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For more than a year, Erica Robbins, founder of Be A Blessing Birmingham, had been trying to raise money for portable showering stations for the city's homeless.

"Last year, I raised $3,500," Robbins said."After George Floyd's murder, I raised $60,000 in one month."  

As the movement to defund the police and redirect money to support individuals and vulnerable communities grew, folks were also looking for ways to give their money directly to organizers like Robbins to continue the fight for basic rights well after the summer of protests for Black lives comes to an end. 

See also: Birmingham increases police budget by $11.2M despite demands to defund: 'People literally cannot breathe, and it's not because of George Floyd'

"People are dying on the street for no good reason," Robbins said. 

In addition to tending to life and death issues for homeless people, Robbins is also a Black mother fearful of her own son's safety in a racist society. That fear activated her participation in protests after police shot and killed Mike Brown in 2012. Robbins sees the intersection of her work in the senseless loss of life—whether that loss comes from the vulnerability of living without a home or in the custody of police. 

Before the pandemic, volunteers gather to distribute goods to their neighbors. Photo courtesy of Be a Blessing Birmingham.

During the first nine weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, Robbins drove throughout the city to feed her neighbors. 

When the pandemic hit, "people were already struggling, like barely breathing, you know, barely head above water," Robbins said. "After a couple weeks of a server missing a shift, you don't have any extra." The city continued to build luxury condos, Robbins said, instead of investing in basic services.

See also: Alabama wrote the book on Black Lives Matter, but today's challenges to defund police have Freedom Fighters back at the drawing board

Churches and nonprofits had shuttered. The homeless weren't allowed access to day shelters. People were hungry. Although nonprofits and the local government were offering food boxes at various locations, city funding was not going directly to feed those living on the streets, Robbins said. 

At Be A Blessing, Robbins was accustomed to offering services often overlooked by more traditional providers, like providing sanitary products to people without homes. Meanwhile, her protest energy was going outside of Birmingham. 

Since May of this year, Robbins has bailed out arrested protestors nearly every week. On July 4, she was barely out of her car in the library parking lot when Hoover police, armed with assault weapons and wearing Blue Lives Matter masks, arrested and and held her for 14 hours. Videos of the event circulated quickly on social media.

It's common knowledge, Robbins said, that Black citizens avoid Jefferson County's three "H's"—Hoover, Homewood and Hueytown—to avoid being harassed, or worse, by the police.

A bustling suburban commercial center, Hoover is home to the Riverchase Galleria, where E.J. Bradford was shot by police in 2018 on Thanksgiving evening. Founded in 1967, only two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Hoover remains predominantly white today. 

Demonstrations calling for police accountability and surveillance footage of the shooting have been ongoing since Bradford's death, and Robbins has taken the lead to bail out protesters. 

I recently connected with Robbins to talk about her life as an activist in Birmingham and the deep divide between suburban and urban living here. 

"Sometimes it's about the little things like we do. The little hand ups—not handouts—but the hands up to help people be able to get a job. Someone might need a food handler's license. It might be a pair of shoes."

During our conversation, she checked her Facebook posts to monitor an ongoing Hoover protest. She was preparing to bail out her "protests babies," a group of young people, predominantly women, who call themselves Cell A65 after the first holding cell they are often detained by the Hoover Police Department, who Robbins said have manhandled, tased and pepper sprayed the young protesters.


Lanier Isom: How is your experience being Black in Birmingham different from the suburbs?

Robbins: A lot of my peers feel safer in Birmingham. They feel safer with Birmingham cops. I rarely go visit my parents because they live in Trussville. Whoever is the first person to get home will call everybody else and let them know the cops are sitting out to the side of the road, just so we are aware. 

I mean, my parents live in a million-dollar house in a suburb, but it doesn't matter what your social economic status is. They don't care. You're still Black. I'm sure my family has way more money than the cops do. 

You know, at the end of the day they still have that doubt, and you're still Black. And sometimes, they may get mad you're driving a luxury car and can afford to stay in Carrington. There are a lot of racist, white people that get mad because Black people can afford things. Like Black people don't work hard for things.

Lanier Isom: When you moved to downtown Birmingham in 2013, you started volunteering at the local shelters. What inspired you to start your own organization?

Erica Robbins: When I volunteered, I saw a lot of the restrictions placed on items donated by people to help people. I thought, 'I can do this better.' So I started asking people to donate. My mom donated a pod and put it at the back of my place downtown. People would come and drop stuff off and we sorted everything. Then more people started sharing my posts on Facebook.

Volunteers with Be A Blessing Birmingham before COVID-19 hit the city. Photo courtesy of Be a Blessing Birmingham.

Isom: How do you reach homeless people?

Robbins: We have hydration stations daily for them. Volunteers go out to the park during the summertime and spring. We have monthly "blessing days" every third Saturday of every month, like clockwork, for almost a year. They know when we're coming, and they're there to help unload. They want to be able to feel like they did something to get those things. They help set up and help load everything back up.

Isom: What stands out for you about the impact of your work?

Robbins: Sometimes it's about the little things like we do. The little hand ups—not handouts—but the hands up to help people be able to get a job. Someone might need a food handler's license. It might be a pair of shoes. Those are small things that we're able to do without the red tape to provide those things for people, so that they can get on their feet and be able to take care of themselves. 

We're also community funded. We're not a big conglomerate. It doesn't take me having to go through 85 people and 10 tons of red tape to get somebody in a hotel room or, you know, to buy somebody some work shoes or to get something that someone is desperately needing like groceries for a mom and her kid. 

Isom: What happened at the recent "Die In" at the Hoover Galleria where protesters were lying on the floor to bring awareness to police brutality?

Robbins: A lot of people got to see it because it happened in the mall, and the mall security was trying to keep people from filming. They kept waving a hand and trying to block the cameras, but, you know, there are 200 people in the mall, and of course, everybody pulled out a camera. 

The cops get to screaming, "Don't resist!" when no one's even doing anything. They're getting more forceful again. The last two weeks, they used pepper spray on my people, they tased Satura [a fellow organizer] last week for the first time, and they always put her by herself. [She's been arrested multiple times.] And she was lying on the ground, and they tried to charge her with assault three. But if someone pepper sprays you, your body's gonna move. She was kicking the ground because it hurts. And the cop was trying to say she kicked him on purpose, which was not true. She was responding to the spray. 

These kids have more heart than the adults. They were lying down in the mall. That's not a bad thing. It's just to bring awareness to what's going on. It's not like they were trashing anything. They weren't destroying property. They've not done that at all. Not one time. 

They definitely have not done anything to be treated the way they've been treated.

Isom: Is there one particular group here you are affiliated with?

Robbins: I don't affiliate with anything. I'm Black. I'm a mom. I'm mad.

Isom: Tell me about your experience running for city council in 2017.

Robbins: I literally signed up 30 minutes before the deadline. I signed up because no one was speaking on homeless issues and in order for me to bring them to the forefront, I had to run. 

Isom: What did you learn running for office?

Robbins: People don't give a damn about poor people. How can we discuss a group of citizens in our city and not include those without a roof and walls? They have rights and a voice. They are living with food insecurities and below the poverty line, and they deserve to be seen by City Hall. 

Isom: What keeps you going?

Robbins: Like I always say, we're all just one bad situation from being in the same situation. And if we were in that situation, what would we want people to do for you? What would I want people to do if I was homeless on the street? Because it could be me at any time. It could be you. If my son died, what would I want people to do? I do it because it could be me or you and if more people would think that way, the world would be a better place.

Lanier Isom

Lanier Isom is an author and journalist living in her hometown, Birmingham, Alabama. She wrote Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight at Goodyear and Beyond—The life story of Alabama native Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of President Obama’s first piece of legislation, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, Huffington Post, and The Bitter Southerner, and she’s a frequent contributor to al.com. She’s currently at work on her next book.