by Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard
In my opinion, if there ever was a murderous conspiracy committed by a city governing body, Oakland is it. Building and Fire Codes, Health Codes and Fire and Safety Regulations mean nothing to building owners, law enforcement and agencies designed to protect residents – they’re meaningless, especially as regards the “lower-income” sections of this city.
Oakland city government members are elected, charged with and paid to see that code enforcement is being carried out in all public and private buildings in its zones. As a result of a monstrous dereliction of their duties, 36 young people have lost their lives in the most horrific way one can imagine. They were burned alive and/or killed by smoke inhalation, trapped in a flaming inferno with no warning and no means of escape.
In my opinion, if there ever was a murderous conspiracy committed by a city governing body, Oakland is it.
This instant inferno was aided by the lack of a sprinkler system, no alarms or detectors of any kind, little fire-fighting equipment and only a single useable exit, as the others were blocked. The entire upper floor was serviced by piled-up wood planks to make one narrow, makeshift stairway. Apparently, the electrical wiring, appliances and the plumbing and heating systems had been installed improperly and without legal permits.
Inside the building, vehicles, furniture, trash, instruments and makeshift pods created unbelievable obstacles which made rescue impossible and recovery a nightmare. Outside the warehouse, on the sidewalk, in the alleyways and other areas, huge piles of trash and other debris were stacked high and further hampered emergency personnel’s access to the property.
People were living there illegally, paying rent to one central “building manager.” Because of the sky-high prices, the lack of affordable housing in Oakland and all over the Bay Area, San Francisco and Sonoma County, more people increasingly are being forced into these kinds of living conditions.
However, this is nothing new for many community members with limited alternatives and few resources. Historically, Black people and other people of color have been having to deal with greedy landlords, unsafe housing and inhumane living conditions for decades upon decades.
Because of the sky-high prices, the lack of affordable housing in Oakland and all over the Bay Area, San Francisco and Sonoma County, more people increasingly are being forced into these kinds of living conditions.
So now, in the wake of this tragic event, the city’s elected officials have started to play the “blame game” and are looking to see who they can throw under the bus – who they can point their fingers at and blame for the heart-rending loss of these young lives. In the meantime, the only answer those “in charge” have had for the countless people who lost their loved ones is, “Our office is going to carry out a full investigation.”
As one part of this investigation, I would ask the following: Why is it that Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the Fruitvale neighborhood where the warehouse was located, supposedly knew about these conditions and violations for two and a half years but failed to do anything about this?
City administrators are elected into office to see to the welfare and conditions of the people. If Noel Gallo chose to do nothing to change unlawful, unsafe, unhealthy conditions, then the city should not be using the people’s funds to pay his salary and he should not be there.
Why is it that Councilman Noel Gallo supposedly knew about these conditions and violations for two and a half years but failed to do anything about this?
To repeat Councilman Gallo’s question, “How many fire inspectors and how many building inspectors does the City of Oakland employ?” why is it that we have received so many different stories in response to our queries?
The 36 young people who perished in that fire on Dec. 2 cannot ask these questions, but I can continue to do so and to demand responses. We need to make sure we get answers in order for us to be able to move forward.
We must initiate creative but safe ways to deal with the vast array of urgent issues which the lack of affordable, adequate housing creates in our communities. We must do what is needed to create lasting and meaningful change. I truly feel we owe not only these young people and their loved ones that much, but the future of our communities as well.
We must initiate creative but safe ways to deal with the vast array of urgent issues which the lack of affordable, adequate housing creates in our communities.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard is one of the six founding members of the Black Panther Party and is an author, lecturer and community activist in Sonoma County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.