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 was the morning of the 2017 presidential inauguration. Twenty-two-year-old Marco Alberto woke up in his Berkeley home feeling terrible. The clouds seemed to press down on him as he headed south on Telegraph Avenue. Accepting the reality that Donald Trump was the new president of the United States made him feel sick. The roads near Telegraph Avenue were blocked off by police in response to student protests at the University of California, Berkeley. As Alberto walked down the middle of the street, an officer yelled for him to move to the sidewalk. He hollered back, “Why?” There was no one in the street but him.
An altercation was the last thing he wanted that morning, so he complied. But still, he had to do something to rid himself of the hopelessness he felt. So he joined the other students who were protesting nearby. “Feeling like you don’t have control of your own life or love ones lives, that helplessness and that anger really motivated me to march,” says Alberto.
He joined in as the students yelled, “Whose streets? Our streets.” They walked so far that Alberto ended up back in his neighborhood. He left the march and ran home to get his family heirloom, a Che Guevara banner. He held it in the rain and watched as the old flag’s dirt rolled off and it became clean. Alberto placed the banner behind him so others could read the words “To the Victory Always,” written in Spanish.
This was Alberto’s second protest. Prior to transferring to UC Berkeley during his junior year, he had worked with community organizations, providing information about drug use prevention and safe sex. But protesting was another ballgame altogether. He had no desire to join an activist group, mainly because of the horrific stories his mother told him about her protest experiences. He didn’t like hierarchies, and hierarchies, he believed, can ruin the best of causes. Still, resistance was in his DNA.
“I grew up in my house with a big portrait of Che Guevara drawn by my uncle,” Alberto says. “But I always thought that was my dad, because he kind of looked like me.”
He soon found out that the Marxist revolutionary wasn’t a member of the family, but he was just as important. In long car rides to his bilingual school in San Mateo, Alberto would listen to his mother’s stories of her involvement in leftist political movements. Living with his father, who migrated from El Salvador in 1980, and his mother, who had immigrant parents, exposed him to what it was like to be a refugee in America. “I grew up with the same heroes as my mom,” Alberto says.
His mother spoke highly of his great uncle, a member of the communist party in El Salvador. In their home they still have pictures of his aunt and uncle with Che Guevara. But activism cost some of his family members their lives. During El Salvador’s civil war, his mother’s family fled to Costa Rica to avoid being killed by right-wing paramilitary forces. His mother’s cousin and his wife took teaching jobs. But later they were both murdered by paramilitary groups in Costa Rica.
Activism seemed to trickle down to younger generations of Alberto’s family as the civil rights and black power movements took center stage in America during the 1960s and 70s. His older cousins attended the Black Panthers inter-communal school in Oakland, an institution created by the Black Panther Party to give children an alternative to schools that were mostly run by white educators.
Alberto’s family made sure that he was familiar with the history. “I’ve always been aware of resistance. I thought that was normal. I thought every kid had those stories told to them,” Alberto says, smiling.
But to his surprise, it was just the opposite. In high school and community college, Alberto noticed the difference between his upbringing and that of his peers. In his sophomore electronic music production class at Chabot College, in Hayward, California, Alberto was given an assignment to create a new beat for the lyrics of his choice. After scrounging through 60’s liberation songs and news clips, he picked the perfect topic for his music piece. When the day finally came to show the class, he listened to the other students present their songs. Everyone clapped after each presentation. Then Alberto played his track. Words about liberation poured through the speakers of the music. He was proud to hear his song, and awaited the applause when the music stopped. But the class was silent.
“Why was everyone acting weird?” Alberto wondered. He didn’t know what to think. He didn’t see anything different about his piece. It wasn’t until his teacher later spoke to him about the song that he began to understand. His professor told him that the lyrics he chose said a lot about him—that he really was passionate about activism. In that moment, it started to click for him that his revolutionary upbringing was becoming a part of how he unconsciously identified himself.
On the UC Berkeley campus, Alberto started to accept activism as his calling. Being interested in both Latin America and social justice, he became a sociology major, just as his uncle had been many years earlier. In his classes he studied Marxism and communism, along with other political systems, trying to fit together what he was learning with what his mother had told him about her experiences.
But then came the 2016 election, and what she had endured in Central America no longer seemed so abstract. Hearing Trump’s campaign promises about deporting immigrants, Alberto thought about the injustices that his parents faced. He looked around for a new Martin Luther King Jr. or Che Guevara, but to him there are still no leaders for today’s activist movements. “I got tired of waiting for someone to guide me,” says Alberto. “I decided to change my own reality.”
Initially, Alberto believed that he would find his own place in activism without joining a group. But once he met a few fellow activists on campus, he started to attend black and brown liberation groups’ meetings.
The first protest Alberto attended, he met up with members of the new J-20 Coalition, who were protesting against the Trump administration. On February 2. Milo Yiannopoulos—notorious for his bigoted views about immigrants, transgender people, and the feminist community—had been invited to speak on campus by the Berkeley College Republicans. But prior to his address, more than 2,000 people, including Alberto and his group, gathered in front of Sproul Hall to protest. “It’s so beautiful, coming together as one,” Alberto says. “And we were all angry.” (The speech was ultimately cancelled after a small group of violent protesters joined the otherwise peaceful group, and campus police evacuated Yiannopoulos.)
A few weeks later, Alberto attended another meeting on campus with the J-20 Coalition. Only ten students showed up. Where were all the people who had gathered in front of Sproul Hall? Alberto sat in the cold conference room listening to the others talk. The group was already starting to become hierarchical, he felt, with a couple of students acting as if they’d been appointed leaders. They spoke about the plight of undocumented students, but they couldn’t agree on a strategy for addressing the problem. As tension in the room increased, Alberto started to feel uncomfortable. “Everyone was acting weird,” he says. They weren’t as friendly or welcoming as they had been before. This is why Alberto sometimes wonders whether he should give up on collective action, or at least the kind of collective inaction he often encounters. “I feel like the way we organize is different than how it used to look,” he says.
As he finished his senior year and prepared for graduation, Alberto started his own modest form of resistance. He got the idea while passing by the many homeless people who live in People’s Park, in downtown Berkeley, a place that many students avoid.
He picked a few oranges from his neighbor’s tree and bought more at Safeway. He carried the bag to the park and placed them on a table. “Would anyone like some oranges?” he said. Then Alberto walked away. “It was about giving thanks,” Alberto says. He wasn’t looking for recognition. But a few days later, as he was walking by the park, a man stopped him and said, “Hey, those oranges were delicious.” It caught Alberto off guard that the man remembered him. Now every time the stranger sees him, he says, “Have a blessed day.”
Little acts of kindness like this have kept Alberto going as an activist. Bringing about social change, he believes, starts with fighting for those he sees struggling every day.