No Judgment

Photo by Damu Dailey
Photo by Damu Dailey
Photo by Damu Dailey

It was 2004 in San Francisco’s Mission District. I was at the Lexington Club with my friends standing at the juke box. An attractive, tattooed, masculine bartender came up to me and handed me a five-dollar bill. I said thank you. “I’m a nice guy,” the person replied.
I paused and thankfully had the sense to keep quiet. In my head I thought, guy? I went back to my friends to explain my experience and that’s where I first learned about queerness, gender binaries and met people that were openly trans.
I would later end up belonging to that community for a number of years and getting to know the family of someone who passed away in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. The queer people I first met in San Francisco deeply shaped who I am. Much like the folks who created community in the Ghost Ship warehouse, I found safe haven at the Lexington Club—the only bar where I had ever felt completely safe. It doesn’t exist anymore, due to gentrification in the Mission.
The night the fire started, I was already asleep. I woke up at 6 a.m, the next morning and when I went to check my Instagram, the father of one of the fire victims had posted, “Please pray for my daughter…she was at a warehouse show last night that caught fire…” and my insides turned cold.
I checked twitter to confirm and slowly pieced the events together in a frantic yet slow molasses-like space. I spent Saturday and Sunday deep inside myself as the din of helicopters filled the neighborhood. I read more confirmatory messages of the people who died.
The organization I work for has a building across the street from the Ghost Ship warehouse. That Monday, we had to re-locate 80 staff members who worked in that building because the streets were blocked off and we couldn’t get access to the building. We quickly came together to decide what to do—staff re-location, community messaging and support, etc. We brought food to the first responders and some of our staff led a prayer inside our other building which is one and one-half blocks away from the Ghost Ship warehouse.
As all this was unfolding, I became consumed with finding out details of the fire. I had walked past Ghost Ship only a couple of times. A few months back, I parked next to a yard with a huge garbage pile. I briefly wondered if someone had gotten evicted. I didn’t know the yard was connected to the warehouse. Another time, I walked past the front door and noticed the chairs, artwork and signs. I wondered if it could be connected to the auto body shop but it had a different vibe. And I didn’t like it. I still can’t articulate why, but I actively avoided walking near there ever since.
The flurry of media and police has subsided and the area around the warehouse feels heavy, yet empty and sad. I heard someone refer to the warehouse shell as an empty ribcage. Many of my colleagues can see the burned building from their offices. “It feels like working at a memorial site,” a colleague texted me.
I’m studying my insides with the distance of a research observer. I vacillate between being engaged in my present activity, to feeling deep sadness and despair. I cry a few times a day, randomly. I wonder, if I’m feeling this way and I’m only a peripheral figure, how must those directly impacted feel? How does it feel to lose a child or a loved one in such an ineffably terrible way?
The pieces written about this horrifying event that make the most sense to me are the open letter from Cash Askew’s parents ( and Cash’s interview with Slutist ( She was one of the first identified victims of the fire.
I understand the need to reconcile events and responsibility in the face of tragedy. Assigning blame brings us some sense of control. But what society doesn’t understand is that this issue is too layered to blame anyone cleanly with the hope of closure.
Internet commenters muse that people lived in Ghost Ship “illegally.” Which is technically true but it’s too easy to dismiss what happened using mainstream logic. Dominant systems are not open to those who live on society’s fringes. Outsiders can’t live mainstream lives and mainstream rules cannot and do not apply.
We have to dig deeper and ask why we are not more empathetic, kind and inclusive to those so different from ourselves and how our systems reflect this often violent exclusion. Our societal systems rely on punishment. We expect the police to de-escalate people with mental health problems; to intervene during abuse in families; and to assess situations beyond their capacity and training.
We expect greedy landlords to “do the right thing.” We expect people with no resources to magically get resources and live just like everyone else. We cater to those who make six figures. In aggregate, these things don’t make for a healthy society. We can’t let myopic code enforcers run roughshod all over Oakland and kick people out for living “illegally.” We have to dedicate resources to make safe, equitable spaces for our artists, queer community and other outsiders. If 30 percent of my paycheck goes sight unseen—let it fund society’s deepest needs. On a purely economic level, if most people are doing well, society flourishes overall.
I beg people to think critically and humanely beyond what’s legal or not. Question your biases. Notice them first. Then kindly ask yourself what’s there. Include your gay relative in something. Invite your kid’s feminine boy classmate/friend to dinner. Ask yourself why you cringe and avoid houseless people in your neighborhood. Educate yourself about people that make you uncomfortable. Know that your experience is not universal. In a world of perceived scarcity, there is more than enough to go around for everyone at a baseline level.
If you don’t believe that EVERYONE deserves to be a baseline of wellness—that’s alarming. And indicative of where we are heading as people. It’s not too late to move the needle.

Author Profile

Sandra Tavel lives and works in East Oakland. Emigrating from La Paz, Bolivia and growing up in suburban Denver shaped her desire to put roots down in a place that is diverse, politically progressive and rich in social justice oriented history.  This journey brought her to Oakland, which gets a disturbing and bizarre rap on much of the media that exists today. She’s looking to move the needle to create different narratives that reflect the complexity and nuances that make Oakland what it is.

She has been an avid writer and voracious reader her whole life.  When she’s not working, reading or writing, you can find her at yoga class, hiking the Redwood Regional Park System or playing on the beach with her partner and two dogs.

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