No Charges in Lake Merritt Drumming Incident, OPD Says Noise Complaint Was Not A Priority

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ELISE EVANS / COURTESY OF SAMBAFUNK! / FILE PHOTO
  • ELISE EVANS / COURTESY OF SAMBAFUNK! / file photo
The high-profile case surrounding a white Oakland resident's noise complaints against Black and Latino drummers at Lake Merritt has not resulted in any criminal charges, according to the Oakland Police Department. In a lengthy statement sent out late last Friday, OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson said there has been a "great deal of misinformation" circulating about the incident, which has sparked widespread debates about gentrification and racial profiling in the city.

As I reported last month, a small group of drummers with the Oakland-based group SambaFunk! were drumming in the early evening on Sunday, September 27 when multiple OPD officers showed up in response to the complaints of a white man who apparently lived nearby. According to OPD, the caller alleged that three of the drummers had assaulted him. The drummers, led by Theo Williams, artistic director of SambaFunk!, have vehemently denied those accusations — and have alleged that the caller had assaulted Williams when he showed up to the park and grabbed Williams' wrists. 

After hours of taking statements from people on the scene, OPD officers issued citations for battery to two members of the drumming group and to the initial caller, according to OPD's latest press release. The police statement said officers on the scene did not issue any citations for a noise complaint and did not handcuff anyone. In an interview after the incident, Williams argued that he felt the police response was excessive and biased and that the cops had mistreated the drummers while generally taking the side of the white caller (who police have not named). According to Williams, roughly a dozen OPD officers ultimately responded to the call that night.

In the late-night press release, OPD said that the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office decided last Thursday not to file any charges regarding this incident. "Based upon our charging standards ... and our thorough review of the evidence, we declined to file charges," Teresa Drenick, spokesperson for District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, told me by phone this afternoon. 

See Also: 
Police Threaten to Cite Residents for Lake Merritt Barbecues
Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com


The lack of charges will likely do little to quell the heated debate that the incident has sparked. In its statement, OPD emphasized that the situation only became a priority when a caller alleged that he was the victim of assault. It's noteworthy that OPD's statement emphasized that it did not send officers to the lake when it had initially received numerous calls complaining about noise from the drum circle.

Watson's statement said: "The Oakland Police Department had received multiple calls regarding the drumming noise prior to the altercation but had been unable to respond due to other priorities. The priority of this incident was elevated once an allegation of an assault was made."

In the days after the controversy exploded on social media, prominent activists and longtime Oakland residents argued that noise complaints and the sometimes aggressive response from police had become one more tool of gentrification — a way for newcomers to target the cultural activities of people of color. (Since then, Black churches in Oakland have also faced noise complaints, further fueling the frustrations and anger). Regarding music in the park, officials have since clarified that unamplified music, such as a drum circle, is allowed during park hours. Though OPD didn't directly say it in its latest press release, the statement seems to imply that these kinds of noise complaints are not a priority for the department. I asked OPD officials today if the department in the future would send officers to respond to this kind of noise complaint, but a spokesperson has not yet responded.

The Lake Merritt incident sparked the creation of a group calling itself "Soul of Oakland," which has organized numerous events and says its aim is to "defend the arts and culture of Oakland in the face of rapid gentrification." The group sent out a press release this afternoon saying it had not received any official information about the district attorney declining to issue charges. As a result, one of the drummers plans to show up to an arraignment tomorrow morning at Wiley Manuel Courthouse in Oakland, according to the group, which also plans to hold a press conference outside the courthouse. Drenick, the district attorney's spokesperson, told me that she could not comment on why the individual may not have received information about her office declining to issue charges, but she said there will be no arraignments related to the incident.

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