From Someone Who’s Used Oakland’s Alternative Housing — Stop Blaming My Friends
By Jenny Yang
Today, I woke to find that the Los Angeles Times wrote the most disrespectful article I have ever seen in a mainstream newspaper about The Ghost Ship tragedy. I am totally appalled by the main point of the story — which focuses on lack of permission and violation codes — and the extensive elaboration of folks illegally living in the warehouse. It paints an ugly image and takes away any sensitivity for the complexity of human life. It offends me deeply that the devastation of losing our loved ones is overlooked, and that we may need to be given space and acknowledgment for just letting us grieve.
What I have to say to about The Times article, and the other media that have been describing the situation similarly, is that when we live in a world where we are all only one step from being on the streets, with no affordable housing or support, worrying about keep up to “code” goes out the window and gives way to the instinct to survive.
When capitalism and money become the mainstay of how we get to interact and relate, those of us who (1) do not have the money and (2) have the simple desire to pause from capitalist-type behaviors and adopt another way of relating to one another, will do whatever it takes to be together as humans. We’ll do what it takes to stay connected and create deeper connections that nourish our well-being.
Looking at the bigger picture, so many countries around the world are not up to code, but many of them somehow have some of the happiest and most colorfully vibrant people on earth. It is contextual in a way that I do not have to explain today but would be glad to go into on another occasion, if need be.
To return to my main point, when money is something all of us need in order to stay off the streets and remain safe in this world — especially in cities which are already often a struggle to live in — people will do what it takes.
More and more when rules are set without support or alternatives for those unable to meet them, it leaves space for people to become criminalized.
What makes life worth living is feeling alive and expressed in our potential and creativity. Art is a way for many to do so, and in a time and place where money matters more, people will find small ways to keep more cash in their pockets to be able to devote attention to their art and supply themselves with the materials and space to create.
So few of us have extra money to spend after working so much, only to have it drained by rent and commute and food. It is our creative side and these outlets that often keep us going with a sense of hope in a rather dismal, violent, abusive and unjust situation, at home and abroad.
Whether we directly experience it or not, we cannot deny its existence. And we are all affected by it or influenced in some way.
People will find ways to cope, gathering together in spaces that can make light of the suffering, transform it, analyze it, dismantle it, or grieve it safely, even for a brief and small moment. Doing these things makes a huge difference to some, and oftentimes leads us to grow and learn about ourselves in ways we never expected.
I have been participating in, organizing, and co-creating a world of local art and music, dance and small grassroots venues and spaces within Oakland for the last 13 years — and it has saved my life. It has kept me sane and taught me things that no formal institution, and certainly no bureaucracy, has or ever will teach me.
I have been challenged emotionally, physically, psychologically, and even spiritually in taking the time to create, support or simply be in these handmade and non-corporate spaces. But in the action of doing so, I was also given medicine in a way I needed in order to change and be well.
Being a part of these small circles that often overlap, my well is watered and nurtured, and I have been healed in so many ways. The contact I have had with so many different folks has broken off those parts of me that did not work and continue to shape me in positive ways. When I participate, I continue to explore and be fulfilled in ways that no job or business can offer.
In helping to create and support DIY spaces, I have become a better person than I used to be with others, breaking down the many walls of judgment that used to be so strongly and solidly in place. I have looked at myself and learned the art of self-reflection and am more and more accepting of the unknowns and adaptive — or grounded — amidst the winds of change.
I have had the great privilege of meeting people doing interesting and incredible things I never thought possible. I never needed to go to such things as Burning Man because I got to live it everyday, and yet I can see why such an event would exist and why people would want to expand and build upon such creative energy.
Burning Man, as established as it is today, started from a group of friends who were renegade enough to be themselves despite the regulations. The benefits so many people accrue from going to BM came from the rules people were willing to break. That we have bike paths and bike lanes today for us to safely traverse came from friends of mine who were willing to take to the streets at all costs, who went to jail, and who went to great lengths to keep going even when the city shut them down. But the city benefited. In risking their own safety, they made it safer for everyone today. I would like you to know this.
I have been able to explore more than just art and music, but dive into the world of science, social justice work, peace work, organic food and farming, holistic health and well-being, and even new career paths. It gave me the courage to do more, to get out and travel, to move, to love and relate in ways I never thought I would or could, simply by being in a room with such different people sharing their lives with me. It inspires me to continue to find ways to improve our spaces, to figure out how to bridge the gaps of little funding and how to network for what we may need to protect the resources we already have.
Many of you I have met through these informal spaces, where we get to shed our professionalism and masks and meet as friends and kin. You have filled my life with wonder, light, and inspiration.I have learned so much and have experienced so many emotions through my interactions with you. It is a beautiful and vivid life I get to live, and I am lucky and anchored on this planet.
I have learned so much and have experienced so many emotions through my interactions with you. It is a beautiful and vivid life I get to live, and I am lucky and anchored on this planet. Doing all these things without the permission of city laws and regulations, but instead, by the permission of directly asking and inviting others such as yourselves — and directly — was and still is worth my time and effort.
I have benefited greatly from being able to do so, learning the challenges and blessings offered from different ways of communication and holding our experiences of self. In this way, I want to pass it back and forth. It is for how much I have been able to learn and receive, how far I feel I have come, that has been the lamp and guide of how I want to live my life — to the fullest of my capacity — that I have always been excited about helping others express or find their own.
I am not perfect, nor do I aim to be. But I am part of a community that sees and accepts this; and, this community is Oakland.
As I blossom into adulthood and take on the responsibilities of this stage, I look back fondly at the awkward and at times disgraced, clumsy ways I have behaved, and am grateful for all the lessons and acceptance from others that I was able to receive. I remember and know my process and the steps.
I had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was here in Oakland, in the “clutter and debris.” For this, I honor our imperfect spaces and ask for more support and funding if need be in order to continue the practice of the art of living in a safe and non–harmful manner. I have always made every effort to look out for others, regardless of who they are to me and to at least be open to embracing their friendship or solidarity. And, I am deeply angered I could not save my friends who perished here.
I ask for support and help instead of blame or shame in lacking certain tools when they are not readily provided or affordable. DIY spaces often serve as beacons in the dark night, where people can find their niche, create their own, be themselves with sweet relief, explore something new without being forced to accept things that contradict their values. After all, there’s already so much we must swallow or face within our day-to-day reality.
My friends, who I am now beginning to grasp as gone from this physical plane that we still continue to share, were each bright beacons of light and love. In their own unique ways, they shared and offered a wonderful perspective and wisdom of how to be with one another in community.
Each person was and still is different to me, yet all of them were kind, gentle, intelligent, and insightful. They were funny and beautiful and weird. They were un-warped and untwisted in their authenticity. They were the SOUL unmasked and unmasking. And, I am one of the luckiest people alive because I got to go from space to space to be around them.
They touched my life in ways I will never forget, they gifted me with things I will never misplace. They did not have to die in order for me to know this, but I guess it just reinforces my attention more.
I do not regret what we did or how we were. I just feel terrible I never made my feelings explicit or specific enough to them and more often.
I am saddened that I will not get to see us all grow further and achieve more success, continue to overcome our dark pasts. So many of them were just at the edge of tasting and enjoying things more fully and transitioning into new skin. To feel it snuffed out is a wound to my heart. I have lost enough already, too many good people have gone too soon. Losing more is nauseating and terrible. I think of how much we have all been through and I am deeply humbled and in awe, though some of the realizations leave me saddened. But I am also very proud of them. I am proud of all of you. I am touched and moved and grateful and often left speechless.
Only now have I been able to put these thoughts in words. What amazing people! How lucky I am to call them friends. How privileged I am to be friends with you. I do not take this for granted. Please know this. Even if closeness or intimacy is not meant now or ever, I still love you as you are and have gratitude for how we get to coexist. Whether or not you identify as an artist does not matter much to me. I love and respect you, nonetheless.
So today, for all this, I mourn for those lost in the fire, and I continue to grieve. I celebrate and hold a light up, and will keep going even though my heart has been broken over and over again.
For my fallen loved ones, I will hold my head up and continue developing this heart as I have. For my fallen friends, I bow my head. Not only because it goes with the weight of sadness, but also in my deepest regards and great respect for who you have always been to me. And, and will continue to be until I go.
May you rest in peace. May you be freed. May you forgive me for any pain I have caused in my unknowing. My dears, may you continue forth to become the light you are. I love you and I miss you. May you return Home.
Rest in peace Ghost Ship. You were really a Friendship in disguise. May you carry the souls of my friends to a safe place and may this ship journey on beyond the horizon. May we be reunited one day.
With love, compassion, and connection from a Bay Area native and Oakland resident, I bow my head down today and pray for the safety of the fallen as they go into the next realm. I pray for peace and ease in the suffering of their families, their lovers, their friends. I thank the Fire Department for their compassion, for the businesses that have been holding space, for the organizations that have begun to raise funds for services, for the OPD for coming to our side in this time of need. I thank the healers, the hospital workers, and press that has been helpful in sharing information without intrusion. I thank you, passerby, for reading. May you all be in peace today.