'Bringing the whole city out:' BBQing While Black at Lake Merritt draws diverse crowds

Image 1 of 3

The grassy lawn along Lake Merritt turned into a massive cookout Sunday, in an event aimed to show that Oakland is a city that welcomes diversity and is a place where all bigotry will be countered with love, laughter and plenty of slow-cooked ribs. 

As many as 2,000 people set up lawn chairs, BBQs and even a teepee next to the lake along Lakeshore Avenue. Men played dominoes. An artist sketched the city's skyline. Families danced. People ate. The smell of grilled lobster, chicken and pork permeated the air. One group of caterers handed out free hot dogs and water to passersby.

The catalyst for the grassroots grill-fest? Finding a positive reaction to a now-viral video taken in late April of a woman calling out two African-American men for using a charcoal grill in a non-designated spot on the lake.

"This what Oakland do," said Onsayo Abram, 42, one of the two men who was barbecuing on that April day. "Come have fun. This is for everybody."

Jhamel Robinson, a co-organizer, added: "This is a beautiful event of culture. It's to bring the whole city out with love and peace."

Mayor Libby Schaaf tweeted a thank you to her city, for "taking a moment to show off our unity and inclusion. Oakland has a core value. Everyone is welcome here." 

The "BBQing While Black"  cookout officially kicked off at 11 a.m., though dozens of grillers and neighbors started showing up hours earlier. By afternoon, DJs were playing music, families were spreading out blankets and people of all ethnicities were eating and chilling by the lake. This reporter walked around the event and didn't see any violence or police officers. Robinson said that there were indeed police at the event: About 20 officers directed traffic and were invited to eat BBQ with the group. "They were really great," Robinson said, adding that he didn't believe there were any arrests during the event. Robinson also paid about $600 to get a permit for the bash, which included trash pickup by the Parks and Recreation Department. He and friends filled 50 garbage bags, too, trying to help out. Abram and others brought large aluminum trash cans to haul out their charcoal bricks. 

For his part, Abram said he is thrilled with how the city has turned out in support of him since that Sunday when a woman, whom the internet has nicknamed "Barbecue Becky," approached him and his friend, Kenzie Smith, calling them out, and then calling police, for using the wrong kind of barbecue at the lake.

VIDEO: Woman calls police on men BBQing in Lake Merritt

Since then, #BBQBecky (Becky is slang for a white woman of privilege)  has taken over social media as an unflattering meme, even becoming the butt of a joke on Saturday Night Live. According to the woman's now-deleted LinkedIn file, she has a degree from Stanford University and works in the environmental health field.

KTVU has not been able to reach her for comment. In the video, she says the race of the people grilling didn't matter to her. She said she cared about the the proper use of grills in the proper zone.

Lake Merritt does allow for BBQs, but charcoal ones are not allowed where Abram was grilling - something he readily concedes. But, he added that people of all backgrounds "do it all the time."

There are also no signs in this area alerting the public as to what the barbecuing rules are, but they can be found by deep in the Oakland Parks and Recreation website.  When a police officer talked to him that day, Abrams said the officer told him the charcoal grill was a "violation of a municipal code that no one really enforced."

What isn't shown in the video is how the woman spoke to Abram and Smith, longtime friends who have come to the lake for years.  Abram told KTVU that off-camera, the woman told both men to get out of "her park" and she called them the N-word.

The woman also called police.

Calling police is a triggering event for many in the black community, and can often turn out badly for African-American men, Abram pointed out. So much so, that Smith took a picture of the woman and texted it to his wife, Michelle Snider, who is white and a journalism student at Laney College in Oakland. Smith told his wife something to the effect of: If something happens to me today and I end up in jail, this is the reason why.

Snider was alarmed. She rode over to the lake and took a video of the woman, berating her for calling the cops on black men committing such a minor offense. Snider posted the video on YouTube, which is how the story spread.  In the end, an Oakland police officer came out and ended up taking a report saying that both parties felt harassed. In the video, Snider chases after the woman, until she is seen on the video down crying in front of a police officer at a nearby Qwik Stop. No one was ever arrested or cited. 

Abram said he thought the "cop was really cool." 

While Sunday's event was the largest, this is at least the third event in Oakland to highlight the fact that it's not a crime to "BBQ While Black."  

Earlier this month, there was an annual 510 Day in Oakland, where people turned the day into a dance party to support the growing movement. And last week, a "Grill Your Government" rally was held to urge city leaders to do something about people abusing the 911 system to call police for non-emergencies.

"I wasn't expecting this," Abram said. "But I love it."