Ali (left) and Brooks (right) spoke about the co-opting of Black Liberation movements. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

*This article contains references to sexual assault.

“All power to the people!” chanted Bilal Mafundi Ali to an enthusiastic audience that echoed the call. 

About 55 students gathered at the Stevenson Event Center on Nov. 14 to listen to panelists Cat Brooks and Ali discuss transformative justice and prison abolition. 

The night opened with a statement from a member of the American Indian Resource Center, acknowledging that UC Santa Cruz rests on the territory of the Uypi Tribe of the Awaswas Nation.

Rachel Freeman-Cohen, Student Union Assembly (SUA) Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, co-organized the event with Black Student Union (BSU) representative Zaire Pickett.

“Transformative justice is a lifestyle,” Freeman-Cohen said. “It’s the way I navigate, not just this university, but the world.”

Freeman-Cohen defines transformative justice as organizing from the bottom and within, working its way upward and outward. Organizing from lived experience provides the fire and passion necessary to sustain the movement for transformative justice, she said.

Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. Brooks and Ali seek to abolish police and prisons and implement alternative models of transformative justice.

The panelists’ activism stems from their experiences with Blackness in the United States. Through an unapologetic dialogue, they engaged with each other’s stories and traced their paths to becoming organizers. 

Aversive experiences with law enforcement molded Brooks throughout her childhood. 

“My father had a substance abuse problem and dealt with a lot of harassment from law enforcement,” Brooks said to the audience, “so I spent a lot of my time watching him be brutalized. […] The first time I was ever threatened with sexual assault was by a white cop, and so all these things are shaping me.” 

Brooks stressed the importance of divesting from law enforcement and investing in substance abuse prevention and mental health services.

Through anger, passion and laughter, Brooks and Ali shared stories about what it means to be Black American activists. 

“You want power, don’t you? First you got to understand what power means,” Ali said to a room of snaps and claps. 

Ali was introduced to the Black Panther Party while in prison from 1993 to 1996. In prison, Ali studied and educated young men on the history of Black activism. At one point, Ali was subjected to an inmate evaluation where he sat at a table across from a deputy, counselors, captains, lieutenants and officers, all of whom were white. 

“‘Are y’all about to lynch me?’” Ali said to the audience, reliving the moment. “They said, ‘This is not funny.’ I said, ‘I’m serious.’”

The array of interrogators had confronted Ali for organizing a coalition against police abuse within the prison, and offered him a warning. 

Ali continued holding secret study groups until he was transferred to another prison.

“I was telling them the reason they were really in prison,” Ali told the audience. “If you’re fighting injustice, racism, patriarchy or gender bias, […] you will be labeled a terrorist. And once you’ve been labeled, your life is at stake.”

In light of recent white supremacist messages at UCSC, Brooks asked about security prior to the event, but the BSU and SUA didn’t want a police presence. She then asked about security without police, stressing the importance of alternative models. 

At the end of the event, attendees walked her out to her car.

“I used to be adamant that I was not an abolitionist,” Brooks said to the audience. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I used to be like ‘I don’t care about people locked in jail, don’t feed them.”

As she got older and educated herself, her views began to change. 

“I got to a place to say, ‘they are still people, and there’s a better way to do it than locking them in a cage 24 hours a day without access to food,” Brooks said to the audience. “[…] There’s no healing in that, there’s no restoration in that.”