SambaFunk!, an Oakland-based group of drummers and dancers, was accused of being a public disturbance on the evening of Sep. 27, 2015 by a Lake Merritt resident. The matter has since sparked a passionate debate in the community about persisting racial bias and gentrification issues, and how they affect the arts in Oakland.
Although no noise violation was filed, the event attracted multiple Oakland Police Department officers to the scene and resulted in assault citations for two members of the group and the Caucasian man who called in the complaint. Many believe that SambaFunk! being largely composed of Black and Latino members plays a role in the night escalating combatively as it did.
Abel Guillen, the Oakland City Councilmember who represents the district Lake Merritt is in wrote a Facebook post after, saying:
This past Sunday, musicians informally gathered at Lake Merritt to celebrate the Lunar Eclipse, with drums in hand, found themselves face-to-face with a stressed-out neighbor who decided he’s heard enough drumming and wrested the drumsticks away from one performer.”
Utilizing this and other recent incidents in Oakland as an example, he asked in the post that the people in his city “make a collective commitment to use the tools of reason and understanding to build our community and end the violence.”
The artistic director of SambaFunk!, Theo Williams, is an acclaimed Carnaval dancer and has played an integral role in the arts and culture of Oakland and San Francisco. According to Williams, support for his group and others like it has increased since Sep. 27, saying, “If the incident did anything, it served as a rallying cry…it has galvanized and organized people.”
Williams also stated:
One of the things we aren’t discussing are the changes in the government and city planning. On one hand, we have part of the governance saying they support the arts. There’s also the city planners working with the state to predict the housing crunch happening in Oakland, but the departments aren’t communicating with each other. This leads to falling out on the frontline.”
For Williams, an utmost concern is that the responsibility of representing the people of Oakland is upheld. He believes the community and artists are at a disadvantage to the government and city planners, leaving them in a perpetual reactionary state in situations like these. However, he maintains that this isn’t a race issue- it’s a class issue, and that the matter of race is simply a by-product of a bigger problem.
The gears of change in Oakland began to shift with the influence of Jerry Brown, who, before becoming the Governor of California, served as the Mayor of Oakland from 1999-2007. During his time in office, Brown’s priorities were redevelopment projects that began to attract more people to the city, known as his “10k plan.” It was named conveniently in hopes that Oakland would gain 10,000 new residents because of the affordable housing initiatives put in place and the revitalization from new developments.
Jean Quan, who succeeded Brown as Mayor in 2011, shared similar goals in the mission to revive Oakland. However, the Oakland Arts Commission was defunded the same year that she took office. Art Commissions have remained intact in most neighboring Alameda County cities like Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore and Dublin. It has yet to be reinstated in what is arguably the Alameda County’s biggest artistic hub: Oakland.
In previous years, Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission aimed to “promote and assist public awareness of cultural and artistic and cultural activities in the city.” It was established in 1991, but according to the city’s website, the commission is “on hiatus.”
Now, all inquiries are redirected to Kristen Zaremba, who oversees the cultural arts division and the city’s public art program. Public art projects in Oakland are still allocated 1.5% from eligible capital improvement projects and grant revenue through this program.
John Carwardine, a relatively new addition to the Lake Merritt community, read about the SambaFunk! incident in the news. He acknowledged the palpable changes in the city and expressed remorse for the dissonance between the people and the governance, saying,
It’s really upsetting to think about the possibility that Oakland might be starved of the culture and diversity that makes it beautiful. I hope the housing shift doesn’t take away the things that make people like me want to live here.”
Libby Schaaf, who became Mayor of Oakland earlier this year and has addressed the responsibility of developers to respect the city’s artistic community and cultural lifeblood, told the East Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects:
Oakland cannot afford to sell its soul for growth. Our soul is way too beautiful.”
She proposed an ordinance on Sept. 18 2014 at a city meeting while still an Oakland City Councilmember. Her motive behind the ordinance was stated in a municipal report as follows:
This Article III is intended to promote the arts in the City of Oakland by requiring the inclusion of a public artwork component in new development projects in Oakland. A policy is hereby established to require certain private developments to use a portion of building development funds for the acquisition and installation of publicly accessible works of art for placement on the development site as a condition of project approval. Developers and/or owners are encouraged to employ Oakland artists or arts organizations to fulfill the public art requirement.”
It was unanimously voted for and passed on Dec. 14, 2015, and went into effect in February. Despite this stride, Theo Williams remains dubious about how well his fellow community of Oakland-based artists will uphold in the wave of gentrification and the consequential changes in city politics.
The battle between developers and new residents versus Oakland artists has yet to reach its climax or its end, but neither side has yet to silence the other. The Building Industry Association of Bay Area sued the City of Oakland in July over the public art fees/space provision, arguing that the ordinance violates their Fifth Amendment rights.
San Francisco is the land of the billionaires, and Oakland is becoming the land of the millionaires,” Williams says.
Inevitable change and new money is making its way eastbound, but the tight-knit community of Bay Area artists and performers is not so easily defeated, if even at the hands of disgruntled neighbors.
SambaFunk! Events Calendar: