Long Live Oakland

Reports of the city's demise are greatly exaggerated—two young activists fight for its future

Earlier this year, as gentrifiers enjoyed cocktails on Telegraph Ave, two young Bay Area natives lost their lives to gun violence a mere five blocks away. The physical proximity yet social distance between them reflects the changing landscape of Oakland, California— a place that is actively fighting against the tides of displacement and the encroaching greed of Silicon Valley. You could say it’s a tale of two cities, one where natives nurture the place they know as home, and one where settlers consume the culture with no awareness of the people who gave birth to it.

According to the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project, more than half of low-income households in predominant communities of color are at risk of or experiencing the pressures of gentrification.

Oakland, built from redlining and stolen Ohlone land, has a heart forged by generations of multicultural residents who sought refuge within city limits. It’s a heart that can’t be easily stripped away by minimalist store fronts or low-rise condos. Reflected by the liberation work of the Black Panther Party, people from Oakland are unafraid to fight against the forces that want them gone. This is embodied within a new generation of residents that actively seek to educate and organize.

Blake Simons and Delency Parham are showing up for Oakland through the People’s Breakfast Program, a monthly mobilization effort that provides food and hygiene packs to those experiencing homelessness in West Oakland. This program is magnified by the Hella Black podcast, an accessible black political education podcast, that has garnered more than 187,000 plays on SoundCloud over the span of 20 episodes. Homegrown initiatives like this help Oakland to still feel like it’s Oakland and combat the isolating effects of “urban renewal.”

Parham and Simons are sons of the East Bay, born and raised. They come from a line of Black Panthers, and their families have made a tradition of providing services to locals. Empowering and educating is within their blood, and it’s a defining factor of what makes their work in Oakland authentic. They’re not in the field organizing for appearances or fame, but out of love for those ignored by the local government and the gentrifiers who contribute to the increasing homelessness epidemic in the East Bay.
The increased migration of new residents into Oakland complicates the question of “Who can call Oakland home?” Has Oakland become the home of the person who calls the police on black residents barbequing at Lake Merritt and destroys the belongings of a black resident experiencing homelessness? Or is it the home of residents who get stupid and go dumb to Mac Dre in the Bay?

There are responsibilities associated with being part of a community, and it’s a privilege to enter as an outsider and recklessly, capriciously change the face of it. This privilege has metastasized in major metropolitan cities throughout the United States and is reminiscent of the country’s desire for control of space at the expense of black bodies. Being a part of a neighborhood means providing services to individuals ignored by the public eye and showing up for those on the margins of society.

“For me, it’s about community, when I see houseless people in West Oakland, when I see houseless people struggling, I’m like I gotta do something,” Simons tells Playboy about their inspiration for the breakfast program.

Inspired by the People’s Free Food Program of the Black Panther Party, Parham and Simons focused on providing free breakfast to address one of the basic needs of those experiencing homeless in Oakland. To date, the program has fed and provided hygiene packets to more than 2000 people, mobilized to stop the city’s eviction of homeless encampments, and hosted a benefit concert headlined by ALLBLACK, the best up-and-coming rapper in the Bay Area. The program’s successes are reflective of the support from residents who have donated and volunteered to birth People’s Breakfast Oakland into existence.

“But it is dope to see the community responding to that, especially to have an artist like ALLBLACK, you see in all his posts, it's hella dope. And then to have people buy T-shirts, and we always have people pulling up to the breakfast programs. I don't know, I feel like people want to do these things and just don't necessarily know how to do them, or they're afraid to take the first step. And I'm glad that we can motivate folks to get involved,” says Parham.
Has Oakland become the home of the person who calls the police on black residents barbequing at Lake Merritt? Or is it the home of the residents who get stupid and go dumb to Mac Dre in the Bay?
Frustrated by the representation of black people in media, and outsider critiques of issues affecting black Americans, Parham and Simons created the Hella Black podcast to disseminate political education through an accessible medium.

“We're having conversations just like how we would talk, we just got a microphone. You feel me? Breaking it down the same way we would be speaking to each other,” Simons tells Playboy. Conversations between Parham and Simons originate from a place of authenticity and vulnerability between the two as they discuss mental health, masculinity, neoliberalism and consent, and they have reached listeners in more than 50 countries.

Although their podcast has exponentially grown, Parham and Simons have experienced challenges in trying to maintain the platform—such as securing studio time and recording equipment, as well as sacrificing the labor involved in producing quality content for listeners after an eight-to-ten-hour workday. They have looked toward listeners to support their podcast through Patreon, a platform that allows people to support businesses through a monthly subscription.

“We're really committed because we're seeing a lot of people committed in us, too. I think for me when I see people committed in what we're doing, and people rocking with what we're doing I'm like, all right, I've got a responsibility,” says Simons.

“I just hope that we can continue to, you know, spark minds, offer different perspectives, perspectives that don’t support patriarchy and white supremacy […] I’m hoping that through the work we do, like with the podcast, we can see like a cultural shift,” Parham tells Playboy about the hopes for the People’s Breakfast program and Hella Black podcast. They have plans to expand their platforms to provide more services such as free STD testing and workshops on toxic masculinity. Their goal is to continue showing love to the community that supported them.

“I think revolution is the highest form of love because you're affirming yourself, you're affirming your humanity, and you're affirming your love for your people and you're willing to do anything for your people, you know what I'm saying, in accordance to liberation,” says Simons.
Revolution is the highest form of love because you're affirming yourself, you're affirming your humanity, and you're affirming your love for your people and you're willing to do anything for your people.
Revolution and Oakland are engraved in the American consciousness as the nation’s greatest fear: a collective of black residents who are willing to protect their way of life by any means necessary. The town has never let Parham and Simons down, so they show up, they support, and they party. The impact of their work in Oakland is being heard worldwide, and check #PeoplesBreakfastOakland or #HellaBlackPodcast on Twitter to see the inspired actions that are occurring in neighborhoods across the nation.

They’re in the process of building an accessible movement for the people, by the people. One that is not funded by corporate partners, but through natives. One that is centered on the improvement of living conditions for those experiencing homelessness. Most importantly, one of revolutionary love and compassion, in a time where young black organizers are once again being targeted by the federal government.

In the shadow of Silicon Valley, Oakland stands tall, not because of the Golden State Warriors’ back-to-back championship wins, but because of people like Blake Simons and Delency Parham who contribute to the spirit of the Oakland each day, without thanks. Oakland is its people, its music, its food—hell, even the dawg water, and that’s why it's worth protecting.

There is no place in the world like the Bay. People from here are hella different, and it’s a beautiful thing to see, from young black boys riding their bikes down Broadway to families barbecuing at Lake Merritt or eating tacos from Sinaloa. True Bay culture can’t be commodified or gentrified, and that’s a fact. That’s because a gentrifier can’t show love, if all their actions are of violence.

As gentrifiers sat for brunch, Blake Simons and Delency Parham hosted a free breakfast program, 13 blocks away, and the distance between them answers the question of who is really from the Bay. Their everyday acts of service are felt by those in the town and worldwide. They are the best parts of the Black Panther Party, and Oakland is grateful for them.

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