Oakland Voices: Youth activists leading the Black Lives Matter Movement

A month has passed since the first day of protests erupted in Oakland following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. For the past weeks, youth have driven the Black Lives Matter movement forward. 

The largest protest in Oakland yet, where 15,000 individuals marched through downtown Oakland from Oakland Tech High School, was organized by a group of spirited and focused young activists. A youth-organized march of a couple thousand from the East Oakland flatlands to the hills demanded pulling school police out of OUSD. Efforts like these helped carry advocacy groups like the Black Organizing Project forward and led to the School Board’s decision to unanimously pass the George Floyd Resolution on June 24, which eliminated school police from Oakland schools.

To learn more about these young leaders’ stories and how they successfully organized hundreds to thousands of people, Oakland Voices interviewed five young leaders who have taken the movement by storm and reminded us that not only are our youth the future, but they are also the present.  —Debora Gordon, Sarah Belle Lin, and Bill Joyce

Dwayne Davis

An image of a smiling African American youth who is wearing sunglasses and a bandana around his neck.
Dwayne Davis. Photo by AgitatePhotography 2020.

“Hear us out” is the message to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from Dwayne Davis, 17, a 2020 McClymonds High School graduate, who organized a march to her home. “Really consider defunding the police a little bit at a time,” Davis said,“hear our concerns, be considerate.”

Davis and his friend, Jessica Ramos, were inspired to organize this Oakland march on June 10th to the mayor’s home after hearing about a similar march to the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as well as taking inspiration from the many local marches in Oakland,including the march from Oakland Technical High School, where 15,000 people are estimated to have attended.

“I realized the marches were to get everyone’s attention, to get everyone educated,” Davis said. “And what do you do after you get everyone’s attention? You go to the highest-ranking politician, and tell them your demands. The demands were both focused on defunding the Oakland Police Department and the Oakland Unified School District’s police department.

After some discussion, Davis made a flyer announcing the march and shared it on his Instagram and Twitter feeds on June 8th, resulting in over 200 shares in a matter of hours. Fast forward to June 10th, with Davis and Ramos on a flatbed truck, complete with music, megaphones and chanting, leading a crowd he estimates to be in the range of 2,000 participants from Fruitvale and Foothill, nearly two miles through the streets to Mayor Schaaf’s home in the Dimond District.

Davis was amazed by the turnout. “I didn’t anticipate people from so many different backgrounds. Parents holding babies, youth marching alongside our truck,”” he said, noting that attendees comprised all ages, races, and backgrounds.  As the truck rolled through the streets, Davis led the chanting of “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.”  

Davis describes the mayor’s neighborhood as very gentrified. They checked before the march to see that there were no obstructions. “We were concerned about a potential threat, maybe someone would call the police, we didn’t want anything to happen,” Davis said. Although they were anticipating possible conflict, they emphasized their peaceful objectives that the march remain peaceful. Although Davis had  concerns that perhaps some residents of the neighborhoods they marched through might come out of their homes in anger, he was pleased to see the show of support as people came out of their homes with raised fists, homemade noisemakers, and joined the chanting.

The crowd spent about 45 minutes at Schaaf’s home, although the mayor herself did not emerge. The speakers restated the goals of the march: to demand defunding of both city and school district police. They ended with a candlelight vigil.

Davis started becoming an activist after moving back to Oakland in high school, after moving to San Ramon as a toddler with his mother. Initially attending schools in San Ramon, where he said there were ample supplies for students, from textbooks to technology, so he was astonished at the lack of such resources for students in OUSD.  He suggests that funding for police, both city and school district, should be redirected towards providing these necessities for all students, as well as the larger community, including healthcare, food, and housing.

Davis notes that, “As a Black male, my family and I have had experiences with cops, good and bad,” and adds that part of the reason his mother moved the family to San Ramon was she felt that in Oakland, he might have been more easily wrapped up in “the system,” and she had concerns about him attending OUSD schools. However, he did return there for high school, where he said he has avoided any negative interaction with the police, thanks, in large partto his grandfather, whom he credits as a mentor, making sacrifices so he and his siblings would not be criminalized. He also describes himself as “the good kid,” and describes his grandfather’s frequent admonition to “stay out of trouble; you don’t want to get caught.”

He became vice-president of the All City Council, an OUSD -based council “seeking to create positive change in our schools by serving as a bridge between adult decision makers and the student body,” according to OUSD’s website, where he met his march co-organizer, Jessica Ramos. In 2019, he began to become involved with student activism during the OUSD teacher’s strike, noting that the “lack of resources in Oakland led to him being a new social justice advocate, having seen, in San Ramon, the other side of things; the need for basic necessities; there has to be advocacy.” 

He also credits historical figures, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as inspiration, as well as his grandfather’s friendship with the late Black Panthers leader, Huey P. Newton.

Davis has been admitted to Cal State Los Angeles for the Fall 2020 term, although this first semester will be online. He describes himself as “indecisive” in terms of a possible major;, he is considering several possibilities: business management, and perhaps eventually law and criminal justice, or journalism. He is sad to miss being eligible to vote in the 2020 election by only a few days, but he is also active in advocating for 16- and 17-year olds being able to vote in local elections.

 Looking ahead, he sees his work in social justice continuing. “I see so many things. This is just the beginning; not even just in Oakland, but the country, the world. I will continue to advocate until everything is equitable, until all of my demands are met. —Debora Gordon

Jessica Ramos

A Latina youth wearing a black masks stands in front of a mural that says "close youth prisons build youth leaders."
Jessica Ramos.

Incoming Skyline High School senior Jessica Ramos, 17, and her friend from the All City Council, Dwayne Davis, planned the June 10th march on Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s house in fewer than three days. “We were chillin’ on Facetime,” she said, where their discussion focused on the Los Angeles march to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house and what they might do locally, and eventually agreed to organize the march in Oakland. Soon, had a flyer out on social media, emphasizing that it was to be a peaceful protest, to ensure that the focus remained on the issues and not detract from the message.

“Word got out on social media,” she said,” and we reached out to other organizations that were doing rallies,” connecting with her friend, Xavier Brown, who was one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter march on June 1st.  that began at Oakland Technical High School. Brown offered support and ideas, Ramos said, including how to maintain safety for all participants.

Ramos and Davis planned the route from the Fruitvale neighborhood to Schaaf’s home and led the way from a flatbed truck which also featured a sound system. In addition to the call and response chants, such as “Black Lives Matter,” she also led the chant, “We Are on Our Way to Libby’s House” as they made their way through the streets, as well as “Si, Se Puede.”

Ramos, Davis, and others made speeches when they arrived at their destination. Ramos sees her objective overall as education, perhaps already stepping into her future professional goal of becoming a teacher. “We are educating our own parents, educating people who are against protesting, or focused only on the violence,” she says, adding that she had a conversation with her own mother, explaining the reasons and goals of the protest.

Although Schaaf remained out of sight during the approximately one-hour rally outside her home, Ramos said a representative from Schaaf’s office did reach out and talk to her one day prior to the march, saying that the mayor maintains a family protocol not to come out during protests.

Ramos states that along with the objectives she and Davis had developed, of defunding the police and ending the Oakland Unified School District police department, “we tried to make it as safe and peaceful as possible, no vandalism, that type of energy,” which she felt would distract and detract. “For me, it was to also see that the youth are very involved, and to make it as beautiful as possible, and to be respectful.”

Ramos notes that the goal of defunding the police was not immediately achieved, as the mayor has not agreed to works toward defunding the police, but Ramos they are advocating for related goals including more student services, health and housing, and above all, “we need more for education,” so that the need for police services would be diminished. 

Ramos reflects on the circumstances that have led her to become an activist. Though only about six years old, she recalls the marches when Oscar Grant was killed. “I remember my mom and my dad trying to talk to me,” and she explains that at that point, she was starting to find out about police brutality. By the age of nine, during an escalation of violence in Oakland, for a time she thought it was normal, only to gradually coming to the understanding that it was anything but normal. Her cousin who lived in San Ramon suggested otherwise as well, and before long, she found herself applying to the All City Council after a friend on the board informed her of elections in August. Going into her sophomore year, she won the election, immediately after some drastic OUSD budget cuts in her freshman year of high school.

In addition to Black Lives Matter and defunding the police, Ramos’ activism focuses onis “period poverty,” in which women may not be able to avoid the essential products needed for their menstrual periods. Additionally, she, along with Davis, are involved in the movement to allow 16- and 17-year- olds to vote in local elections. She sees all her issues as related; creating the conditions for people to safely go about their lives and have their needs met.

Although her own interactions with law enforcement have been rare, with no serious consequences, she does recall as a young child, crying and feeling extreme fear when her father was pulled over after running a stop sign, but which fortunately resulted only in a traffic ticket.

Looking forward, Ramos is considering both her future causes, including more money and support for teachers, and advocating for an end to period poverty. For her personal future, her goals include attending her dream college of Stanford, where she hopes to study education. Her plan is already somewhat well-defined: she plans to teach in Oakland for three years, eventually become a principal, and then run for office.

Whether as teacher or march organizer or community member, she hopes to guide discussion, saying that ideas coupled with action can result in change over time. “Words and sacrifice mean a lot more than not doing anything.” She plans to keep discussing, planning, and organizing to bring those goals to fruition. —Debora Gordon

Akil Riley

A young African American man, Akil Riley, stands in front of a fence for a photo.
Akil Riley, 19, stands in West Oakland’s Lil Bobby Hutton Park, named for one of the first Black Panther Party members. Photo by Sarah Belle Lin

Akil Riley, 19, one of the main organizers of the Oakland Tech High School march, recalled how late of a night it was when he decided to call his close friend Josiah Jacobs, and the next day, another close friend, Xavier Brown, to organize the march. Most of all, he remembered feeling fueled by the profound sadness he felt watching the video of George Floyd being suffocated by Minneapolis police. Riley wanted to respond through direct action. 

The June 1 march began at his alma mater, where powerful and personal speeches were made by youth to a crowd of thousands, and where 15,000 individuals marched through the middle of Oakland on the iconic Broadway through downtown, which has held space for many marches of the past. Riley said the march was originally planned to head to the Oakland Police Station, but was changed to the Oscar Grant Plaza, which worked better as a historical landmark. “Right now, there’s a movement and it’s pure Oakland and Bay Area youth,” said Riley. “Our political movement and our power isn’t to be downplayed by outsiders and people who are not from here.” 

Despite the peaceful nature of the march and young attendees, Oakland Police Department used dangerous crowd control methods on youth, families, and elderly well before curfew. That day, police fired tear gas and flash bang grenades at the crowd, causing mass panic and trauma that still lingers to this day—evident in the outrage expressed during recent police commission and City Council meetings. “They knew the purpose of our march was about issues that are obviously evil,” Riley said. “Harassing people for protesting against that is clear evidence that’s what they stand with. If that’s not evidence that our government is against us, I don’t know what is.” 

Riley graduated from Oakland Tech in 2019 and is currently a first-year student studying political science at Howard University. In reflecting about where he grew up in West Oakland, Riley credits the revolutionary ancestors who once strode The Town. “Being in Oakland and because of the struggle, I have that drive, tough skin, and will to persevere,” said Riley. “I’m touched by the people who came before me as well. There’s a big sense of connection to the OGs or ancestors.”

In fact, Riley comes from a lineage of local activists. Legendary hip-hop group The Coup frontman and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley is his uncle, while his grandfather is civil rights attorney Walter Riley, who most recently filed a lawsuit against the City of Oakland to ban the police use of tear gas. In particular, Riley’s father has been instrumental in pushing him to critically think about his goals and intentions. 

Though he knows he didn’t have it the best while growing up in West Oakland, Riley acknowledges that he also didn’t have it the worst. Riley didn’t have a lot of access to as many resources as others did, but looking at his recent accomplishments, he sees the privilege in being able to be a voice for his generation. “You give people limited access to resources, subpar healthcare and education, and only the strongest will survive,” said Riley. “All the hardship I endured and everything I’ve seen and experienced in life just made me a stronger person mentally and physically.”

When he’s not scheduled for panels, interviews and meetings or producing music as “Akil,” Riley finds time to read and sharpen his blade and mind in order to continue strengthening his political ideology. It’s how others should be spending more time doing, he advises. “We’re all gonna have some common agreements, but understand why you believe what you believe so nobody can take that away from you,” said Riley.

He highlights how it’s about doing your homework. Read about all the “greats,” like Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Follow the money and ask the right questions: “Focus your attention on where funds are allocated in city government, especially to the police,” he said. “Look up Propositions 47 and 57,” Riley added. “Research about defunding the police and look at what programs are being cut right now in the city of Oakland, especially in OUSD and housing.” 

The way the U.S. views punishment is part of the problem, Riley added. From a young age, there’s either right or wrong, and he thinks that’s backwards. In the Bay Area, there have been mounting efforts to focus on restorative justice, rather than punitive justice, methods when working with our youth. It’s a paradigm which emphasizes responsibility taken by youth themselves, rather than authoritative figures, like school police, through potentially harmful means.

Riley urges the community to create programs and initiatives better geared towards helping Oakland youth, be them programs to pique interest in “passions” (and not just jobs), and hiring more counselors, mental health experts and mentors. “There also needs to be a group, like the Black Panther Party that educates the community, since nobody else is going to educate us for us,” said Riley. “We have to stand in our own community, and nation, in a way.” 

Since the enormous June 1 march, Riley has co-organized a protest for Erik Salgado, recently killed by California Highway Patrol, as well as a Juneteenth event — as part of youth group BY4PL — at Lil Bobby Hutton Park. Riley envisions an Oakland where there’s less homelessness, where the Oakland culture stands strong. He hopes for more affordable housing and cleaner air by the Port of Oakland. He envisions a community where people who were displaced by gentrification return to their homes. “We can’t just keep patching up a boat with holes in it that’s gonna sink soon,” said Riley. “There needs to be an eradication of the system we live in.” —Sarah Belle Lin

Jacqueline Azah

A young African American woman, Jacqueline Azah, looks into the distance. She is wearing a black beanie, a mask that says "I can't breathe," and earrings that say "Black Lives Matter."
Jacqueline Azah. Photo by Brandon Ruffin.

“Activism is in my blood,” said 19 year-old Jacqueline Azah, an immigrant who came to the U.S. with her family from Cameroon at age one. Her father remains deeply involved in the politics of their homeland and supports, often pushing his daughter’s civic engagement here. The Azahs settled in San Jose and later moved to Mountain House near Tracy where Jacqueline found her voice as a nationally-ranked debater and president of her high school’s Speech and Debate Club. 

“Connecting with thousands of other youth across the country put me in a space where I was surrounded by innovators, thinkers, and game changers,” Azah said. When the national debate competition took place in Ft. Lauderdale during her senior year, shortly after the nearby Parkland school massacre, she listened to the stories of student survivors and signed up for Students Demand Action (SDA) on the spot. She later helped start a chapter at Clark Atlanta University, the first HBCU in the South and where she is entering her junior year.

“I did a lot of organizing in Oakland with SDA,” Azah said, “and formed lots of connections throughout the Bay.” Those connections led her to team up with Akil Riley and Xavier Brown who she describes as the “spearheads and visonaries” and organizers of what became the student-led and largest Bay Area protest against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd.

“We just wanted to do something,” she recalled. “Even if 15 or 20 people came out, we would have still marched. But it was definitely shocking to see 15,000 people there for the movement we believed in.” For Azah—the accomplished debater, experienced speaker before large crowds—taking the mic on the steps of Oakland Tech was overwhelming: “There was a moment when I wanted to get the words out but the words couldn’t get out. My eyes swelled up because I felt so much love from the crowd. To see everybody there, I let my emotions guide what I wanted to say.

Azah views the abolition of police departments as a long term goal. “In order to get there,” she said, “we really want to focus on getting our lawmakers to divest in police and invest in education and the community.” She noted that Minneapolis and other cities have already taken steps to defund police departments and expects local communities to follow their lead. “Most pressing right now is getting them out of schools and allocating funding to other areas.”

She contrasted the light police presence in suburban areas with well-funded schools and services to heavily-policed black communities, stripped historically of resources due to redlining and characterized by food deserts and the lack of affordable housing. 

Citing Assata Shakur— “we have nothing to lose but our chains”—Azah believes that education and community involvement are the keys to resolving the separate realities. “For me, education is knowledge and knowledge is freedom. I believe it is important to consistently question everyone,” she said. “You have to educate everyone around you— your politicians, your family, everyone around you. The government consistently capitalizes off the ignorance of the public. The reason so many bills get passed is that people don’t attend council meetings and hearings. The public doesn’t know the power we hold if we show up and give out attention to things that matter. Basically, get more involved, talk to people, and go to meetings.”

For that reason, Azah is interested in voter registration and educating youth about the importance of voting. She intends to vote for the Democratic nominee but her real focus is local and state elections. “Local and state governments have the power to say ‘FU’ to federal laws and statutes that they don’t agree with, like California’s sanctuary cities for immigrants. If you consistently elect people in local offices with the values you believe in, it can have a different outcome.”

Azah also shares more about the role of white allies. 

“An ally is somebody who consistently, actively, and consciously protects those who are most marginalized. An ally is somebody who uses their privilege—maybe their money or platform or connections—to help people in the movement who have been systematically oppressed. They do that work without needing recognition, compensation, or praise. An ally is OK with just sitting back and letting us lead while giving us the resources they have been given because of the 400 year head start they have in this country.” 

Azah is considering law school down the road but, for now as she put it, “I’m still letting life lead me to wherever my purpose is.”

Her immediate purpose is summoning allies and all to the Youth March for Black Freedom on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento on July 4. With Tiana Day, who drew thousands of protestors to the Golden Gate Bridge in early June, and two fellow students from Atlanta by way of the San Joaquin Valley, Azah is reaching out to an array of organizations and unions to partner with them. Find out more here or here. —Bill Joyce

Bri E.*

An image of an African American youth organizer wearing a mask and smiling.
Bri E. Photo by John Harrison.

Born in Berkeley and raised in East Oakland, Bri, 21, has been protesting since she was a sophomore at Berkeley Tech Academy. But up until the death of George Floyd, Bri had not yet organized. She pointed to the Oakland Tech High School march on June 1 as the catalyst for the recent protest she co-organized. That day, she attended the protest with a group of close friends. “This magical person came up to us and said the energy that y’all women have in this circle reminds me of this Indian goddess, Kali,” Bri recalls. This interaction galvanized Bri and her friends.

After that day, one of Bri’s friends reached out to her and they decided to form a group and organize an event. The result was a hyphy music-themed protest on June 12, where hundreds gathered at Lake Merritt on a sunny afternoon. The event offered free live music, food and drinks for attendees, something Bri emphasized as being an integral part of the protest’s message–placing people over profits. 

The rally centered around hyphy music, a genre of music that arose in Oakland in the late 90s, quickly becoming a popular movement that spread throughout the Bay Area. The movement embraced the term hyphy—shorthand for “hyperactive”—coined by Oakland rapper Keak Da Sneak as a form of expression, self-determination and cultural liberation.

“Hyphy is about being unapologetically Black,” Bri said. “There’s nothing that makes white people more uncomfortable than seeing Black people smiling and yiking.” “Yiking” is another term from the Bay Area’s rap music and dance scene. While some individuals thumbed their noses at the dancing crowds that day, Bri said the Black Lives Matter movement is diverse in all its forms. “People act like they gotta wait for a day to celebrate,” Bri saidi. “Celebrate because you’re alive and you’re on Earth. I wanted to see some Black joy that day and have a space where we could have political education.”

To Bri, the movement is still maintaining a powerful momentum, and its young organizers are zoning in on “something really serious and powerful.” To that end, there were multiple demands made at the hyphy protest: housing for all, free access to food and water, end to mass incarceration and police brutality, abolishing the police system, reparations for Black and indigenous people, dismantling capitalism and humanity working towards peace. These were demanded by Bri and her close friends, whom she admires for being political visionaries, artists and powerful female goddesses, and whom she credits for stimulating her curiosity. “I’m still learning and picking up political knowledge which is not really provided to Black people,” Bri said. “You have to go out your way to seek it.”

Bri recently found out her grandmother was affiliated with the Black Panther Party. It’s like puzzle pieces coming together, she remarked. “It’s in my bloodline to be revolutionary and to be a strong woman,” Bri said. “Black women and indigenous women have to step up to care for ourselves, our families and our communities.” The work isn’t easy, though. Growing up around gun violence and emotional abuse has taken a toll on Bri over the years, as she watched Black men around her become institutionalized and as Bri herself has narrowly survived close chance encounters with shoot-outs. It’s the main reason Bri decided to purchase a ticket in March to Kauai, where she plans on staying long-term. She has plans to further the Black Lives Matter Movement there, but will take space to practice self-care, first. “I don’t want to speak from trauma, but it’s hard to talk about healing when you’re living in the hood and you could get shot at any moment,” Bri said. “I want to give advice from a healed space.” 

Bri hopes to see more people practice sustainable living in East and West Oakland. She said this can happen with spaces where community members grow their own food. Access to healthy food is a form of healing, which she strongly pushes for. She’s noticed that people tend to bond over pain, instead of bonding over joy and the contributions that Black people bring to their communities. “I do see a shift happening, but let’s take responsibility for our healing so we can hold others responsible too,” Bri said. 

The best way for allies, especially white allies, to support Black people is to put their money where their mouth is and support the Black community: Black businesses, artists, activists, and organizations, she said. The “new Earth” that Bri wants to help cultivate is one where “love can flourish and where Black people are acknowledged for the contributions we’ve made unwillingly and willingly to America.” It’s a world where Indigenous land is reclaimed and where traditions are honored, where Asian countries aren’t being exploited because of first world overconsumption and greed, and where ancient Egypt, “Kemet,” is restored of its people and resources. “We need to overthrow this system,” said Bri. “I’m excited for more leadership roles and becoming real comfortable with speaking my truth.” —Sarah Belle Lin

*Bri wished to not disclose her last name.

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Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist based in the East Bay. She has been on the ground documenting the recent Black Lives Matter movement and protests in Oakland. You can follow Sarah Belle’s coverage on her Twitter: @SarahBelleLin.

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