36 dead at warehouse party fire in Oakland – community mourns, fears backlash.

by Patch O'Furr

Help here: Relief Fund for Victims of Ghostship Oakland Fire

fireGhost Ship” was the name of the warehouse in the inner city of Oakland, California.  I’ve often visited the neighborhood under the booming overhead trestle of the BART train.  The warehouse was zoned for business, but harbored a live/work space that was built under the radar of building inspectors.  It was funded by parties and rent from people living in RV’s parked there.  It was home for a collective of artists and musicians from the cultural underground of the San Francisco Bay area.  Many were pushed out of previous homes by pressure of rising rents. These most expensive costs in the country are making a crisis for culture.

Friday, December 2, was the date for an electronic music show.  Golden Donna was headlining with the L.A. label 100% Silk.  It wasn’t a rave just for dancing and fun, but a deeper connection of creativity.  Many watchers were themselves into producing music, or making big-scale art for festivals like Burning Man.

At around 11:30 PM, at the height of party time, a crowd of around 100 people were in the warehouse.  The inside was a wooden “labyrinth” built like a tree fort or a set from a pirate movie.  3D art pieces, pianos, tapestries and rugs, colored lights and eclectic furniture filled every corner like a flea market.  A second level they called “The Rave Cave” was accessed by a single staircase built from wooden pallets. Things were eccentrically built so you might need a map.

Minutes later, thick smoke overcame the building. With panic and darkness, dozens were trapped in the upper level. One eyewitness tells of escaping, and others were led out by shouts of bystanders unable to go in.  The fire ripped through 9,000 feet of space not built to code, with only 2 exits and no sprinkler system.  72 firefighters were unable to control the flames until the ceiling collapsed.  It left a heartbreakingly destroyed shell holding 36 victims, and the ashes of many dreams.

They say it could have been worse. I’m told that some partygoers went to the wrong address because they were told a Street instead of an Ave. Fire inspectors think the cause was electrical, although they haven’t cleared enough rubble to know. It’s said that the guy who ran the space laughed at codes, did shady wiring, or was a tweaker. That’s gossip, but I had a friend who reconsidered moving in there several years ago. At the time, he told me how the manager seemed sketchy.

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Mainstream news is reporting a story of possible criminal irresponsibility by management.  But many of those directly affected aren’t hearing them tell another part of the story.  It’s about creative people priced out of their own communities, forced to flee a rent crisis, and finding refuge in underground places where they can afford the freedom they need. They often don’t follow building codes or get show permits, because they can’t afford those.

People lost their lives in being unable to flee a fire, but also in supporting what they loved.  And many like them fear more bad things to follow the tragedy – like a crackdown against artist spaces and shows in places they can afford.  The entire culture may suffer.

We gravitate to the spaces that say: Welcome. Be yourself. For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand — or can’t, or doesn’t seem to want to try.

The news made sadness on the same day as the happy revival of Frolic, the furry dance party.  I covered the story of their venue, historic gay bar The Stud, facing death by the rent crisis of the SF Bay.  Party founder Neonbunny posted to the Save Our Stud group:

“Furries have always been the outcasts among outcasts. There’s not alot of venues that accept different cultures, new traditions, and just general going against the norms to express yourself in new ways.

Neonbunny knows many people, but he told me he luckily didn’t know anyone in the fire.

So many people are affected.  This belongs on a furry news site out of shared spirit.  Furries make their own D.I.Y. creative community, so here’s love to everyone else who builds their own.

Cory, a friend of mine, posted on social media:

Feeling horrified, sick and powerlessness…waking up to CNN seeing a massive fire in Oakland then going online and realizing it was at a big Oakland dark synth/art/industrial show and several people I know are missing including someone I consider a close mentor. The Oakland ‘weird underground’ in the last 4 years has meant a lot to me and been a huge source of inspiration; by far my favorite shows ive performed at and some of the coolest people ive met. And always the most trippy of shows, a hot bed of unusual creativity. Refreshing missing list checkins, meditative prayers and good thoughts.

At least four victims were friends of my friends.  Someone close to me teaches a brother and sister who lost their parents.  I’m acquainted with a DJ who got to the party just in time to see the fire start from outside.  Both members of the band Introflirt died – I was a fan and went to their shows, and could have been there. (There are many tributes coming out for other lost music scene friends.)

Bohemian culture thrives in the SF Bay Area. It’s “furry mecca”, home to some of the roots and luminaries of this subculture.  Other scenes here appreciate furries more than elsewhere.  They come to our shows to invite us to theirs, including burlesque, variety and comedy shows, street fairs, dance events and music videos. You can see it in Neonbunny’s history of organizing Burning Man events.

People at Ghost Ship worked with electro swing band Beats Antique, who play Burning Man.  Below, see them hanging out with Furries and inviting fursuiters on stage. One is DJ Tekfox of Denver’s Foxtrot, yet another party connection.

Tragedy like this feels like smoke before a bigger fire. More darkness is coming.  I can sense more people falling into precarious living and fear, with insecurity stealing their creativity and spirit.  Marginalized people, creative expression and freedom have a lot to fear from the powers of Trump’s America.  Don’t forget that his power was built on property discrimination and splitting desirables and undesirables apart. Watch out for danger and stick together.