The People’s Mayor is an Abolitionist 

Cat Brooks fights for police abolition in Oakland as the defund backlash sets in

By Piper French

Photos By Sasha Kelley

Cat Brooks sits on a wooden stool in a a pebbled backyard

Like her chosen namesake, Cat Brooks is elusive. When I went to try to see her speak in downtown Oakland, I arrived too late and instead watched a man clad in a white pleather jacket and bellbottoms do an imitation of Rick James so convincing that I had to google whether the singer himself was dead. I spent weeks making and remaking plans with her assistant, a sweet young woman whom I imagine has a very stressful job. 

Near the end of February, the Anti-Police Terror Project — the organization Brooks co-founded in the years after Oscar Grant’s murder by police in 2009 — assisted with an event at the Port of Oakland to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X. It was a bright, windy day; Brooks was nowhere in sight. After a while, I went up to a woman sitting in her car and asked if she knew Brooks. “Everybody knows Cat Brooks,” she said, barely restraining an eye roll. Soon after that, Brooks herself materialized, leaning against the door of her car. She looked weary, which wasn’t surprising. In addition to her activist work, which seems to be two full-time jobs on its own, Brooks is a playwright, actress, radio DJ, mother to a teenage daughter, and the erstwhile Oakland mayoral runner-up — some call her the people’s mayor. “I am the walking definition of burnout,” she has written. But she had been called to the port to speak, and when it was her turn, she stepped up into the bed of a large truck outfitted with sound equipment, took hold of a bullhorn proffered to her, and began.

Brooks was talking that day about the Oakland school board’s controversial decision to consolidate or close a number of schools in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. “Not feeding children is violence,” she told the crowd, as people called out their assent. “Not educating children is violence, not housing people is violence. And the thing is that, particularly for Black and brown people, we live in a state of continuous cognitive dissonance, right? Because the state fosters these conditions in our communities. And we know that. And then the state offers us nothing but a violent apparatus to deal with those conditions, doing nothing but escalating more violence. So we’re here to say ‘No more.’”

The bullhorn amplified her smoker’s rasp. Brooks seemed to radiate resolve; she had that quality of speaking that makes something turn over inside of you. Behind me, a young woman said to her boyfriend, “That’s Cat Brooks! She ran for mayor.” The girl went on: “I voted for her — but she didn’t win. I wish she would have. Oakland would be really different.” She paused and then repeated her words, this time nearly wistfully, like her head was somewhere else. 

What does violence look like to you? Is it a shove, a hateful insult? Blowing up a pipeline or breathing in air pollution? A strip search or solitary confinement? Being written out of the narrative? The luxury condos at MacArthur Station? Is it stealing from Walmart? Is it working double shifts at Walmart and still being unable to afford your life? 

The organization that Brooks started, whose name (Anti! Police! Terror!) is itself a provocation, has a provocative slogan: All violence is state violence. The phrase is an invitation to draw back from the immediate and observe how the conditions for violence can incubate amid deprivation. Or as Brooks put it to me: “Our kids have PTSD by the age of eight, if not sooner. They’re locked out of every opportunity. They grow up with the strain of food insecurity and housing insecurity, with parents that are locked away in American concentration camps. What do we expect is going to happen?”

This sort of structural analysis has never been the prevailing theory of violence in America; lately, it appears especially under siege. In the long aftermath of the 2020 uprisings, the media and pundit class has seized on instances of violence across the U.S., from “smash and grab” robberies to random killings, as a repudiation of the protests and everything they stood for. This has spilled over into policy and voting behavior: President Joe Biden’s “Fund the police. Fund them!” State of the Union speech; New York’s enthusiastically pro-police Mayor Eric Adams; San Francisco’s recall of progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin; and the sharp rightward turn of L.A. mayoral candidate Karen Bass, the progressive congresswoman and former community activist who, back in the early 2000s, was a mentor to Brooks. 

It has been a hard year for the movement. “We, along with every other organizer in the country, had our asses handed to us, at least on the communications front, with ‘defund,’” Brooks told me. Oakland, her adoptive city, has had a hard year too. There were 134 murders there in 2021, the highest rate in 15 years; most of the victims were poor people of color. And violence has not spared Cat Brooks: In February of this year, her nephew was shot and killed in North Las Vegas. 

Still reeling from the loss, Brooks has attempted to take stock of both the successes and the disappointments of the past year and come up with a better way to communicate the possibilities that the movement offers. She has been focused on cementing and expanding the project that has become APTP’s most broadly recognized accomplishment: Mental Health First, an “abolitionist alternative to 911” that aims to head off both the physical harm and pernicious emotional trauma that can result from police encounters. In public appearances and writing, Brooks has advanced her own narrative, drawing attention to the ways in which Oakland’s leaders — the official ones — have fostered the conditions for violence to occur. And she is trying to break down barriers between people in her community who have lost loved ones to street violence and those who have lost loved ones to police and prisons. “There are definitely next steps,” she told me. “The movement is nowhere near dead — nor are we done.”

We were speaking at her home in West Oakland, the neighborhood that birthed the Black Panthers, today in the vise grip of gentrification. Brooks has been able to stay there because she owns her house, a lifelong goal ever since she learned in her 20s about how white people accumulate capital through land ownership. It was a typical Bay Area day, gray and drizzly; a pervasive substance halfway between rain and mist stained my notebook. We sat outside, Brooks smoking her Parliaments and clutching a cup of hot coffee between purple talons. 

The flipside of Brooks being impossible to track down is that she is extremely present when you have her: reflective, funny, and sorrowful by turns. She has a dry, acerbic sense of humor. How’s it going? I asked, the first time I called her for this piece, and she said, “We traffic in the business of dead people, so it’s always horrible.”

Brooks came into this world with a strong, reflexive sense of right and wrong, and was reared by two families whose moral compass expressed itself politically: her mother’s parents were anthropology professors with an analysis of white supremacy and Indigenous rights that was rare for white people of their generation; her mother organized fiercely against domestic violence; and her father was the first unionized Black stagehand on the Las Vegas Strip.

Her parents separated when she was two. Her father struggled with addiction throughout her childhood; he would drive down across the southern border to pick up drugs with her in the passenger seat. Brooks can’t recall much from that time, but she does remember the sight of flashing red and blue lights reflected in the rearview mirror of his car, because it happened so often. When she was eight or nine, her dad was locked up for several years. “I knew he was sick,” she has said. But she also understood, at her young age, that jail wasn’t going to help him get better. Really, its effect was to hurt him — and her. His absence during those years has echoed throughout her life; she can detect its traces in her relationships with men, her feelings about herself, her own use of substances. “That’s the first way the state was violent to me,” she said. 

If you have heard Brooks talk, in public or in private, it will not come as a surprise to learn that her first love was theatre. “She missed her calling,” Brenda Grisham, a friend and collaborator, told me. In truth, acting and activist work have always been intertwined for Brooks, though sometimes in ways that have only been detectable in hindsight. After an injury sustained during rehearsals for a college production of A Raisin in the Sun forced her to drop her dance minor, she ended up taking classes on Indigenous studies and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. When she ended up at CAA after graduation and it became clear that the brutal hierarchies of agency work weren’t for her, she moved to Community Coalition, the organization Karen Bass founded in South L.A. Brooks still calls CoCo her political home — it was there that she learned about land accumulation, about communications, about organizing — though she has been dismayed to watch Bass’s about-face. 

Cat Brooks is actually a stage name, in a way: She was born Sheilagh Polk, named after her grandmother. But soon after she moved to Oakland, Oscar Grant was murdered, shot to death by a transit cop on New Year’s Day, 2009. Wary of her employers discovering her growing involvement in the movement, she started giving quotes as Cat Brooks, the combination of a childhood nickname and her mother’s maiden name. When she decided to run for mayor in 2018, she realized that no one in the community knew her as Sheilagh. So she changed her name. At this point, she said, “I am Cat Brooks. That’s who I am.” 

During the mayoral run, Brooks’s prior work for an organization that promoted charter schools became a source of controversy between her and the East Bay DSA, the fifth largest chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. In conversation, Brooks downplayed her awareness of her past employer’s work on school privatization. At the time, she said, she “didn’t have the analysis” she does now; “that said,” she added, “I wasn’t an advocate for charter schools — that’s not what I was doing.” Her stance on the matter remains idiosyncratic, though perhaps no more so than that of any other parent caught between their politics and the interests of their own children. The proliferation of charter schools in Oakland is “at this point, toxic and deadly,” she said. They needed to go, or at least be put under local control. But her daughter attends a charter. “I don’t apologize for that,” she told me. “My daughter is an artist; there’s nowhere else that she can get what she gets there.” 

It was through theatre that Brooks met Grisham, an Oaklander who became an anti-violence advocate after her son, Christopher Lavell Jones, was killed in a random shooting in her front yard. In 2012, Brooks played Grisham in a local production that dramatized the stories of mothers who had lost children to street and state violence alike. “She portrayed it to the letter, where it could be understood how I felt about the loss of my son,” Grisham told me. Some of the productions were site-specific, so Brooks performed on Grisham’s porch, still riddled with bullet holes from the shooting that claimed her son. 

In the years since, Brooks and Grisham have begun working together. Theirs is a more unlikely alliance than one might think: Victims’ rights advocacy has long been associated with demands for more law enforcement and longer prison sentences. This is both a genuine expression of some victims’ desires and something that has been seized upon by tough-on-crime types as evidence that it’s impossible to support victims of crime and criminal justice reform at the same time. 

“People often say abolitionists, we don’t understand crime, we don’t care about street violence. That’s bullshit.”

Since the 2020 uprisings, Brooks has seen this narrative redouble. “People often say that abolitionists, we don’t understand crime,” she said, “we don’t care about street violence. That’s bullshit. We live in the communities where it happens … and that’s probably what makes me so angry, because I know what we’re doing isn’t working.” She can understand, though, why not everybody sees it that way — especially families who have lost children in totally senseless killings and feel that nobody cares. “You know,” she said, “I’ve been raped, and I’ve been battered by almost every partner I’ve ever had. And I’ve lost friends to gun violence. And so I have a lot of anger in me. And I get that.” 

“I could understand where she’s coming from,” Grisham told me, “and she could understand where I’m coming from. And then we’re trying to build something so that people can see that we can work together.”

Grisham holds a yearly conference for victims of gun violence, and Brooks recently helped her organize a session that brought together people whose loved ones have been killed by police and those grieving family members stolen by street violence. Grisham described to me the complicated emotions that attend such a summit. There are the inevitable comparisons that surface amid horrific loss. “We don’t get money,” Grisham said, referencing the hefty settlements that can come in the wake of police killings. “Our kids are just gone.” But then there is the unique injustice of having a family member or friend killed by an agent of the state. Somehow, the two groups must figure out how to honor the distinct facets of each other’s loss and at the same time recognize that they have a shared grief and, perhaps, shared work to do in their communities. 

At the conference, she said, there had been halting progress. “When they sat and saw how it’s different for those parents … they kind of understood a little bit more,” she told me. “Even though it’s really the same thing. I lost my only child, you lost your only child.”

Grisham’s tone changed, became lighter. She had had to go retrieve the participants of this particular session, she remembered, and convince them to rejoin the group. “They was in there for a while!” she laughed. “I was like, OK, it’s time to eat, I want to eat!” 

Brooks and Grisham are planning to repeat the session when the conference returns in December. And they have another scheme percolating: an adult violence diversion center. Grisham envisioned parenting and entrepreneurial classes. Brooks, when we spoke about it, was more esoteric: “What does it look like to address root causes and provide the support and resources and counseling and therapy and healing that people need, so that the violence stops on all levels?” 

The police have no business responding to mental health calls.

There’s plenty that Grisham doesn’t agree with Brooks about. She thought that Oakland needed more homicide detectives, not fewer. But she admired the “fire” that Brooks brought to her organizing work. And there was one aspect of Brooks’s philosophy that Grisham felt certain about: Police, she said, had no business responding to mental health calls.

Like Grisham, Debora Slay is not an abolitionist. “I think we do need law enforcement,” she told me. But it was clear to her that her son’s interactions with the state had brought only self-perpetuating cycles of misery. He had developed serious mental illness in prison, she told me; just a few months after being released, he attempted suicide by cop. It was a miracle he hadn’t been killed — one officer had seen that the object he brandished wasn’t a weapon and had the presence of mind to yell out cellphone — but afterward, he was charged with resisting arrest, the D.A. bumped it up to a felony, and there he was back in jail. 

In April 2021, Slay’s son was released early because of the pandemic, and he ended up living on the street in Sacramento, where the chance of another police encounter was high. She was terrified that he would violate his parole and be sent back to jail, or worse, but her mother was dying in New Mexico, and Slay couldn’t leave her side. She called everyone she knew in Sacramento to see if they could help. Then she thought to Facebook message Mental Health First. 

MH First, as it’s commonly known, is an alternative crisis response team run by Asantewaa Boykin, an APTP activist who’d moved to Sacramento in 2018. The pilot program came out of years of conversations between Boykin and Brooks, who are also close friends. Half of people killed by police have a disability, and between 20 and 25 percent are suffering from severe mental illness. As a nurse with a background in mental health, Boykin had seen the way that some hospital workers treat people in crisis, especially when they show up in the back of a police car. Both she and Brooks had been doing informal community mediation for some time. If the goal was “to be not just reactionary but visionary, stopping the police violence in the first place,” Brooks said, “the only way that we’re ever going to do that is to reduce the number of engagements that our communities have with police.” 

MH First began dispatching volunteers in Sacramento in January 2020, and in August, a team got started in Oakland. In those eight months, the entire world changed. “What we were not prepared for was the way that the George Floyd rebellions affected what we were doing,” Boykin told me. Suddenly organizations and city governments around the country were calling, wanting to know how APTP had made it happen.

The hotline received unexpected calls, too, which turned into impromptu political education. Boykin said it was not uncommon for people to dial MH First about an unhoused person because they wanted that person gone but did not want to call the police. “Well,” she said she would respond whenever she received such a call, “are they hurting themselves, are they hurting somebody? Like, is there a safety issue? I’ve taken several of those calls myself, and they have ended with ‘Wow, I didn’t think about it like that. And not I’m going to go call the police now.’” MH First now trains their volunteers on how to handle these queries, which they term “bystander calls.” 

Slay had heard about MH First when a friend invited her to the program’s launch party. She spoke about her son’s struggles there, and Boykin was so moved that she gave Slay a piece of art that was meant to be auctioned off: a small sculpture of a mother and child. When Slay contacted MH First the following April, Boykin didn’t over-promise. “She said, ‘Maybe we could get him some food, pay for a couple nights in a hotel. … I’m gonna put some calls out, I’m gonna see what I can do,’” Slay recalled. 

A couple of weeks went by. Not knowing what might happen, Slay was still scrambling to protect her son from afar. There was no room at any of the shelters; he kept getting his sleeping bag stolen. “He was just going through it,” she said. They talked every night, so that he could let her know where he was; she tried to send him money whenever she could, so he could sleep in a motel instead of outside. But the motels were expensive, and Slay was running low on cash herself. 

Then Boykin called her back. “I’ve got a hotel voucher,” Slay remembers her saying. “He’s got 15 minutes. I’m sending an Uber to come pick him up.” 

Amid the labyrinthine structure of local homelessness and housing policy, a hotel voucher is almost like a lottery ticket. Boykin told me that MH First can’t work miracles for everyone — they simply don’t have the resources. But Slay’s son was “not in our shared reality,” she said. With his mother occupied in New Mexico, he lacked a local support system. He was on parole. And he was Black. The risk of him being on the street seemed too high to accept. 

Slay seemed quietly stunned by what Boykin and MH First had done for her son. “She just — she has no idea how much that meant to me,” she told me. “The first night when he slept in that hotel and I knew he was in a hotel voucher program, and it was going to be for a while — I slept a lot easier.” When Slay’s mother passed away soon after, her son was able to absorb the loss of his grandmother in a safe location. It was a small grace. 

In early April, I attended an online training session for Mental Health First. Many of the participants had shown up that day because they themselves had struggled with mental illness or had a close family member who did; some had had negative experiences with the police because of this. Others were clinical practitioners who were frustrated by the inequities and blind spots of the profession, or the fact that only people who could pay got access to quality therapy. 

As we introduced ourselves, a middle-aged Latino man with glasses and a thick mustache signed on from the front seat of his car. He told the group that his teenage son had been shot and killed by police in 2017, minutes after they arrived at the family’s home. There was nothing like MH First where he lived, he said; if such an option had been available when his son was in crisis, “the outcome would have been different.” The other participants seemed shaken. Little hearts floated up from people’s Zoom screens as he spoke. 

The training continued, and the group learned about first aid, harm reduction, cop-watching. MH First doesn’t have the resources to dispatch people for every call, and often crises can be resolved over the phone, but they automatically dispatch if they learn that police are already on the scene, hoping to be able to deescalate — or, in the worst case, serve as a witness to a violent encounter. “There are situations you might not be able to respond to because of your own personal history,” one trainer cautioned. 

How the hell does anyone do this? How do they know what to say?

It was a lot to take in, and there were plenty of questions. Was there a script? (No.) Had people actually had to cop-watch? (Yes.) In the moment, it was hard to see a throughline between these painstaking attempts to grasp the basic tenets of the hotline and the feeling that MH First had created in Slay, that someone in the world besides her had cared enough about her son to help him, really help. I had trouble imagining how the participants could go from learning about psychosis on Zoom to intervening when someone was experiencing it, or getting in between that person and a bunch of armed officers. How the hell does anyone do this? I wondered. How do they know what to say?

And yet, somehow, they did. This was only the beginning. When the first half of the training concluded, some five hours later, and I finally logged off, I kept thinking of something the man who called in from his car had written in the chat: “Every case and every grief journey is different. In my case, when my kid was stolen, I lost my willingness to live. I need a ‘purpose’ to continue living. Perhaps this could be what I need to do to heal … a little.”

My grandmother had a saying about cleaning the house, a task she hated: Start in one corner. MH First is essentially a “start in one corner” theory of abolition. Or, as Brooks says: small, replicable models. And lately, the models had been replicating. MH First was recently contracted to train a nascent mobile crisis team in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And the passage of the CRISES Act, which APTP fought for as it progressed through the California legislature, meant that the state was about to start funding community organizations to start their own crisis response teams. Brooks hoped that they could help guide the process.

Another Oakland organization had proposed a program called MACROS, which essentially reproduced the work of MH First but was funded and run by the city. Brooks had, for a while, been doing battle with the city to ensure that MACROS didn’t “become a watered-down piece of nothing,” as she put it. She had lost on a few fronts — calls to the program would be routed through 911 after all, which Brooks worried would deter people from using it — but she succeeded in establishing a community advisory board and ensuring MH First’s involvement in the training process. 

Brooks has grown accustomed to being an oppositional figure. MACROS was only the latest round in a never-ending boxing match with adversaries as politically diverse as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a centrist Democrat; the head of the San Francisco police union; and factions of the DSA. Her mayoral run had unleashed a new level of scrutiny and antagonism. “It was a horrible experience,” she told me, “I mean, it was just awful. Nobody can ever prepare you for that.”

I thought back to the girl at the port, her faith in Brooks’s vision. Would Brooks ever run for office again? She was responding before I finished speaking: “Hear me when I tell you, fuck no.” She went on: “I don’t want to be a politician, right? I want to be a changemaker. I want to do my art. I want to talk shit about politics.” Later, she told me that the answer changes from day to day, with fuck no being one end of her spectrum of feelings on the matter. Regardless, it’s clear that she still feels a deep obligation to Oakland, in whatever form that may come. 

“I do this work because I love my people.”

But Brooks is also exhausted, which was apparent when she spoke. She had recently been awarded a generous fellowship, and she was supposed to be using it to take a sabbatical, which for her apparently meant working slightly more than half time. “I came up in the school of organizing where you drank, you smoked, you worked, you died,” she said. “And we just kept turning out burnt out, damaged, older heads of the moment.” Her own mother had worked herself to death. She knew this wasn’t a healthy way to live, and she wanted to spend more time with her daughter before she went off to college. And yet she also wanted to put a stop to the cycles of loss and violence that had reverberated through her own family, and the families of people like Grisham, and Slay, and the man from the training whose son had been killed, whom she had never met. “I do this work because I love my people,” she told me. “Deeply. And I want my daughter to live in a world that looks very different from this one.” 

Correction, October 26, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect that Brooks worked for only one organization that promoted charter schools.

Piper French is an independent journalist living in Los Angeles.