In times of crisis one often turns to civic leaders for comfort, for the calm amongst the storms. When a venue that contains friends and fellow travelers in your chosen tribe burns to the ground.That is absolutely one of those times. That’s why I was so mortified to hear Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf’s tone deaf, wrong-headed and insensitive initial response. To blame the art space, exclusively venerate the blood families and show a staggering lack of understanding of independent venue culture and stunning lack of empathy.
Officials hold press conference after warehouse fire in Oakland, California. Watch live: https://t.co/NEnwwrikSI https://t.co/2WmMgnZ6EW — CNN (@CNN) December 3, 2016
Imagine my surprise, within hours of this horrific tragedy when our mayor comes on the tv and gets in the pre-requisite First Responder worship and mentions the victims families four times, and essentially lays all the blame on the warehouse for code violations and setting the tone for the broadcast and cable media to focus exclusively on the parts of the story that have to do with blight and things that create an easy narrative for the white middle class.
Keeping the focus and blame on permits and code conveniently ignores the very real problem of the housing crisis that faces Oakland and the bay area at large. As our homes and the possibility of a future are slowly stripped away from the nu-tech culture. Culpability is on the property owner, not the government that has allowed escalating rent and focused gentrification to become the rule and not the exception.
Oh, and let’s make sure to mention the families again too, because single people are only half a person after all.
People love to think of the bay area as a hotbed of creativity, but with a few very rare and notable exceptions our aboveboard venues are very conservative and trend risk averse to keep the doors open. Staying open is a daily battle. So when you talk of true innovation, it’s far more likely to happen at a place like Ghost Ship than a place like the Fox Theater.
Let me explain something, and i’ll make it as simple as possible. This was not a rave, or an empty-headed dance party, not a place people came to consume. This was a show, part of a vital and important underground world. The stakes are different and the connection level is intense. You want to talk families? These are chosen families. People with very little in common with the family they are born to, or choose to make their lives based on shared interest and values.
I’ve played and attended many events at many places just like Ghost ship with my chosen family. So many places, coast-to-coast that look like death traps, that have suspect wiring, hinky stairs, and are in neighborhoods that can charitably be called marginalized or “sketchy”.
The short answer is that this is where you get the trust and most wonderful connection between performer and audience. In a way that you just can’t get with a paid sound guy, bouncer and a bar staff. It’s just... different. It’s a family affair. It’s the places that have nothing to lose that will risk the most on untested artists without a profit motive. If you’ve lived it, you know... If not, it’s the difference between seeing something in a glossy biopic and buying something from the gift shop and living the documentary where you can smell the urine and mildew. And my brothers, sisters and those something in-between or in transition all know exactly what i’m talking about. These places won’t win any awards, but for one night they are our Budokan, our Shea Stadium, our Apollo Theatre. Just as the Bataclan was an attack on my people, this is a tragedy involving my people. My chosen tribe, MY chosen family. Whether the show was my cup of tea or not. So don’t you DARE impugn the motives or responsibility instincts of those that make their homes and places of works stadiums for the night.
Mayor Schaaf wants to talk about family, she mentions it a lot. Sure! Families are vitally important and families vote. And yes, we have worried and grieving mothers, fathers and siblings in a horrible place, having lost children and siblings. Devastating and soul breaking. Yet, there is a not a single thought towards “Chosen family”. The chosen family that comes from a shared community, scene and artistic exchange. Those people exist too and their voices and their lives matter just as much.
These are our spaces, these are havens. These are the places where we make our culture happen and they matter. It’s a welcoming place to the marginalized, the oppressed, the freaks, the dorks, the last ones picked, those that don’t fit in anywhere and don’t have a whole lot of interest in complying. To try and overset your value system on it, and even worse to denigrate or downplay it. It’s wrong.
These spaces need to exist and to be clear: For most of these kinds of venues, citing them for code and blight and saying that is the sole cause of this event? That’s as good as putting a target on their back and a bullet in their head. Without something like the NYC Loft law the only possible reward for necessary improvements is eviction. Most likely to make room for new tech company offices. You’ve effectively “solved the problem” for people that never understood what the problem was in the first place, but you have failed overall.
The U.S. and the world will be looking at how Oakland handles this horrific and horrible tragedy. So far it was the typical tin ear of the movie politician with the cowardly wide ranging statement that provides the illusion of comfort without any actual risk being taken. The Ghost ship was worse than most alternative venues/art spaces, but that isn’t the whole story.
What we need is amnesty and safety for these venues, and Right of Return/First Refusal for necessary safety upgrades, not blame. Yes! Fire lanes and stairways not built from highly flammable palettes are a must, but when you provide an environment of persecution, prohibitive fines and vital city services that are less than dependable. Do not be surprised when the frontier spirit possesses these artists and they tell you exactly what to do with your regulations. They’ve been forgotten in all the ways that matter, why on Earth should they comply with rituals and safeguards meant for those in another world?
There is a difference between being protective of a community and starting a witch hunt. The mayor has led the crowd by the nose to the former. We’re around when she needs our votes or indie cred, but are only dumb kids or negligent tenants when not. Despite being propelled into office on a coalition that includes artists and musicians, Mayor Schaaf seems to have a selective memory and understanding on what makes a good arts space, or even the nature of the space that is needed for art itself to live. But hey, let’s give a shout out to the families one more time, because who you grew up with is FAR important then how you define yourself as a person.
And, Mayor Schaaf, at some point our numbers will wise up and rise up, and replace each and every one of you class president junior achiever types with our numbers... the freaks and geeks. The ones that blast our stereos at lunch hour, have weird haircuts and tell jokes you don’t understand. I look forward to that day.
But that is a different story.
We’ve been here before. The end result is venues close and never reopen, shows are cancelled and we lose avenues for expression in the name of safety. That isn’t a theory, it’s proven fact. These lives so tragically lost have to mean something, but the business as usual narrative of the “negligent warehouse space owner” won’t cut it. It’s disingenuous and dangerous. Mayor Schaaf, somebody needs to tell the real story, why not you?
Until Mayor Schaaf has proven that she has the ability to listen to her constituents that don’t identify as Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, she has lost both my vote and my support. Mayor Schaaf: My expectations of you have reached a new low.
You are a leader, act like one.
You can be tough and effective and part of this chosen family, or at the very least do it no harm. All you have to do is make the choice. Be better, we have long memories and we’ve already lost too much.