Cat Brooks on Police Brutality, the Abolition of Police, and Her Mayoral Campaign in Oakland
We spoke with anti-police brutality organizer and KPFA’s Upfront co-host, Cat Brooks, about her 2018 mayoral race in Oakland, California. Brooks received the most votes of any challenger on the left and says that it is “very likely” she will run for mayor again. In the meantime she is working to “harness the energy of the base” that her campaign mobilized in order to tackle the issues that concern them.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MFU: You received the second largest amount of votes for Oakland mayor behind the incumbent, Libby Schaaf, and the second largest amount in campaign contributions. Will you be running for mayor again?
CB: It is very likely that I will run for mayor again and perhaps something else before that. In the meantime we’re really just trying to harness the energy of the base that we were able to mobilize to address things that we’re concerned about. We’re playing a very significant role in the budget negotiations of the city of Oakland right now, a very significant role in the fight for tenants’ rights right now, and we mobilized our base to support the teachers during the teacher strike. So we’re still here, and moving, and we’re about to do a summer of service to deal with some of the blight that’s in this city.
MFU: Can you talk about your background as an activist and your involvement in the struggle against police brutality?
CB: I was politicized from a very young age. My mother was on the frontlines of the women’s movement, and specifically on the frontlines of the domestic violence movement. She was also very active in the anti-nuclear movement. I grew up in Las Vegas, and there’s a test site on Shoshone land in the desert in Nevada, so I grew up watching my mother protest and get arrested. Even the content of the books that she gave me was political.
After college I moved to LA to be an actress and I ended up taking a job with a creative artist agency, one of the largest talent agencies in the world. I was working in their foundation and I was not adjusting very well to corporate life, as folks who know me can imagine. I had five bosses and I worked for nothing—like, no money. You couldn’t even start to claim overtime until you hit ten hours. In hindsight, I’m clear that my sense of right and wrong was offended by this. I would not yet have the language to really talk about labor issues, or workers’ rights, or capitalism, but I knew that this was no good.
But one of my bosses was a woman who sat on the board of an organization called Community Coalition, a Black-Brown organization in South Los Angeles that was created after the 1992 rebellions, and she connected me to the executive director and founder, which is now congresswoman Karen Bass. That was sort of the real beginning. That became my political home. That’s where I learned how to be an organizer. That’s where I got my training. That’s where I studied political and social movements. That’s where I understood different economic systems, gender, white supremacy, black oppression.
I worked on a bunch of campaigns there—educational equity, land use, people coming home from prison, family care and foster care, and some police brutality (you can’t do organizing in communities of color and not deal with that issue). But I was really sort of rooted in educational equity and working with the young people, and we ran a big campaign around the A to G curriculum, which are the classes you need to take and pass to even be able to apply to a UC or a CSU. But hands down, black and brown kids weren’t getting those classes. You had black and brown young people graduating with a 3.6 and they couldn’t apply to a university because they didn’t have the classes that were default for white students.
I was later brought up to Oakland by an educational organization to run a campaign up here. Then I started organizing with the Black August Organizing committee. And not long after that, Oscar Grant was murdered. I tell this story a lot: I had gone home to Las Vegas with my daughter, who was an infant at the time, for the holidays. I was driving back and I was on the corner of 14th and Alice, because that’s where my apartment used to be in Oakland, and this guy was flagging me down. He said, ‘Hey sis, do you know where the rally is?’ And I said, ‘What rally?’ And he said, ‘For that guy they killed.’ I said, ‘What guy?’ And he said, ‘The guy they killed on the BART.’ I had heard nothing about it in Vegas. I went on social media and there was the video of Oscar Grant being brutalized, and then executed. And I call it my enough moment. I was so disturbed and distraught by that video. It shifted something inside of me that’s never gone back to where it was and I had had enough.
I have a communications background so I began to volunteer doing comms work for a coalition that formed right after Oscar was murdered. Then it just sort of went from there. I still had my regular job, a lot of community organizers work the job in the day so we can afford to do the organizing that we care about at night, so I was doing that and I was doing it as a single mother. We ended up forming this organization called ONYX, which was supposed to be a black liberation organization, but we were primarily responding to state violence both here and killings that were happening across the country.
“we started having a conversation about feeling like we were chasing dead black bodies, that we were only moving when the state moved”
Then we started having a conversation about feeling like we were chasing dead black bodies, that we were only moving when the state moved and that we weren’t doing a very good job of harnessing the energy from protests in our organizing to create change and save lives. Out of that Anti Police-Terror Project was born. Through APTP we developed a model of first response, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country but is being replicated in areas and various cities across the country and in so-called Canada. That first responders’ model trains communities on how to react immediately after the cops kill someone. It teaches them how to do trauma-informed investigating, how to collect evidence, how to talk to witnesses, and how to identify the family. We’ve also created a model for working with families, from the moment that they learn the terrible news all the way up to providing pro-bono legal support.
And we started (it wasn’t intentional at first, but it evolved to be intentional) impacting the public debate around police terror; and that started with changing the narrative that came out when the police killed us—being really adamant about calling it police terror and not police brutality, rejecting any time the media referred to the person that was dead as a suspect, calling out the media for bringing up a victim’s past offense that took place five or ten years earlier—because even if it was the day before, that’s not what they were dead for the day of—and working with families to give personal details about the victim so that we can humanize the people that we were losing from our community.
Then it just sort of took on a life of its own. One day I imagine I’ll sit down and really track it, but what it feels like is that I went from working as a communications manager full-time, to running a state-wide network that works on state violence issues in a day and a half.
MFU: Your mayoral platform called for outsourcing “non-law enforcement functions to community members and businesses.” What would this look like, and what would the expected outcome be?
CB: What we want to work on first and foremost—and it’s actually in Rebecca Kaplan’s (Oakland City Councilmember) proposed amended budget—is redirecting money from the police department towards funding 24/7 mental health support in the city of Oakland, and specifically to train mental health workers to be the first responders to mental health crises instead of police. That’s the first thing that we want to do, and it’s way more tangible now than it ever was before. And it could be a model for the nation and that’s critical because the vast majority of people who are killed by law enforcement are in the middle of a mental health crisis.
The other thing is if someone’s calling about a broken window in their car we don’t need to send law enforcement for that. We don’t need for law enforcement to respond to non-violent complaints. We can send people that are trained in restorative justice, de-escalation tactics, et cetera. We don’t even necessarily need to be using law enforcement to patrol particular beats. For instance the laurel district has a community security team that’s rooted in movement and community relationships that both businesses and community rely on for their safety.
Looking at where we can expand that model would save us millions of dollars and actually direct law enforcement to do the things that even folks like me—and I’m a self-proclaimed abolitionist—want police to do until we figure out a better method. I don’t know what to do about pedophiles or rapists or violent homicides. Those are the things that I want cops to focus on. And those are the things that cops want to focus on to be perfectly honest. So let’s have them do that and let us deal with low-level drug offenders, basic community security and mental health, and all of those things, with civilians.
MFU: What are the current standards for police training in Oakland and what are your thoughts on those standards? And how about transparency and accountability standards?
CB: I do not know all of the standards for Oakland PD in terms of their training. I do know that they only have to do fifteen hours of what’s called crisis intervention training. That’s fifteen hours and then they are sent out to respond to mental health crises. When you compare that with what a social worker or a therapist gets you’re talking about 6,800 hours. So there’s a vast difference, yet we’re sending people with significantly less training—with weapons—into situations that other folks have to have almost 7,000 hours for.
That’s one standard that I have issues with. There’s also of course the use of force standard. Now the Oakland police department actually has one of the most stringent use of force standards in the country; it explicitly talks about de-escalation, it talks about there being a use of force continuum (meaning you don’t get to start with the gun), and it requires that police that see other police officers doing bad things intervene. These are all of the things that we want in a good use of force policy. However, what we’ve seen with the Oakland police department (until very recently as the result of community organizing) was that they just sort of ignored all of those standards and they were just killing people at will. That’s why community oversight is so important.
In terms of transparency and accountability California has the strictest protections for law enforcement out of any state in the country, and that is in direct contrast to the fact that California cops kill more people than any other police department in the country. We have the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which is a big ol’ long list of rules about what you can and cannot do in terms of investigating police, in terms of revealing information about police, in terms of what kind of protection they’re supposed to have, what time of day you can investigate them, all kinds of stuff. And then those protections get double-downed on in union contracts and also by the Copley decision, which prevents the release of records.
We’ve been chipping away at that. Last year we had a big victory with SB1421, which allows for PRAs to be filed in cases of confirmed excessive use of force or sexual assault. And we are well on our way to a use of force victory in Sacramento with AB392 having made it through the assembly, which was the heavy lift. Now that the governor is involved it’s most likely going to make it through the Senate. So there’s organizing happening to chip away at the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, to chip away at the behemoth of protections that they have, and I think we’ll see more of that as the public conversation around law enforcement and what is true community safety continues to evolve.
MFU: You mentioned being an abolitionist. Can you say more about that? What do you think about the call to abolish police or the claim that you cannot get rid of police brutality without getting rid of police?
CB: When I say that I’m an abolitionist, my definition of what it means should not be taken to be the definition of what being an abolitionist means. Most folks that are pure abolitionists would not say what I said earlier, which is that in this moment, because we don’t have anything else, I want cops to deal with really violent acts.
I believe deeply that we can never incarcerate or police our way to safety, that if we could do that we’d be the safest country in the world because we do that more than any other country on the planet, more than most of them combined. I also believe deeply that the way that we get to safe communities is through investment in communities, that we deal with trauma, poverty, education, jobs, inner family dynamics, et cetera. We should be taking money away from police and investing in those things. I also believe, and this was the hardest one for me to get to because I was one of those people that as soon as you brought up the conversation about abolition I would say, ‘What about pedophiles?’ I’m a survivor of sexual violence as a child and I was sort of like, ‘I don’t care if you put them underneath the prison and starve them to death. I just didn’t care.’ So I’ve done a lot of work, and some days I have to do more work than others. But I finally got to the place where I was like, yes, there are some people in our society—and I’ll spar with anybody verbally on this—there are some people in our society that just can’t be walking around. There just are. I don’t want Jeffrey Dahmer walking around. I don’t want Charles Manson walking around. I don’t want serial child rapists walking around. They cannot be in our society. But even if they can’t be in our society, I’ve come to a place where I believe that doesn’t mean that they should be treated like animals—worse than animals—either. And I have to be careful; I’m not saying animals should be treated badly.
There are a couple more points that I’ll make. One is that there’s a big difference between ideology and real life circumstances. People walk around saying, ‘Get rid of all of the police right now.’ But you don’t have anything to replace it with, and not only do you not have anything to replace it with, but you are not close enough to the ground in any of the communities where this could reap havoc in the immediate term. When we talk about not calling police in the hood, you’ve got what we call secondary predators, the first predator is always white supremacy, but we’ve got secondary predators. We’ve got folks that sell dope to children. And if you think that just Joe Blow can walk up to that person and say, ‘Listen. You can’t deal dope here by this school, otherwise there are going to be consequences.’ If you don’t think they’re going to go back and get their heat and take care of you, that’s asinine. So we also need to be having more real conversations about what abolition looks like.
And the last thing I’ll say is that mass incarceration, criminalization, and police are born of race-based capitalism and the slave trade; it’s white supremacy’s desperate attempt to hold on to the slave trade. So when we’re talking about abolition, we have to not just be talking about abolishing police and prisons. We have to be talking about abolishing white supremacy, abolishing race-based capitalism, abolishing patriarchy, abolishing misogyny, abolishing transphobia—all of those things. They’re all connected inside of one big dysfunctional structure.
There are ways that we can practice abolition in our daily lives. I don’t call the police. I also have the benefit of a security team that I can call, and who I would trust to do something better than OPD anyway. You also see people turning to communities, community elders, or restorative justice to deal with domestic violence situations. There’s a model that this young man named Malakai is doing in West Oakland to deal with violence, but before something pops off instead of waiting until an incident. So we’ve got to keep practicing, but we’ll get there, just probably not in my lifetime.
MFU: Do you see a connection between our desensitization to state violence, both at home and abroad, and our exposure to violence in entertainment media?
CB: Yes. There’s a connection. I can look at it even just with my own kid. Nothing much phases her. Partly it’s that she has access to everything she could possibly want on the internet. And for young people and adults who grow up and/or live in communities where there is continuous violence, if you’ve seen five people shot and killed by the time you’re eight years old, how as a child do you process that other than desensitize yourself from it, normalize it?
I’m turning some of my focus to healing justice, particularly dealing with trauma in communities of color as a result of both state and intercommunal violence, and I’ve been telling this story lately: It must have been four or five years ago. I was on my couch. I was working from home. It was a Thursday. It was 11 o’clock in the morning and I heard gunshots. Now most people in the hood would tell you you get on the floor and you don’t move until you’re sure the gun shots are gone. I don’t know what got into me this particular day other than gunshots on my street were so normal that I didn’t think about walking outside. So I opened the door and I walked outside, and my then husband was upstairs sort of screaming at me to get back in the house. And I’m standing on my porch and I see a car come and I realize that the man in the car is holding a gun and he’s holding it out the window and I watched him basically execute this man that was running away from him.
CB: I should have been floored, but I wasn’t. I went inside. I continued working. I went and got my kid later. You know what I mean? Now as I’m starting to think about healing justice and dealing with trauma it just hit me how absurd that is. But I grew up in these neighborhoods. I live in these neighborhoods. I think it’s a combination of the real life violence that we see in the hood, and of course the music talks about it (it’s nothing to hear a rap song about putting a hole in somebody), the television is violent, the video games are violent, and so I think we live in a violent, violent, violent culture. We just had a mass shooting in Virginia beach and I’m hardly hearing anything about it. Thirteen people are dead.
MFU: It seems like our violent entertainment media must play a significant role in desensitizing us to violence—including state violence. A lot of the shows out there have barbaric violence and murder.
CB: There’s a whole channel called investigative ID—I know because I’m addicted to it—and it has real life crime shows seven days a week 24 hours a day: Knives with Wives, Terror Lives Next Door, Evil Lives Here. There are horrific, horrific stories. But they’re real. These are real people. And it’s a whole damn station. You can go on the website and you can sign up for a chance to play a dead body in one of the recreations. It’s crazy!
MFU: Who do you think the best candidate to address the root causes of police brutality or police terror is—if you believe there is one?
CB: None of them. I don’t think that we’re having a real conversation about police and policing in this country and until we’re willing to do that we can’t get to the root causes. Until we’re willing to say that the birth of the American policing system lies at least 50%-60% in the cavalries of the slave trade, then we can’t have a real conversation. If we can’t have a real conversation about how chattel slavery turned into convict leasing, then we can’t have a real conversation about police and prisons. If we can’t talk about the fact that our law enforcement kills three people on average a day and the vast majority of those people are unarmed and black and brown and so there must be a racial component to this, then there’s no hope—particularly to get at the root causes.
Do I think it would be better than what we have now? The president who says, ‘Yes, slam their heads into the back of the patrol car?’ I think any of the democratic candidates—well, except for maybe Kamala—are going to be willing to take that stance. I don’t have a frontrunner yet. I’m really liking what I’m hearing out of Elizabeth Warren. I was a Bernie supporter in 2016. But ultimately I have a cynical view of national politics. I think that the changes we need to make happen at the local level. With that said, I’m really clear that whoever the democratic nominee is, I’ll be stumping for them. I don’t care if I like them or not. I like them better than Trump.