The dance music world has pulled together in solidarity in the wake of a tragedy Friday night in Oakland, CA. Flames engulfed a warehouse, tearing through the resident art collective known as Oakland Ghost Ship, which at the time was hosting a party featuring artists from the L.A.-based record label 100% Silk. At least 33 people are confirmed dead, with officials prepared to declare a “mass casualty event” that could see the toll rise past 40.
A Sunday afternoon briefing by a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff, Sergeant Ray Kelly, confirmed investigators had searched only about 30–40 percent of the warehouse ruins, and that the families of identified victims had been notified about the deaths, reports The Guardian.
“Our first priority is the humane and compassionate removal of the victims of this tragedy,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said. “Secondly, we are focused on supporting the families and the loved ones, some who are coming from very far away.”
“Our final focus is doing everything that we can to preserve evidence and to conduct the recovery operation in a manner that allows us to fully and professionally investigate this incident so that we can get to the bottom of how this happened.”
Schaaf confirmed that a criminal investigation team has been engaged by the city, and although city records show the warehouse had a history of violations and complaints prior to the fire, the city is not speculating at this stage about what might have caused the fire.
The 100% Silk label issued a statement Saturday, describing what happened at the warehouse as an “unbelievable tragedy… We are a very tight community of artists, and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families.”
The news sent shockwaves through Oakland’s tight-knit underground arts and music scene. With rapidly rising rents in the city forcing creatives to live and work in shared and potentially hazardous spaces, musicians and tenants’ rights activists both say the tragedy was a symptom of the affordability crisis and the failure of urban housing policy to protect the vulnerable.
“Warehouse parties have been a central part of Oakland for decades,” Nihar Bhatt, a DJ and record label owner who survived the fire, told The Guardian. “There’s a movement in Oakland of experimental black and brown and queer people who don’t necessarily want to be in a bar or a club.”
These sentiments were reflected by Russell Butler, a musician who witnessed the fire and told The Guardian that underground venues were “vital to the fabric of Oakland” for opportunities they provided to underground artists, as well as being welcoming spaces for the marginalized, who “may be harassed or assaulted for just trying to live their lives” in normal clubs.
— Liz Dwyer (@losangelista) December 4, 2016
Causa Justa is a housing rights group that operates in the Bay Area and challenges displacement, gentrification and corporate development with campaigns that represent community needs. The group’s executive director, María Poblet, has expressed regret over certain corners of the media blaming the victims for the fire.
“We shouldn’t have to choose between affordable housing and safe housing,” Poblet told The Guardian. “It’s really insufficient to look at the situation and not look at the structural problems that we have. If you can’t afford to buy a million-dollar home, then you can’t afford to live in this city unless you’re willing to risk your safety. And that’s unconscionable.”
The East Bay Times reports the building was run by Derick Alemany and his wife, who lived there with their children but were not on the premises during the fire. In a weekend Facebook post that has since been removed, Alemany lamented, “Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound… It’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope… to be standing now in poverty of self worth.” The post quickly stirred up controversy, with commenters critical of Alemany for prioritizing self-loss over the lives that perished.
It’s expected the fire has claimed the lives of several figures from the music community. The 100% Silk label confirmed to LA Weekly yesterday that two of its artists, Cherushii (Chelsea Faith Dolan) and Nackt (Johnny Igaz), were still missing. Cash Askew, a member of Bay Area synth-pop band Them Are Us Too, has been named as a victim; Jonathan Bernbaum, who worked as a VJ for Knife Party and Markus Schulz, also remains missing.
We will never be the same. Completely devastated by the loss of Cash Askew. She was one of the most talented and loving people we’ve ever known. Please keep her and her family in your thoughts, along with all those lost in the Oakland tragedy.
A photo posted by DAIS RECORDS (@daisrecords) on Dec 4, 2016 at 7:48am PST
Elsewhere, members of the dance community have criticized the media for its sensationalized reporting of the fire. Promiment dance music journalist Philip Sherburne criticized the (mis)use of the term “rave,” while Bay Area blog 48hills claimed the media coverage hasn’t done justice to the true nature of the Ghost Ship art collective.
“50 years later and the press is still so square it can’t properly describe a warehouse party, let alone an artist collective.”
To media outlets covering #OaklandFire, please stop sensationalizing, calling it a “rave,” and above all demonizing participants & victims.
— Philip Sherburne (@PhilipSherburne) December 3, 2016