Portraits of East Bay Activists: Tassiana Willis
on May 10, 2017
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.
Tassiana Willis stood on top of Oakland City Hall, five stories high, tied to a flagpole flying that American flag. Music began to play and she held a microphone to her mouth, as members of a dance troupe repelled off the side of the building. When she looked down she saw pink hats, signs, and a sea of white faces.
Below, children, women and men all watched in awe as the dancers hung from the sky. Twenty-three-year-old Willis began singing one of her own compositions: “I have heard and I’ve got faith.” The crowd burst into applause.
But Willis was ambivalent about the adulation. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be there at the Women’s March, one of dozens of demonstrations that took place across the country the day after the presidential inauguration. As many as 100,000 people gathered in Oakland alone, and over 1 million in Washington D.C., to protest against new President Donald Trump’s policies on health care, Planned Parenthood funding, education and immigration. But for all its good intentions, Willis felt, the Women’s March was missing an essential element—diversity.
“I come from ancestors who fought,” Willis says. “Black women and trans women who were artists, who sang, who loved, who laughed. But white women intentionally excluded them.” The Women’s March, she felt, was more of the same—a movement mostly by and mostly for white feminists. The women who demonstrated in Oakland shouted “Black Lives Matter” and expressed support for the rights of minorities, but very few of them, Willis noticed, were black.
Still, Willis sang her heart out that day. Black, queer, and plus-sized, she sees resistance as a way of life; it transcends any one demonstration. Fighting inequality and injustice is a daily struggle, not a part-time diversion. And for Willis, the fight often takes the form of artistic expression. As a young poet and singer, who currently lives in Emeryville, she has found a way to add her voice to America’s long history of resistance.
“I came out of the womb humming,” says Willis. Growing up with a Muslim mother and a great-grandmother who was a vocalist at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, Willis gravitated toward music. From church choirs to after-school programs, singing in front of others was second nature.
Willis’ mother often scribbled poem fragments on scraps of paper, and living in a house with a poet introduced her to another way of giving voice to her thoughts and feelings. Willis began reading her mother’s words, along with Maya Angelou’s work. She was inspired, and starting writing her own poems. In one some of them, Willis described memories like going to a party at Glow, an all-ages club in San Francisco. While her friends danced, she stood next to them holding their coats. Because she was a plus-sized girl, boys rarely asked her to dance. If one did have the courage to approach her, others might laugh.
“It became healing for me,” Willis says of poetry. “I could analyze how I felt in a way that I couldn’t in the classroom or with my friends.” Life would never be easy for an outspoken black girl who was full-figured and queer, but writing about her experiences made her feel freer, stronger.
Later Willis joined Youth Speaks, an arts organization for young poets in San Francisco, as an Emerging Arts Fellow. There, she recited her poetry in front of several people, sharing her thoughts about how black women are marginalized and made to feel unwelcome. She also talked about the insecurities all teenage girls experience. The stage was her refuge, a place of safety and healing. But Willis also found that her poems could help others, by letting them know they were not alone. Documenting her struggles via poetry became a form of activism.
Then her life took a turn.
It was February 26, 2012. Willis was a freshman in college. Scrolling through her Twitter feed, she came across a news clip saying that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed by a man in Sanford, Florida. She watched videos of protestors yelling “Black lives matter!” as they walked through the streets. She, too, was angry. Only a few years before, another young black man, Oscar Grant, had been shot and killed in Oakland by a transit officer at the Fruitvale BART Station. Willis had never attended a demonstration. But the more she thought about it, the more she felt she should do something to register her outrage. “I wasn’t a part of” the protest movement, she says. “And I feel that because I wasn’t a part of it, I was for the other side.”
Willis mustered the courage to join a protest for Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant in Oakland. When she arrived, she walked alone in the midst of other protestors on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Afterward, she attended a series of protests with Black Lives Matter and other liberation groups in Oakland. But she never joined a group. She always acted alone, participating in only those protests that resonated with her.
In late December, 2015, Willis and eight Black Lives Matter protestors joined the national call for a Black Christmas protest, a strike against major corporations during the Christmas holiday. They walked onto a highway in Oakland and blocked the lanes. The press immediately started filming them. Not long after, word spread that they were protesting and the police arrived. Willis thought that she wouldn’t be arrested after overhearing an officer say that they were free to go home. But they were. Before she was handcuffed, Willis remembered how someone once told her that plus-sized women should asked to be double cuffed so the handcuffs wouldn’t hurt. So she requested that the officer double cuff her—thanks to her question, he assumed she had been arrested before. But this was her first arrest.
She was horrified as she felt the discomfort of her arms being twisted behind her from the handcuffs as they entered the jail. While waiting in the holding cell, she and the protestors began to sing, “Which side are you on my people? Which side are you on?” The officers immediately silenced them. After several hours, they were released. Following their arrest, they faced a long battle to get the charges against them dropped. Finally, after several months, they agreed to plea to a lesser charge.
The arrest and time in court was something Willis would never forget. “You continue to march and you realize that it is very taxing on your spirit. And a part of that work is stepping back,” says Willis. Dealing with the legal process began to overwhelm Willis. She did not attend any protests for a year after this incident. But though she was not actively involved in protests, she still found her own liberation in the way she chose to live her life.
A year later Willis received a call from Project Bandaloop, which performs aerial dances along the sides of buildings. The dancers asked her to perform with them for the Oakland Women’s March. She reflected on the 1997 Million Woman March, made in response to the Million Man March. She felt that the 2017 Women’s March was a play off of these historical black events, and was concerned that it would leave black, queer, and transgender women out of the conversation. But she agreed to perform because to her, the march was bigger than white women—it was personal.
At the march she saw Oakland, in all its fullness, representing the city’s culture of activism, although she was unable to recognize many of the faces from the Black Lives Matter protests she had gone to last year in these very streets. As she sang, she thought of how she was finally claiming a space for black women, and about the way they have historically been treated. “We were raped, beaten, lied to, and there I was,” says Willis, “five stories high on top of the city building tied to the American flag pole singing not to entertain these white people, but to say, ‘Look what we have accomplished without you.’”
Then Willis saw a small group of black women holding hands in the crowd, and became moved by their unity. She felt the wind blow as she stood so high up, and continued to sing: “Together we can change the world. If we fight back, ya’ll, we could change the world.”
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