When a video of activist Keiajah “KJ” Brooks verbally eviscerating the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners went viral in October of this year, she was still relatively new to activism—in fact, 20-year-old Brooks has only been organizing for about six months, as of December. After attending a protest in Kansas City over the police killing of George Floyd, she and a group of other young Black people have made it their mission to be a thorn in the side of the Kansas City Police Department. So for Brooks, the short statement that gained her an international audience was simply an average Tuesday.
After a summer filled with thousands of protests across the nation against policing, mass incarceration, and the murder of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, there was no shortage of videos of high-profile activists giving speeches at protests and other events—Tamika Mallory’s speech in Minneapolis, for instance—but KJ’s words resonated in a way few others’ had, articulating the demands of this year’s protests and speaking truth to power with satisfying precision.
“Fair warning,” she started her address to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. “I’m not nice and I don’t seek to be respectable. I’m not asking y’all for anything because y’all can’t and won’t be both my savior and my oppressor. I don’t want reform. I want to turn this building into luxury low-cost housing. These would make some really nice apartments.”
And then Brooks got specific, directly addressing each individual member of the board by name before dragging them, delivering devastating insults, and often naming their job or the business they own—essentially demanding that the members of the board be held accountable for the ways that their complicity in the violence of policing was harming their community in Kansas City. She named the hypocrisy of a local pastor claiming to preach a message of “hope and faith” in his church, while outside subjecting Black people to violence at the hands of police, and revealed that the former FBI agent “in the vomit-colored men’s warehouse suit in desperate need of bosley and a haircut” had hired Trump’s former attorney general at his firm.
Brooks thinks that both the message and the tone of her speech “naming and shaming” the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners resonated with viewers—specifically Black folks.
“I think the fact that I wasn’t nice, that I kinda started off with ‘I don’t care how you see me, I don’t care if you think I’m a threat,’” she said. “I started off pretty reckless, so I think that just resonated with a lot of people because we don’t really get opportunities to directly express how we feel to the police without there being some form of repercussions.
During 2020, there has been no shortage of displays of justified rage over police violence. But there is something catalyzing and almost electrifying about seeing a young Black person channel that rage to speak up against police violence and boldly demand accountability for her community. It’s made even more powerful by the knowledge that Brooks is still new to organizing. Sure, she was mobilized by this particular political moment, but it’s clear she’s dedicated to learning from more experienced activists as part of the broader tradition of Black radical movement work. The efforts of Brooks and countless other young Black activists across the nation have been key to shifting the national conversation around the ways policing and carceral logics harm Black people and Black communities over the past six months—and they’re just getting started.
“It definitely gave me more visibility, which in terms of the work is a good thing, but in terms of the Kansas City Police Department, they… definitely see that as a bad thing—that a young wild protestor/organizer/activist girl who they’ve.. learned to tune out after a certain while is suddenly getting international attention,” she said.
Although there are certainly challenges that come with virality, suddenly having hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram has also given Brooks more options when it comes to how she wants to engage in organizing work. She’s planning to use her new platform to connect protestors and activists on the ground with influencers and other public figures who have larger online platforms.
“I worked for a civil rights organization, and I was just content with protesting and being out in the streets... But now I have a really unique opportunity here to reach more people, for more people to hear me and understand me.”
Although she’s keeping the specifics of her next steps related to activism under wraps, Brooks is more than clear on her current priorities. “I just want to educate my community and make sure people’s basic needs are met, and then we can go from there.”