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A chaotic punk show in West Oakland on Jun 27 that police and firefighters retreated from resulted in multiple fires and harm to a large community of unsheltered residents. Credit: Dead City Punx Instagram.

In the early morning of June 27, Saint Gaines, a 46-year-old lifelong West Oakland resident who lives in his RV under the I-880 near Wood Street, was still putting out fires from the night before. He and another unhoused resident who lives nearby had to tap a city water main and connect several hoses to be able to reach all the flames. 

The night before, a massive crowd of concertgoers, which Gaines estimated at well over 1,000 people, converged on an area between West Grand Avenue and 20th Street under the freeway bridges. Homeless residents who live around there said they saw many concertgoers lighting fires and setting off fireworks, smashing car windows, kicking over tables, spray painting resident’s property, and causing other destruction.

“It was utter chaos,” said Lydia, who lives in an RV nearby.

In the days and weeks after, several bands that played for the raucous audience posted photos and videos to social media, displaying some of the damage done to the West Oakland homeless community. The band SECTION H8 posted a video of two inflamed vehicles, while Dead City Punx posted a video showing a firework exploding inside a large fire, shooting out in all directions and into the surrounding crowd.

An Instagram post by the band Section H8 of cars burning at an Oakland concert in June. The band deleted the Instagram post after publication of this story. Credit: Courtesy of Instagram (screenshot)

Gaines recalls seeing people throw paint cans in fires, which caused them to burst. He asked concertgoers for aid in putting out mattress, trash, and vehicle fires, which were still burning as they left. 

“We asked people to help us pull the water hose but everybody was just standing around,” he said in an interview a few days after the show. “They didn’t respect the people that live here.”

Gaines has lived under the I-880 freeway for three years in what’s thought to be Oakland’s largest homeless community. Although the population changes often and is hard to estimate, The Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle have reported hundreds of people live in the community that stretches along Wood Street for multiple blocks. Effectively an entire residential neighborhood of people living in tents, hand-built shacks, and RVs and vehicles, the area doesn’t receive regular trash service and has become an illegal dumping ground for housed residents. As a result, it’s filled with trash, abandoned vehicles, dry grass, and the occasional flower, as well as the possessions of unsheltered people.

“This is all a lot of people have,” Gaines said, pointing around to the community. “Fires like that can spread to weeds and brush, all this dry shit can go up really easily. But to them it was just fun and games, I guess.”

Not everyone who attended the show thought it was fun and games. The harm the event did has sparked conversations about accountability and solidarity. Some members of Oakland’s punk and hardcore music scene, and local groups that provide mutual aid to unsheltered residents, have spoken out about the irresponsibility of event organizers in drawing a massive, rowdy crowd into a marginalized community, resulting in the community being harmed. Some locals are working with Wood Street residents to try to repair the damage that was done.

How out of town bands and concertgoers ‘came to wreck everything’

Wood Street in West Oakland has been home to hundreds of unsheltered residents over the years. Those who live nearby the location of a recent punk show say the party caused destruction. Credit: Amir Aziz

West Oakland’s chaotic June 26 outdoor concert had its roots in a similar show organized a month before in Los Angeles. Daniel, a long-term West Oakland resident and member of the local punk community, remembers seeing Instagram posts about an underground hardcore punk showheld in Los Angeles in May. Daniel, like several other people interviewed for this story, asked that we only use his first name because he works alongside unsheltered people to oppose law enforcement efforts to close down homeless communities and doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.   

In videos posted online, a massive crowd moshed and lit bonfires and fireworks under a highway overpass. Los Angeles police arrived and video footage appears to show officers shooting less than lethal rounds into the crowd. The Los Angeles Times reported that LAPD issued a “tactical alert” to send a large number of officers to break up an unpermitted outdoor punk show in the Cypress Park neighborhood.

“Respect to all the people who stayed for our set as pigs shot rubber bullets and tear gas at us while we played,” wrote the Los Angeles-based band Dead City Punx the next day on Instagram.

Daniel has been going to similar “renegade” concerts for more than 15 years. Often held in out-of-the-way parks, under freeway overpasses, and in vacant industrial buildings and empty lots, these unpermitted shows have become more common during the pandemic because many traditional music venues have remained closed. Daniel said a typical show sees between 50 to 250 people, but the Los Angeles show was huge. Loudwire, an online magazine that covers hard rock and heavy metal music, reported that up to 2,000 people were there.

“Shows like that hadn’t happened before,” Daniel said. “People were saying it was the biggest renegade punk show of all time.”

The chaotic scene, massive crowd, police response, and sensationalistic media coverage by local TV news stations created a buzz among hardcore punk fans, many of whom wanted more.

Tiny World, a group that organized, promoted, and sold merchandise at the Los Angeles show, was quick to capitalize in its wake. The group scheduled another unpermitted show for June 26 in Oakland that many thought would be just as big, if not bigger, and feature four of the bands that had played the Los Angeles show, including Dead City Punx, along with two Santa Cruz-based bands, and one Bay Area band.

One of the Los Angeles based bands, SECTION H8, posted photos of a shirt they planned to sell at the Oakland event on Instagram. It read “DEMOLITION TEAM” on the front. On the back was a drawing of a wrecking ball slamming into the Bay Bridge, a person urinating in the bay, and the words “We Came To Wreck Everything.”

A t-shirt sold by the band Section H8 to promote the destructive West Oakland concert. The band took down the Instagram post of this shirt following publication of this story. Credit: Courtesy of Instagram (screenshot)

Daniel said he was expecting a wild show, but not an event that would harm a community where homeless people live—a community that many local punks, including himself, often volunteer. 

Instagram posts hyping the West Oakland show kept the location secret right up until the day of the event in order to prevent local police from taking steps to shut it down. The day of the show, Daniel got a text saying it would occur at “Lower Bobs,” a skatepark in West Oakland. But then the location changed at the last minute, and he got a text saying it had moved to a location under the I-880, just west of Wood Street.

It was there that he found the massive crowd. Daniel, who used to work at music festivals, estimated it at 2,000 to 5,000 people.

Firefighters and police retreated from a hostile crowd

Concertgoers started showing up in the afternoon and gathered around a makeshift stage constructed on the back of a U-Haul truck directly under the freeway overpasses while bands performed. After sunset the crowd lit large fires and people threw objects like couches into the flames. Calls to the fire department, Oakland police, and California Highway Patrol reported a crowd of hundreds, flames, and explosions.

The Oakland Fire Department showed up but left rather than intervening. In an interview with The Oaklandside, OFD Chief of Staff Michael Hunt said they wanted to offer help, but were unable to because concertgoers were hostile.

According to an email OFD sent to The Oaklandside, the department responded at around 10:30 p.m. Firefighters described the scene as “an unsafe situation” because people were throwing “debris” at them. The incident was similar to last year’s Fourth of July, when a celebratory crowd at Lake Merritt delayed a fire engine’s response to a medical call by over ten minutes. But this time, OFD wasn’t just delayed. The department was prevented from responding, according to fire and police records obtained through a public records request.

“When people are unwilling to let [the OFD] do what they’re trained to do they’re inviting more risk and more hazard,” said Hunt. “This was frustrating because it threatened the lives of people who are already extremely vulnerable.”

“That was the first time I saw [the fire department] turn away like that,” Gaines recalls of the night.

By 12:20 a.m. multiple people on the highway were calling about the fires. At that point, the Oakland Police Department showed up, followed by the California Highway Patrol. CHP advised firefighters “not to respond due to crowds throwing bottles.”  By 12:47 a.m., all officers had left the scene, but the fires were still ablaze.

The show angered Ramona Mason, who had been living in a tent under the freeway until a local grassroots group, Artists Building Community, built her a makeshift home there.

“That was one ugly night,” she said. “It was too much. They were pissing in my yard. I wanted every last one of those fuckers to go home.”

Mason said concertgoers smashed the windows of her brother’s car, which was under her watch due to him being incarcerated. She remembers OPD officers showing up, but their presence didn’t help.

“The police couldn’t control it,” she said. “They didn’t do nothing.”

OPD told The Oaklandside in an email that they were not in charge of responding to the incident and that it was being handled by the California Highway Patrol due to the location of the concert and fires. “CHP was primary in managing the scene due to the incident being under the freeway, and on Caltrans property,” wrote Officer Kim Armstead. “OPD provided support to OFD to address the fires.  As documented in the report, OPD had a limited role in this incident.”

OPD released a heavily redacted police report that shows that two officers showed up to investigate an “illegal cabaret.” Oakland requires anyone hosting a concert or dance where alcohol is served to obtain a cabaret permit. The two officers who responded to the punk show didn’t contact any of the Wood Street residents, concertgoers, or anyone else, according to their report. They wrote that concertgoers threw rocks and bottles at firefighters and police. Police records also noted that at 12:50 a.m. “transients”—an inaccurate term law enforcement uses to refer to unsheltered residents—were putting out some of the fires in the area.

Heather Leonard, who lives in a tent nearby, said the event left her feeling scared. She saw concertgoers kicking over tables and chairs that her neighbor had set up.

“They were just rude,” Leonard said. “I couldn’t believe it.” 

Gaines, Leonard, and Mason all report seeing concertgoers spray paint a trailer and small storage shed owned by a homeless resident named Jeff as he pleaded with them to stop. While The Oaklandside wasn’t able to contact Jeff, a trailer and small storage shed parked next to each other near the location where the party was held were covered in fresh graffiti a few days after the concert. The camp residents, as well as Daniel, all claim they saw concertgoers throwing trash at a resident’s car who had to drive through the location of the show to exit. Daniel also claims to have seen a concertgoer tag a dog with spray paint.

The next morning, Joel Jensen, who lives in an RV nearby, said another homeless resident found a firework, likely one of the explosives the concertgoers were setting off. Thinking it wasn’t very powerful, Jensen lit it while holding it. He sustained injuries to his hand, was hospitalized, and eventually lost his index finger and thumb.

“It didn’t work the way it was supposed to,” Jensen said. “It was one of those mortar fireworks. Not having the use of my left hand is pretty horrible.”

In the wake of the show, bands and community members react

Trailers owned by Wood Street residents were covered in graffiti during the rowdy punk show. Credit: Zack Haber

The community where the show took place is special to Daniel. It’s a place where he serves food regularly and works with local grassroots groups. While he said most of the people at the show were not being destructive or starting fires, he felt the event, as a whole, harmed the unsheltered people that live under the overpass near Wood Street. He’s been to many smaller shows in the area and said he’s never seen the same kinds of behavior.  The night before the punk show, there was even a rave in the same location. Homeless residents joined in that party and it had no significant issues.

“I think it was just too many people and poor planning,” said Daniel about the punk show.

According to Daniel, one major difference between the punk show and other events he’d been to in the area, is that many of the concertgoers appeared to be from out of town and unfamiliar with the community they were in. Punk scenes in the Bay Area are pretty close-knit, but the crowd that night included many people who were unfamiliar to him. From talking to people, he learned many had come from Southern California and some from as far away as Washington. 

But local residents were there, too, including some who do volunteer work with the homeless community.

“I hold some guilt just for being there and being excited about it in the first place,” said Ben Bagnall, an Oakland resident who attended the show and does mutual aid work with homeless people who live near where the show took place. “What horrified me the most was how happy everyone was.”

Bagnall ended up staying in the back and leaving in under an hour. He remembers loud explosions from fireworks, giant fires, and people standing on top of cars with baseball bats smashing them. The scene scared him and reminded him of “a stereotypical movie war zone.” He saw other locals who he recognized from mutual aid groups at the show as well. Although he remembers none of those people setting fires or causing destruction, the passivity he saw among some disturbed him.

“I felt disoriented that people weren’t immediately horrified,” he said. “Some people participated the whole way through. There’s something fucked up about that.”

As the show died down, Daniel says he went to talk to some band members and organizers who said they were from Los Angeles. They told him they didn’t know it was a homeless community until they arrived and they were disturbed at what occurred. Some handed him the cash they had in their wallets to help reimburse unhoused residents there for the damage, which Daniel said he passed on to two people whose possessions were damaged due to the fires and vandalism. 

All four of the Los Angeles bands expressed joy about the show on Instagram. On June 27, LA-based musical act N8NOFACE posted a video of the crowd chanting his name, and wrote “THANK YOU SO FUCKING MUCH TO ALL THE BANDS ALLOWING ME TO ROCK WITH YOU AND PEOPLE WHO PULLED UP MY HEART IS TRULY FILLED.” This week, he also posted a video of himself in Oakland standing in front of a burning car.

The band Barrage posted a video of themselves playing at the Oakland show, their singer waving a small medieval mace weapon above his head, and fireworks exploding in the background, with the caption “LA to the Bay.” When people asked them in the comments about harm caused to the homeless community, Barrage didn’t respond. 

On July 6, Dead City Punx posted a video from the show along with a message, attributed to their lead singer: “I would have never imagined I would be performing in front of so many people and hearing the crowd sing along with me…It’s never too late to pursue your dreams.”

Dead City Punx also posted an Instagram story, which are posts that disappear after 24 hours, that quoted another account, @tortureculture_, and questioned people criticizing the show for its impact on the unsheltered community. “Let’s be real, if you come from a punk rock and hardcore background, these are the gigs you always wanted to attend,” @tortureculture_’s post read. “[Dead City Punx] & [Tiny World] & everyone else who was involved owe no one an explanation.”

One band, the Santa Cruz-based Scowl, apologized on Instagram for what the homeless residents experienced. On June 28, they encouraged people to attend cleanups of the location where the show took place and donate money to help residents who were harmed.

“We are deeply sorry that anything we participated in had a negative effect on the surrounding community,” they wrote in the caption to the post. “We are doing what we can to do right by those affected through our actions moving forward.”

On June 27, Bay Area-based band Spy shared an Instagram post of themselves playing at the show and wrote “THANK YOU” in the caption. Some people immediately responded with critical comments like “People live down there. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.” Spy never responded to these comments. But the next day, Spy shared an Instagram post with the same information Scowl shared about cleaning up and reimbursing residents, and wrote “We really respect and want to echo the sentiments from our friends in Scowl earlier today” in the caption. 

The Oaklandside couldn’t find an Instagram or Twitter account for the Santa Cruz-based band GULCH, who was also listed on the flyer for the June 26 show.

Tiny World, the event promoter, posted Instagram stories the day after the show that some homeless advocates and Wood Street residents felt were misleading and hurtful. One post included a screenshot of a fundraiser for Cob On Wood, a grassroots Oakland group that works with residents of Wood Street. Tiny World’s post seemed to imply they were uplifting a fundraiser to benefit Wood Street residents, and the screenshot indicated that over $75,000 had been raised for Cob on Wood. But according to the GoFundMe website, Cob On Wood started collecting donations for this fundraiser over eight months ago for “community support structures.” The money raised was not related to damages caused by the show. Over 900 donors’ names appear on the list, none of which appear to be related to Tiny World.

Members of Cob On Wood felt Tiny World’s instagram story post was deceptive and asked the group via Instagram to post receipts of their donations to Oakland mutual aid projects. They say Tiny World never responded to their request and they never received a donation from the organization. 

In another instagram story Tiny World posted the day after the show, people can be seen asking a homeless resident who is wearing a long robe with no pants to expose himself, “Can we see the cheeks? Maybe with the coat off it might be better?”

The post angered Gaines and Cob On Wood volunteers. The resident, who prefers to go by the name Puffy, said that while he enjoyed having a punk show near where he lived, he felt the post they shared of him without his consent was “kind of screwy and disrespectful.”

It’s unclear who runs Tiny World. The Oaklandside reached out multiple times through Instagram but did not get a response.

“I don’t think these people feel any need to be accountable if they can just hide behind a brand,” said Bagnall, the Oakland resident who volunteers at Wood Street.

The Oaklandside also reached out multiple times through Instagram, phone calls, texts, and email, to all of the seven bands, but none responded to our questions or request for comment.

Oakland punks join local groups to repair the damage

Soon after the show, grassroots groups like Cob on Wood and Punks with Lunch, a group founded by self-identified punks that provides hygiene, harm reduction supplies, food, and other basic necessities to homeless and other marginalized communities, started raising funds to reimburse unhoused residents for their losses, and looked for ways to hold those who played at or attended the show accountable.

People involved in the effort said it’s been complicated because it has involved hard conversations with some locals who attended the show and should have known it was harming a vulnerable community.

“I had some friends who were posting images from the show on their Instagram who didn’t know how inconsiderate it was to party in that way there,” said Annmarie Bustamente, a founding member of Cob On Wood. “I wish there had been more consideration for the people that lived there.”

Ali Lazarus, a member of Punks With Lunch, also saw friends posting images from the show on social media. She learned about Cob On Wood after the group called on those who attended the show to donate to unhoused residents who were harmed. Since she knew people who went to the show and knew that they followed the Punks With Lunch Instagram account, she thought the organization was in a good position to share the message. Punks With Lunch posted a series of photos criticizing Tiny World and Dead City Punx, as well as a photo of a member of the organization holding a sheet of paper that read “Ways to take accountability if you organized or went to the show last night,” and information on cleanups and where to donate.

“To any of the bands who played the show or individuals who organized it, this is an official invite for you not just to be accountable but to join us,” Punks With Lunch wrote in the post’s caption. “Come volunteer with us, connect with [Cob On Wood] as some of you already have, and be part of the community, not just use it as a place to party.”

So far, over 50 people showed up to three different cleanups the groups helped organize. The crew included many people who attended the show, as well as Malachi Green of Scowl. Cob On Wood, Punks With Lunch, Scowl, and other Oakland based grassroots groups helped fundraise over $8,000, largely from show attendees, to reimburse residents who had property damaged, and to use for fire abatement efforts and eviction defense.

There was also one surprising outcome of the show’s destructive aftermath. The homeless residents affected by the show live on land owned by either CalTrans or the city of Oakland. Both the state agency and Oakland have evicted different groups in the area over the last few years, or threatened to do so. Cob On Wood has been working with unhoused residents to resist these closures, and attention from the show has increased eviction resistance support from local housed residents.

“The punk show catalyzed a deeper community solidarity, and I hope that continues because support is still needed,” said Cob On Wood member Leah Van Winkle. “It’s a reminder that people still live there and there’s a deep insecurity due the threat of eviction and not knowing when that will come down on them.”

Still, looking back at how many people showed up to the show versus events organized to support unhoused people, Bagnall feels a disconnect. 

“What will people really show up to?” he said. “I’m still feeling the darkness of what people will come together under. We’ve never had people turning up for an eviction defense or clean up like that before.”

But Cob On Wood and Punks With Lunch are seeing some indication that more people will show up to support unhoused residents. Cob On Wood and partners have organized a rapid emergency response network that texts people information about how to show up for unhoused residents in case of eviction. Van Winkle said about 100 people were on the network in the days before the punk show, but over 275 signed up for the network in the month following the show.

Punks With Lunch has gotten a boost. A volunteer training event they hosted on July 10 had over 50 attendees, which Lazarus said is by far the largest showing she’s ever seen. She suspects it’s because people noticed their response to the show. One unhoused resident who lives near Wood street even showed up to the training.

“Partying is fine” said Cob On Wood’s Bustamante, “but part of punk is also standing up for each other.”

Correction: the original version of this story stated that the Oakland police did not respond to questions from The Oaklandside. That was not true. An OPD public information officer answered several questions via email. We regret not including their response and have updated this story with that information.

Zack Haber

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.