Bay Area mutual aid group mixes self defense with style

Dancer Nikita Lewis poses for a photographer in front of a friend’s home in Oakland. She stands resolutely facing forward, appearing to have no worries in the world at the moment. In one hand, she models a popular cream-colored designer bag from New York designer Telfar Clemens. In her other hand, she wields a stun gun.

These are two items available in a free self-defense kit supplied by We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, a mutual aid collective of artists and creatives based in Oakland. It’s part of an initiative called Arm The Girls, which supports local Black and Indigenous queer and trans femmes. The other items in the kit include a 2-inch pocket knife, antibacterial spray and a three-in-one tool (maximum strength pepper gel, glass breaker and a seatbelt cutter), all fashionably packaged in the frequently sold-out Telfar bag, a double-strap handbag made out of vegan leather. Emergency mutual aid support and stipends for self defense classes are also included.

The initiative, in collaboration with the local mutual aid groups VisibiliT and Join The Movement Coalition, went viral last December on Instagram, leading to an outpouring of support and donations. The collective has raised more than $21,000 from more than 300 donors in a GoFundMe. Clemens, the handbag designer, even reached out to We Are The Ones and donated 50 purses.

One of the many people behind this initiative is Guerilla Davis, a photographer, community organizer and a co-founder of We Are The Ones. He says that the group’s mission is to focus and recognize the communities in the collective, but to also provide individuals with a platform to be supported and not forgotten.

“We were tired of hearing about trans women always being victims and we wanted to think of a way to change the narrative,” said Davis. “For us, because we’re doing the work and are on the frontlines, when you hear about trans people, especially Black trans people and trans people of color, it’s usually always about death and murder. Someone’s gone missing. It’s usually something bad.”

With the photo shoots, the group aims to show their own communities, and the world, what it looks like when transgender women fight back, what it looks for transgender women to have the respect they deserve. “As important as it is to have Tasers and stuff, dignity is something that is equally as important as survival. It can be about survival, but also dignity to ensure you’re living your best life by having a cute bag,” he said.

In December 2018, co-founders Adonis Emory and Davis realized that marginalized communities, like the ones they and their fellow artists are a part of, weren’t going to get the reliable support they needed. The Bay Area lacked connected groups of creatives, and they decided to create We Are The Ones as a solution. They’re known primarily for their live events, which included raves, parties and art shows before COVID-19 forced them to pivot to live streaming and online fundraisers.

Emory and Davis also have a bi-monthly radio show on KXSF 102.5 FM, frequently raising money for those who urgently need money for necessities like rent and bills. The collective boasts an assortment of artists, including DJs, models, dancers, stylists, photographers, personalities, graphic designers and more. Last year, they organized more than 40 events with more than 200 queer artists and raised more than $40,000 in the Bay Area.

To become a part of We Are The Ones, one only has to show up. There is no application process to join, no membership fee.

“This isn’t a crew where there’s a hierarchy or something you have to do to get in,” said Davis. “We’re not doing this for clout. It’s a political message that every event we’re doing is to make change and to say we’re here, so if you’re at an event, you’re a part of the movement with us. It’s literally we are the ones who we’ve been waiting for and that includes you.”

One of those members is Lewis, who is also one of the models for Arm The Girls. Lewis happily agreed to be a part of the initiative and knew exactly why she wanted to do it.

“I wanted to be a part of Arm The Girls because I am a Black trans woman,” said Lewis. “I really wanted to showcase the Black transness and the power we can have when we put our artwork together. I really wanted my energy and my spirit to be a part of this project and to make sure that the girls and people are armed because it’s dangerous out here.”

Nikita Lewis, a dancer and member of We Are The Ones, models her Telfar bag and stun gun in Oakland, Calif.

Nikita Lewis, a dancer and member of We Are The Ones, models her Telfar bag and stun gun in Oakland, Calif.

Patricia Chang

The needs of their community are what inspires them and their work. Their Arm The Girls initiative is a direct response to murder and violence. Their needs of having safety, protection, and dignity aren’t at all new and they’re always ongoing. It’s simply getting dire every year, including in the Bay Area.

“A group like this needs to be in the Bay Area and it needs to be everywhere, to be honest,” said Lewis. “It needs to be in the Bay Area because there are a lot of marginalized people here. Not all of us have money or are rich. It’s good to have this type of outlet for marginalized queer folks and I feel like that’s really important because not a lot of people are doing that. Yes, there’s different aids and stuff, but not a lot of people are doing it specifically for the trans girls and for the queer people.”

Last weekend, the group distributed 70 self-defense kits to 70 applicants; 50 came with the Telfar bag. Some were mailed, some were picked up from a collective member’s home in Oakland, and some were personally delivered in collaboration with Safe Ride Oakland, another local mutual aid group that gives free rides to Black and Indigenous people of color.

Guerilla Davis takes a photo of Yasmine Rosa, Fiera Ferrari and Nikita Lewis in Oakland, Calif.

Guerilla Davis takes a photo of Yasmine Rosa, Fiera Ferrari and Nikita Lewis in Oakland, Calif.

Patricia Chang

Many of the applicants for Arm The Girls come from very marginalized communities; some were previously or recently incarcerated, homeless or currently do sex work. Because of these factors, not everyone who applied has access to unemployment or stimulus funds.

It’s the intersectionality of this group, with regards to their art, gender identities, ethnicities and sexualities, that defines the collective and the work they do against all their compounded oppression. It’s all by them, for them, a mission the group has had since its inception and will continue to uphold, Davis said.

“There’s so many intersections in all of our identities and that comes with oppression,” said Davis. “We can’t really wait for people to come and fix things for us. It’s different when you’re privileged and you have access to generational wealth versus folks who look like us and have incomes like us. That’s where our name came from. We have the power to do it ourselves — so why not?”

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