Long before the 2016 election, there was a civil rights culture that was created by Americans of color. Many of today’s political demonstrations are influenced by historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, all who fought in the long battle against racism. Even protests like the recent Women’s March, some would argue, derived from previous demonstrations of people of color. In 1997, in Philadelphia, for example, activist Phile Chionesu formed the Million Woman March, a response to the historical Million Man March, a demonstration organized by African American men to fight against the social and economic disparities that afflict the black community.
In 2012, public understanding of the persistent problem of police brutality went viral, with the help of cellphones, live video and the Internet. Deaths of young black Americans like Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, caught the attention of young people of color, inspiring them to express their political opinions, including in protests across America.
Through the lives of four very different individuals living in the East Bay, this series explores how protesters became activists, and is largely told from their perspectives. Activism isn’t a hobby for them, nor does their experience represent the entire protest culture. But their stories shed light on the complexities of the resistance to racism as well as the current state of political action at the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration. Although they have different backgrounds, these activists are united in feeling a responsibility to carry their community’s burdens as their own.
On a chilly Wednesday night in San Francisco in February, The Last 3%, a San Francisco black liberation group, arrived at Embarcadero Theatre. As they walked to the ticket booth they joked about the expensive theatre candy and entered the grim light of the movie screening to find their seats. In the middle sat Melissa Crosby. She had seen the film a few weeks earlier, but decided to see it again with her comrades. After the previews faded from the screen, Crosby listened to the sound of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, and the movie began. She and the other activists were watching the newly released film of James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about race in modern America. For Crosby, attending collective gatherings with activists was the norm. It also was a break from a long day’s work in the city.
A few hours before arriving at the theatre, Crosby and the group had handed out surveys to black teens, conducting several one-on-one interviews. Crosby sat next to an 18-year old boy and started to go through the list of 16 questions. She eventually came to number eight: “What are some obstacles to black unity in San Francisco?”
He said that gangs offer many children the family they don’t have at home. Crosby was intrigued. “So tell me a little bit more about this,” she prompted. He started describing the economic disparities in his community and how gangs have become an outlet to some because of the familial sense they provide for those lacking other family relationships. When he said that 7-year-olds were now carrying guns for their own protection, Crosby was shocked. She also was inspired. “I feel grateful that they are willing to be vulnerable enough about the struggles of their life,” she said of the teens she interviews.
Two years earlier, Crosby probably would not have been asking young people on the street about neighborhood crime; she would have been giving a quiz on Darwin’s theory of evolution, or talking about these issues in a classroom. She had been a science teacher for six years. Then, while recovering from an injury, she decided to alter the course of her life. Liberation movements were nothing new for her, but she felt that should focus on young people outside the classroom, in the streets. “I think a lot of youth feel powerless,” says Crosby. “And a lot of these schools don’t do the best job of uplifting them.”
Now 35 and living in Richmond, Crosby works with several Bay Area activist groups, planning and organizing retreats, events, lectures, and actions aimed at raising consciousness about inequality in America. She serves on the board of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, and traveled overseas with Global Youth Rising, a group of organizations that focuses on creating peace around the world. But, most importantly, she is now working with Kazu Haga, founder of the East Pointe Peace Academy in Oakland, to create a curriculum for children based upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience. Her whole life revolves around activism.
An ardent follower of her mentor Ericka Huggins, a leader in the Black Panther Party, and guided by leftist political movements of the 1960s, she is mostly concerned about developing strategies to create change that goes beyond protests. For her, liberation doesn’t start at the picket line, but in living rooms, neighborhoods, and community meetings where grassroots organizing takes place.
Crosby grew up outside of Detroit and went to college at Olivet Michigan. She was certain she wanted to work in economic development. But then she took a job with a youth outreach program. She developed a soft spot for children. Education, she realized, would be more fulfilling, so she switched majors. After graduating she joined Teach for America, and her career as a life science teacher began. In 2009, she moved to San Francisco to take a job at KIPP Bay Area Schools.
“Teaching is so demanding,” Crosby says. “It really helps me to sense the energy in the room.” Working in the classroom, Crosby learned how to connect with and engage her students. She felt responsible for managing and guiding them. And she was good at it. But as rewarding as teaching was, Crosby started to feel that something was missing. It would take an unexpected break from school to identify that “something.”
One day in 2015, Crosby’s school hosted a basketball game—students against faculty. A former captain of her high school basketball team, Crosby joined in. Running up and down the court with her students brought back fond memories. But in the middle of a pivot, she felt a sharp pain in her knee. She had torn her meniscus and a ligament.
Thinking that she would be okay, she continued to go to work in the days after her injury, but the pain got worse. Crosby decided that it was time to slow down and take a break. That gave her more time to think about her life. As she recovered, she felt she needed to take better care of herself, as well as to help others through activism. “I felt a strong spiritual pull to realign with life outside of the classroom,” she says.
Crosby decided to join an activist group in the Bay Area. She had some experience working with queer organizations in college, where she created a queer liberation group called Common Ground. “I am able to decide for myself what I want to give my gifts to today,” Crosby says. “I believe if people were in the right position they would give freely to themselves and the things they care about.”
The first step was scoping out different activist coalitions to see which group would be a good fit, one that would give her an opportunity to work passionately on issues with people who shared her vision. Crosby eventually gravitated toward black queer liberation groups. “They were like family,” Crosby says. But there were other issues she wanted to address that went beyond race and sexual orientation, too.
On a recent morning, Crosby woke to the sounds of fellow campers outside her cabin. She was attending a retreat at Green Peace’s Annual Action camp, along with 150 other activists, people who represented a range of causes, from environmental justice to Black Lives Matter. Tall trees hovered over her as she walked through the camp ground to join the others gathering for their daily instructions. The aim of the camp was to learn new organizing skills. Crosby was excited to start her day.
After the meeting, the group broke into separate crews. Crosby was a part of the art division, because she wanted to learn how to use art to raise awareness of social and political issues. She practiced screen printing, making banners and stencils, learning how to spray paint and using 3D imaging. She went on the camping retreat to become more creative, and to become more in touch with how she can tap into her emotions. “We need to be creative problem solvers if we are going to tackle these problems,” she says.
She also wanted to explore the connections between science and activism. “Me teaching science cannot be a coincidence,” Crosby says. “I rely a lot on words and logical thinking.” Studying and teaching biology gave her a better sense of the human body and web of life. But while pondering the problems of poverty and inequality, Crosby found herself asking the question, “How do we reconnect with land and life so we aren’t exploiting them for our own personal gain?”
At the retreat, Crosby spent much of her time working on ways to connect to different communities on an emotional level, something she’s been trying to do for a long time. But it hasn’t been easy. She first had to address her own emotions, especially regarding accepting herself as a biracial queer woman. Her mother had been adamant that she embrace both her white and black side. But listening to her parents talk about the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950’s made her keenly aware of America’s racism. The trick was being conscious of injustice without being entirely defined by it. “When I’m able to unlearn my oppression,” Crosby says, “I’m able to connect with your reality.”
That’s one of the ideas that shapes the work Crosby is now doing with Kazu Haga on non-violent resistance and creating lasting change. She believes that ongoing grassroots organizing is as effective as spontaneous protests. “We need to move from the misconception that non-violence has to be spontaneous,” she says. Making instantaneous decisions based upon anger may feel good, but what’s really needed, she feels, is a long-term discussion about what is actually happening in America—not this or that event, but the larger forces that maintain economic disparity and racial injustice.
Crosby is devoting her life to helping bring about equality, even if today’s organizers may not live to see the results of their work. To her, every step counts. “We need to have long-term plans,” Crosby says. “Like, 200 years.”