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You Tell Us: #Reclaim MLK

on February 3, 2015

As Oakland and Bay Area activists, we’ve sustained a localized hashtag that circulates nationally. These hashtags act as pillars — points of reference we can call upon as iconic moments within this movement. The longest and most enduring of these tags, #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson, have mobilized the nation into what can be described as what one speaker at the Millions March in Oakland called the “second largest social movement this country has ever seen.” While we live adjacent to the epicenter of the Bay Area technological revolution, Oakland has maintained the heart beat of social justice that stems from a deep-rooted history.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that the tweets, blog posts and essentially most images and videos attached to #Oakland tags consistently proliferate nationwide on major platforms. Recently, UC Berkeley entered the discussion after the discovery of the artwork displaying lynched victims, marked with another socially-weighted tag #ICantBreathe, hung from Sather Gate hours before the Millions March in Oakland on Saturday, December 13, 2014. The artists have since then contextualized the piece as an act of protest, inciting a memory that is fought violently to suppress, while furthering the trope that the systemic police brutality over black bodies equates to modern day lynchings. Oakland, as a site of activism, is held to the same standard of national, sweeping change as political heavyweights New York and D.C., which also continue localized hashtags.

Over Martin Luther King weekend, a national three-day holiday weekend that over the last decade inspires more relaxation than a memory of social justice, Oakland activists embarked on an ambitious endeavor to complete 96 hours of action. The hashtags which linked MLK’s authentic activist identity to current direct action include #ReclaimMLK and #MLKalsosaid, further capturing images that are pulled primarily from personal and activist Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts. Trending hashtags group together the documentation of these spaces as protesters disrupt the peace with civil unrest, depicting both the militant and non-violent demonstrations that have erupted since the Michael Brown grand jury decision, and reinvigorating #Ferguson protests nationally in the new year. Many nationally recognized civil rights leaders such as Deray McKesson, a prominent organizer in St. Louis and Ferguson, and Umaara Elliot, one of the two coordinators of the #MillionsMarchNYC, proclaimed their support and alliance with Oakland over the past weekend on Twitter. People want to know — what’s happening in Oakland?

This is owed to our history, our reputation and the current national gaze that magnifies the Bay Area as a whole. Famed as the most ethnically and racially diverse microcosmic cities in the country, Oakland remains as a Western outpost and beacon, forcing us to reckon that inequality exists in a perceived racial Utopia. We too carry the shame of police brutality, #OscarGrant is not forgotten, as protestors began the final march on the Monday of the 96 hours of action at Oscar Grant Station, otherwise known as Fruitvale BART. Systemic racism seeps into every pore of the American psyche, and there exists here a paradox of diversity and extreme racial inequality that plagues and has plagued our community for decades.

Historically, social justice movements of the later 20th Century, most memorably with the birth of the Black Panther Party, feed from the energy produced in the Bay Area, specifically Oakland. This requires an acute attentiveness to the events that transpire here, which can be tracked through the evolution of these hashtags. As immediate neighbors, Berkeley and Oakland act as twin colossi representing this history of political activism in the Bay Area, emoting the same rhetoric and message of the Free Speech Movement. #ReclaimMLK weekend had a constant and unrelenting turn out of tens of thousands in both San Francisco and Oakland, however, it is primarily the East Bay that holds the voyeuristic eye of media reporting. Reports from media corporations such as CBS and USA Today lump Oakland with major sites of national coverage. I, as an individual conscious of the current social climate, am aware that we tread on the foundation of the second largest social movement since the 1960s.

Undoubtedly, the Bay Area hosts the social media powerhouses and is the metropolitan site of the technological revolution. Tech culture has allowed for an opportunity for uncontained and utter transparency for the first time in American history. Gentrification has changed the landscape of San Francisco, through both physical renovation and metaphoric demographic shifts. The demographic landscape of the San Francisco native and resident has evolved into a Darwinian game of socio-economic status, with vicious strategies deployed to secure affordable housing.

Oakland, therefore, becomes the city in which the movement unfolds as men, women and families are pushed out of our Western liberal metropolitan counterpart, which is currently subsumed by extreme economic prosperity and gentrification. We move into the territory where searches for #Oakland dominate hashtags in Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook posts, and we are immediately exposed to courageous stories of defiance in the face of inequality. We learn of a Richmond police officer, who marched with protesters against police brutality, and we see the breathtaking image of protesters shutting down the most impacted and highly congested commuter freeway, Interstate-80, in both directions.  Broader searches under #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe routinely turn out images captured in the Bay Area, with protests in Oakland outnumbering the other major Bay Arean cities.

The concluding march on Monday, 1/19, focused on King’s push for minority solidarity as represented by the Poor People’s Campaign, connecting the beauty of Oakland’s diversity, a city which proves to be the most multicultural city in the country. Not only does this elevate Oakland to unprecedented heights for completing organized action, it opens the space for an idealized vision of racial equality in this country. These images and the rhetoric produced are directly linked to the tangible reputation that Oakland upholds. This movement derives its energy through grass-root communication, in which Oakland is Occupied by a focused and outraged community with one basic demand — the social acknowledgement that #BlackLivesMatter.

The world is watching Oakland, and social media becomes the language through which we tell the unfiltered story. Hashtags, the keywords, which are both fleeting and shining, provide the blocks by which we can build a new structure from the rubble of a broken institution.

Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland is a recent UC Berkeley graduate living in Berkeley and studying popular culture. She hopes to attend graduate school within the next few years, but until then, she is observing the world, reading, writing and supporting social activism.


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