Oakland Fire Survivor: Create Affordable, Safe Living Spaces & Stop Treating Artists Like Criminals

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Mourning continues in Oakland after the death of at least 36 people in a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse, where the victims were overwhelmingly young artists, activists and community organizers. Many local artists and tenants’ rights activists say the fire is a symptom of a failed urban housing policy where rising rents have forced people to live and make art in sometimes hazardous spaces. “We need safe spaces to be able to come into the light and to stop treating artists like criminals,” says our guest, Nihar Bhatt, a Bay Area DJ and record label owner who survived the warehouse fire but lost seven friends.

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AMY GOODMAN: In Oakland, California, mourning continues over the death of at least 36 people who were killed in a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse one week ago. The fire is one of the deadliest building fires in the last half-century in the United States. The Ghost Ship was an artist collective that housed many young artists and musicians, and the victims who were overwhelmingly young artists, activists and community organizers. This is Oakland resident Amir.

AMIR: Obviously, I’m sad. I knew two people in the fire, named Alex and Anna. You know, obviously, I’m sad, but I’m more concerned about their family and their well-being. More than that, I’ve lost two friends.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ghost Ship warehouse was reportedly rife with fire hazards. Its landlord had a history of owning properties with building violations. Many local Oakland artists and tenants’ rights activists say the fire is a symptom of a failed urban housing policy where rising rents have forced people to live and make art in sometimes hazardous spaces. In the wake of the fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has pledged $1.7 million to create and sustain affordable safe spaces for local artists and arts organizations.

For more, we go directly to Oakland, California, where we’re joined by Nihar Bhatt, a Bay Area DJ, record label owner, who survived the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Seven of his friends died that night.

Nihar, welcome to Democracy Now! Our deepest condolences for your loss.

NIHAR BHATT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what happened that night?

NIHAR BHATT: Sure. Thank you very much, Amy, for having me on.

The night of the fire, which was this last Friday—I can’t believe it’s only been a week; it feels like a lifetime—I was going to the event, and going to the event to support a number of friends that were—that were performing that night. And I actually got out of a car, walked over to the building where the event was happening. I was out front. I saw a couple of my friends, and I started chatting with them. There was—you know, it was two friends in particular. One of them went inside midway through our conversation a couple minutes later. He never came out of the building. The other friend that I was chatting with, we hung back, chatted for a little bit.

And then suddenly we heard the word “fire.” We looked over, you know, and in horror. People started pouring out. We couldn’t believe what we heard. You know, we immediately thought, “What can we do?” We were sort of still, you know, about—we were about to enter the building, and we wanted to know what we could do. We were—before we could even formulate our thoughts on that question, the entire building filled up with just plumes of smoke starting to waft out of the building. And we realized there was no way we could enter.

We had no idea what was going on. We waited outside of the building for hours. You know, realizing that no one was coming out, we spent a lot of time just—you know, I just imagined, was just dreaming of our friends emerging, you know, in some way, something happening. But the fact is, the building was—it was not possible to enter the building. Very quickly, this entire incident happened, so much more quickly than anyone could have imagined. You don’t—I don’t think any of us could have imagined a fire taking—taking and completely consuming a building as quickly as it did. Really, the smoke is something that none of us—none of us could have anticipated it would have been that deadly that quickly. So, you know, we watched it happen and waited outside, realizing that a lot of people we knew—in my case, seven people I knew well, people that were really important to me—were inside—and, you know, important to me for a lot of different reasons. And yeah, basically, we waited and waited to hear—to see if there were something we didn’t know. But the simple truth was that they were never coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you—Nihar, can you describe the Ghost Ship, what this space represents for the community, for artists?

NIHAR BHATT: Sure. The Ghost Ship is just one of the few places left where the community could—well, for my community, is one of the few—which is the sort of underground techno and house and experimental electronic music scene—it was one of the few places that was open to us to do events, to—events that had a long timeline and that could go very late into the night. It was a community—it was a space where we could go, outside of the typical bar and club scene that that type of event sort of usually often takes place in, which is—which is really important, because, you know, in bars and clubs, the imperative is to sell alcohol, to—and that’s—you know, whether there are good people working in a bar or a club or not, the reality is, you know, what you have to do is sell as many drinks as possible. And that creates a certain dynamic around a space. You know, it means that the people that are able to shape events in that space are the people with the biggest pockets. And, you know, at a space like the Ghost Ship, you know, and other spaces—

AMY GOODMAN: And why they call it the Ghost Ship?

NIHAR BHATT: You know, I am not entirely sure why the—where that name came from. One thing about the space is that it was—you know, it was a space that our community rented for events. We weren’t—you know, most of the people—the people that lived there weren’t really involved in the organization of that event. But there was some art that was sort of—that sort of was reminiscent of that feel. There was a large ship at one point suspended in the space, and I think that that was part of the aesthetic. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, several residents and friends say the fire highlighted the long-standing issue of the lack of affordable properties in the Bay Area. This is Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.

MAYOR JESSE ARREGUIN: Really, this is a symptom of the broader housing gentrification crisis that’s affecting the entire Bay Area, where artists are being pushed out of cities and pushed into oftentimes, you know, dangerous situations. And we need to do more to create more affordable and safe space for artists to live and work in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Nihar Bhatt, your response?

NIHAR BHATT: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. You know, what we’ve seen—I mean, in Oakland, in general, the Bay Area, there have been thousands of evictions a year. The escalation—the scale of the housing crisis is something that, you know, is well known worldwide in the Bay Area, and that, you know, what has become epidemic in San Francisco has bled into Oakland in a really dramatic way. That’s something that affects, you know, all kinds of people. Within the artist community and within the—in the case of sort of work-live spaces for artists, you see—you know, you see this pretty—very dramatically. You know, there are so many spaces that have been evicted and—evicted in the last few years. The LoBot Gallery in Oakland, 1919 Market Street in Oakland are just two of the spaces that were lost in recent times. And, you know, that’s—it’s just one symptom of it, but it has an effect on all kinds of things.

In this case, you know, it had—it drove people into a space that I think had a lot of—was a compromise. I think a lot of people were conscious that it was not the safest place because of some specific factors about it. Nobody understood the scale of how safe—how unsafe it would end up being. Nobody really—I don’t think anyone could really have predicted how bad this tragedy would be. But it is the case that sort of the reason why people were driven to both live and then throw events at the space—and the majority of people who perished didn’t live there; they were just attending an event there, you know, the majority of people. And the reason why people—why this space became central was because of the dwindling effect of and the lack of alternatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Nihar, Mayor Libby Schaaf has pledged $1.7 million to create and sustain so-called affordable safe spaces for artists. Is this enough? She was shouted down at a vigil for warehouse fire victims. What do you think she should be doing?

NIHAR BHATT: I think there—you know, that is not nearly enough. First of all, this initiative is one that was already in the works before the fire. It’s not—it’s not a response to the fire, but it’s been announced since then, you know, as part of Libby Schaaf’s attempt at claiming that there is no witch hunt or overreaction to the fire. But the reality is, right now, you know, multiple warehouse spaces have already been served eviction notice within Oakland. Right now, you know, in the last couple of days since the fire, many others have been served inspection notices. Inspection notices—you know, 1919 Market, it was an inspection notice that led to their—to their eviction.

And, you know, the reality is, there needs to be much greater action, much more swift action. There’s, you know, the—right now, what we really need is a moratorium on evictions, you know, a moratorium on red tagging of buildings, things that—things that will affect all of the people being evicted, because, you know, what’s happened after this disaster has been, you know, I think, another example of disaster capitalism, a situation where landlords, developers and other people that actually can profit quite a bit from—you know, from closing up and rebooting these spaces are jumping on this and taking advantage of it to colonize even more space within the East Bay. And I see—you know, I think that dynamic is unfolding immediately, and it requires immediate action. Sort of this promised budget in the future is not enough. Furthermore, there needs to be—you know, there needs to be funding for not just live-work spaces, which is an extremely—is an extremely essential piece of this, but also venues for this specific type of art. You know, late-night—the late-night dance music that was played there needs a space to unfold to actually, you know, realize its own purpose, which is to actually have these long, late-night events.

AMY GOODMAN: Nihar Bhatt, who owns the—who owns the building?

NIHAR BHATT: The building itself is owned by some absentee landlords. You know, their names escape me right now. But the building was administered in large part by the master tenant at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And on Wednesday, Oakland’s alternative weekly, the East Bay Express, published an article in which fire department whistleblowers blamed the tragedy on a poorly managed fire department.


AMY GOODMAN: The article reads, “Several Oakland Fire Department employees looked up the warehouse’s fire-code inspection history. But when they attempted to pull records for 1315 31st Avenue from their own fire-prevention bureau’s files, they discovered nothing. ’It’s not even in the system,’ one firefighter said (he asked not be identified for fear of retaliation from the city for speaking out).” He and other firefighters went on to say the department’s building-inspection program is, quote, “dangerously under-staffed and disorganized.” Again, that from the Oakland East Bay Express.

NIHAR BHATT: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I think that the priorities of the city, you know, have not been with safety, have not been with fire safety. And you see—you know, there were only six building inspectors in Oakland. They hadn’t been inside of this building for years and years and years. And I think, you know, that mismanagement and that negligence—you know, there’s been a lot of talk about that’s sort of tried to shift blame to the renters or the organizers of this event for this incident. But the reality is, there is—you know, not only is the Oakland Fire Department very understaffed and underresourced and mismanaged, it seems, too, but also there is a tremendous incentive within the city to not report the space that you work. And the reality is, the people with the biggest interest in defending ourselves and protecting ourselves from further tragedy, of making these safe spaces, are the people who live in these spaces, the people who throw events in these spaces, the people who attend these spaces. But right now, if you report a space, you might be homeless. You might be out of—or you might be out of a space to have special events. So, until there’s a clear and nonpunitive path to people coming into compliance—coming into compliance, to people being able to throw events, you know, in the way that they need—they want to and need to, there will—I think people will continue to operate in secrecy like this. So it’s a double—you know, it’s part of a larger systemic problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want—I wanted to ask you about the transgender people who died in the fire, including Cash Askew from the band Them Are Us Too, a number of transgender people dying in the fire. Since then, multiple media outlets have misgendered them, adding to the grief of the community. Can you talk about this, Nihar?

NIHAR BHATT: Yeah, I think it’s—you know, Cash Askew is somebody who struggled a lot within the music scene for—you know, to be treated equally and to be—you know, to be recognized the way that she wanted to be. And, you know, the misgendering of her and Feral Pines and anyone else, you know, any other transgender victims or people associated with this, just adds further insult to what has already been a horrible tragedy. You know, these people struggled their whole lives for recognition, to be understood as their true selves. And they’re—and it’s the least that we can ask that the—that when paying respect to them, that the media recognizes them for the—in the way that they wanted to be recognized in their lives.

And furthermore, you know, I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons why there were so many transgender people at this event, as well as queer attendees—other queer attendees and people of color who were victims of this fire, is because of the type of space—the type of opportunity a space like this presents. You know, in the mainstream sort of club environment, bar environment, where alcohol reigns supreme, where there’s a different kind of environment, often, I think, people—you know, these marginalized communities can face harassment, can—it doesn’t feel like a safe space for them, for a completely different set of reasons. And so, in a space like this, you know, communities can self-organize and, essentially, be part of it in a different way, be included. And within Oakland, there is a very strong scene of queer, transgender artists, you know, especially experimental artists within the electronic music scene, in particular, and as well as black and brown artists that are—you know, I think that are a really important, key part of the city’s scene.


NIHAR BHATT: And they—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to say that we’ve heard of a number of spaces, from Baltimore to Nashville to other cities, being closed down. And we just got this email from a listener, who wrote, quote, “Here in Denver, our beloved artist spaces Rhinoceropolis and GLOB were shut down last night by authorities. They had been hosting events for independent experimental artists for over 10 years. They passed their annual inspection and were up to code with the city and their landlord,” the email said. It went on to say, “The community was in mourning. Now many are without a home and without the spaces they pour their hearts and souls into. These are spaces radically tolerant for self-expression. We’re all very sad,” unquote. As we wrap up, Nihar, your thoughts about safe and unsafe spaces and what to do?

NIHAR BHATT: Yeah, I think—I think what we see right now is that the—what we see right now is that across the country, like you said, Amy, you know, landlords are, either out of fear or out of the opportunity that this presents for them, shutting down spaces, you know, and the city, in many cases, are collaborating with them. But I think that this will only make the problem worse. By punishing these spaces, we are creating conditions for people to live in even more dangerous places, as well as throw events in even more dangerous spaces.

We need to—the city needs to fund and protect people, that are right now under attack, from eviction, from being thrown out of these spaces. And they also need to fund the arts. They need to find spaces for people to throw late-night—late-night electronic music parties, as well, as a way—you know, because we—people often think of this, you know, funding for the arts, support for the arts, places for artists to live and do their work, as something extra, something beyond the bread-and-butter issues. But I think we’ve seen, through this event, that this is a matter of life and death. You know, we need safe spaces to be able to come into the light and to stop treating artists like criminals, you know, any kind of artist, people who are—whether you’re throwing a dance party, you know, or organizing a work-live space, you know, that is created by themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Nihar, we’re going to have to leave—we have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for spending this time, Bay Area DJ, record label owner, who survived the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Seven of Nihar’s friends died in the Ghost Ship fire. And again, our condolences to you, as we go out with the music of Cash Askew, one of the victims of the fire.


AMY GOODMAN: That was actually Patti Smith, the legendary singer, poet and author, singing “Peaceable Kingdom,” Patti Smith singing Monday night at Riverside Church as we celebrated Democracy Now!'s 20th anniversary. She wrote the song for Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer March 16, 2003, in Gaza. She dedicated the song to all those who died in the Oakland fire, as well as young journalists and activists who have lost their lives. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

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