Oaklanders fight racism with Lake Merritt dance party, BBQ rally

Ever since a woman called police on an African-American family using a charcoal grill in a non-designated spot at Lake Merritt, the community has risen up with dance parties and a protest where the activists are asked to wear “cookout clothes” to show that it's not a crime to "BBQ while Black."   

"This is great," said Michelle Snider of Oakland, a mother of two and a journalism student at Laney College, whose husband, Kenzie Smith, was at the center of the video in question, now seen more than 1 million times.  "I love Oakland. I hate to make things about race. But in this case, it was necessary." 

Snider plans to speak at the 4:30 p.m. Tues rally, called “Grill Your Government, Demand Justice.” And she's heartened by so many groups who have come out to support her large, mixed-race family who was out barbecuing on April 29, when a woman called police to report they were using charcoal grills in a non-approved area. The woman called her husband the N-word, Snider said. Snider took the video as evidence of the woman's behavior, which has now become a national story.

Carroll Fife, director at Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and an activist of the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods who co-organized the City Hall rally said, “the recent incident that took place at Lake Merritt surrounding charcoal grilling is not only an example of how the police are used to control African Americans, it also exemplifies the growing tensions for how Black Oakland experiences a changing city.”

Fife’s goal is to “to protect Black Oakland and to push elected officials to do something about the abuse of city resources. We don't want more meetings, forums or empty gestures - we want action so this doesn't happen again.”

She told KTVU that she's tired of city leaders holding "forums" and "dog and pony shows" on race. Fife said she wants people, like the woman who called police over the barbecue, to be held accountable for calling 911 when there isn't an emergency.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf 's Office said the rally seemed like a good idea.

“The mayor’s office always encourages residents to come to City Hall and make their voices heard," Schaaf's spokesman Justin Berton said via email. "And this event sounds like the perfect Oakland response to a serious issue – civic engagement, political activism, and a party atmosphere.”

Last week, Oaklanders came out for the annual 510Day to celebrate the city, and many dedicated some of the event to stamping out racism with hip hop and the Electric Slide.

Black Panther Fan Girl summed in up in this tweet and corresponding dance video: "In a pointed response to a recent incident where a white woman thought it her civic duty to call the police on a few black couples using a  grill in a public park, the melanated masses of Oakland threw their own  party at that very same site, Lake Merritt Park."

Michael Swanson Jr. said there were hundreds of people out at the lake, most of whom wanted to show that they won't tolerate racism at Lake Merritt. The traditional Oakland event "really picked up steam" after Snider's video about the BBQ brouhaha went viral, he said.

All this outpouring and grassroots activism stems from the type of grill Snider's family was using, and where it was placed. There is no question that the BBQ that was being used was smoking in a spot that does now allow for charcoal grills.

Still, Onsayo Abram, who was there that day and part of the group, said he's seen other people grilling there without incident.

Abram told the SF GATE that the woman who called police was rude and that he is sure the color of his skin had something to do with her tone and response. She also called Lake Merritt "my park" and told him, "you guys shouldn't be here, you shouldn't be doing this."

"She walked up, and she was telling me that it was illegal and against the law to have a charcoal grill at the lake," Abram told SFGATE. "I proceed to tell her, 'Hey, there's not a posted sign. I believe I'm in the correct area. Go on about your day and leave me alone.' So she said, 'No, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I'm gonna need you to shut this down, or I'm gonna call the police.'

Police did ultimately respond to calls over the grill and took down a report with both parties saying they were harassed. No one was cited or arrested, and the barbecue was allowed to continue.