My Oakland (Is Not My Oakland)
When I first got to Oakland, I didn’t know where I was. I gave the cabbie who picked me up at the Emeryville Amtrak station an address on Apgar Street. The house where he dropped me off, near 40th and Market, within walking distance of the MacArthur BART station, was where I lived for my first year in California.
“The Apgar house” has graduated into semi-legendary status in the East Bay punk and anarchist subculture. Eighteen people — mostly twentysomething, mostly college-educated, mostly white — lived in what had originally been a two-story, two-family residence on a street otherwise inhabited by African American homeowners and long-term tenants. In a word, we were bohemian gentrifiers. Whatever radical politics we professed, our deployment of financial resources, which in America are always racialized, was a contribution to the ongoing displacement of Oakland’s black community.
I start with the Apgar house because both my politics (Marxist) and theology (Christian) oblige me to acknowledge that I am a settler and a beneficiary of white supremacy. In our American colony, defined by the unatoned crimes of Native dispossession and the enslavement of Africans, my personal responsibility comes first. In part this is to provoke your conscience, reader, if you too are a settler. But mostly it is because this is what Oakland taught me. I thank God every morning in my prayers for Oakland — but my Oakland is not my Oakland. I don’t have a right to it; it doesn’t belong to me.
It belongs to the Ohlone people. This Native group was systematically rounded up into the concentration camps we call missions. Today, Ohlone activists, like Corrina Gould, struggle to protect their sacred shellmound burial sites, the most ancient of which is over six thousand years old. The Ohlone extend us settlers an invitation to pay the Shummi Land Tax, which financially acknowledges the criminal dispossession of which we are the beneficiaries and presents a small opportunity to atone. We either pay it or we don’t.
Everybody, I hope, knows Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. I live a few blocks up Alcatraz Avenue from the church where funeral services were held for Lil’ Bobby Hutton, the first Panther to be murdered by police. Years ago I was lucky enough to take a tour of West Oakland led by David Hilliard, the party’s former chief of staff. Many of the tour sites were within a few blocks of the Apgar house. When I first arrived, I didn’t know where I was.
Oakland is where Officer Johannes Mehserle murdered Oscar Grant, where Officer Miguel Masso murdered Alan Blueford Jr., where Officer Joseph Mateu murdered Sahleem Tindle. And from Oakland first arose the cry that black lives matter.
In 2011 Occupy Oakland renamed the area in front of city hall Oscar Grant Plaza. Like many others, I was deeply transformed by Occupy. I marched and chanted, and with a couple thousand other people I shut down the Port of Oakland not once but twice. And believe it or not, Occupy is what got me to church, and Oakland was where I got baptized, in a predominantly African American congregation, whose sanctuary was sold and converted into a condo. (Like I could make that up.)
In a seminar at the Bay Area Public School, a post-Occupy community education project, critic Fred Moten remarked: Huey Newton came from nowhere. If that’s really true, then we better learn something about nowhere.
My gospel mentors belong to the Oakland School of Prophets — Christian, womanist, mostly black, and mostly queer. One preceptor, Reverend Donna Allen, took a tour of our public school facilities one afternoon several years ago. We rode a creaky elevator to the darkened second floor, where in less than a year of tenancy we’d already had dozens of community meetings, poetry readings, musical performances, and classes. Donna looked around slowly, taking in this weird and transient space, and marveled, “There are so many Oaklands.”
An old Zapatista maxim proclaims: the world we want is one in which many worlds fit. Oakland’s politics and theology invited me into responsibility, accountability, and atonement as a settler and a beneficiary of white supremacy. Although my Oakland is not my Oakland, I continue to abide, in part because grace makes a place for me.
In the final chapter of the Bible’s last book, John the Revelator describes a mystic tree whose leaves were for the healing of the nations. Who can say — maybe John was seeing our live oak?
David Brazil is a pastor and translator. His third book of poetry, Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), was a finalist for the California Book Award. He lives in Oakland.