'Thank you BBQ Becky:' African-American entrepreneurs say they're rejuvenating Lake Merritt

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Lake Merritt has been abuzz this summer with young entrepreneurs selling art, jewelry, African daishikis and organic juice. 

“You know, we’ve been out here ever since…” a woman selling peach cobbler and $2 bottled waters said on Sunday. 

She didn’t need to finish her sentence.

The “since” is post “BBQ Becky,” when a white woman called 911 in late April when she spotted two African-American men, Kenzie Smith and Onsayo Abram, using a charcoal grill at the lake in a non-designated spot. 

Smith’s wife, who is white, took a now-viral video of the aftermath of that call at the lake, which ignited a national debate about racism in Oakland, where gentrification has displaced many African-Americans who grew up there.

Now, many of those African Americans want to do something positive “since” Becky. 

For starters, Smith is now running for a seat on the Oakland City Council. And in the meantime, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan has nominated him to a post on the Parks and Recreation Commission. 

"That video was the push people needed to be able to open up to each other," Smith's wife, Michelle Snider, said. "It's opened up a dialogue. People just didn't know that this happened in Oakland. People didn't feel comfortable at the lake. Now, they feel welcome." 

Not only that, but community activists, including Jhamel Robinson, who moved to Sacramento because he can’t afford to live in Oakland anymore, helped organize two "BBQing While Black" picnics this summer. A third one is planned for September. 

Robinson and his friends paid $700 for a permit with the city, and a couple thousand people of all races came out in May to celebrate the city’s diversity and show it’s not a crime to barbecue in America if you’re a  person of color.

READ: Police report when Jennifer Schulte called 911

Since then, a fledgling cottage industry of predominantly young African-American entrepreneurs have sprouted up at Lake Merritt on the weekend. Many say they are selling their goods not only as a way to make some money but to also harken back to the 1980s and 19990s when Oakland hosted a “Festival at the Lake.” The 15-year festival was  popular for years when it drew 120,000 at its peak, until attendance dwindled beginning in 1994. The nail in the coffin came in 1997, when there was a huge fight at the festival and organizers had no way to pay off the bills.  

“It’s organically taken a life of its own,” Robinson said of the efforts to bring music, food and art back to the lake on the weekends. “It’s a beautiful thing. I love the fact that people are taking the energy even though it’s not an official event. They’re finding ways to actually come together to create something for themselves.”

DeAunTe’Emani White was out on Sunday selling homemade organic juice along the lake. He said he’s grown up hearing stories from his parents and parents about the Festival at the Lake and he wanted to bring some of those nostalgic elements of that back to the city where he grew up. He also attributed his actions directly to BBQ Becky – and he noted that not only has the overall community been supportive, but he’s fostered better relationships with police officers, firefighters and city bureaucrats who have all stopped by his booth to shake hands and say hi.

VIDEO: Woman calls 911 on men BBQing at the lake

He keeps the business card of an Oakland code enforcement officer next to his juice bottles, saying that he and his peers were told they could sell at the lake if their operations were small scale. Calls to the city were not immediately returned on Monday to clarify what vendors need to sell wares at the park. 

As for life post-Becky? “I want to thank her,” he said. “She really rejuvenated things here at the lake.”