THE LAST FIRST FRIDAY? REFLECTIONS ON OAKLAND’S BATTLE WITH VIOLENCE

First Friday was a cult movement for many years. An underground following of folks would gather in uptown Oakland to enjoy a burgeoning gallery scene in a few block radius centered at 23rd st and Telegraph. That small hipster art movement has since ballooned into a sea of 20,000 people strolling from 27th & Telly all the way down to 14th & Broadway and beyond. It’s been a bit overwhelming, but at least the growing population has started to look a lot more like Oakland. All the sudden you saw everyone who called this city home represented and it felt cool. The Art Murmur grew to absorb old school car culture, food trucks, street performing, and music. In short it became a real life multi-medium talent show in a city in need of something tight. But with a free unregulated night life, it was only a matter of time before the honeymoon was over.

The past few months, the event has gotten too big for it’s britches, and tonight it burst at the seams. At 10:51pm at least three people were shot, one of them fatally, at 20th St and Telegraph. Then two more young men were wounded in a drive-by shooting shortly before 1am at 14th St and Webster. And lets not forget that there were was gun fire during January’s First Friday as well. If you’ve been in recent months, you’ve seen the difference, and many of us from The Town knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Oakland composer, pianist, and emcee Kev Choice weighed in via facebook saying, “After going last month, I saw a shift in the dynamic in the streets. Didn’t seem safe or positive after a certain hour.”

When more young folks first started showing up at First Friday a few months back, I thought it was good because it introduced them to a whole new social scene in Oakland that was free, positive, and all ages. It also forced many white and/or middle class Oaklanders who don’t venture east of the lake to actually reconcile with the diverse totality of Oakland. In other words, if you thought you could cultivate a homogenized Oakland existence that felt edgy without ever feeling a little uncomfortable, think again.

It’s safe to say that while many Murmur attendees have enjoyed the influx of young people and people of color in recent months, others felt like their alternate Oakland universe was being encroached upon. It should be noted that Oakland’s trendy rebirth is very much propagated on the rebellious image of gritty Oakland, so the fact that those same people are invested in keeping that grittiness out is both fucked up and unrealistic. And so it was that Oakland’s signature brand of senseless violence reared it’s ugly head in “New Oakland’s” front yard tonight.

I’m not writing this to place blame. I’m writing this to say that we have a violence problem in this city. It’s devastating that another young person was killed tonight, but it’s also troubling that before the weekend is over another young person will probably meet the same fate, albeit with much less fanfare. If you want to live in this city, then you have to help us deal with this dilemma. You can’t ignore this away. You can’t gentrify it away. We have a crisis on our hands. “Wake up Oakland, we have an epidemic going on,” Kev Choice said. “It cant be covered up by new fancy restaurants, trendy new bars, or sports stories. Sadly, this happens damn near everyday in East, West, or North Oakland. We have to face the harsh reality, and not continue to ignore the issue. It’s an EPIDEMIC.”

And that epidemic is rooted in some really deep shit. In America we have a gun culture, so all too many people solve problems with guns. You place that tendency in an urban city amidst disenfranchised populations who live in poverty and constant trauma, and you will have even more violence. It’s not rocket science to diagnose, but it’s very hard to find a solution. One thing that’s clear however is that we need to address this together. If you are quick to point the finger at ratchets, hipsters, thugs, or police, take a step back and craft a more nuanced analysis. We need to address this together.

We can’t undo generations of oppression in one month, but we can start by taking a united stand making it clear that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. If First Friday somehow endures, we need to show up in mass and regulate ourselves. You see someone harassing women, let them know to be cool. You see kids trying to cause problems, interrupt that shit by have a positive and humanizing interaction with them. No it’s not easy to inject yourselves into testy situations, but if you’re serious about saving something good in Oakland, then you have to put yourself out there. As someone who works in Oakland public high schools, there are many times when I don’t want to put myself in harms way, but doing something to deescalate early on is always more safe than trying to contain something after it’s blown up. This approach mandates that a diverse group of folks really from the community show up and model positive behavior though (I do have to admit however, that the thought of a bunch of well-intentioned squares leading conflict mediations with a bunch of goons is pretty comical).

Will folks soldier up and take this on? I certainly hope so (Anyone down to print up neon t-shirts that read “Respect My City”?). But if we can manage this, we can’t stop at the uptown. If we do, the only message we’ll be sending is that it’s okay to disrespect each other and kill each other as long as it doesn’t happen where there are white people and development dollars. If we want to handle violence we need to be clear that we won’t stand for it anywhere. This takes community members taking on personal risk for a greater good. Am I being unrealistic? Perhaps, but it’s 4am and I’m devastated for my city yet again. If you’re new here, please help us out, but if you’re an Oakland native who has felt the wrath of violence far too many times for way too many years, help lead the way.

In parting, I want to shout out my friend Jesus El who was grazed by a bullet tonight in a seperate incident at First Friday. There was a drive-by shooting at 14th and Webster in which a gunman opened fire hitting Jesus, as he stepped outside Disco Volante, and a 19 year old Laney student as he ran away from the shooting. I don’t know the other young man’s identity, but, you may know Jesus as the director of Oakland’s High Altitude, a non-profit that teaches leadership and life skills to African American youth thru gymnastics and acro-dunking. And you’ve most definitely seen him leading the Show Time Dunk Team as they do amazing acrobatic dunks during Golden State Warriors games (Watch his Ebony Magazine video feature). I mention these details, because when people are shot in Oakland, I think a lot of us assume they were aimless thugs, rather than vital members of our patchwork community. You never know who will be caught in the cross-fire. Stay strong Jesus!

I’ll leave you with an apropos poem I wrote a year ago. It’s called Cacophony Shop Blues

I.

I often wonder how this city can house so much beauty and bitter pain
Often wonder how this city can be both purgatory and Promised Land
Hell for the right price
Paradise for the high bid
The New York Times paints us hipster chic
The Oakland Trib is a police blotter in ink
Park Slope or West Bank? Baghdad or Berkeley?
A cacophony of extremes that leaves us misrepresented at the least
Both our assent and demise relegated to a paragraph at most
It’s something
But blurbs won’t do this town justice

II.

I watch my students brave the harshest weather in summer
When it gets hot, pistols often follow suit
Hydrants and bodies burst open in the streets of East Oakland
I feel the burden of this beast in my gut
Oh the things we learn to stomach…
Gentrification serves up overpriced small plates
As the old block serves up under valued small children
Babies are bloodied in a crossfire seldom contextualized
Young men battle for pride in a city that is closing them in and moving them out.
Murders earn headlines with no body
But economic genocide isn’t even in our vocabulary
Money pushes people out
Whether you use uptown lofts for lease or used glocks in the east
They both serve the same God complex
We all want control
Hipster mothers fight for middle class as
Activists fight for plazas as
Marginalized young men fight for corners…
crumbs
We all just want a piece of this half-baked American pie
Some how we’re convinced we all want something different
We’ll get after ends by any means
We get it how we live… sitting in or shooting out
This cacophony of opinions as loud as barrages of bullets
And the cries of wounded children

III.

Gabriel Martinez was 5
Carlos Nava was 3
Hiram Lawrence was 1
When they met the fate of guns
Murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a city
A land of oaks and folks I love
A beautiful city with demons and, most recently, dead babies
Don’t trick yourself into thinking you’re a world apart
Don’t let this January sun numb what December wrought
And don’t let your privilege or apathy write you an alibi
Paulo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
And it was Audre Lorde who said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Don’t save your testimony for cocktail parties or funerals
And don’t save your care for those most like you
We’re on this ship together whether you like it or not
Bob Marley said, “When that rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s house.”
Or apartment
Or tent
Or child