Saturday, December 3, 2016

Artists Who Survived Oakland Warehouse Fire Discuss The Tragedy, Those Missing, Need for Safe Underground Spaces

'If people think by punishing spaces it will make potentially unsafe underground venues go away, they’re wrong.'

by Sam Lefebvre
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 6:01 PM

Smoke billows out of Ghost Ship, a warehouse artist collective in Oakland, during last night's fire. - PHOTO BY SEUNG LEE
  • Photo by Seung Lee
  • Smoke billows out of Ghost Ship, a warehouse artist collective in Oakland, during last night's fire.

Bay Area party promoter and record label owner Nihar Bhatt says he arrived at Ghost Ship last night at 11:15 p.m. He stopped out front of the building to chat with musician Russell Butler and Joey Casio (a.k.a. Joseph Matlock). Then Casio entered the building. Approximately ten minutes later, Bhatt says someone shouted, “Fire!”

Attendees started spilling out of the Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse, billowing smoke in their wake. Bhatt recalled people out front yelling their friends’ names. He could also hear wood buckling inside. “It was surreal, hard to believe the horror unfolding,” Bhatt said.

“The overwhelming feeling was of complete powerlessness."
Bhatt has attended several events at Ghost Ship in the past year. But this one, he said, was expected to draw the biggest crowd yet.

His friend Butler, a local electronic music who also performs as Black Jeans, said that performers had yet to begin when the fire started. Johnny Igaz — who’s unaccounted for after the fire — was playing records in a booth at the back of the room.

According to Butler, approximately sixty people were present for the gig (not including residents who may have also been in the building). “I’m sure it would’ve swelled to double or triple that number later on,” Bhatt said.

“A lot of my friends were on their way."

Some of those who remain unaccounted for after the tragic fire are integral members of the East Bay arts and music community.

Bhatt, who co-runs prominent local party series Surface Tension and record label Left Hand Path, described Chelsea Faith (Chelsea Dolan), who is still missing, as a “key link between the Nineties rave scene and a new generation of producers, including myself, who consider her a mentor.”

And his friend Casio is well known in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest for his industrial-techno sets as Obsidian Blade. He remains missing after entering the building, as well.

Bhatt said that “a lot of us owe their politics and their musicianship to [Casio]. … He emboldens people to break rules.”

Micah Danemeyer, who is also missing, “is just a tireless promoter of the underground scene, even when it was a completely unrewarding role,” Bhatt said.

At least nine people died and dozens remain unaccounted for after the three-alarm fire at the Fruitvale live-work space. Officials say they are preparing for nearly 40 casualties at the scene.

Bhatt and Butler wanted to emphasize in their interviews with the Express that the local underground music scene isn’t to blame. The counterculture scene gravitates toward these potentially unsafe and “illegal” venues because of the mercenary local housing-market and the premium on space.

They also said that these non-permitted residences that host underground shows are often the only safe place for marginalized people, those who find above-the-board and sanctioned venues unsafe or inhospitable.

Sadly, some of the dozens of attendees who remain unaccounted for are transgender people and people-of-color.

“We need spaces that are open to folks who are beaten down and oppressed by living daily under patriarchy and white supremacy,” Butler said.

“Last night, had the potential to be incredible.”

That said, Bhatt admitted that “several people told [him] before this that they were thinking of calling out [Ghost Ship] for being unsafe, for being a fire hazard.”

“I think they bit their tongues because we desperately need places to gather,” he said.

He also argued that the city cracking down on underground scenes won’t be a solution. “If people think by punishing spaces it will make potentially unsafe underground venues go away, they’re wrong,” he said. “The trouble is the lack of spaces to begin with. Places that are safe and also somewhat unscripted are necessary.

“Otherwise this will happen again.”

Nihar and Butler were scheduled to perform tonight at The Legionnaire Saloon, but they’ve turned the event into a quieter gathering for the affected community. The bar is contributing a portion of the night’s proceeds toward fire relief. Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a registered nonprofit in San Francisco, created a crowd-funding page for the victims at

Was Operator of Oakland Warehouse Fire Venue 'Warned' of Safety Issues, 'Illegal' Construction, Danger?

City had been investigating the building

by Nick Miller
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 1:27 PM

Derrick Ion Almena allegedly operates the Ghost Ship venue and Satya Yuga art collective, the site of last night's Oakland warehouse fire. Just hours after the blaze killed presumably several dozen people, he posted the following Facebook:


But several commenters on Ion's page accused him of being warned by local law enforcement, building officials, and even friends that his warehouse parties and event space was dangerous.


Ion has yet to respond to social-media messages, or phone calls and texts to a number for Satya Yuga.

City of Oakland records show several "habitability" complaints made against the property's owner, the latest on November 14,  specifically citing an "illegal interior building structure." Officials also visited the building on that date.

A city investigation against the warehouse was ongoing when the fire hit last night.

As the Express also reported: "On November 13. another complaint had been lodged against the property's owner alleging "a ton of garbage piling up on the property" next to the warehouse, including possibly "hazardous" materials."

The Express will update this post with more information.

Building Engulfed by Deadly Oakland Fire Had Pending Habitability Complaints

City inspectors visited the building on November 14.

by Darwin BondGraham
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 11:02 AM

At least nine people are confirmed dead and several dozen are missing after a fire ripped through the the "Ghost Ship" warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood late Friday night.

As many as 100 people were crowded inside the warehouse for a party when the blaze erupted. They struggled to escape the flames and smoke. Officials fear dozens could have been killed.

City records show that there were habitability complaints made against the property's owner as recently as November 14 regarding an "illegal interior building structure." City inspectors appear to have visited the building on that date, but were unable to verify whether there were code violations. The city's investigation was still pending when the fire broke out last night.

On November 13 another complaint had been lodged against the property's owner alleging "a ton of garbage piling up on the property" next to the warehouse, including possibly "hazardous" materials.

The warehouse is owned by a trust set up by Chor N. Ng of Oakland, according to property records. The Express was unable to contact Ng.

The inside of the "Ghost Ship" warehouse. - HTTP://WWW.OAKLANDGHOSTSHIP.COM/
  • The inside of the "Ghost Ship" warehouse.

In October 2014, the city cited Ng because of housing and other structures that were being built inside the warehouse without permits.

The previous month, the building was also noticed for blight because of a large number of pallets and construction materials blocking the sidewalk.

Firefighters who battled the blaze last night reported that some of the victims were likely trapped in the building because they couldn't escape down a "makeshift, one-way stairwell" that connected the first and second floor. The stairs were made of wooden pallets, the firefighters said.

Photos of the interior of the warehouse show that it was a labyrinth of rooms and nooks crowded with carpets, furniture, and art — all of it highly flammable.

City officials didn't immediately return calls and emails from the Express seeking more information about the warehouse's various building code violations.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Local Green Energy Authority Quietly Launches in Alameda County

'Without sounding trite, the future is bright.'

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 4:57 PM

The Oakland City Council voted last Tuesday to become part of a regional green energy authority, joining twelve other cities in Alameda County. Together the cities represent 90 percent of the county's total electrical load.

"Without sounding trite, the future is bright for the power authority," said Victor Uno of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Uno was one of several labor union representatives who served on the regional steering committee that helped set up the East Bay Community Energy Authority.

"This will be the largest of its kind given how many cities are joining," Uno said. "It will have a real impact on how power is acquired, and there will also be community benefits and training for workers."

So far Albany, Emeryville, Berkeley, Oakland, Piedmont, San Leandro, Dublin, Livermore, Hayward, Union City, Fremont, and Alameda County's governing boards have all voted to join the authority, which legally came into existence today, December first.

"This is a big deal," said Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, another steering committee member. "With the concerns we all have at the national level about how the Trump administration might backtrack on climate policy, it's important that local jurisdictions and states step up."

Kalb said the energy authority will initially purchase renewable energy on the open market, but quickly use ratepayer revenues to build out local renewable energy projects and make the existing energy infrastructure more efficient, while also reducing electricity bills.

The authority is being incorporated under a 2002 state law that allows local governments to takeover the process of deciding where to purchase energy from incumbent investor-owned utilities like PG&E. Instead of paying profits to shareholders, the public authority reinvests ratepayer revenues in lower electrical bills and new green energy projects.

Uno's union hopes to prepare workers for many of the construction, engineering, and maintenance jobs the authority is expected to generate across the region. Workers will be building solar arrays, maintaining windmills, and also performing upgrades on energy infrastructure to make it more efficient.

The new board of the East Bay Community Energy Authority is expected to meet for the first time next January.

Oakland Ethics Commissioner Accuses Officials of Abusing Access to Free Warriors and Raiders Tickets

'The only reason they’re going is to enjoy the game [is] to enjoy the liquor and the food.'

by Steven Tavares
Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 4:04 PM

Last night, an Oakland Public Ethics Commissioner said he's certain that officials are abusing the privilege of free tickets to Warriors and Raiders' luxury suites.

“The only reason they’re going is to enjoy the liquor and the food,” Commissioner Stephen Shefler said during an informational hearing at City Hall. “These people are 99.9 percent enjoying the game and one-tenth of a percent of the time doing oversight."

He added that residents have a right to be angry about this misuse of free tickets.

After a series of media reports earlier this year accusing local officials of hoarding Warriors tickets and even doling them out to cronies, the Oakland PEC agreed to investigate the city and county’s methods of distributing tickets for all events at the Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena.

But despite this ongoing investigation and public uproar, the number of request for free tickets have not abated.

For example, Council members Dan Kalb, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Abel Guillen reportedly have two-tickets each for tonight’s Warriors game versus the Houston Rockets.

Wednesday’s hearing was not part of the investigation, according to the commission’s vice chairman, Marc Pilotin, but instead a discussion of ways to reform the process in the future.

As part of the licensing agreement between the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the complex, and the three sports teams that use the facilities, a total of three suites are available to every event. This comes out to 20 tickets at Oracle, which primarily houses the Golden State Warriors, and 18 tickets for games and events at the Oakland Coliseum.

Officials are supposed to use the freebies to oversee facility operations. But critics say this rather large inventory of tickets allows city officials to essentially become de-facto season-tickets holders on the public’s dime —  or even curry favor from potential campaign donors.

Councilmember Larry Reid, who often sports a floppy Raiders cap to Oakland Coliseum Authority meetings, is one of the most frequent ticket users, according to the PEC. He requested tickets for events 356 times over the past three years. Council members Gibson-McElhaney and Guillen also often request tickets for events.

Scott McKibben, the executive director of the Coliseum Authority, told the commission last night that each entity involved in overseeing the complex — the city, county and JPA — distributes the tickets on their own.

Typically, each official is limited to two tickets per event, and on a first-come, first-serve basis. In addition, once officials receive the tickets, they are required to declare to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, along with a reason for the transaction. However, there is no record of who actually attends the event.

The value of the luxury suites varies. At Oracle, they range from $150,000 to $400,000 a season. And suites for the Raiders go for up to $75,000.

McKibben had used 85 free Warriors tickets, worth $255,800, in three years, according to an investigation by the East Bay Times.

Officials are supposed to attend events to oversee venue operations. But some commissioners strongly questioned whether this was actually happening. “How long does it take to oversee the operation of a facility?” asked Commissioner Dana King.

King at times was incredulous. “Members of the marijuana commission are not getting free pot. The Art Commission doesn’t get free works of art. Why does this commission get free tickets?” she asked.

During a contentious moment, McKibben refused to place judgment on how much time an official performed oversight versus watching the event.

A representative from the FPPC told city commissioners that state law does not require disclosure of such details. In addition, additional oversight public officials' use of tickets is not on the FPPC’s radar at this time.

It's unclear how many staff hours are dedicated to management and allocation of free Warriors and Raiders tickets.

JoAnne Speers, a professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco, said public officials have a duty to be stewards of public resources, including tickets to events at facilities it oversees. Even the slightest appearance of misuse is damaging to the public’s trust, she added.

A better distribution policy would focus on using tickets to spur economic development, rewarding employees for good work, and allow underprivileged youth and community groups, who might not have access to games and concerts.

Allowing a single person to dole tickets might also help with oversight, Speers said.

Elsewhere, city officials in Santa Clara refused access to tickets at the new Levi’s Stadium, which hosts the 49ers and other large events — perhaps recognizing the pitfalls that can arise from free tickets.

However, in the state capital, Sacramento, the city actually owns a suite at its new arena for the Kings. Nearly two-dozen tickets, at a value of $200 a pop, are available for every event, and the city intends to delegate a full-time employee — at a $100,000 salary per year — to be in charge of ticket allocation. There is an emphasis on giving those tickets to nonprofit groups, however.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Alameda Health System Leaders Say Hospitals Are 'Safe Spaces' for Undocumented Immigrants

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Nov 30, 2016 at 7:45 PM

At their board meeting this evening, trustees of the Alameda Health System, which operates the county's public hospitals, affirmed that they will continue to make healthcare services available to undocumented immigrants and other populations whose care might be imperiled by the incoming Trump administration.

"It's clear a lot of our providers, patients, and staff are feeling heightened concern," AHS CEO Delvecchio Finley told the system's trustees.

He noted that Oakland — where AHS' largest hospital is located — recently reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary city, meaning its police and other city employees won't inquire as to anyone's immigration status, nor cooperate with federal agents by enforcing immigration laws. "We'll try to be in lockstep," he said about such efforts.

AHS Trustee Kinkini Banerjee said the hospital system should spread the message that its services are available to all. She said AHS should make sure immigrants know it is a "safe space."

Graham Brant-Zawadzki and Erica Valdovinos.
  • Graham Brant-Zawadzki and Erica Valdovinos.
Last night at the Oakland city council meeting, two Highland Hospital emergency physicians, Graham Brant-Zawadzki and Erica Valdovinos, read an open letter from doctors in the hospital's emergency department.

They stated: "as doctors, we will continue to care for every patient that walks into our emergency department regardless of immigration status, ability to pay, race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation."

"We will actively resist and will not honor any legislation or efforts to discourage or limit people from accessing healthcare," they pledged.

As to what the Trump administration plans to do to the nation's healthcare system, Finley told the AHS trustees that portions of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, are surely going to be repealed. But he said it's hard to tell what parts of the law will be eliminated, and how this might affect low-income people and those who rely on Medicaid and Medicare.

Regardless of how Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate act on healthcare, Finley said the mission of Alameda County's public health system will "be the same."

Monday, November 28, 2016

Town Business: Green Energy and Jobs; State of Refuge; Public Bank

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Nov 28, 2016 at 7:07 AM

Donald Trump, perhaps the most conflicted, verbally abusive, narcissistic, misogynistic, unqualified man ever elected president of the United States, has a lot of Californians feeling like the end times are near. However, progressive ideas are gaining traction in state and local politics. This week, the Oakland City Council will discuss several.

State of Refuge: Since Trump declared victory, Bay Area sanctuary cities have repeatedly reassured their residents that they won't facilitate any federal efforts to punish undocumented immigrants solely because of their citizenship status. Oakland is going one step further. At tomorrow's city council meeting, the council will discuss a resolution that urges Governor Jerry Brown declare California as "state of refuge" and to use California's economic and political clout to push back against anti-immigrant policies.

Green Energy and Jobs: It's been over a decade in the making, but Alameda County is finally setting up a massive green energy program that could create thousands of high-wage jobs in the East Bay. The kicker is that electrical bills will be lower than what PG&E currently charges, according to a feasibility study completed by the county.

The program is called community choice aggregation. Under a CCA, participating cities will automatically opt-in their ratepayers, including homeowners and businesses. Then the CCA — a public authority called East Bay Clean Energy, which the county set up last October — will purchase energy on the open market, circumventing PG&E, but still using the utility company to bring electricity to people's homes and workplaces. The result is that East Bay Clean Energy can use ratepayer revenue to purchase cleaner energy, or to even fund local, clean energy projects like solar and wind, or efficiency upgrades. This could put Alameda County on track to source as much as 80 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2021.

Oakland's city council will discuss whether or not to join a county-wide CCA on Tuesday night. Looming over all this is Trump's promise to reinvigorate the fossil fuel industries, coal in particular, and reverse the Obama administration's efforts to slow climate change.

Public Bank: Earlier this year, after Wells Fargo's vast bogus account scam was uncovered, governments from the city of San Francisco to Pennsylvania's state treasurer announced their intention to stop doing business with the banking giant. Oakland doesn't currently bank with Wells Fargo (in 2014 the city gave its business to another giant lender also accused of breaking the law, Chase), so there's nothing to break off.

But Oakland councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb want to go a step further than just cutting business ties with big banks like Wells Fargo. They want Oakland to look into the feasibility of starting a public bank. A public bank could, among other things, fund affordable housing projects, invests in local and small businesses, and finance other economic activities that further public policy goals.

There are only a few existing public banks in the United States. The biggest is the Bank of North Dakota. The cities of Santa Fe and Philadelphia are also considering incorporating a public bank. The council will discuss public banking on Tuesday night.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Lawyers Guild Decries Oakland Police's 'Brutal' Tactics Against Trump Protesters

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Nov 21, 2016 at 12:58 PM

Legal observers who shadowed anti-Trump protesters in the days after the election claim that the Oakland police used “brutal” methods to “suppress” political dissent.

“We saw the use of tear gas and concussion grenades being shot in a manner that was indiscriminate into crowds that contained children, handicapped people, and elders,” said Carey Lamprecht, the co-chair National Lawyers Guild Bay Area Chapter, at a press conference this morning in Oakland.

Cat Brooks, the interim executive director of the of the NLG Bay Area Chapter, said the tactics the police used against anti-Trump protesters resembled controversial methods deployed against activists who took to the streets in the wake of Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART police officer in 2009. Brooks also compared the police department’s approach to what demonstrators experienced in May 2015, when Mayor Libby Schaaf briefly implemented a ban on nighttime street marches. That policy resulted in dozens of arrests after protesters were “kettled” — blocked from leaving an area after a dispersal order.

In response to the NLG's claims, OPD issued a statement today saying it takes all use of force incidents seriously and will investigate to see if any policy violations occurred during the anti-Trump protests.

More than 12,000 activists marched through Oakland the evening of November 9. - NICK MILLER
  • Nick Miller
  • More than 12,000 activists marched through Oakland the evening of November 9.
"Currently, the department is investigating and reviewing the use of force incidents that occurred during protests this month," the department's public information officers wrote. "Per departmental policy, we review all uses of force. Additionally, the Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division investigates all use of force complaints."

However, Brooks blamed Oakland’s current Assistant Police Chief David Downing for deploying less-lethal weapons on demonstrators. “It’s deputy chief Downing who from the Oscar Grant period to now is the one that’s the one in charge of making the calls that get protesters brutalized,” she alleged.

Downing took over as OPD’s de-facto chief after former Chief Sean Whent and two successors were forced out earlier this year as a result of the police sex crime scandal. He once told a group of officers that they might have to use water canons on protesters. Downing was criticized for the remark, but Mayor Schaaf’s office later claimed the “hoses” comment was rhetorical, and that Downing was simply explaining that if the department’s less-lethal weapons like pepper spray are taken away, they would have to resort to antiquated tactics.

Thousands of protesters marched in Oakland’s streets on November 9 and early into the morning hours of November 10 in response to Trump’s surprising victory. Small fires were set and many store windows were broken by so-called anarchists. Thousands more marched the next night and there were fewer reports of vandalism.

Schaaf and Council members Abel Guillen and Lynette Gibson McElhaney held a press conference on November 10 decrying property destruction during the protests.

The NLG, however, has sued the city multiple times for collectively punishing protesters for the acts of a few vandals.

This time, the NLG is saying that their own legal observers — who follow protesters and police to ensure compliance with department policy and adherence to civil rights — were targeted by Oakland cops. “The way in which our legal observers were treated in the streets was unacceptable. They were met with marked aggression and an uptick in brutality,” claimed Lamprecht.

As the Trump administration transitions into power, many expect the protests to continue. Lamprecht said the NLG is putting Oakland on notice that civil and political rights must be respected.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley Leaders Vow to Protect Immigrants Against Trump Administration

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 3:16 PM

The leaders of three East Bay sanctuary cities are sending unambiguous signals that they will try to protect immigrants against xenophobic federal policies that the incoming Trump administration is expected to adopt.

In response to Trump's election, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt issued a statement today reaffirming that his city won't enforce federal immigration policies.

"Protecting our immigrant community is a foundation of community policing that makes Richmond a safer place for all our residents," Butt wrote.

Along with the mayors of over 100 other cities representing 55 million people, Butt co-signed an open letter Trump stating that the well-being of immigrants affects the well-being of all.

"Immigrants are integral members of our cities and counties, and immigrant families are crucial to our success," the letter states.

Richmond and Oakland are both cities of immigrants.

About 42,000 Richmond residents were born in another country, equal to 38 percent of the total population.

One-quarter of Oakland's population, or 113,00 people, are immigrants, according to the U.S. Census. Approximately 62,000 of these people are non-U.S. citizens. One study found that as many as 15,000 undocumented immigrants live in East Oakland.

Earlier this week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote in an op-ed that her city will "proudly stand as a sanctuary city — protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws."

Oakland councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington, Larry Reid, Noel Gallo, and Abel Guillen are sponsoring a resolution opposing immigration raids and calling on the Obama administration to impose a moratorium to protect the civil rights of immigrants.

In Berkeley, staff in councilmember Jesse Arreguin's office told the Express that Arreguin is committed to protecting Berkeley's immigrant community and its status as a city of sanctuary. In fact, the sanctuary movement began in Berkeley in the 1970s as clergy worked to shield soldiers and immigrants from the federal government. Arreguin, who will take office as Mayor of Berkeley next year, plans to announce a more comprehensive response next week.

Responding to Trump's rhetoric and his election, Berkeley councilmember Kriss Worthington introduced a resolution to extend the city's existing "hate free zone."

"If President-elect Trump enacts policies or Presidential Orders to execute any of his hateful messages, millions of minorities in Americans will face unprecedented persecution, particularly people of Arabic decent, Muslim faith, Asian-American, AfricanAmerican, Women, Immigrants, Disabled, and LGTBQQIA," wrote Worthington.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Oaklanders: Next Police Chief Needs to 'Clear Out Bad Apples'

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 12:52 PM

According to the results of a newly released city survey, Oakland residents want a "thick skinned" police chief who can "end corruption in the Department" and "display high moral standards and integrity."

Three Oakland police chiefs were forced out earlier this year when a scandal involving the sexual exploitation of a seventeen-year-old woman by multiple Oakland cops was unearthed. Since then, the department has been without a top cop.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth commissioned the survey as part of a larger effort to gain community input on who they should hire to lead OPD.

"It is essential that the public has a genuine opportunity to develop the roadmap for how they expect the Police Department to move forward under new leadership and that they are kept abreast of the process at each key step," Schaaf said in a press statement issued earlier today.

The survey was taken by 638 people, 92 percent of them Oakland residents, and 55 percent of them with jobs in Oakland.

The results, posted on the city's web site, show that Oakland residents want a more accountable department, but they also want increased police services.

Responds said they want to see more officers walking their beats, rather than cruising in patrol vehicles, and that the police should improve their response times to all types of reported crime.

They also said OPD should hire more officers, something the department says is necessary in order to improve response times. Respondents also want a chief who will prioritize deescalation tactics among officers, especially when they're responding to calls involving someone having a mental health crisis.

But by far the top response was that the new chief needs to be someone who can "lead cultural change" in the department.

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