“I Am Not Your Minstrel Show” A Talk With Cat Brooks, The Progressive Candidate Looking To Be The First Black Female Mayor Of Oakland
If Cat Brooks is successful, she could become the first African-American female mayor of Oakland. Running on a progressive platform, the Independent candidate is considered a credible contender against incumbent Libby Schaaf.
Interestingly, Vegas-born Brooks, who received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she studied theater, didn’t start out with the goal of being an activist or politician. Initially, she was lured by the world of acting. She even studied at the National Royal Theater Studio in London, later moving to Los Angeles where she worked at Creative Artists Agency. But according to Brooks, her life changed when she was hired as the communications coordinator for Community Coalition, an organization founded by now-Congresswoman Karen Bass, in 2002. As Brooks worked on issues of education and racial justice, her penchant for activism came more into focus, or perhaps full circle. Brooks was actually reared in activism. Her mother was an anti-nuclear activist who took her to protests when she was just a child.
Brooks, 42, was born to a Black father and white mother in a working-class, union family. According to her website, her father was the first Black stagehand with IATSE Local 720 on the Vegas strip. Her dad, however, struggled with substance abuse and when Brooks was eight he was sentenced to a Nevada Correctional Facility. This lit the first spark for Brook’s fight for a more just justice system. Years later, the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant further fueled Brooks’ activism, leading her to co-found the Anti Police-Terror Project. Additionally, Brooks served as the executive director for the Bay Area National Lawyers Guild and an organizer for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Currently serving as the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network, a network of grassroots activists providing rapid response and healing justice in response to all forms of State violence across California, Brooks has now set her sights on government office. According to her campaign platform, she is fighting for “safe, dignified shelter for all” and affordable housing for working and middle-class families as well as improved environment justice and public health. Her ultimate goal, her website states, is to ensure that “Oakland is truly a Sanctuary City by both providing an unwavering commitment to policy that prevents any collusion between local law enforcement and federal agencies.”
It seems the people of Oakland are responding to Brooks’ call for change. Just last week she announced she has raised over $100,000 in grassroots donations.
And, Brooks, who lives with her husband and daughter in West Oakland, hasn’t left the theater world far behind. Instead, she has combined activism and art. Brooks currently has a one-woman show called “Tasha,” which is loosely based on Natasha McKenna, the 37-year-old Virginia woman who was tasered to death in police custody in 2015.
While visiting a homeless encampment that was about to be forcibly dismantled, Brooks took time for a phone interview with MadameNoire.
MadameNoire (MN): How’s campaigning going?
Cat Brooks (CB): As well as to be expected; we have just days left. We’ve gathered a lot of momentum. We have 700 people on phone banks and knocking on doors. We’ve been endorsed by nearly every progressive leader in the city. [Journalist/activist] Shaun King endorsed us the other day. So it’s going great. The latest polls showed me moving up seven percentage points which is great. Our ground game is strong. We are considered the viable candidate against the incumbent.
MN: What made you want to run?
CB: I’ve struggled with the policies of Libby Schaaf since she was in the city council, especially how she treats families who are survivors of state violence. On her very first day in office, she spent the entire first day within law enforcement, from 6 am to midnight. Since then it has been disaster after disaster for the people of this city. We have an explosive housing crisis. Just this past Friday the UN issued a report after traveling to cities all over the world and named Oakland and San Francisco as the two of the worst abusers of human rights. We have people being pushed out of the city and into the streets and Libby’s response has been to sell our public land to the highest bidder and build $8,000 a month high-rise apartments. We’ve got a police department that can’t get out of federal receivership. And the way she treats the people is abhorrent.
I have been protesting against Libby and about a year ago people started asking me to run and it got to be a large enough amount of people that I had to think about it seriously. After a deep conversation with my community and family, I decided to do that. People who are running on the left are getting elected across the country and this should be happening in Oakland, which is supposed to be one of the most progressive cities in the country.
MN: People have been saying that Black women have been saving elections, and Black women in politics are becoming much more visible these days. How do you feel about this?
CB: Well, I definitely think Black women will save the world–people just have to get out of our way. (laughs) But that said, I have been very clear from the beginning this is the people’s campaign for mayor. I am humbled that I am the vessel people have been put their faith in to fight for our message. And I cannot do this alone.
MN: Why do you think Black women voters are being so vocal these days?
CB: I think it’s a combination of things. I think Black people are at the bottom of every single indicator. I also think that there has been, for some years, prominent Black women front and center. In fact, Black women we have always been in the front for organizing, but it is much more viable now.
MN: Have any of the Black women currently in power reached out to you?
CB: No one who has been elected. A few folks at CBC (Congressional Black Caucus). But others, no.
MN: You mentioned the progressive movement taking hold across the country. Why do you feel this is so?
CB: I think the radical has become very rational. And I think it is because folks generally thought everything in the country had been going okay, then you have a Back president, Obama, and then someone like Trump got elected. I think it jerked people out of being complacent after Obama got elected. I think people are looking to move forward –to a place where a Trump could never be elected again.
MN: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman — and as a Black woman in particular — in politics?
CB: I can’t say I have faced any being a woman in politics, but as a Black woman what they really wanted for me was to be the angry Black woman, to be going for the incumbent. People kept asking me why I wasn’t going for Libby. But I am not your minstrel show. I am a competent, capable candidate for mayor who has common sense solutions. This isn’t about fighting against Libby, it’s about fighting for this city and for the people.
If I had shown up to the debates with my bullhorn, that would have been an issue. But now I am showing up in my work clothes and now I am being attacked for looking like a Fortune 500 CEO. I don’t think I could have had that issue if I were white; white women don’t have to deal with this. And if I was a white man who had chained himself to a tree to protect mama Earth no one would question that I could transform myself to be a person who could be in leadership.
MN: What has been the most surprising thing you have faced on the campaign trail?
CB: I am daily humbled by the amount of support we have from the people. People stop me every day, at the doctor’s office, at the grocery store. It is humbling and surprising.
MN: Things are getting dangerous for politicians these days. Considering the packages of explosives that have been mailed out to public figures as of late, are you afraid?
CB: I was getting death threats and threats of violence before I ran because of the work that I did. I expected that there would have been a massive uptick but it has been steady. I also have a bodyguard but this has been my life for a while now.
MN: What is your typical day like right now?
CB: Take today, I am at a homeless encampment that is about to be evicted, then there is usually fundraising. I’m still working my full-time job, and I’m still a mom so I have to pick up my daughter. My day starts at 6 am and ends at midnight.
MN: Is it worth it?
CB: Yes, it is worth it. We have started a change, we are fighting for change, and we are building a movement that will continue to fight for change.