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Arts advocacy after Ghost Ship: Mutual aid and brazen ignorance


Writing for Open Space, the blog of San Francisco MoMA, journalist Sam Lefebvre examines local artist-led fundraising relief efforts after the Ghost Ship disaster, showing that some of them have been blind to the housing needs of other Oakland residents, especially working-class people of color. While the Ghost Ship tragedy has highlighted the need for safe, affordable housing for all Oakland residents—and for all people living in gentrifying urban centers—some Oakland artists have set themselves apart from their working class neighbors, appealing to city government for preferential treatment based on their supposed special contribution to local culture. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The ordinance reflects DeCaprio’s personal experiences of Oakland warehouses as refuge. It’s also tribute to his former housemate Denalda Nicole Renae, an eviction-defense organizer who died in the fire. “The fire was at an art event, but it was in the sort of unsanctioned space where a lot of people who are ostracized, maligned, and oppressed find at least relative safety.”

But oppression leading some people to warehouses doesn’t make warehouse tenants an oppressed class. And rather than an honest reckoning with their role in gentrification, DeCaprio noted a streak of brazen thoughtlessness among the artists newly threatened, and thus newly politicized, in the wake of the fire.

“As a formerly homeless person and an activist, I’ve watched white artists with money but little consciousness assume leadership positions and speak on everyone’s behalf,” he said. “That’s basically re-traumatizing for people who’ve long been rendered invisible.”

The most prominent advocacy outfit to form following the fire is We the Artists of the Bay Area, which is led by a “first circle” of thirteen people associated with industrial arts, Burning Man, and the tech industry (including Jon Sarriugarte, creator of the fire-breathing snail-car ridden by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at her inauguration.)

Over 10,000 people signed a WABA petition that calls for local governments to compassionately regulate what are described as code-defiant “artistic accelerators and incubators, fostering the creative capital that makes the Bay Area such a vibrant place to live.”

Fire survivor Nihar Bhatt is among the artists who found the technocratic jargon alienating. “The underground scene that a lot of the people who died were a part of isn’t about to be institutionalized,” said Bhatt, who coauthored a competing statement. “But there are organizations amenable to the direction of development here — they shouldn’t claim to speak for all of the artists in the Bay Area.”

Image of Ghost Ship memorial via the San Francisco Chronicle.