Meet the Badass Activist Collective Bringing Direct Action Back to Black Communities

Human Rights

In October, organizers in Ferguson put out a call for people nationwide to come to the city to participate in four days of resistance to demand justice for Michael Brown, who was killed in August by police officer Darren Wilson.

Hailing from Oakland, New York, DC and Boston, Chinyere Tutashinda, Celeste Faison, Laila Williams, Nene Igietseme and Terry Marshall went to Ferguson to answer the call for black direct action trainers to help coordinate Moral Monday and to facilitate direct action trainings. But in the middle of a protest, something unexpected happened.

“All of us unsuccessfully attempted to bring black non-violent direct action trainers down there, and when we got to Ferguson most of the training team were white allies. We noticed that there was a shortage of black direct action trainers,” Faison said. “We looked at each other and said we need to develop some more folks to train our people and coordinate actions. And from there burst the BlackOUT Collective on the frontlines around 11 o’clock at night in front of the police station.”

Since then, the collective has helped black communities think through, facilitate, train, and execute numerous direct actions. One of their first projects was helping a group of young organizers in Oakland who wanted to take action. The result of that process was Black Brunch, an action, now expanded into other cities, in which protesters enter restaurants that cater to a white crowd at busy brunch hours and conduct a ritual for black people killed by police. This includes reading the names of those killed by police and vigilantes. The collective also published the group’s manual on the tactic for others to use.

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On Black Friday, they assisted 14 black protesters in shutting down the Bay Area’s major public transportation system, BART, for four hours (how long Brown’s body lay on the street after he was killed) and 28 minutes (every 28 hours in the U.S. a black person is killed by law enforcement).

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In December, the collective co-coordinated the lockdown of the Oakland Police Department for four hours and 28 minutes (pictured above). They worked with a core group of black residents who led the action, as well as newly formed affinity groups like Asians for Black Lives and white allies of the Bay Area Solidarity Action Team to physically lock down the station.

Most recently, the collective worked with Black Lives Matter Oakland to hold a “people’s inauguration” for new Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at her house early in the morning on MLK Day to literally wake her up to the crisis of police violence.

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While much of the collective’s work is centered in Oakland, where most of the founders live, it has lent support to other Black communities nationally and is working to launch a more national profile by the early summer. For now, black people looking for support related to a direct action can contact them for guidance.

“We believe in building leadership among black people and black communities and really engaging in direct action,” Tutashinda said. “Because through direct action people have the ability to find power.”

I had the opportunity to talk to three of the founding members of the collective. Below is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Alyssa Figueroa: One of the aims of the BlackOUT Collective is to “stop business as usual.” Can you talk about the importance of that?

Chinyere Tutashinda: Business as usual has allowed black people to be oppressed in this country for the last 400 years. That is the business. If we really break it down, we were brought here as commodities, through the Transatlantic slave trade, and have continued to be oppressed in one way or another because it served the system. So part of the stopping business as usual is really because that is what needs to stop.

Then on a more tactile level, whether it’s locking yourself to something or blockading a building, it’s around doing things that really wake people up—that are jarring and make people pay attention to how people have been oppressed for generations.

Celeste Faison: It’s also a critique of capitalism; it’s a critique of business. We’re saying America needs a new business model, this idea of valuing profit over black lives is unacceptable and this notion needs to be stopped at this moment.

AF: Have people been supportive of your actions—of stopping business as usual?

CF: Yes! Black folks are inspired to take action. We receive lots of encouragement and request for support. We also have support from allies who are grounded in the fact that these systems built in America were designed specifically to oppress black people. People of color affinity groups like 3rd World for Black Power and white allies like the Bay Area Solidarity Action Team believe until black people are free then no one is free. And until black people are leading that movement to be free, the system doesn’t get fully dismantled.

And then the people who haven’t supported us are mostly trolls. For people who say, "Well this isn’t the best way to win us over,"—that’s not the goal. The idea is we’re not begging for respectability or for someone to recognize our humanity. This is not a movement for affirmation. We’re saying, this ends today. We’re affirming ourselves.

AF: What’s it like participating in Black Brunch?

Laila Williams: Participating in one of the recent events in Oakland was powerful. Most importantly, the Black Brunch tactics is a creative way to reclaim space even if it’s only to temporarily hold the space and reveal the real racist atrocities that are happening around us. It’s a space where black folks could come together and hold that space. It’s physical space, it’s emotional space, it’s spiritual space, and it’s space to honor our comrades and colleagues and our freedom fighters. The best part is that after every action the Black Brunch community comes together to share a meal and be in community with each other. In this way, the actions are also deeply binding on a black communal front.

CF: It’s also a very revealing action because you see the racist and ignorant behavior unfold around you over the course of the action. People will cover their own and their children’s eyes and ears, they’ll stand up and turn your back on you, they’ll put headphones on and the restaurant establishments we’ve visited have even locked their doors to prevent us community from entering.

AF: The BART protesters are facing misdemeanor criminal trespass charges and a fine of $70,000 total in restitution—unusual in Oakland, where most protesters are cited and released, and then charges are dropped. (ColorOfChange put out a petition to demand the charges be dropped and the community has rallied in support of the protesters.)

What happens if the charges aren’t dropped?   

CF: Laila and I are part of the BART 14. We all decided that we’re not paying one dime. They’re saying that they want restorative justice, and we said that that day was restorative justice. And we’re not going to do community service; that was our community service. So they threatened that we can do jail time for it, but we’re not giving that any type of energy because right now we’re saying the charges themselves are unjust.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately and during the civil rights movement, there were so many trials against Martin Luther King, against SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee]. The government kept putting them on trial for stopping business as usual. So this is a tactic that we’ve seen before, and we welcome it. Because the action just wasn’t on that day, the action continues now. This is an opportunity to put the system on trial and lift up our local and national demands. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to speak directly to BART about how they uproot communities and criminalize black folk. So that action that we did on Black Friday set the stage for this moment.

AF: There’s been a lot of talk recently about violent and nonviolent protest, and within that, people are defining violence differently. Does the collective define violence? And how does that affect your direct actions?

CT: We work with various communities and with each of those groups that group has to decide what they view as being violent or nonviolent. I think that it varies [depending] on what community you’re in. As a collective, we believe in a diversity of tactics. It’s not our role to critique anybody’s tactics or any of the actions that are happening in the movement if they are continuing and supporting black people who want to do direct action. 

CF: We just want to make sure that people are being strategic and people are being creative, and that’s what we need to support. It’s not our job to police the way people respond to their own oppression. It’s our job to support people who want to do direct action.

AF: What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned from organizing the collective?

CF: One of the biggest takeaways I learned—and this came out of Ferguson and this is one of the reasons why we formed—is direct action doesn’t have to fit in this cookie-cutter box that we learn in organizing methodology. One of the things BlackOUT Collective was really exploring is how do we support, act and respond to things as they happen. And how do we support that as the new generation of folks take on and define direct action for themselves.

SNCC believed that nonviolent direct action was a means of transformation of the individual self. We see evidence of personal transformation every day. The system seems like a big beast and that can make people feel hopeless. We often hear people say, “I didn’t even know it was possible to do that.” Direct action inspires new possibility.  

CT: I learned that people are ready and people are excited to take action. And I think that’s something I knew but didn’t really know until doing this because we just went and ran. We’ve become a really think-and-do shop. We think, then we do, and through that we learn and we grow. It’s a way in which we work internally, and we’ve been able to work with communities because we don’t have the time to wait for us to get it perfect before acting. We have to act now. Our lives are dependent on us acting now.

CF: And direct action, especially in a white environmental world, is very colonized—it’s a specific skill that only a few people have. We follow in the tradition of the Ruckus Society, one of the first formations that focused on democratizing direct action and bringing it back to the people. I’m trained by Ruckus and many folks from that network have thrown down with us as allies. We are learning what it takes to do wonderfully imperfect, high level actions with little resources. We’re democratizing direct action and we’re bringing it back to the people. Well, really the people are democratizing direct action naturally and we’re bringing these types of skills back to folks and saying, 'You don’t need to be a direct action trainer to be able to blockade a train. We can practice for a month or so and do it.' The possibility to just develop organically is amazing and it’s been a real humbling experience.

LW: I learned there’s no manual or restriction around action. It’s organic and most effective when it’s authentic. I also learned constantly going needs active courage, heart and soul. And so I think we’re also learning black direct action is contagious and is collectively affirming.

Also, as a think-and-do collective and because we are a new formation there is a long list of things we are still exploring. For example, we are exploring the role of direct action within different frameworks. On a basic level, direct action helps us to remember that the system is not impermeable and it challenges assumptions around power. Within a campaign framework, it can force quick systemic changes, via policy. The SCLC demonstrated this in the Selma movie. And within a black anarchist framework it allows folks to bang on the system so hard that the system is unable to operate and ultimately implodes.

AF: What do you see as the future of the Black Lives Matter movement?

CT: I think people will continue to do action nationally and locally. We know, and one of the reasons we were founded is, that direct action works. We have seen it work for hundreds and hundreds of years. From slave rebellions to the abolitionist movement to SNCC to the Black Panther Party and then internationally we have the work in South Africa during the student rebellions. These were all direct actions done by black people and black communities as a result of oppression. And I think that we’re seeing some of that happening now.

CF: We’ll be working on the national demands that are coming out of Ferguson. A couple of them include stopping the 1033 program, to have better data collection around racial profiling and murders by the police, and that police forces that continually commit atrocities against black folk no longer receive federal dollars. In Oakland, I know that black folks are working on getting police out of the school systems and stopping gentrification.

CT: I think the other thing is broadening the conversation and really looking at what the war on black people looks like nationally, outside just the aspect of police. We’re looking at the ways our education system is devised, [at] housing and transportation. People are really starting to put the dots together and vocalize all the ways we’re oppressed. Police violence is at the national forefront because it is literally taking lives. But our lives are being slowly killed in lots of different ways—environmental racism, gentrification, and our criminal justice system, our education system. There are so many systems that need to be dismantled. I think what we’re seeing now is almost like an age of enlightenment that these systems exist and we are beginning to build an analysis around it and then some demands around it.

LW: The Black Lives Matter movement is autonomous and leader-full which is a really radical and beautiful thing. And what I’m especially excited for is the frame of Black Queer Feminism. I think that frame is really important and it’s a radically inclusive black movement for black liberation, black self-determinacy, black resistance and healing. And to have it with this black queer feminist frame now expanded to include everyone, I think that’s the key to the future of the movement.

CF: Also, I think the point of it though is we’ve been fighting structural racism since the first African was brought here as a slave. So there are a lot of things to dismantle. There are some specific things we can answer in terms of goals and demands, and I think every city has its own. But we’re trying to dismantle a system of oppression and this idea of white supremacy and the notion that that is okay. The Black Lives Matter movement is a part of a larger movement for Black Liberation. So what I see coming up is that this movement won’t stop. People are agitated, frustrated and ready to take action.

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