At about 9 p.m. on December 6, shoppers at Trader Joe’s in Berkeley heard a crash, then another and another, as white men in black masks shattered store windows with hammers and crowbars. It was a misleading emblem for an anti-violence movement, plastered all over national news. And yet that same morning, an entirely black coalition had stood in broad daylight in front of a Trader Joe’s three miles away, stopping business as the grocery chain locked its shoppers inside. What ensued was peaceful, purposeful, and organized — but to news media, it might as well have happened on the dark side of the moon.
Black Brunch in Rockridge was a sight to be seen. Diners were just tucking into brunch at Crepevine, Toast, Zachary’s Pizza, and other restaurants — when, out of nowhere, dozens of black people started pouring in the door. One by one, they filled each restaurant, hovering over tables, taking up space. Then, after bringing each restaurant to a standstill, they began to read from a long list of names. “Michael Brown: 18 years old; Eric Garner: 43 years old; Tamir Rice: 12 years old; Akai Gurley: 28 years old; Victor White III: 22 years old,” the protesters chanted, listing off the names of black men, women, and children who were all recent victims in police, state, or vigilante slayings. They followed each name with a Nigerian ashe, an amen to each lost soul. After five minutes, the procession turned and filed out, singing the song that had interrupted the St. Louis Opera the week before: “Whose Side Are You On?” A manager at the pizza joint told me she was highly impressed.
#BlackBrunch was celebrated on social media but did not make the news. The images of Bay Area protests that dominated conversations and flickered across CNN last week were more violent and hectic: trash fires on Telegraph Avenue, tear gas on Shattuck Avenue, freeways shut down, and Amtrak trains literally halted in their tracks. In downtown Oakland last Wednesday, a white undercover CHP officer became world famous when he decided to pull out his handgun and point it directly into the lens of a photojournalist covering a protest. With all this going on, it’s easy to argue that demonstrations like Black Brunch are legitimately overshadowed, but there are many who would argue that in the midst of all this white rage, black healing was simply being denied the spotlight.
Zachary Murray, a 25-year-old Baltimore native, watched protesters swarm his Oakland neighborhood after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in late November, yelling slogans like “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police” and “Black Lives Matter.” But the demonstrators also fanned out and broke into splinter groups that committed arson, vandalized property, and antagonized police. Meanwhile, white people held the bullhorns. In this intimidating environment, Murray said, it was hard not to “just stand around feeling foolish after a while.” This is what sent Black Brunch into its planning stages: “We were dissatisfied with the fact that three out of the four protesters there were white,” he said, “We wanted to create a safe space and a different type of response to support the healing of black folks.”
The Black Brunch organizers don’t condemn the nighttime mass protests that have defined the past few weeks, but #BlackBrunch was purposefully distant. I sat in the organizers’ living room last week and listened as they talked with a reporter from KQED. At that point, he was the only other journalist to express interest in the Black Brunch story, but it was clear that something was being lost in translation. Comparisons to the Free Speech Movement and Occupy seemed simplistic. And his questions did not have clear answers:
Why was #BlackBrunch different? What is your ultimate goal? Where do white people fit into all this?
The three organizers, self-identified as millennials, activists, and nascent leaders, did an admirable job of taking the questions — rooted in a white, liberal understanding of civil disobedience — and adapting them to describe the mission of Black Brunch and the many parallel movements like it.
Black Brunch, they said, was not about grabbing the public by the throat, so much as nurturing solidarity from within. It was about taking the pain and suffering of so many wrongful deaths and airing them out, in the light of day, in plain view of those who can easily avert their gaze. It was about reclaiming a space and demanding that black voices cease to be ignored. And undeniably, it was about staying safe. “I’m of the belief that there is most definitely a place for property destruction — for raging and all that,” said Wild Tigers, another Black Brunch organizer, graduate student, and longtime activist, “but the reality is that, as black people, it’s very different for us to be out there on the streets smashing windows at Starbucks. Because, if I do that, I could get a bullet. For white people out there, doing that is a privilege.”
This is a difficult disconnect: How can black people, the truly affected parties in this movement, raise their voices against police violence without instantly becoming another casualty on a long list of names? And yet, over the past week, with or without support from the media, black activists have quietly taken the reins.
The #BlackBrunch event was not an isolated incident, but part of an ongoing effort that not only seeks to promote a black perspective, but also to renovate the emotional infrastructure of a population under siege. Some participants at #BlackBrunch also work with the BlackOut Collective, an Oakland-based “technical assistance group” that helped orchestrate the West Oakland BART shutdown during the shopping rush on Black Friday.
In the past week, we’ve seen protests in Berkeley and Oakland increase their numbers of black participants, though they are sometimes ignored and sometimes hampered by the media. Simultaneously, they’ve become more creative and diffuse. On Thursday, nearly a thousand students from Berkeley High, B Tech Academy, and Realm Charter School, under the banner of the Black Student Union, overtook the Cal campus in the middle of the afternoon. On Saturday, Cal’s Black Student Union — who previously staged a four-and-a-half hour occupation of the campus cafe — also marched down College Avenue to join up with the Millions March protest in Oakland.
At the Millions March, where an estimated 5,000 people turned up, proceedings were carefully managed, helmed by Black Brunch and the BlackOut Collective. When the march began, white demonstrators were asked to hang back and allow for its black participants to move through the crowd to the front. Then, once the protesters arrived at the steps of the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, the entire space was reserved for non-white speakers, including Oscar Grant’s mother. On Sunday, proceedings were less political and more spiritual, with Michael Brown, Sr. speaking to a multi-denominational crowd at San Francisco’s historic Third Baptist Church. Religious leaders such as Pastor Michael McBride continued the work of supporting community members.
And on Monday morning, in a demonstration organized by Black Brunch, BlackOut Collective, ONYX, and Black Lives Matter, protesters of different ethnicities chained themselves to Oakland police headquarters in downtown for a little more than 4 hours, 28 minutes — the length of time Michael Brown’s body was left lying in the streets of Ferguson. The event ended in arrests — like so many others — but was defined by a calm and focused purpose.
All week long, residents of the East Bay went to bed with helicopters soaring overhead and sirens blaring. It’s been a galvanizing moment, and there’s no shortage of riveting images: of police batons; riot gear and zip-ties; students marching through gridlocked traffic on the interstate; and flares, smoke grenades, and firearms lighting up the night sky. But many will tell you, even as an effective tactic, these motions do not promote healing in and of themselves.
#BlackBrunch was not simply a peaceful protest, but a thinking person’s protest, a creator’s protest, but most importantly a black person’s protest. And these are not merely coincident.
Ultimately, these movements aren’t served by binary paradigms: violence versus nonviolence, rage versus healing, and least of all black versus white, the paradigm that began it all. But what’s hard to argue is that, if the goal is to draw attention to real solutions, then the media is doing everyone a disservice by ignoring black activists when they create new paradigms for protest.
Correction: The original version of this story contained a typographical error: Tamir Rice was 12 years old — not 20.