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Making Black Lives Matter

A group of Bay Area families has been fighting back by building a network of those directly affected by police violence.

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"They had the spirit to protest, but not a lot of experience," she continued, referring to the people in Ferguson. "We showed them how to use milk to flush their eyes of pepper spray, and how to protect themselves from teargas with a damp bandana."

Smith-Downs learned those and other techniques of self-defense and first-aid from Sharena Thomas and Lesley Phillips of the Oakland People's Community Medics. "I love Oakland because they always have supported me," she said. "The only reason I know how to make things happen in Stockton is because I came out here to Oakland and learned."

Smith-Downs credits Cephus Johnson, his partner Beatrice X Dale, activists such as Anita Wills, Sharena Thomas, and Mesha Irizarry, among many other people with deep ties to Oakland, with helping her make it through the pain, and for showing her how to fight back.

On April 14, she and her husband rented a bus and brought a few allies from Oakland to Stockton where they marched on the Sherwood Mall on Stockton's north, more affluent side. "We didn't stop business as usual, but we slowed it down," she said.

Then they gathered in a park to share a meal together. "Every time we do a protest we do a community feed," explained Carey Downs, referring to the practice of inviting anyone, especially the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable to eat with them.


Denika Chatman also organizes community meals as part of her campaign against police violence. For several years now, she and a small but dedicated circle of friends have prepared sandwiches and passed out hygiene kits filled with toothbrushes, socks, vitamins, sanitary napkins, and other necessities to anyone who needs them in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood.

I met up with Chatman and half a dozen other activists on a recent Sunday at the corner of 3rd Street and Oakdale Avenue in Bayview. As they pulled supplies from the trunk of a car and set up folding tables facing a busy plaza, a young man from a nearby church arrived to unload bottles of water from a minivan. He gave Chatman a gift — a white orchid in full bloom — from a local pastor. About half an hour into the event, three SFPD officers in a patrol car rolled up and pulled into the small plaza across the street. The cops parked in the middle of a pedestrian walkway, and without exiting their vehicle, looked over the virtually all-Black group of men and women sitting on the benches and walking by on the sidewalk. This spot is the public epicenter of Bayview, San Francisco's last neighborhood with a prominent Black presence. The city's overall Black population plummeted by 20 percent between 2000 and 2013, as many African-American households were pushed out because of rising rents and home prices, relocating to cities like Vallejo, where Chatman now lives.

Chatman and her friends continued to pack paper bags with food and medicine, unruffled by the police eyes focused on them. Mesha Irizarry, who had shown up to help, gave Chatman a hug and took a bundle of brown paper bags and a black pen over to a makeshift table: the flat top of a garbage can. She wrote, "Rest in Power, Kenny" on each bag. Jeremy Miller, who works with Irizarry through the Idriss Stelley Foundation, began to hand out fliers for a Malcolm X Day event. At about 12:30 p.m., two-dozen tired and hungry people had gathered, waiting by the table and telling stories and jokes to each other. The police eventually drove away. Chatman had the group hold hands in a giant ring and say a prayer. Then they gave away the food and kits; first come, first served. The supplies run out in fifteen minutes, as children, the elderly, mothers, and young men crowded the table, hungry and thankful.

On July 16, 2011, Chatman's son Kenneth Harding, Jr. was riding a MUNI train when several San Francisco police officers conducting fare checks chased him off. Police say Harding exchanged gunfire with them as he fled. He died at 3rd and Palou, about a block from the spot where Chatman now sets up her table of food and goods. Chatman was living in Seattle when police killed her son. Video of his death, showing Harding writhing on the ground, blood gushing from bullet wounds, circulated on the internet. What outraged many was the apparent lack of medical care or comfort offered to him in his dying moments.

"My life was good back then," said Chatman, in an interview, referring to the year before she lost her son. "I felt like I had made it. You couldn't have told me that this was going to knock at my door." After Kenneth's death, she flew to San Francisco and has since become another key member of the Bay Area's movement against police violence. Oscar Grant's uncle Cephus Johnson reached out to her. "Right when I got here, they were standing there with their arms open," said Chatman about Grant's family. "They had been there by my side with my attorneys throughout my case."