On Violence, Oakland, and the Future of First Fridays

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For all everyone's been talking about the tragic shooting at First Friday, it's worth noting that there's still a lot we don't know. We can't yet tell the extent to which this was related to First Friday itself — that is, we don't, and may never, know whether something about the event's general melee facilitated this, or whether the suspect would have killed Campbell anywhere, and that intersection and that moment just happened to be the time and place. Someone in Oakland was shot and killed an average of once every 2.8 days last year. Especially if, as some have reported, Campbell was affiliated with a gang, this murder was, save for the setting, much like the 138 others this city has seen since January 1, 2012. We also don't know what, if anything, the City of Oakland's official response will be, as the two city officials most closely involved with First Friday thus far — Marketing Manager Samee Roberts and Deputy City Administrator Arturo Sanchez — have yet to return repeated phone calls. (For what it's worth, Mayor Jean Quan, wrote in a statement that "the City is taking immediate action to assess the security and overall nature of the event and will meet with our community partners to determine the needed measures to make sure First Fridays will continue to be safe and successful moving forward.")

But in earlier interviews, Roberts and I have talked at length about the way that First Fridays are, in her words, "marketing that money can't buy" for the City of Oakland. But for an event that's attended heavily and increasingly by San Franciscans and folks from elsewhere in the Bay Area, often as something of an entry-level Oakland experience for people who may otherwise be nervous to be downtown after dark; an event that's become a major talking point in Oakland's PR strategy; an event that's gotten attention from major media outlets near and far, a high profile runs two ways. After all, in that same interview, Roberts also told me "nothing will dampen the spirit faster than somebody getting injured." It's much too soon to tell whether that'll be borne out, of course, but it's worth noting that throughout my coverage of First Fridays, many of the attendees, business owners, and officials I've spoken to have specifically cited the specter of a shooting like Friday's as a worst-case scenario for the event. Some even considered it an inevitability.

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In the past year or so, First Fridays has grown from a small, contained art walk to an all-out street party that now draws some 20,000 people to downtown each month — and thus carries with it all of the same challenges and opportunities of any large-scale event in an urban center. Crime and chaos are nothing new there — previous iterations have seen firecrackers set off dangerously close to crowds and bricks being thrown; last month, a gun was reportedly fired, though there are no known injuries from that event. And even as the event has gotten bigger and bigger and concerns about violence and vandalism have mushroomed, the management structure of the event has remained muddled. First Fridays have been managed thus far by an ad-hoc and ever-shifting alliance between the City of Oakland, various local businesses, and neighborhood associations with no sustainable funding model or dedicated management staff; as recently as December, Roberts told me the City would need to raise "a couple hundred thousand" dollars to continue paying for security, street closures, and other costs associated with keeping the event going. This isn't quite as simple as an event becoming the victim of its own success, but the stakes are certainly higher than they were six months ago. As Lukas Brekke-Miesner wrote on his blog 38th Notes early Saturday morning, "The past few months, the event has gotten too big for its britches, and tonight it burst at the seams." In the words of Susan Mernit over at Oakland Local, "Not only has a young man — one of too many killed in Oakland — lost his life, the rest of us who've patronized First Friday as a giant street festival testifying to strong community have lost our sense of security."

I was at that intersection about five minutes before the shooting, and I can't pretend I wasn't rattled by it. As Mernit eloquently pointed out, it's all too easy to forget that Oakland is a city beset by violent crime, especially if you (have the good fortune to) live in a neighborhood near the lake or along the Broadway/Telegraph corridors. Friday's murder was far from unique, and it was no more or less tragic than any other, but it may prove to be remarkable insofar as public perception is concerned: We're all aware, at least on an intellectual level, that Oakland is an empirically dangerous place to live, but we're also under the impression that Oakland's murders are confined to a specific group of people and a specific part of the city. That may have changed on Friday — at least in some small, fleeting way. Throughout the many conversations I've now had about the shooting with friends and acquaintances, I heard the same thing over and over: This crime made real for people the fact that they — we — live in a city that's being eaten alive by gun violence. Or as Mernit wrote, "what really happened is that Oakland's gun violence problem — rampant in so many parts of the city — spilled over last night into the bright and shiny Uptown streets where we like to take visitors, new arrivals, and potential business owners on the special night locals use to tout Oakland's charms."

Part of the trouble here is that everything that draws 20,000 people to First Fridays each month — the crush of bodies, the anonymity, the seeming lack of consequences, the general free-for-all — opens the event up to violence and danger. As Brekke-Miesner wrote in his post, "It should be noted that Oakland’s trendy rebirth is very much propagated on the rebellious image of gritty Oakland ... And so it was that Oakland’s signature brand of senseless violence reared it’s ugly head in 'New Oakland’s' front yard tonight." Or as I wrote back in December, "precisely what makes First Fridays fun, [...] what makes Oakland attractive, to insiders and outsiders alike — its unruliness, its organicity and viscerality, a quality that the [New York] Times has likened to an 'unsettled urban frontier' and that the writer Ishmael Reed called in his 2003 ode to Oakland, Blues City, 'brawling and husky' — is also what can make these things scary." Art Murmur got scary on Friday, but I don't know that a hyper-regulated, sanitized event would be anywhere near as fun, or as popular. I'm not necessarily suggesting that the city pull the plug on First Fridays — it's plain to see that the event has done great things for Oakland. Mostly, I'm reeling, and I'm thinking, and I'm wondering how we can reconcile this city's very real problems with its equally real potential. If anyone figures that out, let me know.

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