Ferguson activist Ashley Yates talks Oakland, Assata Shakur and Black Woman leadership

Ashley Yates

Ashley Yates is co-founder of the Ferguson-based grassroots organization, Millennial Activists United (MAU).  Originally from Florissant, Mo., Yates was one of the early on-the-ground organizers following the unjust police killing of Mike Brown on Aug, 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.  In 2015, she was a Black Lives Matter representative at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.  

As one of the more vocal activists at the forefront of the Ferguson Rebellion, Yates’ many contributions have helped provide key leadership to a new generation of young freedom fighters and Black abolitionists.  Affectionately described by CNN as a “disruptor of the status quo,” Yates’ thoughts and critiques on racism and state violence have been featured on NPR, Democracy Now! the Huffington Post and MSNBC.  Read along as we discuss Assata Shakur, Black woman leadership and the recent housing developments in Oakland, Calif.

Lamont Lilly:  Ashley, thank you so much for your time and willingness to talk with me. Though you’re still connected to the ground in Ferguson and St. Louis, you’re actually living in Oakland, California, now. When did you move to Oakland?

Ashley Yates: I moved out here in mid-December 2014, shortly after Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. [While a police officer, Wilson fatally shot  Mike Brown.]

LM: What brought you out to Oakland?

AY:  There were a few different factors that went into that. A few personal things that happened made it clear that my life had drastically changed after I decided to take a stand for Mike Brown and Black lives, especially in a place like Ferguson and the St. Louis area. I realized my life was different and it was not going to go back to the way it was. I also knew I needed some space to heal and grow.

I also came to Oakland to connect with the history here, more specifically the Black Panther Party. I wasn’t a scholar on the Black Panthers or anything, but I did know that this was the founding place. I also didn’t know much about the city, or who was doing what. It just seemed like a place where I could learn and grow, and to soak up some of the organizing history.

I’ve taken a different path than what I expected, but it’s been a huge blessing. Ideally, I wanted to just jump right in and be like, “Yo, take me to every spot the Black Panthers were at.” But it doesn’t work like that. That’s just being idealistic. It’s taken me a few years to build relationships with people, but the city has given me a lot.

LL: In addition to police terror and state violence, there is another major struggle in Oakland — gentrification and affordable housing. What are the housing conditions like in Oakland, particularly within the Black community? What are you seeing there?

AY: In Oakland, there are entire tent cities and it’s concentrated. I can think of at least six tent cities off the top of my head — congregations and communities of folks without housing! And I barely know the city like that. It’s almost indescribable. When you add the developers to the multimillion-dollar corporations, along with the backdoor deals of the courts and city officials, it becomes a multilayered struggle just to keep people in their homes — or to stop an eviction. The rate at which it’s happening is just mind-blowing.

What’s happening in Oakland is a direct effect of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. These people could not be more directly responsible than if they walked in and literally “punched” people out of their homes. For me not to name that would be an injustice to Oakland.

These industries and corporations are violently displacing people, yet they’re wiping their hands clean. On top of that, some of these corporations aren’t paying any local taxes. They’re making more money, yet poor people are being pushed out of their homes.  If you allow it to, it will make your head hurt. The average rent in the Bay Area now is $3,000.

LL:  I just want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. Did you say the average rent in the Bay Area is $3,000 per month?

AY:  I’m sorry. Let me not be hyperbolic. The number that we pulled from Forbes last year was actually $2,975. I would just round that up to $3,000. That’s absurd!

Last year here in Oakland, I was looking at two-bedroom apartments, ranging from 900 to 1,100 square feet.  Those were $2,400 a month. I saw one apartment I thought about briefly, but it was $1,800 a month. People are paying $2,000 plus for a studio apartment in Oakland now. I just can’t afford that. Also, there are not many Black communities left in Oakland. Gentrification is wiping them out. East Oakland is pretty much what’s left here.

LL: You were recently abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  What was your purpose in going? What were some of the things you learned?

AY:  Funny story about Brazil, I’m still not quite sure how that happened. Out of the blue, I received an email invite to this conference in Brazil. When I contacted the sender, there were some language barriers, but I eventually found out that I was being invited by the Brazilian government to attend their first state conference on racism and anti-Blackness.

The conference was a week long. Everyone wanted to hear about the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. People wanted to hear about Ferguson and Baltimore, and some of our strategies of resistance and grassroots organizing. The events were so powerful and political, but also very cultural, and full of art and music. I was the only representative there from the United States.

We also got a chance to visit and build with folks in the favelas, the equivalent of “the hood” in the U.S., the shanty towns. These were the communities that were forced into the most undesirable parts of the city and country — the hillsides and highlands — where the poor were forced to create their own infrastructure. We’re talking strongholds of Afro-Brazilian communities that are direct descendants of African captives, who have thrived in the highlands for quite some time.

This was right after the World Cup. There were units of SWAT teams still present in the favelas. They were charged with “cleaning up the streets” for these huge international events, to make it look a certain way.

This process of “cleaning things up” had been taking place for several months. Developers were coming into the favelas and kicking people out of their homes. These same communities were once undesirable.  But now that people have been there for decades, now that plumbing and piping and foundations have been set up, not to mention the gorgeous view — these favelas have become points of interest for luxury housing. Now, there are thousands of Afro-Brazilians being violently removed from their homes to make way for the rich and their new condominiums.

Being able to witness this for myself was so powerful. It really put a lot of things into perspective for me. It was a reminder of why it’s so important to create these relationships, to learn from each other.

One of the things I found out while I was down there is that, in addition to Israel, Brazil has also been a training site for U.S. law enforcement. We’re talking about the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, who flew down to share tactics and information with Brazilian authorities and state police. We certainly cannot ignore these international partnerships that perpetuate our oppression, both locally and globally. If our oppressors are organizing globally, we should be organizing globally just as hard for our liberation.

LL:  I wanted to ask you about the infamous “Assata Taught Me” tee, which can also be purchased as a hoodie. It has become a staple of movement apparel. Where did the idea of such a simple, but powerful statement come from? What does the phrase “Assata Taught Me” mean to you?

AY:  Right after the murder of Mike Brown, we formed a small unit on West Florissant Street. I hate to say this or perpetuate such an analogy, but when you’re in a war, you have to form a unit of survival. These were groups of people that you would show up with, or connect with throughout the day. You checked in on each other, made sure folks ate or got home safely.

At one of those first meetings of our unit, after some conversation, we knew that we would need a name. We decided on MAU, for Millennial Activists United. We eventually got tees made up, and other people really began to support them, and we were very down with that. But my concern was that a bunch of people, many of whom we didn’t even know, were going to wear our name — but be involved in different types of activities, doing whatever they wanted to do. When you consider the history of the state and their treatment of Black Liberation organizations, I didn’t think that would be a good idea. We were already being demonized by the national media.

On the back of the MAU tee was the Assata Shakur chant. We started to close out our nights with it and bring it to the streets. We originally picked it up from a Black Lives Matter session with a brilliant sister activist, Sister Malkia [Cyril], from the Center for Media Justice. She was the one who pulled this out and made it a mantra on the West Coast.

One night, I was at MoKaBe’s Coffee House and Jamilah Lemieux (from Ebony Magazine) was sitting right across from me. I was talking to her about the Assata chant and about the fact that we needed shirts with a popular movement message, but without MAU on them. Somehow in the conversation “Assata Taught Me” just came to me. It’s not an original phrase, by any means, but it was something that I felt would really resonate with people. Who else better as a symbol of resistance — from the New Jersey Turnpike, to being broken out of prison, to living in exile in Cuba? It’s the real-life story line of a Black woman legend.

The design of the shirt was created right in MoKaBe’s. Jamilah helped me pick out the font because I’m picky as hell about everything. I was just going for something strong, simple and straightforward. After Jamilah helped me through my self-doubt, we said, “Yeah, that looks good.” We put it on Teespring and went from there.

I just hope people feel empowered by it and feel a sense of community when they wear it. I hope they feel the resistance, the ancestors and unapologetically Black. You’re not only wearing Assata Shakur.  You’re also wearing the Black Liberation Army. They were the ones who rescued Assata. I’m just glad people like the shirt. The feedback has been incredible.

LL:  Speaking of women warriors, when we talk about Black Lives Matter, we must also talk about the critical role of Black woman leadership. What does it mean to you to be a Black woman on the frontlines?  And in your case, a queer Black woman on the frontlines?

AY: It’s quite sensitive, to say the least, for so many reasons. I say that because of all of the attention and the kind of misunderstanding around intersectionality, specifically — and identity politics, more largely. A lot of people don’t know this, but after Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, it was actually MAU (Millennial Activists United) who were the first to mention anything in reference to “queer” and “movement” in the same breath. We were definitely the first advocates of this specific intersection coming out of Ferguson.

We hear a lot about the Black Lives Matter Network being queer and women now — but the first body to really raise this question was MAU. You can date back what I’m saying now to the interview we did with Darnell Moore and The Feminist Wire. We specifically did this interview to uplift the narrative of our lived experiences. (See tinyurl.com/y9e2824o.)

At the time, a lot of the mainstream media was only focused around the narratives of our two brothers, Tef Poe and Tory Russell, who are certainly honorable, but two men nonetheless. Just to be clear, that wasn’t their fault. We absolutely love Tef and Tory! It’s not a reflection of them; it’s an acknowledgement of how mainstream media works in this country.

We live in a very patriarchal society, you know. But MAU was also very active on the ground, and people were following us, as Black women. It was so important for this narrative to be uplifted as well. And although the media didn’t understand, Tef and Tory were actually a major part of uplifting our narrative. At the time, at least half of our organization was queer women. We just didn’t want that to be left out.

I think that Feminist Wire interview helped to set a new precedent about what it looks like to do this work in a way that honors our ancestors, but also honors the mistakes that were made, the erasure that happened.  There was a time when folks like Bayard Rustin and Marsha P. Johnson couldn’t fight like we fight today because of the times and the politics of those times. As a Black queer woman, it was part of my duty to pick up this mantle and to build on it.

How can we talk about resistance without mentioning the Stonewall Rebellion? How can we talk about the Black Liberation Movement without mentioning James Baldwin? We can’t! I can’t imagine a movement without Black queer people, whether we’re talking 1965 or 2014.

In reference to Black women in general, we’ve been pushing back against that narrative since Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells. It’s a shame that Black women still have to be invited to a table that we helped create. As Solange [Knowles] would say, we’ve earned our seat at the table. We’ve earned several seats! Without Black women, there wouldn’t be no damn seats, no table, no nothing!

LL: Thank you so much for talking with me, Ashley, and sharing your experiences. You really are an amazing freedom fighter. Salute to you, Sis!

AY: Thank you, Lamont. Let’s stay in touch and keep building. ■

A North Carolina-based activist, Lamont Lilly was the 2016 Workers World Party vice presidential candidate. In 2015, he was also a U.S. delegate at the International Forum for Justice in Palestine in Beirut, Lebanon. He is also an organizer and journalist in the Black Lives Matter movement.

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