The Dec. 2, 2016 fire that killed 36 people attending a party at an Oakland warehouse known as The Ghost Ship united the local DIY music and arts scene. A fundraiser for the victims has brought in nearly $800,000, and thousands have attended memorials and vigils in honor of those who died.
Unfortunately, the tragedy has also united neo-Nazis in a new cause — targeting DIY community spaces in a concerted effort to get them shut down for potential code violations.
The Ghost Ship had been a fixture in the Fruitvale neighborhood for years. It hosted parties and live music. Several residents lived in the building, as well — including Derick Ion Almena, who began renting the building in 2013.
Almena sublet rooms to other tenants and rented out the other spaces for events soon after he moved in. The building was not up to code, and arguably should never have been used as a residential space or venue.
There are about a dozen similar spaces in the San Francisco Bay area, and hundreds of them across the nation. While the safety of such buildings is a concern, that concern must be weighed against what these spaces provide to their communities.
Spaces such as The Ghost Ship aren’t simply music venues or art galleries, they’re community centers that act as a space for organizing, networking and supporting not only artists and musicians — but also activists and community leaders. They provide safe spaces for marginalized people and affordable housing in cities that often lack it.
Residents at The Ghost Ship each paid $600 a month in rent. That was “a bargain in a city where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment has risen to almost $2,500 a month,” The New York Times reported.
Rent has increased by 70 percent in San Francisco in the past five years, a rate of increase higher than anywhere else in the United States, according to TheTimes.
DIY spaces such as The Ghost Ship potentially keep thousands of people off the streets each year. A reasonable response to the horrible fire there would be for communities to come together in recognition of the vital role such places play so that residents, activists and allies can work together to help bring them up to code.
That’s what several DIY venues have done. For instance, 1919 Hemphill, “a volunteer-run, not-for-profit, inclusive community safe space” in Fort Worth, Texas launched an online fundraiser after several complaints to the local fire marshal prompted an inspection.
The fundraiser initially asked for $2,000 to help bring the building up to code, but it has already raised nearly $4,000 from 115 donors — enough to keep the space open.
Al Rios, who runs 1919, told Fort Worth Weekly that he believes the venue was targeted by neo-Nazis.
“A group of people have anonymously called in false reports to our local fire department claiming that various outlandish things have happened,” Rios said. “As a result, we have to make sure the building can pass even the most rigorous of inspections. This will require some repairs and improvements to the building as well as possible fines if we don’t comply within a certain time period.”
In a signal to the neo-Nazis behind the campaign, the logo for the 1919 fundraiser features a swastika with a slash through it.
There’s an organized campaign to target DIY spaces across America. It appears to have started on the “Politically Incorrect” message board on 4chan.
“The Oakland warehouse fire occurred in a venue popular with leftists and degenerates, as well as normie partygoers,” one user posted. “These venues are known as ‘DIY spaces’ and are often unsafe, as they don’t necessarily follow the fire codes. You might even have one of these places in your neighborhood or city and not even know it …”
“Our communities need people like us to report violations and keep unwitting leftists from getting themselves killed,” the 4chan user continued. “Do not visit these places, do not harass squatters and do not make false reports. City officials are depending on us for correct information so that they can prevent this type of tragedy.”
The above post and others like it quickly racked up hundreds of responses, many of them including the names and addresses of venues that should be inspected. The people in the discussion threads began referring to themselves as “Right Wing Safety Squads.”
The campaign may seem like a reasonable and not particularly racist or homophobic effort at first glance, but the comments on the message board make it undeniable the Right Wing Safety Squads’ mission is deeply rooted in racism, homophobia and a general hatred of all things they find vaguely associated with “the left.”
The comments are full of the most egregious racial and homophobic slurs. None of the users complain or condemn it.
“Pepe the Fire Safety Frog” has become the mascot of the Right Wing Safety Squads.
Also, it should be clear that despite their sarcastic overtures of protecting “unwitting leftists,” safety absolutely is not the concern of the Right Wing Safety Squads. They are not interested in bringing these places up to code or helping the communities that rely on them in any way.
They want to shut them down. Period.
The discussion-board users state, in no uncertain terms, that their goal is to get rid of these spaces — and that calling in potential code violations is an effective and legal way of doing so.
“This is a LEGAL way of getting them OUT OUT OUT!” one user explained. “It’s quicker and these faggots will be homeless in the coldest time in winter.”
In case you’re wondering, “them” refers to the list of marginalized peoples identified with slurs in a previous sentence, which began with the words “As much as I love dead …”
You get the picture. These aren’t good people trying to save the lives of their political enemies. They are racist, anti-Semitic homophobes who would like to these groups of people to die but don’t want to get in trouble over it, so they’ll settle for trying to shut down safe spaces and hopefully have all these “degenerates” thrown out onto the streets in the middle of winter.
They’re right in one regard. Theirs is an effective tactic. Not everyone has been as lucky as the people at 1919 Hempill. Several venues have already been shut down in the weeks since the campaign started.
In perhaps the most well-known instance, the punk venue Burnt Ramen in Richmond, California was red-tagged by code inspectors on Dec. 17, 2016. Its six residents were told to immediately find alternate housing until the building was brought up to code.
A GoFundMe fundraiser for Burt Ramen has raised nearly $8,000 so far, but officials haven’t even told the residents what codes were violated or what they need to do to make the building legally inhabitable, according to The San Francisco Gate.
In the meantime, they’ve lost their home.
The Experiment Comedy Gallery was apparently another victim of the Right Wing Safety Squads after the Brooklyn comedy club banned a pro-Donald Trump comedian and announced plans for a 31-hour “Fuck Donald Trump” comedy marathon, The Verge reported.
It too was shut down for code violations, following complaints.
The 4chan message boards of the Right Wing Safety Squads claim responsibility for closing about two dozen DIY spaces so far, including the Bell Foundry in Baltimore; the Rhinoceropolis in Denver; Drkmttr and The Glass Menage in Nasheville; the Kitty Castle in San Jose; Purple 33 and the Big Art Factory in Los Angeles and Bridge Storage and ArtSpace in Richmond, California, among others.
Numerous other DIY venues are currently being targeted, including QuoLab in Savannah, Georgia; Queer Agenda in Charleston, West Virginia; Boing! Anarchist Collective in Salt Lake City; Seventh Circle Collective in Denver; The House in Jacksonville; Victoria House in Beaumont, Texas; Purple Polilla in Knoxville; Studio Vostok, The Toast and The Matador in Vancouver; Flux Capacitor in Colorado Springs; The Black Cherry in Toledo; the 21st St CoOp in Austin; the Elmwood Park DIY Co-Op in Middledton, Wisconsin; Tribal Haus in Baltimore; Cafe Infoshop in Fresno; The Firehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts; LAVA in Philadelphia and 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley.
Many activists and residents are taking matters in their own hands to prepare for complaints and inspections, and to hopefully avoid what occurred at The Ghost Ship from happening again elsewhere.
Residents of one warehouse in Oakland held “a fire safety meeting” to make sure all the residents were aware of exits. The building’s manager also painted large arrows on the floor to indicate the exits, installed a new exit door, ordered new fire extinguishers and is installing a fire escape ladder that extends to the roof, according to The San Francisco Gate.
That didn’t prevent the warehouse from being shut down for three code violations after a surprise inspection on Dec. 14, 2016. Code enforcement officials ordered the residents to immediately vacate the building and gave them only one day to make the necessary repairs, The Gate reported.
Artists and activists in San Francisco are urging officials to place a moratorium on the fire inspections and to give notice for all inspections in the future.
Most of the 4chan threads for the Right Wing Safety Squads have been deactivated and archived, perhaps due to the racist comments violating the site’s rules. However, there’s no doubt that users are still at it.
If a community space in your town could be targeted, contact it to see how you can help. Online fundraisers seem to have helped save some venues. Since code violations often must be addressed within only a few days, planning and preparing in advance is a safer bet than waiting until a space gets targeted.