Leon "DNas" Sykes at Oakland's Lake Merritt Credit: Amir Aziz

Since 2016, Oaklanders have been coming together on May 10 to celebrate “510 Day”—an unofficial city holiday established to honor Oakland’s culture, and the people who make it thrive. Up until 2019, the block party was held at Lake Merritt across the street from the Cleveland Cascade staircase on Lakeshore Avenue. Then the pandemic happened, and like so many other events, the party turned digital. 

But 510 Day is getting back to its roots this year, at least to some degree: Organizers are planning a car caravan that will begin at Cleveland Cascade at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, May 10. The caravan will circle Lake Merritt, ending at Lake Merritt Amphitheater at 4:30 p.m., followed by closing remarks at 5:10 p.m. The festival will then turn virtual starting at 7 p.m. 

Adaptation is nothing new for 510 Day, which evolves each year based on current events affecting the community, and fuses activism with celebration. In 2019, the youth leadership organization Urban Peace Movement led a march with over 100 young people as part of 510 Day, to protest the now-infamous “Barbecue Becky” incident at Lake Merritt.

With more residents being vaccinated every day and restrictions on in-person gatherings beginning to ease, we wanted to know how the event’s organizers are feeling about the prospect of getting back to normal, the city’s recent handling of crowds at Lake Merritt, and what their hopes are for Oakland culture in a post-pandemic world.

I sat down with Leon Sykes, aka “DNas,” a longtime local media maker and educator who co-founded 510 Day along with Jordan Warren and Needa Bee, a housing activist with The Village in Oakland. Nicole Lee, the founding executive director of Urban Peace Movement became involved with the block party in 2018. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A scene from 510 Day in 2018. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Take me back to last year when you and the other co-founders knew that 510 Day would not happen in person.

Shoutout to Urban Peace Movement, Nicole Lee, and Needa Bee of The Village for the vision. We had a lot of stuff planned a week or two before the realization that this was shutting down. We could have done something, but we were like, “We have to be responsible.” It was hard to come to grips with that. We had DJ Kleptic who is from Oakland and used to work at Youth Uprising and DJ Aebl Dee spin for us. 

Now fast forward to this year. At what point did you and the crew realize that 510 Day this year would also likely also have to be virtual?

Fortunately, we all do service work. And so for us, that’s the first thing that we’re going to think about. It was hard just trying to figure out how we’re going to organize this.

We want to have the caravan and the virtual party for those who are still uncomfortable being out. As much as people are vaccinated, as much as people have quarantine fatigue, others are either unable to be around people because of their health, or uneasy to be around people. We also want to give love to the youth who aren’t able to be at places. 510 Day, as much as it is about us as adults, it’s about the youth. The youth around Oakland are a larger factor as to why 510 Day even exists.

510 Day typically takes place right here on Lakeshore, which is now partially closed off to cars on the weekends. How do you feel the city has handled the situation with the neighbors, the vendors, and the crowds?

If we allow for more foot traffic, I’m not necessarily against them shutting the street. As long as folks aren’t being penalized for what they do while at the lake. You can’t drink, you can’t smoke—is this being enforced in Montclair? Because when it’s not in other parts of the city, that becomes my issue.

I might catch flack for saying that I agree that permits for vending are needed. If vendors can pay for it, then do it. I’m not here to say shut them down, not at all. However, if the city is saying that permits are needed, then that is going to help us with taxes that the city needs to keep this city beautified and unfortunately, also, going to the police. However, some folks have done too much and at some point, you got to be accountable for that. But we’re still not leaving, and we’re never gonna leave, and that’s what the whole hashtag “#WeStillHere” is about. We ain’t going nowhere. You want to stop parking? Cool, okay. We’re gonna take the bus. We’re gonna take a Lyft. We’re going to walk.

The vendors have shifted their operation to the Grand Avenue side, and the crowds are congregating on that side as well.

If the city pushes this right, these streets being cut off, it will be the best thing. It will become a place where you have weekly events. The millions of dollars put into the design of the lake is being used now. And for the people that live around here, you live in front of a public park. Now, that doesn’t excuse people littering or parking in front of your driveway. I agree, it is not cool. You deserve to be outside of your house, and others deserve to be able to enjoy the lake as well. 

You are a huge supporter of the arts and culture here in Oakland. What do you foresee happening once the state reopens in June?

I’m excited for what the future may hold. Through COVID, we’ve had a lot happening at the homebase on the cultural scene, whether it is the amazing art by Timothy B, or the creation and establishment of the Black Cultural Zone. You have just a myriad of places, not just downtown. We’re seeing places from East Oakland to the West. We’re seeing all these different spaces for cultural activity come up. 

We are seeing people who had moved here, taking remote jobs and leaving. They are not necessarily the ones who were trying to preserve this culture, and so everything goes back to home folks. You’re also seeing more confirmation and acknowledgment of indigenous culture, the Ohlone culture. Unfortunately, there’s also violence happening with the AAPI community. But we are also seeing even more solidarity and co-collaboration. The pandemic brought back the camaraderie and unity that our communities have been missing.

Now that a lot of tech workers will be working remotely, what industries would you like to see invest in Oakland?

Not going to lie, I want tech in Oakland. At one point, West Oakland was a highly STEAM-funded area. I want to see companies putting money into the infrastructure. However, I would like to see a lot more locally supported programs. I would like to see the city also start creating. It shouldn’t all be nonprofits. I would like to see the continued growth of community foods like the Deep Grocery Coop, Mandela Partners. More health-conscious alternatives for food desert areas in the West and the flatlands.

What is an event that you’re looking forward to, once things fully reopen?

Hiero Day is my number one. I’m praying that it happens in person.

What can the community do to help the revival of Oakland, post-COVID?

Look at what areas need. In addition to affordable housing, find ways to sustain small businesses. There’s a reason why there are vendors at the lake, because of the closure of small businesses. I want to see the city look at how we protect and take care of the future. I want them to be more proactive about taking care of the young folks who will become 21 in the next three, four years. I want us to have the local dollar actually be local. 

Correction: a previous version of the story did not list all of the co-founders of 510 Day.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.