The COVID-19 pandemic, like all crises, has disproportionately hurt Black, Brown and low-income communities in Oakland. As a result, informal (non-permitted) survival vending has expanded along the grassy fields between Lake Merritt and Lakeshore avenue to provide an economic safety net when governments and capitalists do not provide them. Furthermore, with event spaces closed (e.g., bars, clubs, restaurants), Oakland residents have gathered in increasing numbers in this area to socialize and partake in cultural activities. We believe that this grassroots use of public space is beautiful, and reminds us of the bustling and innovative markets and parks found throughout the African, Latin American, Asian, and Indigenous diasporas.
As with any public spaces, some behaviors can exclude or make certain demographics feel unsafe, especially during a pandemic. In particular, the elderly community who use the paths around the Lake for exercise are finding it difficult to safely physically distance themselves in some areas, and loud music late at night is making it hard for some residents to sleep. We are happy to see that the City administration has placed portable bathrooms and wash stations to reduce public urination and to encourage personal hygiene in the area.
While some Eastlake residents have called for increased law enforcement to address these issues, we resoundingly oppose such efforts given the longstanding systemic racism within police departments and the criminal justice system. We do not want more Black and Brown blood spilled, nor do we want these community members to be pushed into the prison system, especially during a pandemic, when the county and state have shown that they have no intention or interest in keeping incarcerated people safe and healthy.
We also specifically recognize Lake Merritt as a site with its own history of racialized violence, from anti-cruising laws in the 1990’s, to more recent events of policing used against Black drummers, and effigies hanging from trees. Taking stock of the present and looking into the future, we envision the lake as a site that is safely hospitable to Black and Brown creativity, survival, and community.
We support the following ideas to support inclusivity along the Eastlake shore:
Expansion of the Park Ambassadors to not only provide COVID-19 education and outreach, but to support conflict resolution using transformative justice principles. The City administration should provide additional funds to the Department of Violence Prevention and its community-based contractors with expertise in this work to support inclusivity along the Eastlake shore. This could include training of park staff and community members, or funds to hire specialists.
Vendors and their clients should be empowered to self-organize and promote safe vending practices around Lake Merritt. They should not be targeted by law enforcement or vigilante neighbors (e.g., BBQ Becky).
Design features that encourage physical distancing should be implemented where appropriate. For example, chalk outlines of vending locations and picnic areas. In addition, there could be barriers (e.g. ropes) or signs placed to encourage exercise on some paths, and other activities on other paths, particularly during certain hours of the day. Signs could be designed by youth programs or school classrooms.
Ultimately, we know that a collaborative and community-based effort between vendors and residents will successfully address issues of safety and public nuisances. Law enforcement will only exacerbate inequalities and contention in the community. We must create the world we wish to see, and invest in alternatives to policing and prisons!
Eastlake United for Justice