Is Oakland a “Sanctuary City” for Its Sanctuaries?

Gentrifiers cause the city to use police and fines to punish drummers, churches and creative artists

Drummers of the SambaFunk! Funkquarians perform with members of the public at Lake Merritt in protest. Photo by Tulio Ospina.

Drummers of the SambaFunk! Funkquarians perform with members of the public at Lake Merritt in protest. Photo by Tulio Ospina.

By Ashley Chambers and Tulio Ospina

Black churches in Oakland are being asked to moderate their worship voices after neighbors have made noise complaints to the city about the volume of the gospel that is reaching beyond the church walls.

But these churches are not going to be silent. They are standing together to make a “joyful noise” in the community and demanding that sanctuaries in Oakland be protected.

Pastor Thomas Harris of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church discusses with clergy and Post staff the noise complaints that the church has received from gentrifying neighbors. Photo by Ashley Chambers.

Pastor Thomas Harris of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church discusses with clergy and Post staff the noise complaints
that the church has received from gentrifying
neighbors. Photo by Ashley Chambers.

An unprecedented coalition is coming together between faith-based organizations and arts community activists, such as the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and Lake Merritt drummers who are being silenced by Oakland police.

“The institution of the church is one of the foundations of the community,” said Pastor Thomas Harris of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in West Oakland. The church received a formal complaint in August from neighbors about loud noise during their Wednesday night choir rehearsal.

Although the church attempted to talk with the neighbors and addressed their concerns in a formal letter, that conversation never happened, said Harris.

The City of Oakland sent a letter dated August 31, 2015, alerting the church of the noise complaint and citing Oakland’s Noise Ordinance, Municipal Code 8.18.

However, clergy are concerned that this letter came without any sort of city outreach – no warning, personal visit or discussion with the church relating to the matter.

Anyka Barber

Anyka Barber

“This activity may constitute a public nuisance due to its impact to the use and quiet enjoyment of the surrounding community’s property,” the letter read, signed by Greg Minor, Assistant to the City Administrator.

According to the city’s letter, the church would be fined a $3,529 nuisance case fee as well as civil penalties of $500 a day if the city moves forward with a public nuisance abatement case.

“This letter from the city without any notification is a direct assault on the African American community in Oakland, especially West Oakland,” said Rev. Lawrence VanHook, pastor of Community Church in West Oakland.

Rev. Gerald Agee, president of Pastors of Oakland and pastor of Friendship Christian Church, said, “It seems a little disheartening that people would come into a community without first researching to see if there are things within that community that they would not like, (rather) than to come in and try to change the community based on their likes and dislikes.”

Pastor Harris, along with other local clergy, Oakland NAACP President George Holland, and Post Publisher Paul Cobb met this week to discuss how faith leaders in Oakland can respond to the attack on Black churches.

“We need to organize in the streets to make a joyful noise,” said Cobb, who encourages the city to protect houses of worship and to make Oakland into a “sanctuary for sanctuaries.”

“You (gentrifiers) don’t tell us how to worship. We will not be ashamed of the gospel,” he said.

Churches are planning outdoor worship services in coming weeks, connected with a voter registration drive.

Like the city’s Black churches, the arts community is finding itself threatened by a handful of residents who consider their cultural expression to be a nuisance. Cultural centers that are rooted in Oakland’s diverse cultural history – the Malonga Casquelourd Center, the Humanist Hall and the SambaFunk! Funkquarians – have faced criminal charges and expensive fines, following complaints by a few residents.

About 100 people attended a meeting Wednesday evening at the Asian Cultural Center, organized by the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, to discuss how to defend cultural expression.

“We are all neighbors in Oakland. We live, we work, we play together here,” said Anyka Barber, a member of the coalition’s steering committee and owner of Betti Ono, a local art gallery.

“The arts and culture community are what make Oakland known worldwide, and this is a critical moment to take action, to be proactive, well-organized and united in our agendas,” said Barber.

Speakers at the meeting emphasized the common interests of Oakland’s churches and the arts community.

“Let’s just say it. The things happening to Black churches in West Oakland are also happening to artists and residents who are predominantly people of color. These are underrepresented communities, and we are aligned, aligned, aligned in our goals,” said Barber.

At the meeting, Post Publisher Cobb called on “artists, the faith-based community and the media to come together and form a Holy Trinity connection.”

Stressing the need to have power at the ballot box, Cobb said, “We can vote artistically minded and faithful leaders into the city government.”

A multicultural drum circle protest last Sunday at Lake Merritt, hosted by the newly formed Soul of Oakland coalition, drew drummers and performers of different backgrounds from around the East Bay to share their cultural sounds.

Councilmember Desley Brooks spoke to the crowd about the importance of raising their voices to demand strong policies to protect residents’ livelihood and cultures.

“First, they came for the Black people in this city, and they pushed them out one by one. In 10 years, we lost about 10,000 Black residents,” said Brooks.

“Then they came and said that artists couldn’t drum at the park,” she said. “They told the churches that they were too loud.”

“Let them hear you,” Brooks said. “Do not let them silence your voices because we are a powerful people, and all of Oakland should hear us.”

In response to questions from the Post, city communications director and Assistant City Administrator Karen Boyd said the West Oakland church has not been listed as a public nuisance.

“We recognize that houses of worship are an intrinsic and vital dimension of Oakland,” said Boyd. “We are working to revise the language in our courtesy notices to reflect our intent to communicate openly with property owners about any complaints we receive so that issues may be resolved.”

Post Publisher Cobb says the City Administrator’s position does not protect the rights of churches.

“The position taken by the City Administrator doesn’t do anything to protect houses of worship that are in jeopardy,” said Cobb. “We must organize to protect houses of worship—we can’t equivocate on the First Amendment.”

The suppression of church and community cultural expression is closely connected to other aspects of gentrification, says community activist and educator Kitty Kelly Epstein.

“Treating the sounds of Oakland residents’ churches and drummers as a public nuisance is related to producing policies that ignore our demands for affordable homes and jobs that will support our ability to continue to live in this city,” she said.

For updates on the “Sancutary4Sanctuaries” Movement, follow Paul Cobb on Twitter @PaulCobbOakland.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, October 16, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)