Long before the 2016 election, there was a civil rights culture that was created by Americans of color. Many of today’s political demonstrations are influenced by historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, all who fought in the long battle against racism. Even protests like the recent Women’s March, some would argue, derived from previous demonstrations of people of color. In 1997, in Philadelphia, for example, activist Phile Chionesu formed the Million Woman March, a response to the historical Million Man March, a demonstration organized by African American men to fight against the social and economic disparities that afflict the black community.
In 2012, public understanding of the persistent problem of police brutality went viral, with the help of cellphones, live video and the Internet. Deaths of young black Americans like Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, caught the attention of young people of color, inspiring them to express their political opinions, including in protests across America.
Through the lives of four very different individuals living in the East Bay, this series explores how protesters became activists, and is largely told from their perspectives. Activism isn’t a hobby for them, nor does their experience represent the entire protest culture. But their stories shed light on the complexities of the resistance to racism as well as the current state of political action at the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration. Although they have different backgrounds, these activists are united in feeling a responsibility to carry their community’s burdens as their own.
It is the first day back since spring break. Alana Banks still has her tan from Barbados. She walks onto UC Berkeley’s campus behind Sproul Hall to the Fannie Lou Hamer Center, a small tin building named after the voting rights activist. If you weren’t familiar with the place, it would be easy to miss, as it is hidden behind the English department and to the far left of the art studio. Banks, who is from Oakland, is one of the co-founders of the center, which opened in February. It is the first space set aside as resource center for black students on UC Berkeley’s campus.
Banks rarely comes on campus anymore—she graduated last spring—so she no longer has a key. She looks into the glass window and bangs on the door. As Banks walks away, a tall black guy comes to the back door and lets her in. Inside there are red, green, and black lines representing Africa painted on the walls, Black Lives Matter posters, and seven or so black students sitting on high chairs in front of circular tables. Last year Banks and other Black Student Union (BSU) members bought this furniture. As Banks walks around, a young woman sees her, and immediately calls her by the nickname: AB. Another guy pokes his head through the doorway and does the same.
Along the walls in the back is a photo gallery of pictures from the BSU’s 2015 protest against the death of Mike Brown, a young man who was killed by a police officer. Banks points to several photos of herself. In one she is holding a megaphone and wearing a black shirt with “Black Power” written on the front. For her, this space is more than a memory. It’s history that she helped create. “Real activists care about everybody’s freedom,” Banks says as she looks around. “It just so happens that I’m black and we suffer from a lot of oppression.”
For the past three years, 22-year-old Banks has dedicated a lot of her time to campus activism. She never hesitates to express her opinions about anything, especially when she is certain she’s right. Take the problem of unnecessary packaging. “Plastic is killing the Earth,” Banks says. “Why can’t you just stop eating your fucking candy to save the world?” Her straightforward personality appeals to her classmates. She’s what you might call a well-rounded Cal activist: She was elected a campus senator last year, joined the BSU’s protests against police brutality, and recently participating in the Fees Must Fall demonstration, a protest against increasing fees at South African Universities. She dedicated so much of her time to activism that she was unable to finish her thesis by last year’s graduation, and is finishing it now.
College was where she found her social consciousness. “Before UC Berkeley I was definitely in denial,” Banks says. But the viral news of police brutality and her own experiences with racism at Cal awakened her to a side of America that she could no longer tolerate. She didn’t grow up in a household where liberation was a conversation at the dinner table and she was never taught the history of black oppression. But at Cal she has came to know activism in a different way, and feels a responsibility to better her Oakland community. For Banks activism is more than protesting, it’s acknowledging oppression and being willing to change it, which first starts in her neighborhood.
It was the summer of 2005 at the height of the hyphy movement in Oakland. Mac Dre’s music played throughout her North Oakland neighborhood, known to natives as the “six deuce block,” and kids played football in the streets and could hear the ice cream trucks approaching. On normal days, you could catch Banks, who was then 12 years old, and her friends heading out to the basketball courts.
As she walked down the street she also saw drug dealers on the corner. She knew all of their names because they were family and friends. Many people were fearful of her community because of the poverty, gang violence and drug use. But Banks didn’t find these problems to be as horrific as others assumed. For her, Oakland natives were surviving, even flourishing, despite all of the hardships. “I wouldn’t trade our problems for anybody else’s problems because we were happy,” Banks says.
But on her block, resources and services were scarce. There were no trashcans on the street. Across from Banks’ house, a field had been turned into a dump. The kids sometimes played there. Maybe that’s why Banks, along with many children in the area, suffered from asthma. In elementary school Banks struggled with dyslexia. Because of her condition, she was placed into several special needs classes that she felt impeded learning. Basic knowledge she should have been getting wasn’t provided. “The schools were trash,” says Banks.
Banks eventually attended charter middle and high schools and her life seemed to get better. She felt like the charter schools provided her with a more promising education. At about the same time, her dad came back into her life after ten years of her parents being separated. Rebuilding the family made her feel like things in her life were looking up.
In her family, it was no secret that racism and oppression exist in America, but rarely did they discuss their feelings about poverty in Oakland. She did not know that many of the economic disparities in the school system and her neighborhood were due to larger factors, going far beyond her neighborhood. Because of this, Banks believes, “The negative effect of not telling your children about oppression is to make them think that it’s their fault that things are the way they are.”
But that changed when she went to college. Suddenly was on her own, with no family or neighborhood to shelter her. For the first time after she left her six deuce block she saw the real America.
The turning point came during her sophomore year at Cal, in 2014. On August 9, Mike Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Banks and members of the BSU followed the news on TV that fall, hoping that the officer would be indicted. But a grand jury decided not to issue an indictment. The black community in Ferguson took the news hard. Banks watched news broadcast as Ferguson citizens demonstrated in the streets, shutting down the normal life of the city.
Watching black people respond struck a chord in Banks. She, too, felt angry, as she thought about her struggles and the conditions of many black people in Oakland. So that December, Banks and members of BSU created their own protest called “Ferguson to Cal” to signal to the Ferguson demonstrators that they were with them, standing up against police brutality.
They chose the nearest space at hand, the Golden Bear Café. They asked everyone to disperse from the building. Other protestors joined in as allies, surrounding the outside of the cafe. They chanted, “Turn up, turn down, we do this for Mike Brown.”
Elaine Brown, the former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, also joined students as they gave speeches in front of the café’s entrance. Banks stood front and center holding a megaphone. “At the end of the day we’ve got to pay homage to Mike Brown,” Banks said, “because he was literally a human sacrifice for the community.”
That was the beginning for Banks. The next week, Banks and members of the BSU were walking from Berkeley to Oakland to join the Millions March Oakland, a demonstration organized to protest Brown’s death. As they passed through campus they approached the famous Sather Gate, located in the front of Sproul Hall, a place where many tourists and new students stand to get the perfect “I’m a Cal student” photo. But on that day, effigies hung from the gate: a fake black body was held up by a rope on one of the railings. Although an artists’ group later claimed responsibility for the effigies, which they said were intended as a criticism of historical lynchings, Banks and many others were appalled by the imagery.
Afterward, the students presented a list of ten demands to the campus administration, designed to improve the school experience for black students. (At the time, only three percent of students on campus were black.) Among them: Hire a black psychologist, develop a resource center for black students on campus, hire two black staff members with a series of strategies for recruiting more black students, hire two full-time black athletic advisers, develop a budget for a “getting to graduate school” mentorship program, change the name of Barrows Hall to honor Black Panther Party activist Assata Shakur, and provide full funding for the American Cultures and Engaged Scholarship program. BSU members met more than once with the chancellor, and after two years, the administration granted many of their requests, including the resource center, now known as the Fannie Lou Hamer Center.
Despite all of her previous activism at Cal, Banks hasn’t joined any of the demonstrations against Trump in 2017. She believes that many of the protests in Oakland have left black organizers out of the process. “I fought in all those fights because I was a part of the planning processes,” Banks says. “In these new planning processes, there are no black people and they’re not invited. Real activists care about everybody’s freedom.”
For example, she says, just three days before the Oakland Women’s March, a demonstration to oppose Trump’s policies on immigrants’ and women’s rights, Banks received a message on Facebook from a protest group she had previously worked with. They asked if she would be willing to speak at the march, but she immediately declined. In her view, they only wanted her as a token representative of the black community. She says they never asked her or any of the BSU organizers to be a part of the planning process.
Today, Banks is more focused on the health and meditation aspects of activism, like helping people work towards mental stability. Her current thesis, which she is doing through the American Studies and Public Health department, explores the issue of bipolar disorder in black communities. She recently returned to her Oakland community and is working as a college adviser and basketball coach. At her old high school, Cal Prep, she conducts wellness workshops for students focusing on healthy ways to deal with anxiety. Outside of school, meditation has become her primary form of self-healing. A few weeks ago, four of her student advisees were accepted into UC Berkeley.
Since Banks was a child, much has changed about her Oakland community. The old brownfield across the street from her house is now a field of grass—a kind of mini-park that’s well-maintained. Many people in her neighborhood left because of increased rent fees or because they have gone to prison, but she still maintains a relationship with many of her neighbors. More than anything, Banks’ activism has been her education, and now she is sharing her knowledge with the people who raised her and made her who she is.
“You can’t just stop being an activist,” says Banks. “You can’t just stop caring. Real activists figure out another way to give back.”