The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Oakland seeks justice in deadly Ghost Ship fire, the soul of the city is put on trial

Oakland fire officials walk past the remains of the Ghost Ship warehouse days after it was gutted in a deadly fire. (Eric Risberg/AP)

OAKLAND, Calif. — In a fifth-floor courtroom here, a trial is underway to determine the guilt or innocence of two men charged in the deaths of three dozen people who were trapped in a cluttered artists’ warehouse during a sudden, inescapable fire.

But there is something else being prosecuted in this courtroom and something else being defended: A civic ideology here that for decades has celebrated the extreme and out of step.

The priorities of the city’s government, sky-high housing costs and a historically casual approach to zoning rules all have been implicated as factors in the fire, which swept through the Ghost Ship artist enclave on the evening of Dec. 2, 2016. The public reckoning is for many the epilogue to a certain version of Oakland — defiant, rebellious and authentic — that has faded to caricature in recent years.

“Oakland is constantly grappling with a fierce desire to hold on to its soul,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf, who was born and raised here and may be called to testify in the case. “That battle is a constant in this moment of intensive change. So whatever tragedy there is here, whatever victory there is here, it is that narrative that is always present.”

The Ghost Ship trial has been two years in the making and will last several months. When it concludes, the city will know whether Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, two decades his junior, were criminally culpable for the fire where they lived and worked with a revolving cast of about two dozen artists.

Each faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the people who burned in the building. They could serve a maximum of 39 years in prison. Officials have not determined a cause of the fire, which surpassed the 1991 Oakland Hills blaze as the city’s deadliest.

Almena managed the building and served as the collective’s spiritual impresario. Those who lived there, adjacent to a car alarm store and across the street from a Wendy’s, subscribed to a twist on Satya Yuga, an ethos that is part Eastern religion, part artistic celebration.

Harris held the title of “creative director,” which meant he received discounted rent in exchange for keeping the place running. One witness who lived there characterized Harris on the stand as “Cinderella,” a useful if largely powerless figure in the collective.

Last year, Almena and Harris agreed to a plea deal that would have meant sentences of nine and six years, respectively. But the victims’ families opposed it and a judge, angered by an essay Almena wrote that failed to show the same depth of contrition that Harris has, canceled their packaged agreement.

'No notice, no time, no exits'

Since the trial began late last month, the testimony has been alternately tragic and technical. Family members have recounted through sobs the final texts received from panicked children. Fire inspectors have explained in detail city building and safety codes and the required emergency signs that were absent in the Ghost Ship.

“No notice, no time, no exits,” prosecutor Casey Bates told jurors on the first day.

Without a definitive cause of the fire, the defense has suggested that a group of men with a grudge against Almena sparked the blaze with molotov cocktails, although no evidence of that was found.

Almena was not in the warehouse that night, having been warned by Alameda County Protective Services that it was not a place for his three children. The agency had taken his kids into custody a year earlier and returned them just months before the fire. Harris survived the fire.

City building inspectors had also received numerous complaints about the Ghost Ship as a potential fire hazard. Nearly every aspect of the living space was jury-rigged, including the electricity wired in from neighbors.

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But no interior inspection of the site had taken place for decades. Tony Serra, one of the defense attorneys, told the jury that “there was no edict or pressure that ‘this has to change.’ What he (Almena) saw was beauty.”

“If there is any good that is coming out of this trial, beyond guilt or innocence, it is really bringing the dysfunction of the Oakland city government into the light,” said Liam O’Donoghue, a writer and local historian who hosts the podcast East Bay Yesterday.

“There’s this pattern of Oakland lurching from crisis to crisis — in law enforcement, in housing, in public safety,” he said. “But these events are not ahistorical, just as this one wasn’t.”

O’Donoghue, who lost a friend in the Ghost Ship fire, moved to the Bay Area from Chicago in 2003, then across the bay to Oakland a few years later, drawn to its artistic traditions and punk music scene. He met his wife, Elizabeth, at an art show.

He said there has long been an unspoken relationship between Oakland’s government and artists, whose mural work appears on walls across the city, variously abstract and pointed illustrations of its social landscape.

Looking the other way on some zoning rules, especially at a time of soaring housing costs in the Bay Area, has been a way to attract and encourage an art community that for years has been squeezed out of neighboring San Francisco.

“We’ve always been a city that has a gritty authenticity that maybe our shiny sister across the bay has never had,” said Schaaf, who has gained national attention with her defiance of President Trump over Oakland’s “sanctuary city” policy. “And we’ve always been a city of artists, of creativity and innovation, a more raw and cutting-edge creativity than you might find in places with different origins than ours.”

But O’Donoghue said Schaaf has not done enough to prevent the forced evictions and displacement that has swept over Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods, including Fruitvale, where people piled into the Ghost Ship to live for a few hundred dollars a month.

The public anger has been visible. Several nights after the fire, at a public memorial in the park surrounding Lake Merritt, Schaaf received scattered boos from the crowd when she rose to speak.

O’Donoghue said the reason is that some in Oakland believe “she pays lip service to this artistic heritage, but she has done very little to defend it.”

“Governing is really hard,” he said. “And it’s a lot easier to make nice speeches.”

A city of artists

The pace of gentrification is remaking Oakland rapidly — shaking loose some of the “grit,” as Schaaf put it — just as it has in San Francisco’s Mission District, Market Street corridor and other neighborhoods on the far side of the bay.

The Urban Displacement Project, run here by the University of California, Berkeley, has mapped and color-coded the changes. Nearly all of Oakland is shaded in the ominous lavender and deep purple of the “ongoing gentrification” or “threat of gentrification” designation affecting low-income residents.

The Ghost Ship sailed in the middle of that deep-purple sea.

“The reason we are paying so much attention to this trial is because it is resonating in many different ways,” said Robert Ogilvie, the Oakland director of SPUR, a nonprofit urban planning and research group in the Bay Area.

Ogilvie moved to the region from Toronto nearly 25 years ago. Looking back, he identifies a day soon after he arrived as a sign of the shift that has defined Bay Area culture ever since.

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On Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia, the spiritual leader of the iconic Bay Area band Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack in a drug rehabilitation center. That same day, Netscape, the first dominant Internet browser, went public at a value of nearly $3 billion.

To Ogilvie, the rise of Silicon Valley and the decline of the Bay Area’s alternative culture, typified by the collective artist warehouse, had begun.

“This is part of Oakland’s identity — the people who come live and flourish here,” he said. “It’s less possible than it was two years ago, but far more possible than it is in San Francisco. And people in Oakland are terrified of becoming San Francisco.”

What remains of the Ghost Ship is sealed off by yellow police tape. There is a sidewalk memorial along East 13th Street, a makeshift wooden stand holding bundles of flowers, pots of succulents and strings of beads.

“Remember their names,” reads a handwritten sign with Johnny, Chelsea, Feral, Jenny and Micah scrawled next to it. A stream of mourners visits each day, many arriving on the train at nearby Fruitvale Station, where a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was fatally shot by transit police a decade ago in what has become another grim civic milemarker.

Gilbert Banuelos has made his home here, two doors down from Ghost Ship, for 30 years.

A former landscaper, Banuelos keeps his small home immaculate, outside and in, the patch of green grass and the trimmed rose bushes a bright contrast to the rough asphalt landscape around them. The sign on his front door, written in Spanish, expresses the 60-year-old’s current priorities: “House of the Grandparents.”

He said his neighbors in the Ghost Ship were kind people, if also sometimes noisy and messy. He did not mind, though, except when it spilled out into the street.

The only visitors are now are those who come to pay quiet respect.

“Part of this was the city’s problem and part of it was the people’s problem,” Banuelos said. “All I know is that it was a death trap.”