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OAKLAND — Smoke from charcoal-fired grills filled the air and music played in the background as hundreds of people gathered at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Sunday in a celebration of inclusivity.
The event — called “BBQing While Black” — was residents’ response to a video that went viral in late April after a white woman called police to report a few black men using a charcoal grill at the lake. Although they were in a designated barbecuing area, charcoal grills are not allowed in that section of the lake.
On Sunday, firefighters smiled and waved at the attendees, who were grilling racks of ribs, sausage links and seasoned chicken, among other meats and veggie patties. Police officers drove by and stopped to facilitate traffic.
“This is about doing what we’ve already been doing and eat in peace, literally,” said Logan Cortez, one of the event’s organizers. “We’re not fighting for our rights; it’s already our right to do this.”
The video, which as of Sunday had nearly 2 million views on YouTube and many more on other platforms, sparked a national conversation about implicit racism. In it, the unidentified woman can be heard talking to police about the use of charcoal. Oakland resident Michelle Snider, who is also white and filmed the incident, questioned the woman about whether she was calling police because the people barbecuing are black, which the woman denied. After waiting roughly two hours for police to arrive, the woman told officers the people barbecuing had been harassing her. The officers did not arrest or ticket anyone.
“She kept telling me I didn’t belong here,” Oakland resident Onsayo Abram said Sunday. He was at the barbecue on April 29 when the woman approached his group. “I was born here. She was trying to tell where I don’t belong, but at the same time, I wasn’t trying to feed into her negativity.”
The incident has since become an internet meme with the hashtag, #BBQBecky, and photos of people cutting and pasting pictures of the woman calling police over photos of historically significant events, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. For many at the barbecue, the video was a poignant reminder that racism is still alive, even in the heart of the liberal Bay Area and in the city that birthed the Black Panther Party.
Locally, the video reignited an ongoing debate over gentrification. The high cost of housing has led to an exodus of many of Oakland’s black residents, who numbered fewer than 100,000 in 2016, or about 23.5 percent of the population, according to the American Community Survey. That’s down more than 12 percent since 2000, when black residents made up nearly 36 percent of the population.
Even the event’s co-organizer, Jhamel Robinson, said he can no longer afford to live in the city where he was born and raised. He runs a T-shirt business,, from his home in Sacramento, he said.
That exodus is changing the cultural and economic demographics of the city, leading to confrontations between residents, especially in the neighborhoods around Lake Merritt, which are gentrifying more quickly than other parts of the city, said Aloysius McMahan, an Oakland native.
In 2015, another white resident called police to report a group of predominantly black and Latino people drumming at the lake. That incident, although it was not filmed, also sparked a local debate about gentrification and racism.
“We’re being pushed out,” McMahan said, “but we have to stand our ground.”
For many, Sunday’s event was a return to the celebratory spirit of the 1980s and early 1990s, when an annual four-day celebration, called Festival at the Lake, drew dozens of vendors and thousands of attendees. Although that event was discontinued in the mid-1990s, Lake Merritt has continued to regularly host weekend barbecues and social gatherings.
“It’s all we’ve ever known,” said Oaklander Baretta Van Dyke. “Oakland is for everybody.”