Cat Brooks Founder and Director of APTP
We sat down with Cat Brooks in her new, unassuming office in downtown Oakland. This transcript falls short in communicating Cat's vision and perspectives, because her real-life dynamism and fighting spirit bring these words alive in a piercing and galvanizing way. Cat wears a lot of hats, so in lieu of catching her sharing her story in person, this conversation provides a powerful window into her bold commitments, creative vision, and practical insight on transforming our world into one that provides justice to all black and brown people.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Blue Heart: What is APTP?
Cat Brooks: APTP anti police terror project is a grassroots organization that is committed to building a replicable and sustainable model that eradicates police terror from communities of color.
Can you tell us the story of how APTP began?
I was raised in a political household, so I’ve always been political. I worked in education and re-entry work, but then Oscar Grant was murdered. I wasn’t there at the time, I was visiting home in Las Vegas and I hadn't heard anything about it. I came home and talked to a brother on the street who was protesting. I asked him what this was for and he said, “For the brother they shot”. I went home and Googled it and up came the video of Oscar and I watched it again and again; I couldn't stop watching it. I couldn't stop crying. Since then I’ve had a pretty laser focus on police terror.
There was a crew of us that have been working together for almost a decade now. My comrades and I engaged immediately in organizing around Oscar Grant. When the black and brown folks had to go back to work, a bunch of well-meaning white folks stepped up to help. We weren't talking about the importance of black leadership back then, so we founded the organization Onyx to insert black leadership back into that struggle.
The initial ideology behind Onyx was that it was going to be a black liberation organization and that we were going to work on a myriad of things that impacted the black community like education, feeding people, clothing drives, and educational and cultural events. But because the state kept killing people, we kept being forced to respond to deaths that were happening at the hands of law enforcement not only here in Oakland, but elsewhere across the country. And it got to the point where we could have thousands of people in the street within 24 to 48 hours. We were the organization that called those actions. But then we started having a conversation amongst ourselves about what we were really doing that was in the service of our people. And we started to feel like we were chasing dead black bodies because the protests were great and it's important to participate in political theater, it's important to show power, it's important for people to be able to plug in. But if it doesn’t move beyond into policy change, then it's political masturbation.
We had many conversations in my kitchen. One was a conversation about what it means to be ‘beyond protest’. Why do we continue to allow the state to set the terms of struggle, meaning we're only moving when they move (i.e., when they murder someone)? We wanted to expand the definition of police terror and wanted to be engaging it on a more regular basis. We know that police terror happens in our communities every single day, that killing us is the most extreme manifestation, but there's also the racial profiling, the sexual assault on women, and even just getting pulled over.
If you're a black or brown person, even if all of your T’s are crossed and you are on your way to your six figure job, if you get pulled over your heart rate starts jumping, you start to sweat, and you can’t breathe because you're very clear that your taillight ticket could turn into your funeral.
So our goal was to work on police terror every day. At that time we all worked a million other jobs and all still do work a million other jobs, but we're getting closer and closer to our goal as we grow in capacity. We also are working to build alternative models to police and that's a longer process. That's what takes way more time and resources but we're in the process of doing that. And finally, we are working on what happens to families. Because when your loved one is murdered by the state a detective knocks on your door to say “I'm so sorry Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so or Mrs. And Mrs. So-and-so, we killed your son or daughter, but don't worry we're going to get you justice”. But what actually happens is the families become another target of the state in an attempt to intimidate them into not fighting back or demanding justice. They get followed to work, they are denied Coroner's report for months and months on end. It is just horrific. And then, of course, there is the fiscal burden, navigating the process, and the grief.
People might get outraged when a murden happens and show up to protests for a a few days or few months. Then they think “ok, it got handled”. That’s not true. It's a actually very long, protracted process for the families. We really wanted APTP to be a support system for families and to help them walk through the entire process from raising money, to supporting their needs, to the legal support, to organizing the community, to dealing with the trauma. So that is how we got to where we are at.
"If you're a black or brown person, even if all of your T’s are crossed and you are on your way to your six figure job, if you get pulled over your heart rate starts jumping, you start to sweat, and you can’t breathe because you're very clear that your taillight ticket could turn into your funeral."
What is the fire that keeps you going?
I don’t think it is just one thing. My daughter is definitely one. I want her to live in a world that looks very different from this one.
My parents used to talk about how the work we do is for seven generations ahead of us. Hopefully they'll understand liberation. Hopefully I'm living my life in such a way that my daughter understands what it means to be a freedom fighter, that she has values and morals that aren’t rooted in capitalism and an “I”, but instead “we”.
When I was a kid, Reagan got elected for the first time and I was very young but I still remember the wailing of the women in my mother's house and the fear and the worries were very much like the conversations that are happening today. My mother was a leader in the domestic violence movement so I got politicized when I was young. I have a friend that I work with sometimes and she says she believes that God whispers your purpose into your ear right before you take your first breathe. And I was blessed with two. One is to be an artist and the other is to be a freedom fighter. I started out as an actress, but the ancestors had a different plan.
"My parents used to talk about how the work we do is for seven generations ahead of us. Hopefully they'll understand liberation. Hopefully I'm living my life in such a way that my daughter understands what it means to be a freedom fighter, that she has values and morals that aren’t rooted in capitalism and an “I”, but instead “we”."
Can you tell us a little more about your work as an artist?
I'm a poet so I love writing poetry. I’ve been writing the stories of the women that have been murdered by the police. Natasha McKenna lived with Schizophrenia. She was tazed to death in a jail in Fairfax County Virginia. They tazed her four times, 50000 volts each time. When the video came out, it showed her naked. It's just horrific. I couldn’t get her voice out of my head, so I wrote her story as my one-woman show. I wanted to tell her story and I wanted to tell it differently. I play six characters in a 45 minutes audio and visual performance. I've take snippets of her murder and intersperse them in between the characters. It’s intense for me to channel it, and for the audience to experience it. You being stuck in a 100 seat theatre with me is very different than being at a rally with me. You can leave the rally or you can turn off the TV. If I'm being interviewed, you can change the station on the radio. But, nine out of 10 people aren’t going to get up and walk out of the theatre.
How does your artist and freedom fighter speak to each other?
My creativity helps me be a good organizer. Organizing is a creative process where you’re constantly analyzing conditions and you are trying to figure out how you work your way around the box and over the hill. I speak in public a lot and the fire, focus, and presence that comes from acting is very handy when you're trying to inspire three thousand to five thousand people to bulldoze over the riot line that the cops have set up or inspire people to get involved in the organization whether it be ours or somebody else's. I definitely think that the decades of being on the stage greatly affects how I move, speak and engage with people.
Why is black leadership critical?
Black leadership has got to be central because in this country until black people are freed nobody will be free. Racial polarization starts with white supremacist oppression of black rights. We must listen to black leadership to know how to get free.
I’m starting to play with how we talk about indigenous folks in relation to black leadership. We don’t want to play the oppression Olympics, but when we talk about entire communities being devastated and still being devastated, black folks and indigenous folks are pretty much neck and neck. When white folks landed here with them. They robbed the land from them and then they brought us to build things on it. So we’ve got to start saying ‘black and indigenous leadership’, because the bloody history of America was built on our backs. They robbed the land from them and then they brought us to build things on it. So in order to understand how white supremacy operates, how it moves, what it means, what it can do, how insidious it is, how to resist it - you can do by studying the history of america and the history of black and indigenous people in this country.
What is the world without police terror: what does that look like and where and how are you all building for that world?
We're clear that what we have in place now does not work for anybody. Not even white folks. White supremacy hurts people. It doesn't work. Our police and prison system today don't rehabilitate people. It doesn't provide any sort of restoration for victims’ rights. It tears apart families. What we are calling for right now is 21st century community safety. What does it look like to train and empower community members to keep things safe? What is a slow phase-out of policing look like? And clearly there are people who I do think need to be in cages for the rest of their lives. I don't want Charles Manson walking around, but even he deserves to live in humane conditions. Even the worst among us, the most damaged deserve to live in humane conditions.
In the new system we are building in Oakland and beyond, you see police replaced with community, you see punitive incarceration replaced with restorative justice practices. As a result of that, you're going to see stronger neighborhoods and communities together, because then you're interdependent on each other. Our model is rigorous. A PhD in trauma put together our rapid response model. Our legal team put together the know-your-rights training and how not to endanger legally people. If you don’t do this work right it’s dangerous because you can retraumatize people and open up the community to all kinds of shit. We take that seriously.
I said earlier we're working on alternative models. For example, we are building relationships with business owners so they don’t call the police, but call us instead. We are building relationships with the folks that are on the streets day in and day out. Crime has gone down, police presence is less frequent, and it's a stronger community. We have to move past the political protest and get into the business of really engaging and empowering the most impacted among us to develop solutions for communities to cure security issues. It's a long process though. Honestly, I'm not going to win in my lifetime, but what I can lay the foundation for future generations.
"In the new system we are building in Oakland and beyond, you see police replaced with community, you see punitive incarceration replaced with restorative justice practices. As a result of that, you're going to see stronger neighborhoods and communities together, because then you're interdependent on each other."
What is your vision for the next five years and what is in the way of you getting there?
We have got a strategic plan that includes having APTP chapters across the country. We want models of alternatives to policing in several major urban areas across the country. We want to have significantly impacted the policy landscape. We want to be part of a coalition that overturns the Police Bill of Rights. We want to have several pilot projects where the communities aren’t calling police, but using our alternative rapid response programs instead. We want to have supported many families through dealing with the loss of their loved ones.
This next year is about moving into deep East Oakland and other pockets where there are still people of color in the city. We will do political education and implement 21st century survival programs. Taking a page from the Black Panthers we will provide medical services and food, and build our base. You shouldn't be sitting here talking to me about police terror. The people that should be sitting here, the people that should be interviewed, the people that should be speaking at the rallies are the people that no movement nowhere is touching.
I work six jobs literally and APTP is not one of them. We raised a little bit of money so that I can have a little stipend, but we need a full-fledged budget. We just got this one office room, which is crazy! We're looking to liberate some space in East Oakland where we can do direct services, trainings, and free legal clinics. It's funny - I don't know why but people have this ideology that you're supposed to starve to do this work. The question we ask is ‘are you getting paid enough money to get by?’ But we should be getting more than that.
What are some of the challenges you face in getting funding?
We’re the “Anti-Police Terror Project” so people get nervous and don’t fund us. The foundations go with the safer routes. They go with other, big nonprofits that gobble up all the money. The people doing the movement work have their 9-5 jobs but then start the real work from 5-9, because it doesn’t get funded. We're also not controllable niggas, and they know that, so I think that interrupts funding as well.
What are the ways that you see white folks who are trying to show up in support mess up?
Not being able to get past your own white privilege to hear what the person of color in the room is saying to you, not understanding that they know more than you do about oppression. There are some white folks who have been doing this work for a very long time and they feel like they've overcome the disease of white supremacy. But you never overcome the disease of white supremacy. Also, inserting resources rather than offering them. You have access to all the stuff, but how about asking us if we want it or need it?
Can you give an example of when allies have provided resources in a valuable way?
SURJ is off the hook. They go talk to their cousins and they bring back money. And they do it in a real principled way. They're grounded in their own political education, theory of organizing, and ideology. They are examples of people to go learn from.
What message do you have about showing up and supporting your work for our members?
APTP is black-led, but we're multiracial and multigenerational. So I guess the first message is you're welcome. You're welcome to come organize with us. We welcome you into this space with the goal of helping politically develop you and putting you to work because there's a lot of work that needs to get done. The other message is that the world didn't change with Trump. We are not living in some new scary, unseen time. This is the world black people and brown people and undocumented folks and immigrants and queer folks and trans folks and Muslims have been living in. America has two faces. She has smooth and sooth and she has smash and grab. Obama was smooth and sooth. Trump is smash and grab. Now it's time for you to “shhh” and learn and act. And if you can't do those things, find an organization and give to it every single month, and don't give to the ACLU who just racked in $30 million dollars. The National Lawyers Guild needs that money. Do your homework and then go talk to your people, have the hard conversations at the dinner table. Combating liberalism means challenging unprincipled behavior anywhere we see it regardless of fear of consequence or conflict. If you're in public, and you see a young Muslim woman being tormented, it is your job and your duty to intervene. Lay your body on the line a little bit.
"Do your homework and then go talk to your people, have the hard conversations at the dinner table. Combating liberalism means challenging unprincipled behavior anywhere we see it regardless of fear of consequence or conflict."