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Trauma, Politics, and Healing After the Ghost Ship Fire

Outside my front door, attached to a pole that has a sign informing people of the street sweeping schedule, is a sticker. Over the sticker’s yellow background is the image of a brown-skinned gentleman wearing a red beanie and green tinted lenses. Below the illustration, it reads: “AG. Directed by Alex Ghassan”.

Ghassan posted that promotional image to the pole while leaving one of the parties we host in the backyard of our residence. 

Over the past three years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a team that hosts a series of parties, known as RegularsOnly. These gatherings, like many of Oakland’s “underground parties”, are always an eclectic gathering. We’ve brought together the likes of some of the Town’s most talented people: artists, scholars, and athletes. Attendees include former residents who now live in Antioch, new Oaklanders who can afford to live by the lake, people who make a living as nurses, folks who are illegal entrepreneurs, and a few homies who are damn near to being professional craft beer connoisseurs.  We’ve had poetry nights, reggae afternoons, and even a wedding reception for our beloved neighbors. While Halloween 2015 was probably the most memorable party, I’ll never forget that one time NBA Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, was in the yard at the same time as the guy I always see asking for change outside the corner store. Evidence that the backyard is a venue where people can momentarily get away from the world that Oakland has become, to be in an environment where they can just be regular.

Regular human beings. Before their titles, they’re simply human beings. Living life.  

When Ghassan posted that sticker, I hardly knew him. But from our first encounter, he was adamant about us working together. Unfortunately, Ghassan, an artist and father of twin girls, passed in the horrendous fire that claimed 36 lives at the Ghost Ship warehouse in East Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood last week. 

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A mutual friend, Gabe Meline, expressed his pain via Twitter:

“There's a time to discuss permits and sprinklers and economic forces that push artists into unsafe spaces but for now I just want Alex back.”

And minutes before that, Meline, a journalist with KQED, posted one of the most poignant comments throughout this unfortunate event: “The Tragedy Will Be Politicized.”

In the following days, Meline would proceed to write an emotional piece about the tragedy titled, “It Could Have Been Any One of Us”. A few days later, an article appeared in the NY Times with the same title.  I read both pieces, and some: I read articles from survivors, like this one from Michael Rosen. I saw the statement from President Obama and tweets from California Governor Brown, as well as Oakland’s Mayor Schaaf. I also saw the tweet from Oakland’s council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney that caused an uproar.

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My newsfeed was a non-stop onslaught of stories ranging from: who these people were, to what appliance was at fault, to the role of gentrification in this mess. I read about the Ghost Ship’s manager, Derick Ion Almena, and his breakdown on National TV. Then I read the story about the girl who sent one final text to her mother before perishing, and the tale of the couple who died in each other’s arms.   

And all week long, I couldn’t help but see and react to the social media updates from friends, Oaklanders, who are not just artists, but all members of this community.  

There was coverage by local outlets, like the East Bay Express, KRON, and KTVU. Constant reporting by the LA Times and CNN. And heavy hitting pieces, like this demand for a seat at the table, by Sarah Burke and this poetic piece by Sam Lefebvre

As the smoke cleared, bodies were recovered and identified. I saw the unfortunate events continue to be approached from two angles: the personal perspective and the political POV.

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Candles and offerings left for the lives claimed by the Ghost Ship Fire. | Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Out of all of the reporting, the mourning, the insight, and speculation, maybe Gabe was right. 

This tragedy has been politicized. It was the artists vs. the governing body of the Town. Mayor Schaaf, who was booed at the vigil for the victims of the fire, turned around and announced a 1.7 million dollar grant for arts in the community. There was a conversation at the Everett and Jones restaurant in Jack London Square, that turned into a “witch hunt”. And then there was the announcement of the nationwide backlash against similar warehouses that host parties and/or function as living spaces for artists. 

Again, maybe Gabe was right.

The scope through which some people have been viewing this tragedy, is a tragedy in itself. In all honesty, it’s a truly unfortunate event. People died. Lots of people died. That should stand alone as a story; thee story. Honor the lives of the fallen, donate to their families, and enjoy the art that these people created during their limited time on this earth. It’s not about politics more than it is about the artists’ limitations to affordable gathering spaces but it goes beyond the ramifications of gentrification. It’s about life, and the loss thereof. 

If you want to bring legislation, gentrification, and the value of land into the conversation please do so in a manner that covers the entire situation. If you’re going to politicize the inferno that engulfed a warehouse’s structure, it would behoove you to take a deeper look at the Town’s overall infrastructure, especially in reference to supporting the artists who’ve been here.

For if there isn’t a solid infrastructure in place to support the people who grow up here and make art, then what will happen to the people who move here just to create art? 

Oakland, this beautiful town of blue-collar creatives striving for a slice of what America promised us, has been suffering for some time. And it’s not just “the artist community” (if there is such a thing) that feels these loses. It’s the community in general.

The people who frequent our RegularsOnly events come from all walks of life, they aren’t all artists, and I don’t think they’d fit into the label as a part of “the artist community” in Oakland. But they are all people. And all of them are dealing with the same issues that “the artist community” is dealing with: mismanagement in City Hall, issues with the police department, the lack of reasonably priced housing, and the unreasonable cost of groceries. And even if they didn’t know anyone directly involved in last week’s fire, they’re dealing with the sad news as well.

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A memorial near the site of the Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire. | Photo: Josh Edelson/Getty Images

Yes, you could look at this as a story about artists who’ve perished, and how the complicated politics of the Town brought this about. But at its heart, it’s a story about people.   

Yes, you can get political, and organize as the group We The Artists of The Bay Area has done. Go in! It’s your right as Oaklanders, as Americans, as artists, and as people. But just make sure that all of the people of this Town, this place that is supposed to a haven for hard working people, have an equitable path to the pursuit of happiness.  

Or, simply pay your respects to the deceased. Drop some dough on their family’s donation sites. And most importantly, go enjoy their art. After all, they were people who lived as artists. 

Alex Ghassan, who once left a party I co-hosted and spread his art by putting a sticker on a pole, had no idea of the message he’d leave behind for me. But that’s what people who live for their art do: they create, never knowing how far it will go. Even if it’s stuck to a pole. 

In Ghassan’s final hour, he continued to create. On the night of the fire, when he posted  a video from inside the Ghost Ship, he left yet another sticker on the world. 

In the wake of this tragedy, it is my hope that the power of the creator doesn’t get overshadowed by a heated political debate. And if it does, as it is starting to do, I hope that results of yet another Oakland political tug-o-war benefit all of the Town’s people, equitably.  

But, a part of me hopes that Gabe isn’t right.  

Banner Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

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