The tattoos on both forearms spell out “Black Brilliance” and if the ink doesn’t tell you what she’s about from the start, her name certainly will.
“It means ‘woman made of steel,’” Asantewaa Boykin explains of the moniker she was given by an elder.
Ms. Boykin is the co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), an organization “committed to the eradication of police terror in all of its forms.” At 38 years old, she balances militancy with motherhood and being a wife. She’s been in nursing for 15 years, largely working in acute inpatient psychiatry, and is a founding member of the Capitol City Black Nurses Association.
“I’m a Cancer, so I’m a nurturer by nature,” Ms. Boykin shared.
She’s currently on the frontlines of COVID-19 response, serving in UC Davis Medical Center’s emergency room; work she calls both stressful and satisfying.
“We get to see all our public health crises playing out in that one space,” she shared. “Everything from homelessness to evictions and now the way COVID disproportionately affects Black folks.”
Ms. Boykin first created the Onyx Organizing Committee in Oakland, along with fellow activists Cat Brooks and Tur-Ha Ak, in the aftermath of Oscar Grant being fatally shot by a BART police officer in 2009.
“What we found we had the ability to do was to get hella people in the streets as a reaction to when the police harmed us and that was whether it was someone in Oakland or someone in New York or Florida. We started to ask ourselves, ‘We can do this, but now what?’”
Today, the APTP teaches community members to do their own investigations into misconduct. They also provide support for families who’ve lost loved ones to police-involved shootings.
“We don’t really talk about what happens to folks’ family members after. A lot of folks get suicidal after and no one talks about that. We’re the folks that are there in those times, asking ‘how can we help?’” Ms. Boykin shared.
When the group noticed a trend of people getting killed while in the midst of a mental health crisis, the APTP joined with others to create a mobile response team called Mental Health First.
“We used to just do it for ourselves because we didn’t call the police, so when folks had issues we just did what we had to do to take care of that person. Then it was ‘how do we make that available to the larger community?’” she said.
The APTP has gotten calls from across the country from entities asking how they do it. Many ask for their ideas, she says, but few actually implement change.
“At first it was a cop and a social worker. Now they’re sending a cop, a social worker and an EMT, but the whole point is how do we not send armed White men into communities of color to deal with something that doesn’t need a weapon.”
Some argue that the mentally ill pose potential danger and officers continue to justify killing them by saying they feared for their lives. Ms. Boykin isn’t buying it.
“I worked in mental health facilities for a decade. I’ve been assaulted, I’ve been hit, but I have never been harmed in a way that I could not heal from. Essentially folks are not dangerous,” she said. “They need space. They need food. They need clothing. They need understanding. They may need some quiet and maybe even some medication, but they don’t need to be killed.”
Many point to seemingly different procedures when it comes to police response with people of color. White people get interventions and de-escalation tactics that people of color don’t, activists argue.
“I could be sitting in my car with my hands on the steering wheel and if I flinch, I’m a threat, versus if I was White and got out and took a swing at you,” Ms. Boykin said.
“There was an incident where a White man up in the Oakland Hills was taking shots at the police, real live rounds, bullets, and he went to jail. Meaning he survived. Meanwhile Oscar Grant was murdered in handcuffs for having a loud mouth essentially, because that loudmouth was “threatening.” Not because it was actually threatening, but because he had a ‘certain amount of melanin.’
“There was a brother, I think it was Philadelphia,” she continued. “Handcuffed, bag over his head and naked. Shot and killed. A couple of weeks later, a White man with a knife, literally taking swipes with a machete towards the police, and he was arrested.”
Ms. Boykin’s work as a nurse and an activist continues to merge.
“One space that’s not being talked about in a way that’s robust is how policing, the prison industrial complex and White supremacy is infiltrating our healthcare system,” she shared.
“Any doctor’s office you go into, there might be a metal detector or security guard. And for folks, especially folks like us who have inherently negative relationships with police and law enforcement, how does that affect the way that we are getting healthcare? How are we deciding which patients get restrained? I am a nurse and I’ve grown extremely tired of watching my people being mistreated.”
Ms. Boykin says she’s tried to quit several times, but feels called to activism.
“I’ve just kind of given myself over to it and just accepted that this is part of my path,” she says.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE