Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
We Are Here, an exhibit at two museums in the Bay Area, documents candid 1990s’ conversations among Oakland youth and cops, and the activist work they ignited.
“I’m going to give you an example,” a police officer says. He’s sitting on a folding chair in uniform, surrounded by teens. “Decorated cop, 15 years in the force, kicking ass the whole 15 years.” The young man across from him bristles.
“I’m talking about a good cop,” the officer continues, cutting the teenager off. “He goes out there and makes a mistake like that, what do you think should happen to him?” The mistake he’s talking about is going out in the field and shooting someone like the kid across from him.
On the parking garage rooftop around them, other teens and about 1,000 community members sit in circles, lean against police cars, and listen, rapt. “15 years on the street kicking ass, whatever, right, he makes one mistake,” says a young black woman, her voice breaking. “But we’re on the street and we make one mistake and what happens to us?”
For a few nights over three years in the ‘90s, candid conversations like this took place between 150 Oakland youth and 100 cops; two camps that had been taught their whole lives to mistrust and fear each other. Together, they talked about police brutality, power hierarchies, and why talks like this were so rare. Teens danced in the spotlight of a police helicopter. On the walls of the garage, videos of the conversations were projected to the city below. “If we do this again we should have the people who call the police here, too,” one young woman pointed out.
Part performance art, part activism, the “Code 33: Emergency Clear the Air!” dialogues—named for the code officers used to clear the walkie-talkie airwaves, drop everything, and pay attention—were first presented as part of The Oakland Projects, organized by the multi-media artist Suzanne Lacy from 1991 to 2001. The decade-long series featured seven other interactions, as subversive then as they would be today: Adults chatted with youth in parked cars about sex and drugs and stereotypes; a cop-versus-student basketball game was staged at a local high school; pregnant and parenting teenagers went to summer school together and swapped stories of being young moms.
Unique Holland, the co-founder of the Oakland-based education organization Studio Pathways, helped stage the Code 33 dialogues while she was in college. Holland told CityLab that, “like most people in Oakland at the time, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of engaging with police officers, and had high suspicion about any ability for that system to pass any kind of radical change.” What was most meaningful, she says, was, “the opportunity for young people to speak directly about their experience to people who had influence on how those experiences would be shaped in the streets.”
An exhibition called We are Here—half of it presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and half at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through August 4, 2019—takes this work as its subject, screening the documentaries Lacy filmed, and the scores of planning documents she developed.
But it also highlights the activism of many other organizers who came together with Lacy in the turn-of-the-century East Bay to build what would become a national movement for youth media justice, and later, media justice—who together made space for young people to “reclaim the narrative” from the powers-that-were, and tell their own stories on their own terms.
“The way we think about our purpose is to keep people connected, represented, and free,” says Malkia Devich Cyril, an activist and organizer who co-founded the Youth Media Council, which is also featured in the exhibition, in 2001. Cyril is currently the executive director (and co-founder) of the Oakland-based MediaJustice, which grew out of the Youth Media Council.
Devich Cyril, whose mother was a Black Panther, grew up in Brooklyn, but migrated to California in the mid-80s, and found that communication channels were being warped, and used for violent ends: The Central Park Five were wrongly accused of raping a woman in New York in 1989. The California Three Strikes law, which upped penalties for those previously convicted of crimes and had a disproportionate impact on people of color went into effect in 1994; so did then-President Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill, whose impact on cycles of incarceration still linger.
Around this time, a riot among Oakland youth after a June festival at Lake Merritt sent hordes of police officers arriving in force to break it up. “Police treated us like animals, and that’s how we reacted,” said one young man, reflecting on the day in Lacy’s 1995 Oakland Projects documentary Youth, Cops and Videotape. “Police have to show respect to youth, and youth have to respect police,” an officer responded. “If you’re going to party out here, that’s fine, but don’t disturb other people.” The interaction made national media; videos of teens running around and clashing with cops aired on TV.
At the time, Devich Cyril was working on the advocacy magazine Race File, and organizing to get young people of color’s voices in the news. But the pebbles Race File was throwing weren’t making big enough dents.
“Meanwhile, newspapers are disappearing; meanwhile journalists are disappearing, and journalists of color are being fired right and left,” Devich Cyril said. “Here I am, feeling like I’m treading water trying to get these voices heard in an environment where there’s no mechanism to be heard, and I realized I wanted to work on the mechanisms not the narratives. I wanted to deal with the machine.”
That’s how the Youth Media Council was born in 2001. A project out of the media activism group We Interrupt This Message, the Youth Media Council was made up of youth volunteers who’d scour newspapers from across the Bay Area for representations of other youth of color. They’d choose a period that was especially significant with regard to youth policy—like during the debate around California Proposition 21, a measure that increased penalties for youths who committed crimes—determine how the press’s rhetoric influenced policy-making, and try to meet with journalists themselves.
What they found is that as crime dropped, coverage of crime was increasing, and perceptions were getting skewed: More than half of Californians polled in 1996 believed juveniles were responsible for most violent crimes, when the real number was 13 percent. “Despite the efforts of news stations like KTVU Channel 2 to reduce the hype surrounding stories about school shootings and crime in general, crime coverage continues to dominate local news coverage of youth,” a 2002 Youth Media Council report read.
Their organizing came to a head in 2005 with the Unplug Clear Channel Campaign. Clear Channel was a local network of radio stations, which had a monopoly over the Bay Area airwaves in 2002—it ran hip hop stations popular with young people on some channels, and shows hosted by right-wing shock jocks on others. The Youth Media Council challenged Clear Channel’s ownership licenses, and worked to get them revoked in an effort to stop biased coverage. Clear Channel never lost its licenses, says Devich Cyril, but the council did successfully get local news back on some channels, which they used to organize against a pro-policing measure in Oakland.
Lacy and Devich Cyril were working against the same systems: A media ecosystem that they thought cast youth of color as villains, and failed to honor their voices. A few years after teens gathered on rooftops in one part of Oakland, hoping to seize the narrative themselves, and work against it; Devich Cyril worked with the Youth Media Council to hold the media accountable for the messages they were already disseminating.
Over the course of years, Holland said it was striking to see that some police officers who had participated in Youth, Cops, and Videotape changed their attitudes by the time they sat on roofs in Code 33. “It was really interesting to see how the process of getting to know people as people can really support an understanding that can shift people,” she said. “It’s not like magic fairy dust, but at least it provides an entry into not just being so dismissive.”
Devich Cyril said their organization won victories, too, but they were narrow and limited. “What they did, though, was help us understand that the production of culture is a machine,” said Devich Cyril. “It helped us understand that behind all these narratives there are laws, regulatory agencies, there are decision makers.” The Youth Media Council decided they could no longer only focus on young people, or the Bay Area, or California, and in the mid-2000s, expanded their mission to a broader media justice movement, focused nationwide.
As media migrates online, technology has become the central focus of Devich Cyril’s organizing work. Disruptive technology like social media has changed the way stories are told, and given the power to tell them in more people’s hands. But the same tools have enabled others to disrupt social movements, Devich Cyril says, and fracture the communities built online.
“Those technologies follow the same dynamics of ownership as the news media did in the 20th century,” says Devich Cyril. “The 20th century consolidation of news media and the 21st century consolidation of technology all follows the same patterns: exclusion, excessive hierarchy, and profit motive. All of these things create the legal and financial motivation for exclusion.”
Lacy has continued to take on community-facing, dialogue-starting art projects, like a participatory mapping project that highlights violence against women in Los Angeles, and a series of “kitchen table conversations” between older women activists—parts of which are included in the San Francisco Modern Art Museum segment of We Are Here.
At Studio Pathways, Holland teaches young people about social justice issues through art. And at MediaJustice, Devich Cyril and colleagues focus on increasing internet freedom, stopping the spread of facial recognition technology, and stopping high-tech monitoring and policing.
Today, it’s not enough to focus on Clear Channel or the local police department, says Cyril, though of course police violence against youth of color has not ended: It’s Facebook and Amazon and Smart City vendors that are creating new tools for oppression, Devich Cyril says. The machine is still active, those that rage against it are still fighting—and their roots are still firmly planted in California.
“We are here in the Bay Area where this technology is being developed,” said Devich Cyril. “And because we’re here, we have an absolute responsibility not only to the poorest people in this community, but to the people all over the country … to hold these companies accountable, and to limit their impact on the rest of the world.”
Yerba Buena’s exhibit links these local histories and present realities deftly. In one room, videos from the Oakland Projects play on hanging screens; in another, short clips starring the new faces of Oakland’s media justice movement, who speak about social media, the role of art in politics; and the changing cityscape. A map of San Francisco drawn by local middle schoolers highlights the landmarks and memories that line their path to school.
“So much has changed, and so much has remained the same,” added Holland. “But there’s a shift in understanding the systemic nature of these issues.”