An Interview with Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project for Evaluate What You Tolerate
By Vanessa Louise
This Fall, 50 bay area punk bands came together on ‒ Evaluate What You Tolerate: a two volume bay area compilation and zine against white supremacy, racism and hate ‒ to raise money for the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) and their work to a create strong community support system for Black, Brown and Poor people.
Evaluate What You Tolerate was made in solidarity with people who are profiled, left unsupported, pushed out of their homes, murdered by police, made to feel like they don’t belong, deported and targeted. It’s a nod to the importance of community care, defense and resistance against the brutalization of our friends, family and communities.
Alongside my work on the comp and zine (which features this interview), I had the privilege of interviewing Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) and interim director of the National Lawyers Guild’s SF Bay Area chapter (NLG), about her work and views on building power.
Cat Brooks is one of the most dedicated organizers I’ve ever met. She was part of the #BlackFriday14 who stopped a bay area rapid transit (BART) train full of Black Friday shoppers; she blockaded Oakland’s police headquarters to call on the City of Oakland to #defundOPD and #FundBlackFutures; she helped end Oakland-mayor libby schaaf’s attempt to crackdown on night marches; and, she’s helping to push nazis out of the bay with a giant crew.
Cat Brooks is a force, and so is The Anti Police-Terror Project.
APTP is a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to ending state-sanctioned murder and violence perpetrated against Black, Brown and Poor people. They’re Black led, multi-racial and multi-generational. They organize to resist police terror and create a strong and sustainable community support system. Currently, they work on the prominent #DefundOPD campaign (in the wake of the oakland police department sex scandal); they train first responders on how to conduct independent investigations of police terror as soon as they happen; they put out the annual #ReclaimMLK week of actions; and, so much more.
Vanessa: How does the Anti Police-Terror Project build strong and sustainable community support systems and how did you all get there as an organizing strategy to resist police violence against black, brown and poor people?
Cat Brooks: Let’s start with an easy one, shall we… The founding members of APTP have tried and failed at a lot of models. But, after a long time of working together, we realized — yes, it’s great having people in the streets but, we also need to be on the offensive and not just on the defensive. AND, we shouldn’t just be reacting to the terms of the state, but to the fact that we’re under militarized occupation every single day. So, we built a response model to police terror that was born of the people and we started interrupting the narrative with alternative models to policing.
So, we have our first responders team who go out within thirty minutes to an hour after the police have murdered someone. We identify bystanders, we talk to the community and we speak to the family. Once we establish contact, if the support is welcome, we help them by organizing fundraisers, offering pro-bono legal support, working on communication strategies to alter the narrative and putting together a legal defense package.
As for alternatives to policing, we’re doing them in several areas in the bay where folks call our people instead of the police to keep cops out of the most vulnerable communities — where we know their increased presence means increased violence.
Vanessa: You spoke about creating alternative models to policing… Can speak to APTP’s #DefundOPD campaign and its goal to reduce the OPD budget by 50%? Why is it an important campaign for Oakland?
Cat Brooks: It’s important because the oakland police department now gets 50% of the city’s budget, but has been under federal receivership for 14 years! They can’t get their shit together enough to get out of it and the money is better spent somewhere else.
[Note after the interview — “Federal receivership” happens when agencies regularly commit acts against people’s constitutional rights and an independent, governmental trustee is appointed to create systemic change from the inside. It began in 2003 when four veteran OPD officers who called themselves “The Riders” got caught planting evidence, beating suspects and falsifying reports. It resulted in a $10.9 million dollar settlement to the plaintiffs (mostly young men with drug-related criminal records). Then, after that, the OPD was involved in several high-profile killings… The most recent egregious act was the rape of a minor by over 14 oakland police department officers. The oakland police department receivership has failed to keep the OPD accountable and has cost taxpayers over $13.6 million in the past 14 years.]
So, given the long track record of murdering, tormenting, torturing, raping black and brown and marginalized communities in the city of Oakland, we have to begin to ask the question — with all the needs of this community, why are we investing all of this money into a security force that doesn’t keep anybody secure?
Case in point… Most of the folks that end up getting harassed and/or beaten and/or imprisoned and/or murdered by the oakland police department are dealing with the intersectionality of race, class and mental health. Mental health workers usually get over 6,800 hours of training to be able to adequately and empathetically deal with their clients. The OPD, according to assistant deputy chief, says they get eighty hours if they so choose. So, why would we not take money out of the oakland police department budget and give it to civilians who are probably in student debt from learning how to deal with this very crisis. Why is the oakland police department doing jobs that black, brown and poor civilians in our community can already do?
Furthermore, if we’re ever going to get to place of abolition, we’ve got to start being brave, risky and imaginative enough to start taking money out of policing and putting it into community based models like restorative justice.
If there’s a beef between two rival groups about turf, what would it look like to send OG’s trained in restorative justice to deal with that conflict as opposed to police? We’re talking about more peace in the streets, less violence and less incarceration. What would it look like if we had a council of elders to deal with things like inter-communal violence, domestic violence and child support issues as opposed to the police? There are places with mountains of research showing successful alternatives to policing that we can be investing in right now as opposed to militarized policing that just get people killed or incarcerated.
Vanessa: Why do you think local campaigning and direct action groups like APTP are more effective than big national non-profits? So, for example, there’s the National Lawyer’s Guild (NLG) vs the ACLU, there’s the movement for black lives/#blacklivesmatter chapters vs the NAACP…
Cat Brooks: We’re fighting for our liberation so all tactics and strategies matter as long as they’re born with the goal of liberation. Although, some of the groups you mentioned I don’t think believe in liberation. They believe that if we tinker enough around the edges of the system, eventually we’ll get to where we’re trying to go. That’s just not true. This system was born out of the blood and rape and sweat and torture and torment of indigenous people and Africans. Period. End of discussion. If you’re not about dismantling this beast, then you’re not about liberation.
That said, we also have to meet the people where they’re at and, if we’re really talking about winning, I got to talk to Ms. Fey who lives next door to me. What Ms. Fey knows is that yesterday at 11am somebody got gunned down in her driveway, so I can’t go to her and say — Ms Fey, I need you to send all the cops out of our neighborhood right now — because Ms. Fey is going to look at me like I’ve lost my motherfucking mind. I can stand on legitimate ground with her after I’ve done the local work of building small, replicable models that are about divesting from this system and investing in the people and community security.
Too many of us live in this place where it’s like — if you don’t understand why we don’t need the police or if you don’t understand why deportations are bad then — fuck you, I’m not dealing with you. But, the ugly bitter nasty truth is that good organizers need to meet the masses where they’re at without judgment and figure out how to move them to where we need them to be. You feel me? That’s the real work.
Lastly, as grassroots organizations, we have to localize our struggles because that’s where the people are at! If we have enough localized struggles and we figure out how to communicate amongst all of them, then we can build real power — and, that’s how we win.
And, fuck the federal level. Most nonprofits are attached to the government in some way. We know that the “nonprofit” was created in a direct counter response to the community empowerment programs like the Panthers put on to keep them in line.
Vanessa: Does APTP have any critics?
Cat Brooks: Both myself and APTP have many critics.
We’ve learned recently that the oakland police department uses me, Cat Brooks, in training videos on how to deal with protesters for their cadets.
We’ve got a lot of people on the right that are all lives matter, blue lives matter, etc so we get death threats… I get death threats… They threaten my family… They threaten my child… It’s an incredibly hostile environment to navigate through.
We’ve also got local advocates right here in Oakland who believe the only way we can get change is through an inside strategy that leaves the people outside of the doors of power, and they’re very frustrated with our continuous challenge to that position.
The police commission is a perfect example. We were really fighting for it to be truly community controlled because, right now, it’s run by the mayor and city council. And, we were very vocal and told them straight up — You don’t get to lie to the people. You do not get to make political deals on the bloody backs of the black and brown people in the city of Oakland. You have to tell the truth. That has made us some very powerful enemies. They actively worked to keep any APTP member that applied off the commission and then ran a smear campaign because they were mad that we spoke out so loudly about the inadequacy of the commission.
Vanessa: Wow. I didn’t know that.
Cat Brooks: Yeah, it’s ugly. I’m still working on the oped. But, everyone’s a little busy because, you know, the nazis coming to the bay.
Vanessa: Ok, so, yeah, let’s talk about fucking nazis. How do we push these fucks out of the bay?
Cat Brooks: You’re trying to get me in trouble… Did you see the unity we showed on Saturday [during the No Hate in the Bay March] across race, class, sexuality, gender and ideology with the numbers that we showed up in? That’s how. And, I actually do believe that. I’m not just saying that because it’s a safe answer. Like legit, that’s the answer: That we’re able to put away in some cases decades of squabbling over fucking tactics to say the one thing we can agree on — there’ll be no nazis in our fucking community and we need to unite in a way that’s strategic and disciplined.
And, the answer is also overstanding the fact that if I make a move, it impacts you, and if you make move, it impacts me. That, to me, is how we win. And, that’s why we’re winning! We’re pushing these motherfuckers back with local actions in the streets that based in community unity, solidarity and power.
Vanessa: So, right now, like we all know, Trump is provoking and empowering fascists. But, Obama did some shady shit too. Do you see a difference between the two?
Cat Brooks: Listen, Black people get real mad when I tell them Obama is Trump is Reagan is Hillary is Bush is Carter is Kennedy…
APTP’s co-founder of Tur-ha Ak says America has two phases — “smash and grab” and “smooth and soothe”. After Bush and Clinton and all of the shit that happened to our communities, America needed a “smooth and soothe” phase because we were at the breaking point. The masses were saying fuck ADIDAS, I want equity. So they put this slick talking, good looking, intelligent guy with a supposed history of organizing in Chicago in office — and he’s fucked us just as bad as any Republican. We have to get out of this two party mind state. They’re the same goddamn thing. Their interests are in maintaining capitalism and capitalist domination. Which means that the wealthy stay on top and the rest of us stay on the bottom generating income for the ones on top.
It goes back to what I said earlier — we have to stop tinkering around the edges of this thing. We need to be in a 21st century space of imagination, evolution and inspiration and say — Ok, what else could work in the place of this? And, then, go about the business of building it.
Between now and the time this fucking orange guy is out of office, my biggest hope is that we have real, honest and truthful conversations with ourselves and a group emerges committed to building enough a base to make another party that meets the people where they’re at and gets us further away from the bullshit capitalist and patriarchal system that we’re under.
Vanessa: Why is it important to be led by the people on the frontlines of gentrification, colonization, white supremacy and police violence?
Cat Brooks: It’s just like… say we’re at the end of the world, and saving it depends on a mathematical equation… Don’t fucking ask me yo! I suck at math. Ask the people who are experts in that shit.
Based on the percentages of us [black people] that are in this country versus the percentages of us that are killed by police, we’re the most impacted. Which means nobody knows our story but us and we have to be able to lead because we have the most information. Self-determination means you have a right to dictate how you live, how you eat, how you breathe and how you struggle.
So, if you’re talking about how Puerto Rico gets independence, ask Puerto Ricans. If you’re talking about how to fucking end the violent attacks on the trans community, ask trans people. If you’re talking about nazis on the UC Berkeley campus, you ask the students. If you’re talking about how we stop domestic violence against heteronormative women, talk to those women. Because they have lived it. And, it’s not about power and control. It’s about benefiting on the experience of the people that have been the first hand survivors of transgression so we can build an actual winning strategy. And, all I can say is to those people is — once you all figure that out, I will show up. And, that’s what we need people to do. Give respect to the folks in their posts. Anything else is unprincipled and improper.
If we’re really talking about building a movement that is successful and centers those most impacted, we have to listen to the voices of the folks that are most been fucked over to win.
Vanessa: Thanks for that. It’s so important. So, let’s switch gears a bit… I know a lot of people/organizers in Oakland wear different hats depending on what’s going on, but I see the APTP crew almost everywhere throwing down in whatever way they can. Can you speak to the crew and membership? Who can join APTP?
Cat Brooks: So my face and voice are in a lot of places, but one of the things I really try to articulate is — this is SO not me. The team is the most amazing, diverse, committed, passionate and politically grounded people I’ve ever met in my life. We’re black led, for sure, and our coordinating committee is multiracial. The membership is multiracial, but mostly white. Although, we’re taking a page out of the Black Panther book and working on specific programming that will provide some relief to folks that are most impacted so that they have some freedom to engage in struggle.
Our work intersects with immigration work, housing work, trans rights work… the intersectionality is all around…, and that has opened us up to having a very large membership base of people who know that the police are just front line of a larger white supremacist machine that’s attacking all of us. We have folks from all of these different movements and communities engaged in our work because we’re [APTP] doing the political work of uniting the movement. The unification of our movement is what we need to win.
Our model is pretty open and pretty clear for joining APTP. If you share our politics around how state sanctioned violence and terror is not ok — then we fuck with you. We may differ on how we get to liberation, but as long as you are principled enough to come to the conversation around strategy, we can get to a place where we can talk about tactics. AND, at the end of the day, it’s still about the liberation of our people so we stand strongly in the organization’s foundational belief that black people must lead because black people are most impacted. If you can fuck with those two dynamics, we fuck with you.
So, as long as you’re not down with white supremacy, as long as you can have principled struggle, as long as you understand that what you do impacts me and what I do impacts you, we can riot together. No problem. And, that’s created a wide base of support for us and an easy entry point for new folks coming into the work.
Vanessa: Do you think “Free Speech” is a white supremacist concept?
Cat Brooks: Let’s start with what it actually says — because this is the greatest hoax white supremacists have played on our people to date. The First Amendment says that your government owes you free speech and that the government cannot shut you down. But, that has jack shit to do with groups that are able to garner more people and more noise than you. They have absolutely manipulated this conversation.
The other thing is, if you read the constitution, it says that all people should be protected, which means that if every time these white supremacist groups come in our communities and attack black folks, brown folks, LGBTQAI folks…, the government is just as responsible to those folks as they are to the hate groups.
But, we need to stop dicking around with fucking language about free speech. We have as much right under the Constitution to resist that shit and say — hell no, not in our community. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow and not ever.
Vanessa: What is your advice for people just getting their start in organizing and for people whose campaigns or projects failed the first time?
Cat Brooks: So, study study study study study. Study marxism, study socialism, study communism. Study the black nationalist movement, study the white nationalist movement… Read read read. Go to forums and workshops. Learn early security practices to protect from infiltration. Identify mentors in a community whose work can be vouched for so you can train up under them. Think and act outside of the box. Don’t accept the concessions that the state gives because really and truly they’re just trying to hush you up. Avoid social media wars. They don’t do anything but damage, and that’s a self-critique so I know what I’m talking about.
In terms of folks whose program didn’t work the first time… Analyze why didn’t it work. Who should you have contacted? Were you operating by yourself? What did work? What could be replicated? What could be shifted and what conditions should you be paying attention to in order to make your program work? And, most importantly, try again.
Vanessa: Anything else to add?
Cat Brooks: Thanks for bridging these two worlds.
Buy a copy of the Evaluate What You Tolerate punk compilation and zine at https://evaluatewhatyoutolerate.bandcamp.com. This interview is featured in the zine.
Find out about upcoming EWYT events at www.facebook.com/evaluatewhatyoutolerate