A crowd of around 5,000 mourners gathered in vigil for the victims of Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire at the edge of Lake Merritt on Monday night. They held electric candles and glow sticks, and listened as friends, family and community members took turns speaking to the crowd.
Mourners took turns over the PA system, offering words of wisdom, celebrations of missing or passed loved ones, and reflections on the recent tragedy. A ream of white paper was unrolled on the stage, on which the bereaved could draw and write their thoughts. Participants shared messages of insight, quotes from the victims, passages from literature, and exaltations of the vivid, vibrant arts and music community centering on the Ghost Ship collective.
Those at the vigil held LEDs, electric candles and glow sticks instead of actual flames, as was requested by the organizers out of respect for the victims and mourners of the deadliest fire in Oakland’s history. So far searchers have accounted for 36 victims, although more may be recovered as the search continues. The Red Cross set up a station offering water, coffee and snacks to attendees as well as blankets and mental health support, if needed. A couple passed out cups of hot peppermint tea.
There was a sense of shared community in the gathering, but tensions were also evident between the crowd and the media and politicians. A mother with a missing son, who is known to some as “Fresh,” talked about some of the political and economic currents that underlie the tragedy in a city that is struggling with rising rents and gentrification. She said “the landlords are gouging us to pieces” and rallied the crowd to know that there are rights for California tenants, and that they can sue slumlords and win. “We deserve rents that we can afford,” she said.
Amy Morrill, who works in harm reduction at raves advocating safe recreational drug use, spoke on behalf of “the LA underground rave family.” She said to the crowd that “your California underground rave scene loves you and is here for you.” Morrill shared $136 in donations she’d collected during a dance party the night after the fire.
The partner of victim Em Bohlka talked about her life, saying that Bohlka is trans and that she is “so sorry to the trans community for all you lost.” Bohlka said she and her partner had moved to Oakland because of its diversity and the accepting and supportive community it offers.
The parents of victim Travis Hough stood up holding an enlarged photograph of him. His mother told the crowd that it heals their hearts to see them. The crowd shouted “We love you!” back at her. Hough’s father said his son was non-judgmental and loved everyone the same. “He even loved a straight, old, suburban dad like me,” he said, making a wry joke.
One participant called on audience members to hold up their lights and observe a moment of silence for the deceased. The only sounds were of the generator powering the PA system and the click of shutters from news cameras. The smells of burning sage and incense wafted through the crowd.
Some tensions were also apparent between media and the suffering community. Members of the press have been contacting grieving family members and friends, some of whom have complained on social media about the barrage. Reporters carrying cameras at the vigil were asked by organizers to remain at the back of the event, away from the stage. At least one woman was arrested. According to a bystander, the woman yelled at a member of the press and touched them while someone else was being interviewed.
One speaker, who said he’d often worked the door at events at the Ghost Ship, said he was impressed that those at events were always respectful. He encouraged those in the crowd who live in “nontraditional warehouse situations” to “tighten it up,” making sure the city doesn’t have a reason to shut down similar spaces. “We are grateful for negligent landlords,” he said. “Keep things tight so nobody loses where they live.”
Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley said that Berkeley stands with all those mourning the Oakland fire. “Artists need a safe place to live and work,” he said, and emphasized that the fire must not be used as pretense to shut down similar spaces. The crowd cheered and one person from the back shouted “Can you be our mayor, too?”
After Bates, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf took the stage. Some members of the crowd booed, and some clapped. Throughout her speech, people from the crowd interrupted to yell “Go home!” or expletives. Others responded with “Let her talk!” Schaaf acknowledged the crowd’s frustrations, saying that part of her job is to hear and feel the anger people have. She said her job is to keep the city together and that their focus has to be on those deceased and their families. It must be out priority, she said “to wrap our arms around these families.”
“This is a city that shows up,” she said.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee took the stage, reading aloud from a message from President Barack Obama about the tragedy. “This is a somber moment,” she said to the crowd.
“In a tragedy such as this,” she continued, “however we lift up people, we must do that now.”
The sister of victim Brandon Chase Wittenauer took the stage, saying that through meditation she had reflected not on what she wanted to share, but what her brother would want to tell the crowd. “Rock on,” she said. “Keep the music going.”
Several at the event lifted sheer white sails above the crowd. Someone used wands to blow giant bubbles, which floated out above the water of Lake Merritt.
Text by Rachel Cassandra. Photos by Khaled Sayed. Video by Alan Toth.