Tony Coleman at the B4L Shop, West Oakland.
(Editor's note: Our continuing series that looks at Oakland Local's picks for people/organizations to watch in 2011. See all profiles in this series.)
If there was an all-star team for community organizers, Tony Coleman would be a front-runner for Oakland's MVP for 2010.
Despite maintaining a low-profile -- Coleman is much more likely to be wearing a hoodie than a business suit and gators, and you won't find him cozying up to elected officials in luxury boxes during A's games or schmoozing at $1000-per-plate galas -- he's been quite visible where it really counts, in the streets. Refreshingly down to earth, he nevertheless speaks, and takes action, with drive, fervor and an earnest commitment to the causes he's passionate about: justice, accountability, unity, economic sustainability, anti-violence and community empowerment.
Coleman's list of accomplishments covers a large chunk of Oakland's social justice agenda these past 12 months. He's simply been Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to on-the-ground organizing. "I was busy," he admits.
"The more crisis type stuff that happens in the community, it also creates a lot of opportunity" Coleman explains. "Even out of the hardships and a lot of different things, there's still a lot of opportunity within that. Because it brings people together, to try to come up with some solutions."
However, he adds, "It's a task, because you have to pull people together, and you have to manage all these different dynamics and personalities ... It's also a lot of work, and it wears on you emotionally. And especially, when you're dealing with such issues as Oscar Grant and it's family (involved) being hurt and devastated ...and you're with them, and you're helping them through this process of holding the officers accountable, but also on a genuine level of just being someone they can talk to."
Last January, Coleman organized a demonstration to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Oscar Grant's death, He remained tirelessly and doggedly involved in the justice for Grant movement all throughout the somewhat tumultuous peaks and valleys which impacted Oakland -- and drew national attention -- all the way up until Johannes Mehserle's sentencing this past November. During this process, Coleman interacted with church groups, City Council members, city government officials, veteran activists, newbie activists, regular neighborhood folks and young people.
When the Mehserle verdict was announced in July, Coleman was front and center, leading the unofficial demonstration at 14th and Broadway, organizing a grassroots coalition and providing a space for people the same age as Grant to be heard.
"Our thing was a speak-out," he says. "The goal was to be able to let the young people vent, be able to share and be able to talk." There was a competing event at Ogawa plaza organized by church groups and city government, but as it turned out, "a lot of people didn't even go to their event," Coleman recalls. "they sent some of their representatives to us, like, ‘hey, we got all this sound equipment, why don't you come over there, bring your crowd. We thought about it for a minute, and we were like, 'nah, we cool right here.'"
Coleman notes that although the evening eventually turned contentious, the speak-out was successful and defused, rather than inflamed, tensions.
"We left when we said we was gonna leave and that's what we planned to do," he says.
On Memorial Day weekend 2010, Coleman organized the third annual Bikes 4 Life Peace Ride, which attracted almost 300 cyclists and turned into an impromptu candlelight vigil for Grant at the site of his death, the Fruitvale BART station.
In October, days before the announcement of Mehserle's sentencing, he was one of the lead organizers in a well-attended ILWU-sponsored demonstration against police brutality. Moreover, he's been actively involved in the ongoing issue of gang injunctions, working to inform, educate and empower members of the community named in the injunctions of their rights as well as in liaison with the Siegel & Siegel law firm to deliver legal advice.
Somehow, he also found the energy to operate the Bikes 4 Life retail store, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. B4L furthers and rounds out the mission of Coleman's nonprofit, OneFam, by creating green jobs for the community, supporting environmental awareness and alternate transportation and giving West Oakland a convenient base for community organizing efforts. In the past year, he's expanded his stock of quality bikes at B4L and currently carries everything from fixed-gear track bikes to mountain bikes to urban tricycles to cruisers to BMX to road and cyclocross models.
In addition to the Peace Ride, Coleman also was behind Bikestock -- a two-day, free music festival in West Oakland, which also included a bike competition. The event, co-promoted by Revolution Cafe, brought together longtime residents and young urban kids with newly-relocated folks and the hipster/punk rock community. It was an example of Coleman putting his money where his mouth was, not just speaking of diversity in the community, but actively furthering the concept.
Coleman's no newbie in activist circles. His resume includes co-founding the Third Eye Movement, which led the campaign against Proposition 21 a decade ago, and partnering with Youth Media Council to press for community accountability from corporate radio conglomerate Clear Channel. He's comfortable playing David against Goliath-like entities and unafraid to speak truth to power -- face-to-face, if necessary.
"We all have our stuff, there's things on both sides," he concedes. "But if we ever have an opportunity to come together, I'm gonna show up."
At the end of the day, he says, "we wanna be able to say, we came together, and we held the powers that be accountable, and this is what came out of it."
In 2011, as issues like police accountability, social justice and urban environmental awareness continue to be on the minds of many in the Oakland community, look for Coleman to be where he always is - in the thick of things.
Read more profiles in our 11 for 11 series.