The Black Activist Running to Be Oakland’s Next Mayor Has a Plan to Win—Even If She Loses

“Nobody’s ever voted their way to freedom.”

Cat Brooks for Oakland/YouTube

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It’s an afternoon in early August when Cat Brooks starts knocking on doors in West Oakland. In this sleepy, sun-drenched block of Victorian bungalows, Brooks is at ease. The high-profile local police accountability activist and former radio host bought a modest, two-story, gray house nearby after she moved from Los Angeles a decade ago.

It’s no coincidence this is where she landed. The neighborhood has long been an avatar for both the steady and seismic changes that have disrupted black communities across the country. In the 1960s, it was the national headquarters for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a storied western outpost for black migrants from the South, but more recently it is the “new edge of Silicon Valley,” a place of any number of macro- and microaggressions centered on race and class, including soaring rents and neighbors calling the police to log noise complaints against black church choirs.

“This,” says Brooks, hopping out of her black SUV with an armful of fliers, “is home”—as if everything around her has something important to teach the rest of the world, and she’s been specifically chosen to help facilitate the lesson. That’s why she’s running for mayor of Oakland and for bringing a certain kind of community-led change to City Hall.

She faces an uphill battle. It’s a crowded field—10 people are running for the office, and the incumbent, Libby Schaaf, has out-raised everyone. As of August, Schaaf’s campaign war chest totaled more than $315,000, while Brooks had raised just under $50,000. But what Brooks lacks in money, she is trying to make up for in energy: Her campaign says it has 400 volunteers, and she’s gotten a slew of prominent endorsements, including Oakland city councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who finished second in the 2014 mayoral race; Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who himself ran for mayor in 1972; and the California Nurses Association. And there might be an opening for Brooks with a certain slice of the city’s left and minority voters. Nationally, Schaaf is viewed as a progressive who even made headlines for openly defying President Donald Trump on immigration. But in the insular world of radical Bay Area politics, the current mayor is eyed by some black progressives and Democrats with suspicion for not doing enough to stave off the landslide of gentrification that’s remaking the city.

Later, as she marches from door to door in the multicolored units of a housing project, with Arabic wafting from one unit and Vietnamese from another, Brooks hands each resident a paper announcing a barbecue at a small park around the corner that upcoming weekend. There will be free food and face painting for kids, she tells them. But above all, she says she wants to register people to vote. And if you can’t vote? That’s fine. Come, grab something to eat, hang out with your neighbors.

“This is a long game, not a short game,” Brooks told me earlier that day at her campaign headquarters, tucked away in a back office of a small building downtown. The long game is this: She wants to build a base of Oakland residents who are strong and loud and organized enough to meaningfully challenge people in power. Even, and especially, if they’re led by her. Brooks, who sometimes works with Black Lives Matter, represents a new chapter for black activists whose demands fall outside of the Democratic mainstream. Her message doesn’t revolve around, or often include, resistance to Trump, because he is merely a symptom of a disease that has ravaged communities of color since their beginning. Oakland is a city in which Democrats have long held power, and in that sense, it’s a study in just how inclusive and responsive a city can be to the demands of its most ardent black activists, who have faded a bit from the national spotlight since the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement during the Obama years. But with some parts of the country bracing themselves for a so-called “blue wave” in November, Oakland reveals what can happen once that wave washes ashore.  

Just like her neighborhood, Cat Brooks is a study in reinvention. Born Sheilagh Polk in Las Vegas to a white mother and black father, her childhood was a firsthand lesson in the real-world impact of racial inequity. Her father struggled with substance abuse and went to prison when Brooks was eight, and she and her mother moved around often, struggling to find stable housing. While she’d eventually take after her mother—an activist who worked to bring attention to domestic violence—she initially inherited her father’s love of the stage. He was the first black stagehand with a prominent unionized show on the Vegas strip, and after he went to prison, what helped Brooks ease the uncertainty was theater. She studied theater all the way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. She trained in London before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career full time.

But she needed a job to pay the bills, and in 2002, she landed a gig as a communications coordinator with a group called the Community Coalition, an organization that fights a range of policy battles in South Central Los Angeles, including punitive policing practices. Brooks fell in love with the fast pace and intimacy of the work—a land-use campaign here, a re-entry program for ex-offenders there. That work led her to Oakland in 2008 to work for an education nonprofit. 

Then, on New Year’s Day in 2009, Oscar Grant, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a white transit officer before a crowd of onlookers. Brooks soon found herself swept up in the work of trying to bring national attention and local accountability to the case, staging protests at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station where Grant was murdered. She was often front and center for the media. It was around then, when she was worried about pissing off her employers with her increasingly visible activism, that she adopted in public the name Cat Brooks, a mashup of a childhood nickname “she-cat” and the stage name “Brooks” that she’d used to register with the Screen Actors Guild. Soon, the name stuck.  

She co-founded a group called the Anti Police-Terror Project, which took on Grant’s cause and, later, those of other victims of police violence. The group started peer counselor trainings, equipping residents with the tools to respond to emergencies so they wouldn’t have to call police. It has long been a loud and perpetual thorn in the side of local authorities, disrupting regional board meetings and working with allies to shut down the West Oakland BART station on Black Friday in 2014. Earlier this year, not long after Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in nearby Sacramento, Brooks dispensed with any notion of police reform, bluntly telling CNN: “Policing as an institution does not work for communities of color across the country.” 

To hear her tell it, her life was perfectly fine before she decided in May to upend it and run for mayor. Since those early days following the Grant shooting, Brooks has grown in both her profile and her role as a progressive power broker. The Anti Police-Terror Project is still around, and it was the people affiliated with the group who first planted the seed that she should run for mayor. She had recently been named executive director of Justice Teams Network, a coalition of organizations that do rapid response work after instances of police violence that was founded by Patrisse Cullors, who helped start Black Lives Matter. Brooks had also written a one-woman show, Tasha, based on the story of a black woman named Natasha McKenna who was killed by police in Virginia, which was earning positive reviews and awards for local performances. And her morning drive-time radio show on KPFA, “UpFront,” had made her something of a local celebrity. But the idea that someone like Brooks take hold of the formal levers of power gathered a sense of urgency after series of scandals rocked Oakland in 2016 and 2017: The Oakland Police Department became embroiled in a sex abuse scandal in which several officers were reported to have trafficked a young girl; a devastating fire killed 36 people during a party at a warehouse where many people were living, underscoring the region’s housing crisis; and as rents rose, makeshift cities expanded under freeway overpasses, pushing the homeless population to some 2,000 people.

Asked why she finally decided to jump into the race last spring, Brooks tells me now, “Because I can’t turn right without running into a crane and left without running into a tent.” 

In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, many of the activists in Brooks’ orbit were reluctant to publicly endorse candidates, even at the local level, preferring instead to agitate from the outside, as the spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement shone brightest. “Sometimes you have to put a wrench in the gears to get people to listen,” Alicia Garza, a Black Lives Matter co-founder, said in an interview about the network’s decision at the time. Now, two years into a Trump presidency that is openly hostile to their demands, some of the black activists who rose to prominence doing police accountability work and shunning politics as usual have become actively engaged in electoral work as an organizing strategy, putting themselves on the inside in a way that was largely unthinkable just two years ago. Garza, for example, launched a new project, the Black Futures Lab, which includes a program to identify and train progressive political candidates. In a recent speech in San Francisco, she gave insight into her motives, noting the “inability of democracy to tend to our needs.” 

The only answer, she argued, was for black women to run. “America spends so much time shaming black people for not voting,” Garza told the crowd, noting how reliable a voting bloc black women have been for the Democratic Party across decades. “But really, we should all be ashamed of how few black women are making decisions and allocating resources while we continue to ask black women to save us.” 

The ground is shifting today, much like it did in the early 1970s, with a certain set of radical black activists putting resources into electoral politics. “With the Black Panther Party in particular, there was a decision among Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown to shift its resources to running toward local office in the Oakland area,” says Ibram X. Kendi, director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “That was seen as an extension of activism from their standpoint, and there are certainly parallels in which you have people who were protesting on the street or demonstrating on the street and now, some of those same people are running for office.”

For Brooks, the campaign is less about seizing power than building a mass of people to help confront it. “It’s one thing to be on the outside and be like, ‘Oh, forget that. I’m not doing all those politics,’ but then you’re mad when they pass legislation banning barbecuing by the lake that targets black people,” she says, referring to the viral BBQ Becky incident in which a white woman was filmed calling the police on a black man who was barbecuing near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. “And I don’t mean to minimize it to something like that. But there are people inside City Hall that are making decisions—in all city halls—that are about our lives, and they don’t care very much about our lives.”

To that end, even in the wave of progressive candidates running for offices across the country, Brooks stands out. As a longtime community organizer, she is well-versed in the language of the radical left; police abuse in black communities isn’t “brutality,” it’s “terrorism,” hence the Anti Police-Terror Project’s name. And she hasn’t shied away from staking out hard-line positions on some of the city’s most divisive issues. As an activist, she fought to cut the roughly $1.3 billion Oakland police budget in half; if elected mayor, she says she would use that money instead on early childhood development, and mental health and job training programs. She supports a moratorium on privately run and publicly funded charter schools, which is in line with the Black Lives Matter policy agenda released in 2016. She also wants to house the homeless in City Hall and develop community land trusts in which residents create nonprofits to buy land and keep housing prices affordable. She says she is willing to go to jail to protect undocumented residents in Oakland.

When asked what makes her different from other radicals who’ve run recently run for Oakland mayor—Jean Quan, Oakland’s mayor before Schaaf, was reportedly once a member of a Maoist Communist Workers Party in the 1970s—Brooks answers, “I don’t know if anyone has come into it with the same level of cadre accountability.” She says, repeatedly, that she only chose to run because “the people” wanted her to. She is, in short, the type of progressive local candidate who’s willing to shake up the system precisely because she has spent so much time outside of it. “I’m not running to put my bullhorn down,” she told her Facebook followers in early October, a sentiment echoed in her campaign ad. “I’m running so you’ll pick it up.”

Black Lives Matter has an official policy of not endorsing political candidates, but some members admit they may have to revisit that position. “She’s one of our own,” says Black Lives Matter member Melina Abdullah, a professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University-Los Angeles, who also happens to be an Oakland native. Abdullah notes that even despite the organization’s official position, members have enthusiastically supported Brooks’ campaign with time and money.

The hope is that, if elected, Brooks can be to Oakland what similarly politically aligned mayors like Chokwe Antar Lumumba has been to Jackson, Mississippi, and Ras Baraka has been to Newark, New Jersey: an organizer who can use elected office as a space to enact meaningful, community-driven change.

“If we look at black politics, there’s always been a need for both an outside and an inside strategy,” Abdullah says of how Black Lives Matter is now approaching both politics and protest. “Nobody’s ever voted their way to freedom.”

Conventional wisdom says that Brooks is a long shot to win, but thanks to ranked-choice voting, where voters rank their top three choices and second- and third-place finishers often wind up in a runoff, victory is possible. Somewhat complicating matters, Pamela Price, a civil rights attorney who ran unsuccessfully for district attorney, is also in the race and could siphon off some progressive support, particularly since she has ties to a political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros. But Brooks’ goal, whether or not she wins, is still the same as it was 10 years ago when she was calling attention to Oscar Grant’s death: to organize black people. She wants more volunteers, more voter registration parties, more action. And if she doesn’t win? That’s fine. It’s an organizing strategy in an arsenal of many, all aimed at uniting the city’s most disenfranchised to fight for their collective good. 

The most important thing is that “we have a base,” she says, “that we’ve had enough conversations and we’ve touched enough folks that we can mobilize, that we can continue to engage, that we can continue to fight for a progressive Oakland, [because] I want that same base banging on our doors if I’m sitting in that seat.”

This story has been updated.


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