National News

Hundreds in Oakland Turn Out to Barbecue While Black

Posted May 21, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT

They arrived with chicken, sausages and bowls of macaroni salad. DJs played hip-hop and ‘80s hits. Even the fire marshal showed up, as well as police officers who waved hello to passers-by and guided traffic.

What once was a grand tradition in Oakland, California — a party at Lake Merritt along a placid stretch of the San Francisco Bay — had new life Sunday, as locals gathered for a picnic called “BBQing While Black.”

“It was epic,” Logan Cortez, an Oakland schoolteacher and an organizer of the event, said. “It was a sea of love and blackness and food and fun.”

The event, which drew hundreds of visitors from around the Bay, was held in the wake of an episode on April 29, in which a white woman harangued two African-American men for grilling at the lake and called the police on them.

The police arrived and spoke to the woman, who had claimed it was illegal for the men to use a charcoal grill in the area. There were no arrests.

But the video, which was viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, ignited a debate about racism in Oakland, where gentrification has displaced many African-Americans who grew up there.

Columnists wrote articles decrying the way the men were treated. Dozens of people gathered at the lake for a cookout and dance party. Protesters rallied at Oakland City Hall, demanding politicians take action. (This is the town where the Black Panther Party was founded.)

Online, the video took on a vibrant life of its own. A meme using the hashtag #BBQBecky went viral, with the image of the woman appearing behind President Barack Obama in the White House, as a guest at the Last Supper, behind Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and on the bus with Rosa Parks.

The woman was also parodied this past weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” where she was played by an unsmiling Aidy Bryant. Attempts to reach the woman who reportedly called the police were unsuccessful.

Cortez said she saw the video and was not surprised, given what she described as systemic racism in the town she grew up in. So, she sent a message to a few friends asking them to meet her at Lake Merritt for a barbecue.

“I wanted to deal with my lack of shock,” she said.

Now, after the overwhelming response from her community, she hopes to hold similar picnics throughout the summer.

For many in Oakland, Sunday’s barbecue was a reminder of days gone by, when the city hosted the Festival at the Lake in the 1980s and 1990s for a celebration of Oakland arts, music and culture. The festival was discontinued in 1997 because of budget cuts, concerns about public safety and low attendance.

“A lot of elders came up to me and said, you made me feel like it was the 1990s again,” said Jhamel Robinson, a graphic designer who was one of the organizers of the event.

He said Logan called him and he agreed to make a flyer to promote the picnic. He posted it on Facebook where it was passed among friends.

Like Logan, Robinson grew up in Oakland. But he now lives in Sacramento, California, priced out of the Bay Area.

He said the crowd was predominantly African-American. “There were about 30 street vendors, people selling stuff,” he said. “There were six DJs playing hip-hop, R&B and soul music.”

His mother still lives in Oakland. “She made macaroni and cheese,” he said. She did not go to the picnic, though, opting to go to church.

“I wished we had this every day in Oakland,” Robinson said.