Mourning in Two Acts: Live From Oakland



In the United States, gentrification and its violent processes of policing and displacement are so intense that even, Oakland, CA, the city of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense is strongly subjected to them. Kerby Lynch offers us a powerful and evocative ode to its residents’ collective mourning.

One sits and questions: what is all of my capacity? To keep enduring the moments in which I deeply understand that my life — the being of the body — is made from clay?

On December 2, 2016, Oakland stood still. The Ghostship fire took the lives of 36 artists and radical activists. Death by design. The rent is too damn high and we don’t have spaces for pleasure. It struck a chord in the heart of many. The shock of the fire was the first for many. It seemed like the whole year was on fire. The Grenfell Tower Fire happened in London, then most of northern California was born in flames (1,893,913 acres burned to ashes), suffocating on toxic chemicals. After the fires, it was knife stabbings of young women, and then it was deportation sweeps, and then there was disappearing Native women, and then high school youth organizing city-wide strikes. Walking the city and strolling past the resistance nerds, climate refugees, asylum seekers — I don’t feel alone. We connect, by looking into each other’s eyes and feeling the chaos of the moment, longing to return to normalcy. This is an ode to our collective mourning.

Lynch Funambulist3
Artwork by Kerby Lynch: “This map is a reflection of the long history of violent dispossession and continuous displacement of Black life in Oakland. In this collage, I wanted to represent how the history of white supremacy created racial segregation that confined many Black people into neighborhoods that are used today as ways to further dehumanize them. I show two images of a KKK cross burning in Tilden Park and a KKK induction ceremony at the Oakland Auditorium. I use these two images to speak about the real implications of the legacy of racial terrorism in Oakland. The people represented at the bottom represent the terror of Black existence in Oakland. I put a picture of the Ohlone territory map to cite the initial violence dispossession that reproduces itself via anti Black violence. I title this piece “N.E.W. Deathscapes” to refer to my relationship to Oakland and the desire to remember/belong in a space that represents premature death in the afterlife of slavery.”

My body knows this place so familiar, trapped in time and space. We been here since 1954, only now I am the one coming to closer to the American dream. The Great Migration is the only thing “great” that Black people have ever done. Mass departure. This moment defines the contemporary. People come and go, anxious about the fact they don’t get it. They say gentrification makes it all unrelatable, untouchable. I say we have been dissociating for years. Took over half a century to get it, so hopefully you get it. That we were never meant to survive. The it, in this case, is that the physical matter of the black body is a victim of the built environment. From gentrification by fire or gentrification by cult-induced exodus, there is always a grand master spatial schema organizing your elimination.

Like rural economic development is carceral capital. California is a world power, a world power in genetically modified death. Carceral capital: meaning profit-making off the every day abjection of the afraid slave. Terror making is a spatial practice. Oakland still hasn’t learned her history. She self-induces an amnesia to absolve responsibility.

One must sit and question: what is all of my capacity to bear?

Webster And 15th
Mural on Webster street and 15th street in Oakland. / Photo by William Newton (2014).

Real estate speculation in the CBD hasn’t cracked the code on innocent Black young girls dying from shocking violence. When Nia Wilson (2000-2018) was murdered on public transit, the public space was an empty casket the next day. It was a hotter than a July night, the heat must have fueled the rage. Nia Wilson, an 18 year old Black girl was murdered on Public Transit by a known white supremacist. Mourning in two acts. The act itself and the encounter. The murderer even changed his shoelaces to grey the next day to signify his initiation into the occult brotherhood. He was calmly arrested.

We been here since 1954, and people are still not trying to get it. Immigrants in ‘your’ homeland, settler on your plantation, the life force of your nation, but still slaughtered like the foundational Other.

Mourning. She comes in two acts, once at the encounter of the moment, and the second lingers as time trapped in space, haunting the everyday waiting for itself to be unleashed, to transcend past this repetitive cycle of meaningless — I mean senseless black death.

Black death is also an abyss, a space for one to project. I walk by the site of Ghostship (est. 2016) daily. A massive infrastructure representative of lost dreams. Ghostship was a warehouse fire of an underground artist community, murdering 36 of the community’s best minds. This happened around the holidays of December. Burned out and burned down, the memorial stays. Artist commune in the middle of a refugee and immigrant community. The disconnect is disconcerting. They walk past a burned building, the landscape already signifies no life. This is just another backdrop. For me, just another moment trapped in space. Eventually they will tear it down and build condos.

The ghetto holds trauma.

At this stage, these condos built in the pseudo-downtown are techno-primitive accumulation for this generation. A marker of one trying to erase, forget and evoke historical amnesia.

Mourning. She comes in two acts, once at the moment of encounter and second at the space of entrapped memories.

King Victor, gunned down at 22, Black men still dying and breathing all in the same moment. Oakland is worldwide, but on the ground it’s a contradictory mind expansion exercise. How can you live and die at the same time? He was a drummer (1997-2019), I still hear his beat on the soundscape.

Every part of Oakland for me has a ghost story, every aspect of the city is a reminder that underworlds do exist to keep us in a constant state of terror and a constant state of mourning.

We been here since 1954, from Mississippi to Chicago to here. Still here, until they want us somewhere else. Move me like a chess piece on a board, just a spectral body in a haunted space.

On the ground resistance brews, in my soul mourning is dominant.

Public space is still ours. We still gather on corner blocks, the ultimate space of our pedagogy. 5-0 be the 666, circling the block to make sure we don’t step out of our ways. We still here. Displaced but not dispossessed. We still here before they isolate us on compounds far away from visibility. Visibility has always been our friend but also our trap door. The public space is still ours, however they still gaze trying to consume the passion. Appropriate the nonconformist, so nonconformist is constitutive of mainstream delight. The public space is still ours even though we can’t take to the streets to voice the silencing of our name by the ultimate clock of productivity that tells us to shut up and keep moving. The public spaces is still ours, but the streets are still our coffin.

Internal divisions make us strangers to one another. Oakland is good for solidarity on a surface level but beyond that level; who are we in relation to one another?

It becomes more apparent on the dance floor and in the gallery space or when we need to share a cigarette and a blunt. It becomes more apparent when we are a witness to this process called “elimination by any means necessary”

The warehouse is still ours. Holding gatherings in the basement of unregulated, unsafe and not up to fire code buildings. Risking our lives just to gather and be unseen.

Lynch Funambulist2
Memorial in front of the Ghost Ship ruin in Oakland. / Photo by Travis Estell (2017).

Mourning comes in two acts. The first act processes the logistics of loss and the second illustrates the process of healing. Homage is played in the breakbeat of the set, the sweat accumulated as we dance straight. God bless the youth that can hold her own beat. The public space is still ours, it’s our weapon. We stay in public because we fear isolation will consume us alive.

We stay in risky spaces because we fear the zone of danger is safer than home. Mourning has taught us this wisdom.

The struggle here is one of feeling, enough trauma to make one — just — want to move forward. Never looking back and never in the periphery. Newcomers arrive and become surprised at the mass inaction. Narratives of radicalism describe better days, but now, in the place, antagonisms of the self makes one find that mourning too, is a place of radical action. For all of those names that can’t be named and places that can’t be remembered because they represent cartographies of the lost, we say “presente.”