Social justice activist KJ Brooks is unapologetic about what she says.
Video of the 21-year-old went viral in late October after she publicly lambasted members of the Kansas City Police Board of Commissioners for their complicity in police violence against Black people. Brooks and a handful of local organizers attended the open meeting to call for the resignation of Rick Smith, who heads the tumultuous Kansas City Police Department, amid the city’s most violent year and months of protests against police brutality.
The KCPD has faced intense scrutiny for its discriminatory and excessive use of force, its lack of oversight and its leadership’s refusal to take accountability for these problems. That has created a deep racial divide and sowed distrust among many of the city’s Black residents.
“I’m not nice and I don’t seek to be respectable,” Brooks said during the public meeting as she faced the five members of the board, which includes the mayor and four Kansas City residents appointed by the governor. “I’m going to spend the next two minutes reading y’all for filth, something I’m sure no one has ever done.”
And one by one, Brooks delivered. She said one member “exudes white privilege and is the epitome of white mediocrity” and that another — a Black pastor — was “subjecting Black people to terrorism and other un-Christ-like behavior.” She added that one member was there because she had “nothing else to do at 8 o’clock in the morning but be rich and white and retired.”
“They looked soulless and apathetic as the others detailed their frustration and anguish about the gravitas of this situation. So I used my time to drag them,” Brooks said in an Instagram caption following the meeting.
The viral three-and-a-half minute video helped Brooks land on Teen Vogue’s “21 Under 21” list and amass more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, where she uses her platform to openly talk about her mission to abolish the police. (She’s against reform.)
She’s also vocal about how Black women like herself are leading America’s racial justice movements.
“Black women are the backbone of this movement,” Brooks told HuffPost. “There’s not a person alive who could tell me different. A lot of the work and ideologies come from Black women.”
Although it’s been less than a year since she started in grassroots activism, Brooks — who describes herself as a prison abolitionist and anti-capitalist — has already racked up an impressive résumé. She is the co-founder of the Chingona Collective (“chingona” is a Spanish slang term for “badass woman”), a multicultural, queer-inclusive and intersectional organization that fights for Black, Indigenous and Latinx women. She has organized more than 40 protests around Kansas City, mobilized teams of volunteers, cop-watched KPCD and established herself as a familiar face among high-ranking city officials.
Before landing in Kansas City to attend community college, Brooks spent her childhood in Savannah, Georgia, and later moved to Atchison, Kansas, midway through high school. She says her classmates at her mostly white high school taunted her for constantly speaking out about racial inequality and things that upset her, like movies that she felt showed white savior complexes.
“You’re a hater, you’re always mad, you’re always complaining about something,” Brooks said her classmates would say. “People weren’t really trying to hear what I had to say up until [last] year.”
She says that after the killing of George Floyd stirred up national outrage, people she knew began to take her more seriously. “I remember I logged into Snapchat and one girl shouted me out, saying, ‘All y’all people trying to be activists now owe her an apology, because she’s been saying this stuff and we all talked about her.’ I still have the post today because it was my first kind of vindication that I wasn’t crazy, that the stuff I was saying was valid.”
But Brooks emphasized that she isn’t bothered by what people have to say about her. “Honestly, I do not give a damn,” she said with a soft chuckle. “I’m unapologetic.”
Asked if she sees a future in politics, Brooks said she hasn’t ruled it out — she wants to incite change — but she isn’t sure she fits in.
“I’m not sure politics is ready for a person as radical as I am,” she said. “I’m rude to these systems, I’m rude to the people in charge of these systems. There’s no way in hell I’d be sitting in Congress not cussing people out because they’re trying to pass a $600 [stimulus relief] bill when people have been out of work for nine months. That’s the energy that we need to bring to Congress.”
But for now, she’s more concerned about engaging in grassroots work.
It’s also helped to give her perspective about the role Black women play in leading the movement. She says being vocal about that has provoked some backlash.
“A lot of Black men still, when you center LGBTQ issues and women’s voices, they feel like you’re erasing them somehow,” Brooks said. “So I’ve been dealt a large hand of misogyny and men being assholes.”
“I told my abolitionist friends, ‘I’m nobody’s Coretta; I’m Martin. I’m no one’s sidekick.’”