The city of Oakland has a long history of civil unrest, political activism, militant citizen groups, edgy art, underground activities, and a blatant distrust for the authorities. This is not without reason. It also has a history of corrupt city leaders, murder, criminal enterprise, police brutality, city-sponsored displacement and gentrification, and swift vigilante justice. This city will never be soft and easy and it never stays quiet for long. People who live here accept that and we know that when the city does erupt, the mainstream media will ALWAYS get it wrong. They will always blame the protestors for “riots” even when their reporters witness the brutality of the militarized police firsthand. They will always fall back on the bad reputation of Oakland when reporting a crime or a shooting, instead of looking at how desperate the city’s population has become due to the rising costs of the bay area and the gentrification of the neighborhoods. The cause never matters to journalists, only the effect. This is why many now turn to social media sites for their news instead.
For years a snarky website called IsOaklandBurning? entertained (and pissed off) the population with its constant, giant YES message. It also had more web traffic than nearly any local official news source. Thing is, Oakland does burn a lot of the time and it is never funny when it does. This weekend the city endured what will likely be the worst structure fire in California history with the biggest loss of life. The Ghost Ship warehouse fire started during a party and dozens are still missing and presumed dead. The official death toll tripled overnight and only a fifth of the building has been searched at the time of this writing. There was only one injury reported, and as many reporters have noted, either you got out of the building or you didn’t. Survivors tell of how quickly it went up and how little time people had to flee.
The tone mainstream media has taken with this story is appallingly judgmental, classist, and dismissive. We owe it to the lost to demand better from those who are reporting on their deaths and the lives of those who survived. We need to find a way to honor the victims – which include the Ghost Ship collective – no matter what our opinions may be and to allow space for that grief before going into judgement or repeating what could have saved them, but didn’t. Speculation and small talk for ratings don’t matter right now and who or what caused the fire will come later, with a thorough investigation. Right now local news should be on standby and shut the hell up until every victim is found and named, at least.
Almost all of the victims were vibrant and individualistic – many did not conform to societal norms which the media continues to point out, as if that made them lesser people. They were at this party to dance, to enjoy themselves and to be in an awesome, artistic, and bohemian environment. There are a ton of similar compounds in Oakland and almost none are legal. This is not because the people in them are drug addicts who like living in deathtraps and don’t care about codes or safety as the media would have you believe. It is because these places are the only way that many can afford to live here. The Ghost Ship was not merely a “labyrinthine maze of clutter and wood” as many news sites have reported, it was also a beautiful space that was full of art, makers, and incredible craftsmanship. The tenants illegally living there don’t actually have anywhere else to go and the “rickity staircase made of pallets” was the best idea they had to maximize the space they were sharing.
You won’t hear TV reporters or local politicians admitting or acknowledging things like this. They have spent too long ignoring the housing crisis and are far too quick to look for blame and villainy to point their fingers and cameras at. They aren’t even waiting for the victims to be found and the families to be notified before they start demonizing their choices and making assumptions about their lives. It’s despicable, infuriating, and typical. Tragically they are not alone and tons of people have joined them. Many who once lived in the same type of situation are now quick to talk about the importance of safety and the rules and regulations that they never adhered to. Clubs who have parties that are regularly over capacity are now calling for inspections on rival locations and artists who love opulent fabrics and giant art are suddenly bending over backwards to prove that they are compliant with rules they didn’t know about until yesterday. Armchair philosophers, reporters, politicians and police with hindsight vision and the benefits of traditional housing state over and over that this tragedy was preventable, making sure that everyone knows they are right. It doesn’t matter that they are talking over the bodies that haven’t yet been found and the friends and families who are living in fear and unimaginable grief. All that matters is that everyone agrees that the rules are there for a reason and the authorities are always right.
Fuck that. There will always be unregulated parties. You’ve had them in your own home without a permit or you’ve been to them in art spaces, frat houses, abandoned buildings, clubhouses, box trucks, and living rooms. Half of the bay area has a fondness for fire-based art, thanks to Burning Man and the Crucible and I’m sure you’ve seen fire performances in houses, clubs, or parties that weren’t technically allowed. Perhaps you paid (or charged) at the door of one of these gatherings to chip in for the keg, the food, the cause, the DJ or the band. Maybe you or people you know have lived in spaces just like Ghost Ship so they could keep making music, sewing, building Burning Man art, and painting or sculpting for a living, since they are surrounded by skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing. Live music gigs, raves, and loud parties have been forced into unsafe buildings and illegal venues for years by the very same people, politicians, and authorities who are hijacking this tragedy now to further their own agendas.
Take some time to remember those parties of your past and recognize that it is only through the luck of the draw that you weren’t caught in a deadly trap or a blazing inferno. This doesn’t mean all warehouses should be shuttered, it means that this tragedy could have happened to anyone. Before moving on to who is at fault, think of the people who are dead or still missing and give them the moments and the proper respect they deserve. Shut up about rules and safety check-ins and blame for long enough to acknowledge that more people died in a few precious minutes than they did during the Oakland Hills fire and don’t dismiss, belittle, or demonize them for being where they were. They were celebrating however they wanted to at a party and enjoying life without any idea that it was about to end. Their youth, their lifestyles, appearances, choice of venue or home, and their love for electronic music shouldn’t make them any less important than the homeowners in the hills or the firefighters who are searching for their remains.
We need solutions for sure. And yes, we need some safety regulations and some prioritization. But first, we need to remember the dead – and learn their names. We need to mourn with their families and friends. We need to remember that we are no different and no better, and that we are all touched by this tragedy. There’s a time and a place for armchair wisdom and debates about regulations – and that time is after we give the victims their due.
And in their honor, perhaps then we should also talk about housing, art, affordability, and the policymakers who don’t care about any of these things. We need to have conversations about landlords with ties to city officials and inspectors. We need to protect our artists and help each other stay safe, instead of penalizing and demonizing those who can’t. Our mayor may pretend to care about Oakland’s art culture, but she didn’t hesitate when she stood on the ashes of that building and threatened other spaces like it. The giant warehouse that housed her inauguration is evicting their artists too. This is why we do have to talk about these things – but only after we talk about the lives tragically cut short by a towering wall of flame. Only after we respect and speak about those ‘ravers’ in the same way that we would anyone else. And only after Oakland has time to grieve yet another vital part of its city that has vanished and the many people who were taken too soon.