A few weeks ago I rode my bike down to Lake Merritt to experience a black business utopia. A few days later I discovered while watching the news that the whole thing would be drastically scaled back. The news spoke of neighbors complaining and the proper business permits not being held by vendors, and it all felt very typical of my city. In the early to mid 1990’s we had an annual event called “Festival at the Lake” in which hundreds of black vendors would come together to celebrate righteous blackness at Lake Merritt which is undoubtedly the crown jewel of our city. Then one year young people rioted. If I’m not mistaken they broke out the window to a Foot Locker and a few other storefronts. I don’t know why. I do know that Oakland was consistently one of the most homicidal cities in the country at this time. This to my knowledge, though I was just a young boy at the time, didn’t seem to concern the power structure in the way that one would think that it should. However, when corporate businesses were attacked on Lakeshore Avenue the footage was shown on every local news station for several days and within a few years there was no more festival at the lake.
In the early 2000’s we had something called Carijama at Mosswood Park. It lasted for only a few years until it met a similar fate. Young people once again were getting rowdy. Neighbors once again complained. The news once again played its part to see to it that the festival was shut down. I remember thinking as a very young adult who looked forward to the memorial day festival as an indicator that the summer was officially here, that my city seemed to be very proud of failing black people. Instead of ironing out the edges and considering ways to make celebrations safe, Oakland would much rather shut down all things black. This brings me back to the black business utopia that I experienced a few weeks ago.
I met a black man who was selling organic honey that he along with his son and nephew had procured as beekeepers. He, like myself, is an allergy sufferer and he began making honey because it is a natural remedy for allergies. I saw a black woman selling tacos. I bought a refrigerator magnet from a sister who does custom made engraving. I bought sage from another sister. I bought an Oakanda shirt (the fictional homeland of Black Panther and Oakland combined) from a brother with a kind disposition and an entrepreneurial spirit. And everything felt so dope. It was just so righteous and so black that I knew that it wouldn’t last– at least not in Oakland. In a place like Atlanta for example they would institutionalize this vending. Maybe they would make vendors pay a fee and regulate the products more, but their first inclination would not be to scale it down to nothing. But alas, this is not Georgia this is California. A place where integration has come to mean every nationality can profit off of black people except black people. A place where residents replace actual black people with black lives matter signs. A place where the children of black southern migrants flee as soon as they graduate high school because, ironically enough, the American South is less racist. Can you imagine that? California with all of her liberal ideology is actually more hostile to black business owners than Georgia, Tennessee, or Texas. And Oakland is proving this to be true once again. Last weekend when I went to Lake Merritt there were less than a third of the businesses that were there the previous weekend. The Fire Department was there regulating parking and interrogating vendors and it was far less vibrant. It was clear that the utopia was dying. Or to be more concise–it was being killed. It was very disheartening to know that my city would rather create laws to keep black people in their respective corners of the city than to let us make legal money in the city that so many of us shed blood for. I rode my bike back to the Eastside in a somber mood with no merchandise, knowing that my beloved city had let my people down once again.