The same night that oil companies gained an ally in President Donald Trump, they also suffered an important loss in Monterey County. On Election Day, residents in the resource-rich region voted to ban fracking — a controversial drilling technique — and all new oil and gas operations. Rose Braz, a San Francisco resident and force for environmental and social justice, was there to help it happen, walking precincts and encouraging people to vote.
Just six months later, on May 3, Braz passed away after a three-year battle with brain cancer. She was only 55 years old.
“Getting down there to help knock on doors was tough because traveling would trigger headaches, dizziness and nausea,” Braz’s husband, Brent Plater, told me. “But she was strong and was able to fight through it.”
Plater and Braz’s friends described a woman of incredible moral clarity, wisdom, love and strength. She was a thorn in the side of the establishment, but she brought people together instead of tearing them apart. There aren’t enough people like Braz in headlines and articles these days.
“She was always working in pursuit of a better world,” Kassie Siegel, her longtime friend and colleague at the national environmental nonprofit, Center for Biological Diversity, told me. “She’s one of those people who took what seems impossible and made it possible.”
Taking on South Africa’s racist system of apartheid was one of her earliest causes. In the 1980s, she helped block a South African cargo ship from entering San Francisco Bay. She also participated in the 1986 anti-apartheid protest at the University of California at Berkeley, camping out with other students in a symbolic shantytown designed to resemble living conditions of blacks in the country. The protest led to the university’s divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.
Braz continued her activism as a law student at UC Berkeley, campaigning to diversify the school’s mostly white, male faculty and interning at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and East Bay Community Law Center. Supervisor Hillary Ronen, another UC Berkeley law school alum, told me she looked up to Braz and “wanted to be that type of lawyer and that type of activist.”
“I hold her in great esteem and feel like she contributed so much to the world,” Ronen said.
After graduating, Braz co-founded Critical Resistance, the first national organization dedicated to the abolition of the prison industrial complex. She also fought California’s ability to expand its prison system and urged the state to redirect resources toward rehabilitating people, not simply incarcerating them.
In 2009, Braz turned her focus to the environment. She built national coalitions and raised awareness about the impacts of climate change and fracking as the climate campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Locally, Braz worked with San Francisco to shut down an oil lease it owned in Kern County and pressure the federal government to reduce carbon emissions. As a board member for the San Francisco-based nonprofit Wild Equity Institute, she fought city plans that put endangered species and the surrounding community at risk.
“Rose Braz’s legacy lives on as an inspiration to so many in our social justice movement,” Supervisor Jane Kim told me. “Her work was intersectional, connecting laborers to environmentalists to prison abolitionists.”
I asked her husband if there was a common thread tying her fight against apartheid, the prison system and environmental degradation together.
“Rose ultimately was fighting for a more equitable world, whether you measure equity across our human communities or on the lands on which we live,” Plater told me. “She was trying to make things a little fairer.”
When the fight becomes overwhelming, the memory of Braz can inspire San Franciscans and everyone resisting a harmful and oppressive status quo. Her story can bring people together to make a more equitable world possible. In this way, her strength, moral clarity, wisdom and love can continue to live through us.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.