Monday, December 5, 2016

Oakland Warehouse Tragedy (Or, just SCREAM)

(Without Music) I’ll probably regret making this “public.”
(Without Music). Forgive me if I seem to speak for other people (as“we”).

(Without Music) Please forgive me in advance if this seems heartless. Because I’ve been so solitary (aside from my job) and unmusical lately, my lament, mourning or attempted celebration may come off too cold-hearted, abstract, detached, general, cultural (“damn right, I’m skeptical about the motivations of CNN for making this tragedy an [inter]national headline!”). Forgive the “misplaced rage,” or self-indulgence, but perhaps I need to work this demon out (as if overheard)…..

I was facebook friends with two people who died in the fire (both of whom I had first met personally, at art or music events or meetings). In the last year or two, all of our encounters were on facebook (I’m tempted to go back through all my facebook posts and see what we wrote on each other’s pages….but, more deeply, I remember them “offline” as it were, as strong positive souls working hard to create and sustain social/cultural alternatives to facebook, et al….

Even though I’ve never been to the Ghost Ship, in many ways it reminds me of some of the live/work warehouses where I stayed (whether in Philadelphia in the last century, or one with a similar name in Oakland). I stamped some of the hands of those who’ve died. Even when we only knew each other by face (or by dance style even), there was often a warmth that transcended words. and the scenes in which I met these people is the closest to a sense of “home” I ever managed to find in the Bay Area. ….And so I understand why some have written, it could have been me; it could have been us. [1]

 So it’s hard to avoid that catastrophist feeling that somehow this Warehouse Fire is also the end of an era, and that things are likely to get worse for the survivors, and for artists and musicians or anybody netting under $30,000 a year looking for safe affordable housing in this city. We can already see the mechanisms of disaster capitalism in the mayor’s public statements and the mainstream news’ blaming and stereotyping the victims: a cautionary tale (this morning I heard the editor and chief of the relatively speaking “alternative” East Bay Express on KPFA on 12/5/16 refer to the victims as “burning man” types). Already you can see them use the Tragedy of the Fire as an excuse to retroactively justify all the previous evictions, as well as the onslaught of forthcoming ones (as if “yes, they only care about our safety,” as our warehouse’s landlord claimed at the eviction trial, when for over a decade he had been looking the other way….until he realized he could evict us, and then rent the place out for 3X the amount. Last I heard, it was still unrented…but he can write it off—at taxpayer expense--for those ‘improvements’). “If we wouldn’t have evicted them, a fire would’ve destroyed them too!” “We saved their life by evicting them!” Etc...

They milk the disaster (and the feeling of disaster) in ways similar to the mass hysteria stirred up on a national level in 2016 by social engineers who figured out how to make mass media and social media work together to cause further chaos, and fragmentation of democratic “impulses” (i.e. people) in the last election. Locally, use this disaster to fuel their anti-artist (and, I’d argue, anti-Made In Oakland) agenda.

This anti-artist agenda itself isn’t new. The criminalization of artists who love and value local culture (more than say the placelessness of Hollywood or Silicon Valley), and who provide a community service to this city, at extremely cheap rates, if the city but knew or appreciated it, had been ongoing even before the tech boom. As it so happens, this is one of the things Kiyomi Tanouye and I would talk about. We could bond on that principle, that faith in local artists…but she also had skills I lack! And, chief among them, was her ability to organize multi-genre, and multi-media events, publicize them, and bring people together who might not otherwise…..She was a commanding presence, but more in the sense of “okay, time to get down to business” sense. She could be smart and deep without losing her sense of necessary fun. I remember her smile, as much as her “furrowed brow,” when thoughts rolled fast and she was on a verbal roll (some call it “holding court.”).  Her serious laughter…..She could thus make me feel at home during meetings to organize the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival. If she was in the audience and we were playing music, and by chance I made eye-contact, it always made me get in the groove better…..

Oh, I wanna sit down with the mayor, with tears in my eyes, and say, “you know what Kiyomi would have wanted,” but that sounds too much like “a politician,” and besides others know her way better than I did…..
From second hand (mostly facebook) hearsay, there seems to be a general understanding that The Ghost Ship was far from an ideal, safe, venue, even compared to some of the other warehouses that once laced this city. For instance, I heard one story from someone who had lived there who said he’d offer to do repairs and build out the place to make it safer (stairs were mentioned, and another exit door; probably sprinklers…..). He was prevented from doing so either by the landlord (Ms. Chor N. Ng), and/or the man he rents it to (Mr. Dereck Ion Almena, who one paper calls the building’s manager) who then sublets it to the artist collective. I don’t know all the facts, but there’s reason to believe that the landlord deserves at least as much of the blame as the renter (ION), based on my experience with other warehouses.

In every case, the landlord knows that there are people living there (even if that’s not what he tells the city), but generally doesn’t care as long as he’s getting his check. But neither will he fix things, or at least pay for some of the materials so that the self-directed artists (there’s usually at least one carpenter) can pay for improvements. Given the fact that these warehouse spaces are often the closest that artists can find to affordable housing (as well as studios), the sublessees often enter into the agreement with a “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude. Sure, they would love to live legally (though there’s always at least one who doesn’t), but for quite a few, it’s either this or homelessness (and they’ll be criminalized at least as much as homeless). In addition, some of us accept such living situations with their hazards (and weather the lack of heat, etc) because even when we did the more legal standard one, or two-bedroom, apartment, where we can’t really make art, the conditions weren’t necessarily any safer or properly heated (however legal).

At least these (illegal) spaces had the ‘perk’ of also being studio spaces, thus cutting into the extra monthly fee we’d have to pay for a studio place (with a midnight lock-out) separate from our living space. These places also provide the “perk” of a necessary community meeting place, gathering place (with the healing powers of dance), to build community in the increasing absence of any sanctioned city supplied spaces (or increasingly as these, too, become privatized, like say “Impact Hub” with its monthly fees for a desk to meet; another example of “making us pay for something that used to be free”).

Furthermore, many of us artist types are more introvert and need someone else to set things up for us, even if they end up being kind of shady (and, yes, some of these illegal warehouse renters are shady, but so are many of the perfectly legal ones---so we’re at their mercy either way, unless we too have start up capital). In any event, the implication that those who live, and/or attend events, at such warehouse spaces are to blame for their own demise (just as, say, Reverend Falwell or was it Swaggert said Katrina was God’s justice on New Orleans for all that jazz, R&B and Vodun), is a convenient way for the City of Oakland (and its real estate policies in particular) to disclaim its own culpability in this tragedy.

This does not mean that the renter (Mr. Ion) is not without fault, but it will be interesting to see if the landlord will be punished as much as the renter, even if he’s not to blame for arson. Beyond that, the only blame the city government is giving itself is that it didn’t crack down on this kind of illegal activity sooner (I hear rumors that some warehouses were able to buy off city officials to prevent such disclosures) rather than blaming themselves for creating and fueling a local economy and culture that made such illegal, and unsafe, gathering spaces more of a necessity than they were in, say, the 1950s and 1960s, when Oakland was more of a walking city with a legal, albiet segregated, nightlife with cheaper real estate and many more small clubs to go out dancing and hear (or be) local talent. It was in the absence of such places that the illegal warehouses sprung up to take up the slack…..

Anyway, disaster capitalism does not require the belief that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the 9th ward levees were purposely left in disrepair in order to kill and displace black folk and make way for the whites who are willing to pay more, or that a landlord purposely set his own building on fire-- in order to realize how the wealthy power elite can benefit by such disasters. And however, “deeply concerned,” Libby Schaaf’s recent statements can hardly hide the developers she speaks for licking their lips in their plan to destroy affordable housing (affordable, as determined by the median income of those already living in a neighborhood rather than the projected “market value” figures based on the income of possible people you’re hoping to lure here).

There will inevitably be a crack down on the few remaining “underground” or “illegal” or “not up to code” (even if safer than Ghost Ship was) warehouse spaces left (ostensibly due to “public pressure”). And this of course would be exactly the wrong course of action. Instead, the city should devote more funds and resources to building and permitting more spaces based on the same kind of collective live/work space principles that Ghost Ship could represent. If the city took a short term loss in subsidizing getting these buildings “up to code,: in the long term, this could economically (to say nothing of culturally) benefit the city (and not just because such warehouses are important counter-pulls that check the inflationary “market rate” economy, and thus value anybody who has a stake in lower rents---the majority of people living here—if not the owners, a powerful minority), but also by creating a cultural export beyond the food/tourist industry.

At present, there are other people living in similar spaces (if not already evicted), panicking that this national (CNN, Reuters, etc) news story of the Oakland Warehouse Fire has BLOWN THEIR COVER. But if it’s too late to avoid the increased intrusion of the surveillance state on what was once a “safe space,” can we somehow take this as an opportunity for equal, respectful dialogue in negotiation with a amply funded City Arts & Culture Department (rather than, say, the city’s ongoing expenditures of tax payers money on outside consultants from Bloomberg, etc., to “study Oakland’s art ecosystem” the better to colonize it!).

That being said, I understand why some would say that I sure am making some below-the-belt ad homimen attacks (“licking their lips”) on city officials, and for one who calls for a more civic, equal, dialogue, I am certainly letting my emotions get hold of me in my characterization of this city’s power structure (Hey, city, you let down your arms criminalizing the patrons of the warehouse, and I’ll let down my arms, and won’t assume your oligarchy is endemic, and can’t change).

But, Frankly, I think Kiyomi would have loved for that dialogue to happen, now more than ever---and I know she had the “people skills” to effect such mediation and negotiation much better than my “hot blooded” effusions.

But City Fathers & Mothers, and Chamber of Commerce, you do have the power to make this disaster a real opportunity so that these artists will not have died in vain! For instance, you can look at recent proposals for that newly declared Black Arts Movement and Business District to find one possible model that address both the housing crisis while also taking pride in the wealth of artistic talent here. Certainly some of these people should be allowed to sit at a board that would be responsible for the programming for a city funded civic auditorium. Or they could have, had you not decided, in the mad rush of privatization, to convert the auditorium into tech offices….

I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out to the media. As I sat in front of a TV on Saturday 11/3 around 6PM listening to the clueless but seemingly genuinely earnest and concerned newscasters on Channels 2 and 5 talking about how they wanted to listen to the hopes and fears of all those survivors of this fire, and the families of those who perished, I felt the media’s ghoulish presence. And I wouldn’t be surprised if right now some script writers weren’t busy plotting a movie, kind of like 24 Hour Party People meets The Towering Inferno, and of course are putting out feelers for real life stories (well, anecdotes) of say, the DJ who plays soul oldies (and was going to guest DJ on KPOO) who died in the fire, and build some boy-meets-girl thing around it, and of course they’ll be looking for drugs. It must fit their “rave” script (then they could tie it into the much hyped OPIOD EPIDEMIC).

The glories of the Oakland Warehouse scene of which I was a part (especially 2005-2011) can not be done justice to by your mass media unless you actually realize that it was fighting a culture war, or you could say “was trying to save you from yourself.” It wasn’t just fighting for “youth culture,” or “multi-cultural safe spaces,” though that was certainly part of it, but for local, affordable culture, grassroots culture, as opposed to the One-Way Street of mechanized, placeless, trickle down culture (whether Brittney, Jay-Z, or the constantly resurrected Neil Young & Beatles). You may even say fighting for the right not to have to always be slick, fighting for the right for warm mistakes! Fighting against consumer society, and insane inflation. Fighting to break down the wall between art and life! It may not have been as “punk” as it had been 20 years earlier, and many of us felt much more on the “defense” than on “attack” per se, but nonetheless warriors, even in our worrying and spacy artist introversion….

Yes, most of us would have loved to go legal if there was a path. Most of us (at least those I met) loved this city much more than what you (oh media, and oh city government) have been trying to replace us with does….

It may seem petty, but it makes me terribly sad that so far not one of the media outlets are talking about how amazingly talented many of the artists in this scene, or, better, showed this art. You would think that if this news media really cares about the human dimensions to this tragedy, it would actually share some of the art. Or, failing that, that some tech conglomerate like Pandora---which coincidentally is based in Oakland (so one would think it has a stake in homegrown Oakland Culture at least as much as the As and Raiders who have ponied up some matching funds)—would seek out this local art, even for putatively selfish reasons, now that “the whole world’s watching”—a misrepresented version of us---and maybe smugly mocking ‘neath their veil of sympathy—but still kinda curious about the art these people made and life, their beauty and dignity….

Perhaps this could help. I’m not saying that every artist who perished in that fire would’ve wanted their art shared, especially now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some did. But it might be a tribute that could help heal the community. I remember brainstorming with Kiyomi, wondering how great it could be if some of these Tech Venture Capitalists could be persuaded to create an “all Oakland” playlist channel (often under the radar, and certainly under the radio) we got here. There was always going to be some resistance to such idea to publicizing the scene because of the fact that many of our spaces were illegal. I know at least one musician who had to turn down a cover story because it would have outed our warehouse space, and made us vulnerable to eviction, but Kiyomi thought it was a cool long term idea once we got some other things off the ground…..And yes, her death, and the death of so many others, makes me feel more desperate than ever to want to do something about it…..but what? How? If no longer warehouse spaces, what (next?). Phone reality? I’m at a loss, a fuckin’ loss….

But I’ve had too much time to think about this stuff since we got evicted from our live/work warehouse this past Spring….and it’s been welling up with news of each other warehouse I’ve heard shuttered. This is the more structural crisis the majority of people who attended Ghost Ship that fatal night knew was threatening them. The “great sucking sound” of musicians, and music, leaving Oakland…..a new "gentrified" Oakland encroaching that seems even less balanced, less healthy, than before….and, frankly, meaner, more self-destructive in its culture (even though we’re supposed to be grateful that we’re in some “blue state bubble”).

If you made it this far, please forgive me again. I leap ahead of the immediate grief to abstract cultural analysis. But genuine expression is difficult in words without music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the artists at Ghost Ship knew that more than “talking head” America. Or I guess this says less than a pithy TWEET, or a Meme with the picture of Ghost Ship’s raging fire in the background that reads, “That moment at a candle-light vigil when all you can do is SCREAM!” (I’ll bring my trumpet).