes — about how many times she's been tear gassed, and she's only 15.

And I think of Scott Olsen always, who during the Occupy protest [in 2011] was hit with a flash bang and is permanently disabled. And I think of our teenagers who during the summer of rage, were attacked with so-called less-lethal weapons for having the audacity to march one minute past a curfew they didn't even know was enacted yet. I think about what happened in Lafayette Square just this summer.

It's just the reminder of whose bodies are valued and whose are not and who's allowed to stand up for their belief systems, let alone their humanity, and who is not.

What are your thoughts about people who may be feeling lost and scared right now? Does that resonate at all?

Absolutely. And the first thing I would say to those people is: 'Feel lost and feel scared.' That's OK. And that actually maybe you need and sit in that for a little bit because the rush to cover it up, the rush to like, push it down, you know, get away from that, prevents us from actually dealing with it.

I've been ending almost every interview I do saying — particularly if you're a Black, brown, Indigenous, trans, queer, look like an immigrant — you should be scared. Because we actually don't know what was signaled to similar-minded people across the country. We don't know what the next 13 days - or the next week and a half — are going to look like.

Go out in pairs, lock your doors, look over your shoulder. We are not immune to their violence touching our literal bodies. And so I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but I do want to be a realist. They've been enacting violence against our bodies since the first one was kidnapped and brought here hundreds of years ago. And we're still standing. We're still here, we're still fighting.

You can look at most marginalized communities that are under attack by white supremacy and say the same thing in our own beautiful, very human ways.

And so for me, I'm holding on to that. And I'm clear that all this does is make us stronger. All this does is strengthen our resolve. All this does is remind us of the fight ahead of us and how serious this fight is going to be. And so, yes, be lost. Yes, be scared. And then take a page out of the Black Girl Magic book and keep it pushing.

How have you worked through these complicated feelings in the past, when things feel like they're too much?

One of the things I love about the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement is this idea that self-care came in. When I was being trained as an organizer, you smoked and drank and worked yourself to death.

I work out. I spend time with my kid. Biggest regret of my life is how fast my daughter grew up and how many hours I was in the streets and not in this house.

But also for me the work, the work is how I take care of myself.

What have you learned from some of the younger activists and organizers you know?

Oh, my goodness. They meditate. They refused to meet past a certain hour. They say no to certain projects. This is my own daughter actually told me the other day she wasn't going to join a meeting that I asked her to join because she had had enough for the day.

What matters about that is that that means sustainability, right? We're in this for the long haul. We have no idea how long this is going to be, but it's definitely going to be past my lifetime and probably my kid's. And it's true, right. If you're not taking care of yourself, how do you take care of other people?

I think that the last thing, find the movement work that makes your heart sing, and do that. Not everybody has to be on the front lines, not everybody has to be screaming at the cops, getting tear gassed. We need communicators and eventually we'll need child care providers again. We need people who write. We need people who sing. There's so many ways in which you can engage in the movement — so do what makes your heart sing.

When you think about the attack on the Capitol, what do you want listeners to know that you think they're not hearing enough of, or something that you've been saying over and over?

This is America.

So, the next day, all the tweets and the speeches, [saying] 'This is not America. This is not who we are.'

Yes. It. Is.

It is who we have been. It is who we are and it is who we are doomed to continue to be if we don't admit that this is who we are and deal with it.

You cannot solve a problem if you don't admit it exists. America does not have a policing problem. America has a race problem that is baked into every single institution in this country, including policing, who are the front lines to upholding this system. That's the message.

Are you afraid that with the new administration, people are going to get more complacent?

I'm not afraid it's going to happen, I know it's going to happen. It's happened over and over and over again.

People go home, they get bored. The work becomes unsexy. 'Cause now is the unsexy work. Now's when you have to keep talking to your city council people. Now's when we're doing digital organizing. Now's when you have to phone bank. All of the stuff that the intense, boring, day-to-day things that actually makes stuff happen.

So we are able to have things like the summer of rage because in between the last movement flow and this movement flow, organizers were organizing and work was being done.

So I'm not afraid of that. We're prepared for that. And the goal is that each time, less and less people go back to business as usual. That we're able to continue to pull more and more people into the ongoing work of movement building and transformation of this country, into the country we know she can be.


These moments and all the moments in between are an opportunity to make democracy a real thing in this country. And if you want to live in a democratic nation, and you want to be the land of the free and the brave and you want to be this beacon of light for the rest of the globe, then it's your responsibility to service it.