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The life, legacy and radical hope of Jen Angel

Jen Angel posed in front of her Downtown Oakland bakery Angel Cakes. | Courtesy Ryan Fletcher

Jen Angel understood that a different world is possible. She baked cupcakes for people who had just come home from prison. She showed up in the streets of Oakland when Oscar Grant was shot and killed by the police in 2009. She identified with an anarchist philosophy of mutual aid and volunteerism. She listened to punk bands like Strike Anywhere, Avail and Catharsis. She was an optimist. 

Often, when a member of the community dies tragically, plenty of ink is spilled over the act of violence that caused their death, overshadowing their life. We spoke with three close friends of Angel’s who say they’re committed to ensuring her legacy of community support and commitment to transformative justice lives on. 

Jen Angel was a lifelong activist and instrumental member of the Bay Area’s leftist community—a misfit crew of artists and activists working to create a world where people take care of one another. These communities carry on the activism of local groups like the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society, distinctly aware of the ways in which the Bay Area’s rapid gentrification pushes out poor residents and leads to individual and systemic violence. These are the central contradictions of wealth and poverty in the Bay Area, the problems Angel spent years working to heal. 

At the center of the Bay Area’s anti-authoritarian scene is the Anarchist Book Fair, the longest-running event of its kind in the country. Angel became an organizer of the book fair around 2010. 

Anarchism has long been sensationalized. Dismissive pundits have ignored its earnest philosophical underpinnings and turned the very word into a synonym for disorder and political violence. For Angel and her community, it was about building community autonomy where the state and corporations often fail to do so. 

“The core tenets of anarchism are autonomy, mutual aid, voluntary association and direct action. These are all positive things,” as Angel told The Stranger in 2016

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, as a teenager Angel first reached like-minded people across the country when she started publishing a personal zine called Fucktooth

Jen Angel was the owner Angel Cakes in Oakland, pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard

Early Years

That’s how Matt Leonard first met Angel. As a preteen on the outskirts of Seattle in the mid-1990s, he said he came across the zine and was immediately drawn in. 

“Growing up in a small town with all the alienation clichés—boredom, a culture that didn’t include our values and beliefs—Jen’s zine resonated,” Leonard said. “I followed her for years.” 

Angel and Leonard became snail-mail pen pals and orbited each other’s concentric social circles but didn’t actually meet until years later. “I had stayed at her house when she was out of town; she stayed at my house while I was out of town,” he said, laughing.

Leonard said when he and Angel finally met at a party in the East Bay in the early 2000s, they became fast friends. “She felt like someone I had known my whole life.” 

Together, Angel and Leonard founded a collective called Aid & Abet to support authors, artists and filmmakers to tell their stories to broader audiences, everyone from sociologist David Graeber to scott crow, one of the organizers in the Common Ground Collective, which provided mutual aid to New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 

Angel had moved to the Bay Area in 1997 to help publish Maximum Rocknroll, a widely circulated DIY punk zine. Two years later, she co-founded a radical politics and culture magazine called Clamor with then-partner Jason Kucsma and, over the magazine’s 38 issues, documented everything from the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle against global capitalism, to queer families, to the inhumane conditions inside Pelican Bay State Prison.

Jen Angel (left) is shown with longtime friend Nupur Modi-Parekh (right) during a weekend hike. | Courtesy Nupur Modi-Parekh

Feeding the Community

It was around that time that Nupur Modi-Parekh became friends with Angel. He said he remembers feeling right away that Angel was a remarkably happy person. “Which is kind of rare in activism circles, so that kind of stood out to me—having optimism and excitement,” he said. 

Along with two other friends, Angel and Modi-Parekh organized a communal meal they called Gourmet Dinner Night. They’d pick a culinary theme and invite a handful of friends to enjoy a meal they prepared together after work, never expecting their guests to contribute. They hosted the dinner almost monthly for three years. 

“People thought it was so odd, that it was just a community where we would feed you,” Modi-Parekh said. “But those values were ingrained in Jen.” 

In 2009, Angel wrote an article for a grassroots nonprofit called Shareable about the dinners. Scrolling through old photos of her cupcakes, you can see she was first incubating her idea for Angel Cakes during the Gourmet Dinner Night years. 

“So, we all love food,” Angel wrote in the article “But really, it’s about […] creating connection [and] shared culture in the midst of lives that pull us apart and despite disappearing opportunities to interact outside of families and workplaces.” 

Modi-Parekh, Leonard, and another close friend, Emily Harris, said they remember encouraging Angel to turn her love of baking into a space that would eventually become Angel Cakes bakery in Downtown Oakland.

A sign posted on the window of Angel Cakes in Oakland honors Jen Angel on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard

United in Action

Harris is the policy director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit that collaborates with low-income folks and communities of color to shift resources away from the carceral system and toward community safety and strength. She said she first met Angel at a clothing swap, and shortly after, they became neighbors in Oakland.  

“I remember feeling grateful for her,” Harris said. “She was the friend you could take to any party. You knew as long as Jen was there that people were going to be OK.” 

Harris and Modi-Parekh said they both organized in similar political spaces as Angel—running into each other during the Occupy Movement, at anti-war protests and at community mobilizations following the 2012 explosion at the Chevron Richmond Refinery that caused 15,000 residents to require medical treatment, and that Angel effortlessly slid into a communications role at whatever action in which she participated.

Modi-Parekh also lamented that over the past couple of years, he and Angel struggled to find time to spend together, joking that the best way to reach her was to order cupcakes. He said she never let him pay for them, which ironically led him to call the bakery instead so he could support her business.  

Angel’s friends agree that above all else, Angel lived her politics. Modi-Parekh said he remembered when she first opened the bakery, Angel struggled with what it means for an anti-capitalist to become a business person and how to conduct hers in an ethical way. 

“That was one of the things we talked about a lot, that you’re providing a service people want and need and providing workers with a living wage,” Modi-Parekh said. “Just because you’re a business owner doesn’t mean you’re a greedy capitalist.”

The bakery was rooted in Angel’s guiding ethos. Harris said Angel regularly gave cupcakes away to her unhoused neighbors, paid her workers a good wage and often paid herself last.

About three weeks ago, Angel’s friends came together to celebrate her 48th birthday. Leonard said the party coincided with a protest in Downtown Oakland over the beating and death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police. Leonard had planned to provide the sound system for the protest and said he almost missed the party, but that Angel encouraged him to show up in the streets. 

Nupur Modi-Parekh poses in front of Angel Cakes in Oakland on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Nupur is a longtime friend of Jen Angel and says that he, along with others, are working together to keep Jen’s bakery running. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard

A Lasting Legacy

Angel spent the last days of her life in the hospital in critical condition. Harris was there, too. She said more friends came to the hospital to support Angel than the hospital’s visiting policy allowed.

“It’s both incredibly overwhelming and this constant reminder of the supportive community that Jen had,” Harris said. “That her passing is facilitating this community coming together, that’s the Jen we know. I feel grateful that the end of her life is so filled with love.” 

Angel’s death—the senseless consequence of a robbery gone wrong—has sparked debate about what justice means when brutal acts of violence occur. Her close friends, who have kept the public updated on her status, made it clear that Angel’s family is committed to restorative justice rather than traditional prosecution.They wrote: “We do not support putting public resources into policing, incarceration, or other state violence that perpetuates the cycle of violence that resulted in this tragedy.”

Harris told The Standard that she believes Angel’s death should reflect the culture of care and support that she worked to build her whole life, rather than one of vengeance, policing and imprisonment.

“Jen was one of those people who could imagine something that didn’t exist yet,” Harris said. “We’re not going to let her death be in vain.”

Angel Cakes in Oakland is temporarily closed in the wake of Jen Angel's death. | Samantha Laurey for The Standard

Leonard said he’s trying to hold multiple truths at once. “With what happened with her this week, I understand that there’s a desire for people to understand the physicality of the incident,” he said. “But Jen’s approach has always been how can we change the underlying causes of violence. How can we address these large issues of inequality that are leading to these conflicts?”

Harris said that she wants to make it clear that Angel’s community isn’t against accountability. “We can build systems of safety with each other,” she said. “We just want accountability that addresses root causes as opposed to something that perpetuates harm to more people.   

“My hope is that people remember her fierceness, her radical politics, her sweetness, her love and the joyful life that she lived,” Harris continued.

As of this week, Angel Cakes Bakery is temporarily closed as Angel’s staff and community figure out next steps. At the time of publication, a GoFundMe organized by Angel’s friends had raised over $150,000 for her medical expenses, the bakery and her family. 

On Monday night, Angel’s organs were donated to help around 70 people—one of her final wishes.