- Photo by Momo Chang
- Onsayo Abram, Urban Peace Movement’s Nicole Lee, and Kenzie Smith.
One of the Black men at the center of a barbecue incident at Oakland's Lake Merritt that made national headlines says he was fearful he would go to jail — or worse — when a woman called the police on them.
On the morning of Sunday, April 29, Kenzie Smith and his friend Onsayo Abram (who goes by the nickname "Deacon") set out to have a small barbecue on the east side of Lake Merritt in Oakland. Abram grew up by Lake Merritt and attended many barbecues as a kid. He said he hadn't barbecued in a while, and saw the previous Sunday that people were by the lake, having fun. He had the idea of inviting friends for a small barbecue that Sunday.
Little did he know the barbecue would turn into a national news story. In an interview, Smith said he left briefly to change his clothes, and when he returned, he noticed a woman — who has since been identified as Jennifer Schulte — on the sidewalk nearby. (The Express tried unsuccessfully to reach out to Schulte.)
"I noticed Deacon's body language was like defensive," said Smith, the founder and owner of Dope Era Magazine and brother of rapper Mistah F.A.B.
"So I was like, 'What's goin' on bro?' And he was like, 'We about to go jail.' I was like, 'We about to go to jail?' He was like, 'yeah.' I said, 'for what?' He said, 'for charcoal.' I was like, 'what?' He said, 'for charcoal.' I started cracking up laughing."
Although the two men initially found the situation humorous, things took a more serious turn. According to a police report, Schulte first called police at 11:22 a.m. that morning. Abram said Schulte told him and Smith that they were "all going to go to jail." He also said that when Smith returned to Lake Merritt, Schulte said, "Oh good, another [n-word]." Smith said he also heard her use the racial slur. He added that she told Smith and Abram they were trespassing and that she "owned the lake." "It was a lot of things that she said to us within a three-hour time frame," said Smith.
Smith said he took a picture of Schulte and sent it to his wife, Michelle Snider, who was nearby at Rolling Dunes, a restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue. When Snider asked why he was sending the picture, Smith responded, "If I go to jail, this is the reason why."
Snider arrived at the scene shortly after and began filming Schulte. Snider, who is white, said she lived in West Oakland in the '90s during the Riders era and saw police arrest people for no apparent reason. She said she decided to film Schulte and ultimately share it because "people need to know what's going on."
What happened next is now well known. But while the memes of "BBQ Becky" have gone viral, to Smith and Abram, the experience became as serious as life or death. "Everyone sees this video and doesn't understand," said Smith. "We were scared like we were about to get killed."
The police report shows that Schulte called 911 twice; the first time, the report listed it as level 3, or low priority. And the "weapon" was listed as the charcoal grill. On the second call, the call was elevated to 1, which is the highest level and usually when police show up with weapons. But the officer who arrived handled the situation peacefully. Schulte was evaluated for a 5150 psychiatric hold, but "she did not fit the criteria," according to the police report. The officer advised Abram and Smith that they could not use a charcoal grill and they agreed to pack up and leave.
But the incident galvanized the community. After the video began to go viral, Oakland residents gathered at Lake Merritt in defiant celebration on May 10, or "510 Day." (A video of folks doing the electric slide was widely shared.) While "510 Day" had been planned months in advance, this year's event turned into a community response to the incident.
"A lot of people think it's about this 'BBQ Becky' person," said Leon "DNas" Sykes, one of the organizers of 510 Day. "Her being on camera showed what a lot of us have been enduring for years."
Lake Merritt has long been a contentious public space. Longtime area resident, DJ, and community activist Davey D said the "BBQ Becky" incident didn't happen in isolation. He has been in neighborhood online forums where residents urge others to look up the city's municipal codes and to call police. "I saw the vitriol that has come from a handful of people," he said. "When you take a step back, you can't separate what you saw in the video from what happened at Starbucks. You can't separate it from Tamir Rice. The list goes on, where people call the police and exaggerate a situation, where it becomes a specific tactic."
510 Day, organized by youth leadership organization Urban Peace Movement, was similarly a response to rising gentrification and pushing out of Black residents. In the '80s, Black people made up nearly half of Oakland's population. Now, it's estimated to be about 25 percent. Nicole Lee, executive director of Urban Peace Movement, said the event reminded her of the Oakland she experienced growing up.