As gentrification and surveillance consolidate large sections of the western half of the Town, we see capital pushing into East Oakland, the poorest section of the city. Now that the revolts against white supremacy and capitalism have been repressed and recuperated, the city has identified it’s next target for elimination: sideshows. But why would the city be so concerned with people spinning their cars in a circle?
To answer that, we caught up with Fernan, a long time cultural activist and community organizer with experience in the anti-racism, anti-war, anti-police brutality, anti-imperialist, anti-prison and other social movements going back to the late 1980’s. He also highlights East Oakland graffiti on his Instagram account.
FireWorks: So far this year, sideshows seem to be receiving a surge of bad press, despite not being a new phenomenon. Things like bottles being thrown or gunshots being fired into the air are suddenly making headlines despite being regular occurrences at sideshows, and of course are accompanied by a clamoring for “law-and-order” as well. How do you interpret the recent attention given to sideshows?
Fernan: It’s definitely an excuse that the powers that were are using to justify increased spending on the militarization of the police force and further intrusions on our privacy. Sideshows have happened for a long time and have always been dangerous and contentious with regards to police crackdowns on public gatherings of poor youth in Oakland. I’d be surprised that it makes it into the press except for the fact that I know why they are suddenly making it news.
FW: What connections do you see between the police efforts to eliminate this contention and the influx of money to the city?
F: Post-modern civilization is collapsing everywhere. A city with the location and resources that Oakland has will become even more prime real estate as people move away from decaying and abandoned areas elsewhere. The powers that were absolutely need to control Oakland as a “green zone” as much as they can. This is actually ground zero for big brother-type of total information awareness by the state.
I actually think that the cops on the street and their interactions with the public are meant to scare the citizenry into openly calling for more draconian invasions into our privacy. They already know who does what. Yet crime is still rampant. Crime has to occur to seem relevant to the more conservative tax paying citizens.
FW: Sideshows aren’t usually thought of as “political” by activists, likely because it doesn’t involve sending a message to the ruling class (e.g. tax the 1%, raise the minimum wage, indict this police officer.) On the other hand, they could be seen as a form of rebellion be the people who partake in them. This brings to mind the large sideshow at the Port of Oakland following the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, which was followed by a massive police operation to shut it down. Could you speak on some of the political implications involved in sideshows?
F: Sideshows are a great example of grassroots community building. They are in fact protests: oppressed people protesting the lack of access, the lack of resources, the lack of opportunities, and especially the lack of the basic human right to gather in public.
Whereas professional activists work with the state to draw attention to what is essentially street theater, sideshows are straight up illegal. No permission is asked for. No one collaborates with the police. But they are well organized, and also fluid and flexible and can move through the town and beyond throughout the night. I feel like most protest marches have become totally predictable and occur in the very locations that would best serve the police given their training and strategies. Sideshows are much more dynamic, and in many ways, more modern. Perhaps more importantly, snitching is not at all cool in sideshow culture. With activists, attention is always the goal.
FW: Why is there this disconnect between activists and the people that activists claim to be protesting for?
F: Many activists aren’t really working class people. Even if they grew up working class, they live in the Mission or by Lake Merritt, and kick it with POC hipsters doing hipster things and that becomes their claim to oppressed people. Activists believe in the system, and seek to reform the system through the system’s means.
In my experience, I’ve known a lot of people with major patriarchal attitudes towards organizing. They consider themselves leaders, and expect others will follow. Maybe this comes from growing up in the privileged class.
There is definitely elitism among professional activists. Just look at their terminology: “organizers.” As if they’re cleaning up clutter. Sideshow organizers give the people what they actually want. I’ve always believed a leader can only be judged by their following. People risk their lives and freedom to go to sideshows. No one has to be shamed into going to one. They’re actually intentionally exclusive events that can end up pretty huge.
FW: Deep East Oakland is usually said to be mostly untouched by gentrification. Is this changing? What do you see in the future for the deep east?
F: It’s definitely been slower to come around here, and that’s one of the main reasons my Instagram page is the way it is. Real hip hop still lives in the deep east. All them hipster artists and graffiti hunters stay away. I’m definitely trying to capture the real graffiti.
With regards to the future though, I am definitely optimistic. The natural environment is perfect. Weather is great. I can definitely see more and more obvious newcomers out here all the time. If they can hang, so be it. I’m not against development, I just love East Oakland they way it has been, warts and all. But would I appreciate more cool places to spend my money in this community? Yes. I have to go somewhere far away to buy anything useful.
East Oakland varies block by block. There will always be pockets of the ghetto, so I think we’re a ways away from being anything like the Lake Merritt area. But Pulte Homes built these McMansions off of 98th, and then left it half undeveloped. It’s actually one of the best yards [places to paint graffiti] out here now. Sideshows, graffiti, that’s all deep rooted in the culture out here.
If they end up developing the coliseum site, then gentrification will explode around here. If not, then the BART station will continue to drive some amount of gentrification and development, but it won’t be as hot.
FW: What are ways that you think would be effective in fighting—or even preventing—that gentrification?
F: People need to organize and be connected so that we can minimize the shady landlord shenanigans. To some degree, development is okay, and also can’t be completely stopped. All we can legally do is make sure its all above board and that people are treated fairly, but that ain’t gonna happen unless we stand together and let the capitalists know that this is our town and we won’t let them just come in and take it from us.
Also, we need to be here and stay here. People leaving and selling their grandparents’ houses was a huge part of the problem. A handful of developers bought up all the properties, and now they control the rents and home prices. They were powerful enough to have the county reassess property values when the market was low, and that made it easier for them to warehouse properties that they weren’t ready to sell. Squat, strip, whatever, we need to force these greedy landlords to fix those places up and start renting them out at fair prices. It’s actually too late for that in most neighborhoods.
FW: So you believe that gentrification could be prevented without abandoning the capitalist framework altogether?
F: Great question. No, it can only be mildly mitigated under capitalism, and even that would be a huge task.
FW: Huge indeed. Well thank you so much for talking with us!