Story by Brooke Creer
Foreword by Nissa Tzun
Photos courtesy of Akiko Cooks
Foreword: This feature of Akiko Cooks was completed last year, but due to our focus on the Nevada State Legislature Special Session we held off of publishing it. Now as we are in the beginning of a new legislative session it is appropriate and timely to release this story, as bringing light to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has continued to ravage the prison population with little support from system players is critical for legislators to pay attention to. Also, it is critical at this time to draw attention to Akiko's important work with her organization No Racism in Schools #1865 as we face the continuous threat of white supremacy in our communities, especially Black communities. Brooke Creer highlights community leaders like Akiko Cooks who is continuing her legacy of dedicating time and efforts to help the community, as passed down by her father, a member of the Black Panther Party.
COVID-19 has left many inconvenienced, jobless, and in turmoil as lockdown and safety measures are passed. However, the United States prison system is a different story - as many prisons have not been properly following social distancing procedures. Amidst the struggle many individuals and organizations like the Mass Liberation Project have been fighting to release some of the prisoners in Nevada.
Akiko Cooks, one of the activists working to help release prisoners, has been working to better the lives of others since she was a child. She considers her activism a blood right: her father was a first-generation member of the Black Panther Party.
“It was a normal way of life for me. We have always been the family to give and take care of our community,” Cooks explained. “I remember filling [500 bags a month] for the community… with food and stuff. I didn’t realize that those things stuck with me until I actually became an adult and started to work in the community a lot.”
Community advocacy and speaking up for the underdog became a natural habit for Cooks because of her upbringing. Yet the brutal police beating of Rodney King in 1991 really stuck with Cooks and reminded her that she needed to speak out against police violence and racial profiling.
“That was actual police violence that was televised, and people were able to see it on a broader scale,” Cooks noted. “We have always known that police brutality ran rampant through Black and Brown communities. But it just wasn’t seen. Now we have phones and recorders to catch it.”
A Black Panther Party meeting at Green Meadows Park, circa 1980. Kato Cooks holds his daughter, Akiko Cooks.
The unjust beating of Rodney King combined with Cooks’ activist childhood led to her speaking out for those in the community who needed it. However, one of Cooks’ most effective projects, No Racism in Schools #1865, started from an event that hit closer to home.
On March 19, 2019, Cook’s son and eight other Black boys were targeted to be shot and killed at Arbor View High School where they were students. An Instagram page was created by two white students where they posted photos of random Black students with captions such as, “cleanse the hallways of n*ggers” and “Columbine 2 but only killing the f*cking n*ggers.” They also included the hashtag, “#nomoren*ggers” on their posts. The Instagram page was left up for three days before the school notified parents and managed to get it taken down.
“None of our sons knew [the boys], none of our sons knew each other. [They were targeted] for no reasons besides, they were Black. They basically threatened to kill our sons and to kill every Black child at Arbor View,” Cooks said. “When I [first] looked at it, it took me, what felt like hours, but was maybe two minutes to really grasp what I was looking at. Then immediately, I said, there’s going to be a school shooting tomorrow and they’re going to kill our kids.”
However, upon calling the Clark County School District (CCDC) Police Department dispatch, Cooks was shocked to find that they knew about it and were not planning on closing the school due to lack of proof that any violence would actually occur. Cooks decided to take matters into her own hands and made several posts about the page. In the morning, the posts had gone viral and news channels as well as parents had shared it across the country.
“I decided the [kids] wouldn’t get away with it. I decided that Arbor View and Clark County School District was going to be held responsible for the racism that breeds in their schools,” Cooks said.
Before the incident, Cooks and her children had not personally had an issue with the CCSD but after the event more and more racist events began to be uncovered such as students’ complaints about other kids adorning their cars with Confederate flags.
“Nobody was being the voice for our students,” Cooks said.
That is when Cooks and the mothers of the other black children posted on the page, now known as the “Arbor View 9” created No Racism in Schools #1865, - the 1865 representing when slavery was abolished. They have started a fight to stop racism in schools across the Valley and according to the website look to “promote proactive educational initiatives, community events, lobbying, parental involvement, and dialogue among diverse groups in all community sectors.” The group has also created a list of demands including, “terrorist students should be expelled from CCSD,” “monitoring of social media for enrolled students by CCSD Police with assistance of parental volunteers,” “improve response times for all Tip Line calls, with parents notified within 24 hours of an incident,” and “mandatory ethnic studies and cultural diversity training for all CCSD teachers, administrators, trustees, and staff.”
Consuela Nicole, Akiko Cooks, and Jshauntae Marshall walk hand-in-hand outside the Family Courts and Service Center at the conclusion of a plea hearing on Friday, April 5, 2019, in Las Vegas. All three are parents of the victims of two Arbor View High School suspects, 15 and 16, accused of a hate crimes and and making terroristic threats. Photo courtesy of No Racism in Schools #1865 and the Las Vegas Review Journal
“If a family contacts us, because many do, we would show up to the school to advocate for the family. We talk to the administrator and talk to the equity and diversity department because we’ve built a relationship with him,” Cooks explained. “What happens is the administrators and the school district officials don’t talk to our parents in layman’s terms, they talk in school district terms, and a lot of people don’t understand what they’re saying. We translate for them so that they understand, and we look to make sure none of our students’ rights are being violated.”
Cooks’ organization also looks at the disproportionate numbers in suspensions and expulsions for Black and Brown children.
“They are suspending and expelling our kids for things that white kids aren’t being expelled for, as well as RPC’s,” Cooks said.
After COVID-19 became a global issue, however, Cooks’ work began to shift towards the prison systems in Nevada through her work with the Mass Liberation Project, “a de-carceration initiative at Progressive Leadership of Nevada, focused on ending mass incarceration in Nevada and beyond," as stated on their website. Cooks work with schools has not stopped, though, as No Racism in Schools #1865’s Facebook page is still very active. Yet, as COVID-19 spread and continues to spread, Cooks knew the urgency of helping the disproportionate amount of Black and Brown bodies that are in prison.
“It started out as the Black Mama Bailout, something that has been done since 2017 from National Bailout, an organization that had a coalition of other organizations come together to bail Black mothers out of jail for Mother’s Day,” Cooks explained.
After the reconvening meeting in February, the group began to gear up for the Black Mama Bailout but then COVID-19 began to strike on a large scale.
“We said, okay, we can’t just bail Black mothers out, we just got to bail Black people out because they’re sitting in Clark County Detention Center (CCDC), which is the jail here,” Cooks said.
The Mass Liberation Project has managed to bail out four Black women so far and are working to bail out even more. They even managed to place one of the women who did not have a home in housing.
CCDC was originally not transparent on what their plans are amidst this pandemic, not even testing at first. Cooks noted she was worried at first that if they weren’t testing they were potentially releasing infected people. However, people in jails and prisons have begun getting tested.
The group is now submitting motions to have the jails release more people, especially due to their grim state of them. Due to overcrowding, they are unable to follow the six-feet apart guidelines for COVID-19. As Cooks explained, there are about 3,000 people just waiting for their court dates. 1,000 people are just waiting for bail or they are unable to afford it. 307 people have technical probations, meaning they just violated their probation, while many others just have minor charges such as traffic warrants.
“Under the circumstances, they very well could be bailed out and at home with their families and quarantined or sheltered in place, at home. They can’t shelter in place in jail. It’s not possible, you can’t stay six-feet away from someone in a dorm,” Cooks said. “It’s just like a sloughing pot just of bacteria and COVID and whatever else is in there. So, we started looking at bailing out Black people and people who have compromised immune systems.”
The group is still communicating regularly through Zoom meetings throughout the week and have even sent out a list of demands to the Supreme Court. Similar to her work with the school system, Cooks allows those in the prison system to create their own demands and the Mass Liberation Project works to compile them all. The Supreme Court has already released several hundred people across the country, and although Cooks believes Nevada is behind, she also believes they will catch up.
“I think they thought that they were going to hold this off, like we were going to go away. And we are not. So, they’ll catch up,” Cooks said.
Cooks is still focusing on bailing out moms as well, but just has widened the spectrum on who she is helping. However, Cooks also believes that the police have a role in helping Black and Brown communities, especially during this pandemic.
“I think it’s hard for them to do, but they need to just be decent human beings. For most police that’s very hard for them because once you are sworn in, you’re now blue. You follow policy and procedure; you don’t have a moral code. You’ll shoot somebody and still handcuff them, they’ll treat people less like human beings and criminalize being poor and being homeless,” Cooks said. “A lot of people didn’t pay a traffic ticket because they had to choose, ‘do I pay my traffic ticket or do I pay my rent and feed myself’ and then they end up going to jail for that. Then your life falls apart because you’re sitting in jail for two weeks which means by this time you probably lost your job, your house, your children.”
Cooks went on to say, “There’s no moral thought behind that. There’s no moral code, there’s just blue code. So, I think one thing police need to do is, which I don’t know if they’re capable of or if it’s capable of happening, having some type of moral code and just compassion for humans.”
Cooks doesn’t believe that policing can ever stray away from its roots of being slave catcher patrols. They have “taken off their hoods and replaced them with badges.” In fact, she believes that much like the Black Panther Party or even the Nation of Islam, communities can police themselves. However, as the country is far from legally allowing its own citizens to protect themselves from both crime and police brutality, Cooks does have ideas to hold police accountable.
“I think that internal affairs should not be a part of the police department. Yeah, I think that internal affairs should be an outside entity that handles those cases, because how are you going to have the police investigate themselves?” Cooks said. “When they commit crimes, they also shouldn’t just be given any kind of leniency just because they were an officer of the law. Especially if they kill a Black or Brown person like they might be found guilty, but when they get into wherever they’re going, they’re still protected. I don’t think they should be in segregated housing. They’re a criminal like anyone else.”
Cooks does believe that there is a future beyond police brutality, beyond racism in our country and that it starts with members of the community getting involved. Whether it be to write letters or to show up to events groups like Mass Liberation Project sponsor. As far as school systems go, Cooks believes that just being aware and showing up to school board meetings is the first step. Overall, being present is the most important part when it comes to mass change.
“Just be present in using your voice. The more bodies, the more voices, the more pressure comes with that. The more awareness,” Cooks said.