Oakland Mayor’s Race: The Evolution of Cat Brooks
Cat Brooks laughs a little when she says that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf once had her arrested. Now she wants her job.
Cat Brooks knows the city of Oakland. She was on the front lines with Black Lives Matter. She marched relentlessly through the streets to protest police brutality as co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. And yes, she was arrested alongside several others during a 2015 protest that challenged Schaaf’s ban on night marches. If you’ve never met her personally, chances are you’ve seen her in action or on local nightly news. There was a time she was content to stay in that lane.
That time is up.
“We spend over 50 percent of our time mad at Libby, pushing back on Libby, organizing around Libby,” Brooks said. “What if there was just no Libby?”
It took about a year of persistent urging from various sectors of the community, but eventually the movement leader was convinced that becoming the next Oakland mayor would do more to effect change than resisting the current mayor ever could.
The Oakland mother and sometimes actress was always called to activism, was raised in it and has let it become her life as an adult. “It’s one thing to sit on your keyboard or sit in your coffee shop and talk about how the system doesn’t work for us…but that’s just not reality,” Brooks said.
“What’s real is that there are people in offices of the city, the state, that are making real deadly decisions about our lives and they don’t care about our lives. We need to be putting people into those seats who share our values and will fight like hell for our lives.”
She refuses to give a straight answer.
She's not willing to be arrested to protect our people.
libby knows i'm willing to be arrested for the people of Oakland.
— Cat Brooks (@CatsCommentary) May 22, 2018
Her frustration has grown over the past year and a half, watching what she perceives as Schaaf and others dismissing the public’s pleas. “You are being told by the people that put you in office that this is what they want you to do,” Brooks said, emphasizing her point with a fist on the table. “So do it!”
The campaign is leaning heavily on collaborative methods commonly used in community organizing circles. Although she brings some concrete ideas to the table, the specific platform is a work in progress, being developed through a series of themed meetings she calls the “people’s assembly”. The meetings give residents an opportunity to “partner with” the campaign, to share their thoughts and ideas on issues like keeping arts and artists in Oakland, education, law enforcement, affordable housing and homelessness, job creation and development.
“By the time we get to September and the debates start, we’ll be saying, ‘This is what the people want,’” Brooks said.
The concept appears to resonate with supporters, as was evident during the first people’s assembly held at the One Fam 7th Street Rev Cafe June 7, with discussions facilitated by Candice “Antique” Wicks-Davis and Hodari Davis of Edutainment for Equity and Young, Gifted and Black organizations.
The use of the site in the Lower Bottoms, a place Director Tony Coleman calls “one of the Harlems of the West”, was an intentional demonstration of the campaign’s commitment to preserving Oakland’s roots. The space, which also operates as the Bikes 4 Life community organization, is in danger of eviction and Brooks made a solid point of asking her supporters to support One Fam as well.
Coleman told the tightly-gathered crowd that people of Oakland deserve to have a mayor like Cat Brooks. “Right now, the time is right…to have a mayor that’s for the people, who has come from the people, because so many times it’s about economics and (they) don’t allow us to participate and be a part of the process,” Coleman said. “With Cat, I know that’s going to change, so we need to make she’s our new mayor.”
“We know that nothing comes without demand that’s worthwhile and so we have to kick up some dust.” Kicking up dust is exactly what Brooks intends to do if elected in November.
Cat Brooks wants to tackle education in a way that serves Oakland’s children and their families from the beginning of the day until the end of the night. She believes teacher retention should be a priority, as should ensuring that teachers can afford to live where they teach. She would demand that law enforcement be transparent and held accountable, and plans to divest from Oakland Police Department and invest in prevention programs. She would partner with mental health organizations and harm-reduction agencies to reduce the need for police intervention. She wants to repeal Costa-Hawkins, require that builders benefit the community with more than a small percentage of “affordable” housing and make it possible for people who have been displaced to “come home”. And she would immediately attempt to house “every single” one the city’s homeless.
“We need to be treating our unhoused crisis like a bomb dropped in the center of Oakland because it did, a gentrification bomb,” Brooks said. “The fact that OPD could be on track to collect $30 million of unauthorized overtime, don’t tell me that we don’t have money to put these people in housing, not chemically-treated Tuff Sheds, but housing!”
City Hall would be a different place with a former radical activist at the helm, especially without police intervention, but the candidate believes the city is ripe for just that sort of shakeup, that what was once considered radical is becoming common sense.
“People are wanting change,” Brooks said. “We were once called ‘radical’ – us radical folk – but I think what people realize is that it’s not radical to say that cops shouldn’t rape children (likely referring to the case of Jasmine Absulin). It’s not radical to say that people should not be sleeping in the streets. It’s not radical to say that our president shouldn’t be saying that people come from ‘shithole’ countries. These are rational things.”
Although she’d have to hang up her hat as an active co-founder of APTP, a thought that makes her eyes swell a bit, she trusts that the next generation of young, black leaders will carry the torch while she tries to better Oakland from within the legislative fold.
“Those organizations have to hold me accountable for doing whatever it is I said I’m going to do,” Brooks said. “They’ll move it forward, and it’ll be different. It’ll grow, and that’s okay. And they’ll be mad at me sometimes, and that’s okay too.”
But don’t be surprised if you see her somewhere in the crowd during protests, marches and rallies. Expressing disappointment that more elected officials don’t stand up with their communities, she shared her vision as a mayor as one who quietly shares in the struggles of the people she hopes to represent.
“I see me being there as a servant, being another body standing in solidarity with the community,” Brooks said. When asked if she thought Schaaf would have been more effective if she’d joined her constituents in the streets, Brooks replied:
“I think Libby Schaaf would’ve been more effective if that was in her value system. I think her value system is about development and developers, and profit over people, and she sees making Oakland better as completely changing the culture and tone of Oakland while capitalizing off of that construct.”
But according to Brooks, what already exists in Oakland deserves protecting. As she told the group at One Fam, “If you’re not born here, that’s why people come here – for the culture, the politics, the art and the artists.”
“To me, there is nothing more important than making space for the Power of the People to emerge and nothing more beautiful than watching it take root and grow in this city we love,” she says in her official campaign vision statement.
Some voters may be wary of electing a mayor with an activist background, but it’s that background that Brooks believes sets her apart from other candidates and makes her less susceptible to becoming a puppet for special interests, as often happens with once well-intentioned politicians. Brooks explained that successful community organizers insist that all voices be heard and no agenda goes forward without the group’s consent. She intends to bring that thinking into City Hall in her next step as a “force for change”.
“I have a completely different analysis about what governance means” Brooks said. “I believe elected officials actually work for the people (who) elected them.”
Now, that’s a novel idea.