Before the past month, AroMa, a 22-year-old artist from Oakland, didn’t self-identify as an activist or an organizer.
“Recently my friends and I have been like, ‘What was your life before you were a revolutionary?’” AroMa laughs. “It really does feel like a past life.”
That past life was spent directing Bay Area artists’ music videos, making a debut short film ZoomBug, which premiered in 2018, and working on another musical film project, MoonBaby.
But when the protests started in Oakland in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin, AroMa’s first impulse was to join in—after doing a little research about the risks involved. The urgency of the situation, especially after Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was palpable. “It felt like one of those undeniable moments,” says AroMa of the president's May 28 tweet. “If you didn’t understand what side the state is on in relation to you before, please understand now.”
At the same time, previous experience taught AroMa, who uses they/them pronouns, to hit the streets prepared. “If you’re from here, you’re not new to protests and gatherings even if you’re not an ‘organizer/activist,’” they explain. AroMa had participated in Occupy protests while they were still in high school, and remembered seeing protesters exposed to tear gas being treated with liquid sprayed into their faces. That image from nearly a decade ago lodged in AroMa’s memory: “What’s the spray made of?”
Floating an idea on Twitter on May 29—“Thinking of making little protest / riot kits to hand out for free”—AroMa immediately heard back from followers asking how they could donate money to the cause. Later that night, with help from friends, they handed out over 100 kits to protesters in downtown Oakland, hastily assembled with supplies from Dollar Tree and other shops. The total cost of putting together the kits came to about $500, AroMa says.
Two days later, the group had a name (Protesters Kit Oakland), a Cash App account, a Gmail address and the goal of making 200 additional kits.
“Things just kind of started to snowball on their own,” AroMa says. PKO is now run by a core group of five. “With my background in producing films and connecting with people, I’m good at organizing people quickly to do a certain task.”
As the protests continued, PKO’s kits adapted to meet new needs and on-the-ground experience. In addition to swim goggles and a solution of baking soda and water used to lessen the effects of pepper spray and tear gas, they started including permanent markers and basic first aid supplies, later adding snacks.
Socially distanced volunteers helped assemble the kits, first in a living room, then a backyard, then in the basement of Omni Commons. People donated not just money but supplies, easing the burden on the organizers, who’d been driving around town looking for mini spray bottles or waiting on bulk orders from online vendors.
For over a week, as protests and actions moved through the streets in concert with a national uprising for racial justice, PKO was AroMa’s full-time focus. They wanted to honor the trust both the protesters and the donors had placed in PKO, by researching kit contents, responding to messages and forging connections with other grassroots operations, like a group of organizers in Anaheim, who AroMa drove down to meet, delivering surplus kits.
As the protests in Oakland calmed, AroMA started looking to the future of the project. In total, they estimate PKO has received about $10,000 in donations and supplies, $3,000 of which has already been spent on kits handed out at recent protests. AroMa is looking to donate some of that to other organizations in need, now that PKO has the resources to do so.
The material output of the project is constantly adapting. PKO is now shifting focus to education and community building. “Protesters Kit goes beyond emergency needs,” they say. “It’s really about equipping people with the right tools to combat oppression, and those tools can look different at any point. Sometimes that will be gauze and tear gas solution and sometimes that will be as simple as water, snacks and information.”
“Being artists and trying to figure out how to employ our specific skill sets and talents around this movement is very very important right now,” they add. “There has to be a way to continue to build around this moment.” AroMa envisions PKO as an auxiliary to existing organizations and established movements, working collaboratively towards the ultimate goal of abolishing the police through a strategy of demilitarization. They list off other goals: ban the use of tear gas in Oakland and Alameda County, make public all records of police misconduct, reallocate OPD funding into public schools.
In the immediate, PKO is organizing a community walk to celebrate Black life and culture. The day is about “making a movement thrive by making it absolutely irresistible.”
AroMa is in it for the long haul: “I have never been activated in the way that I’m activated now.”
For younger folks, AroMa says, joining a larger organization with an established hierarchy can be daunting. But mutual aid—seeing an immediate need and responding to it directly—just felt like the right thing to do. “When it comes to getting involved you just have to do it,” they say.
“You just can’t let the fear of ignorance or of mistakes paralyze you. Inaction is way worse. Stagnation is way worse. Complacency is way worse. That’s the same attitude I have towards PKO and literally any art I do.”