Amplified Feels: In Defense of the Friends I Lost at Ghost Ship

After the Oakland fire that killed 36 people, commentators predictably blamed the victims.

I woke up the morning after the Ghost Ship fire to a shitload of text and online messages asking, “Where are you?” and “Are you OK?”

There were so many messages that I immediately got a sinking feeling and knew that something really bad had happened, and I was afraid to find out what. I got a call from a friend in L.A., and she explained that there had been a fire and people were dead. The first thing I thought of was “OK, time to locate people.”

I now say here what I said to myself then: Heaven help the freaks, weirdos, and artists of the world, for they are not always ones to pay their phone bills or wake up before noon. Accounting for everyone was going to be a shit show in and of itself, but I had to know who was at the party and who wasn’t. I called people, I got the names of the party attendees. I started crying and didn’t leave bed. Of course, I knew some people who had been there — four to be exact. This was just Day 1.

By the second day, the predictable lines of attack were all over the news: “Well, why were these people in a warehouse?” and “Why were they at an illegal party in the first place?”

Is there anything in the world more mind-numbingly dumb that having to explain oneself to a fucking square? The media drew a very clear line in the sand, with those on one side blaming the victims for even being there and those on the other side saying, “That could have been any of us.”

I saw one story with pictures of the deceased, and I broke the cardinal rule of the internet: I read the comments section. One comment in particular snagged my eye — some woman who wrote: “Well, they all look like Democrats to me anyway.” Perhaps for the first time since the tragedy, I laughed — so hard I actually crouched down on the floor in laughter. It was too much.

My ilk and I have been called a lot of things in life, but “Democrat”? That’s certainly a new one. I also was just floored at watching internet trolls (and shit fuck JESUS, there are MANY) suddenly spew opinions on a scene of people they never knew existed. All of a sudden, they were telling us how to live our lives.

I was going to be in bed depressed all day anyway, and I had half a mind to write “GO FUCK YOURSELF” as a response to all the negative comments. But then I decided to do some damage control and just call my friends to figure out what was coming next.

Full disclosure: I have spent the better part of my adult life living communally and, yes, mostly in warehouse spaces. I once lived with 20-plus punk kids in a warehouse in East Oakland in the early years of the last decade, and spent some time in two others that had 16 and 12 people, respectively. It was rad, fun, and sometimes scary, but at the end of the day, the only means of my survival while I was in school. In the warehouses, if I had no money, I knew someone could feed me, or if I went missing, someone would notice I was gone. It was a refuge. We don’t always like going to bars. Bars are expensive and crappy, and jocks will fuck with you or gaybash you. In a curated warehouse party, shit was just different, you know?

After the tragedy, I spent much of my time consoling friends and lovers, taking late-night phone calls, peeling potatoes for benefits, generally doing whatever I could to help but also to not feel hopeless — despite a normally sunny disposition, I can often feel pessimistic.

I went to a vigil for the tragedy and was talking to a man who thought sprinklers should be put into every warehouse space that people live in — which I thought was a sweet idea, but then, also if you’re a broke person living in such a space, where are you going to get a few extra thousand dollars to install something like that? Or replace it if it doesn’t pass inspection? There seemed to be many opinions and few answers. I just couldn’t deal with all of it at times, and then I learned that there were spaces getting eviction notices, and then it just felt like everything was falling apart.

When I lived in a show space/warehouse on San Pablo a couple of years ago, there was this one East Bay Express article about how there were 19 different underground venues in West Oakland alone and they had run a picture of our space in the story (without our permission). I thought back to those years, and it seemed like a shiny memory that I had forgotten too quickly. Back then, every weekend I could leave my house and go to at least a couple other good parties within a 12-block radius.

This was that time before S.F. started spilling over into West Oakland, and by the time that was over, most of those 19 places had bitten the dust. I felt like the Ghost Ship fire had basically sealed a cap on what was beginning to feel like an already disappearing thing. My heart was breaking.

I read about the unique setup of Ghost Ship and what had caused it to be so dangerous — it struck me as odd, looking back on my own experiences, how most places I had stayed had felt more or less safe.

We always had clear, illuminated exit signs, and we only ever had parties on the first floor. I am constantly reminded of shit like that Great White concert in 2003 at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island — 100 people died, and it was a properly zoned, legit show/nightclub space.

It was suggested that, like the Ghost Ship fire, the Station Nightclub went up in minutes, leaving not much time to get out — that’s why it was so upsetting to me when the Ghost Ship partygoers were being painted as high, reckless, and intoxicated — the most capable person could not have made it out of there, and it makes me cry even typing that. I look for slivers of justice in this and hope they will peek out. I’m uncertain.

I myself will continue to go to underground parties with the memories of my dead friends close to me. Some, perhaps, will think that this is risky, of course, but I don’t see myself frequenting super-expensive clubs, and whether you consider a risk to be worth taking is up to you. But I know from experience that risk is sometimes all we really have.

Heaven help us.

Brontez Purnell has been publishing, performing, and curating in the Bay Area for more than 10 years. He is the author of Johnny Would You Love Me … (If My Dick Were Bigger)? (Rudos and Rubes, 2015). Follow him on Twitter at @youngerlovers and on Instagram at @brontezpurnell.

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