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Oakland Digs Deep for Root Meaning of MLK Day

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There were no barbecues or people lounging the day away. Instead, it was an afternoon of peaceful resistance and camaraderie in Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza (locally dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza) with people of all shapes, sizes and shades coming together to reclaim the holiday in a way that truly honored who Martin Luther King, Jr. was and the message he gave his life to spread.

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

And hundreds did come together in front of City Hall, blending organizations and causes, throwing support and the occasional embrace, passing petitions and acknowledging the strife fellow men and women, of all heritages and races, face in today’s United States. One speaker proclaimed that “we will never have another King, but we can have thousands of princes and princesses” to carry on his work. This day, organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project, was meant to inspire people to pick up that torch.

Several people were already at the plaza before the rally officially began at 1 p.m., as were the police. However, the presence of Oakland cops was limited and unintrusive in comparison to other recent rallies held in the same space, at least at first. Two hours in, a group of motorcycle officers confirmed that there hadn’t been any arrests and they didn’t anticipate there would be.

The gathering itself was a melting pot of culture and religion, lifestyle and age – all peaceful. Native Americans danced like warriors in full dress as the diverse crowd fed off the energy and drum beat. A prayer was given up to Grandfather and Grandmother, calling on ancestors to help bring people together to “stop the things that are not right for our people, that we stand up and up and create a revolution that takes down the systems that do not work for us.”

Allison Morgan of By Any Means Necessary stressed the importance of the day, and days like it, as an opportunity to unify various organizations and get resource information into the hands of those who want to join the fight. Her BAMN peer, Adarene Hoag, elaborated:

“Yes, Oakland’s united in our opposition to Trump, but our coming out and organizing our movement is critical to the rest of the country. To show that yes, our resistance is the vast majority of people but turning that resistance into political power means coming out in the streets, means organizing, means no business as usual as long as Trump is president, means stopping any ICE agents that come into our communities, means preventing DACA recipient or any TPS or any immigrant, frankly, from being ripped from our communities.”

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

Organizations did work side-by-side during the rally, each passionate about changing the world, or at least the country, in their own way. Activists from Black Lives Matter, Causa Justa, SF Rising and others joined forces with APTP to create an inclusive and purposeful vibe. It was a sight that would have likely pleased the man they came together to honor.

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

Olly Destefano worked a petition booth for the College For All initiative, an effort to pass legislation that would fund free college education by taxing the upper 2 percent of California residents. She had been to the San Francisco MLK Day rally earlier in the day and although she encountered a good amount of support, it fell short of her expectations. She had better hopes for Oakland.

“It’s a lot more diverse than in San Francisco,” Destefano said. “Also, San Francisco has a lot of corporate support from United and Salesforce, which you don’t really see here. You mostly see radical organizers here.”

And non-violent, radical activism is exactly what many of the participating organizations want to see from their supporters. Cat Brooks of APTP stood atop a Penske truck bed with a microphone in hand and called out for people to find inspiration in the rebel that Martin Luther King, Jr. was.

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

“They wouldn’t have killed him if he was a good Negro,” Brooks said. “They let the good Negros live. They let the good Negros go on and take political office. Right? They let the good Negros be up in the White House. He wasn’t a good Negro – he was a warrior and a revolutionary.”

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

The group began to march around 3 p.m., led by a full truck of activists shouting and dancing with the long line of the crowd below. The people carried signs and children – they walked their dogs and spoke to strangers like friends. If even for just hundreds and for just one afternoon, Oakland felt united.

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

They marched into West Oakland, through neighborhoods threatened by gentrification and homelessness. At one point, marchers attempted to walk onto the Harbor Terminal freeway entrance, but were blocked by OPD.

Overall, the event was a success, maintaining both a sense of peace and strength. It was a show of appreciation for a man that wrote the book on resistance in times that many see mirrored today.

“And so today, we reclaim that radical legacy and we say that our work will be grounded and rooted in radical revolution because we are facing radical oppression,” Brooks said.

Photo: Nik Wojcik/Broke-Ass Stuart

Correction: A previous version of this article inadvertently referred to Cat Brooks as Cat Power. Her name has since been corrected. This editor hangs her head in shame. Freudian slip?

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.