Government & Politics

'Sanctuary' Fire Traps

How the Oakland fire provides a window into important policy.

Arnold Ahlert · Dec. 8, 2016

“Oaklanders can rest assured that our government will continue to protect all its residents and defend our progressive values. We’ll proudly stand as a sanctuary city.” —from a Nov. 15, 2016 op-ed by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf

“This morning, a terrible tragedy took place in a space, a building, that is permitted as a warehouse.” —Mayor Schaaf’s initial statement on Dec. 3, 2016, following the Oakland fire last Friday night that claimed 36 victims. Schaaf also promised there would be a “very thorough and methodical investigation … so we can discern what in fact happened.”

What a difference a three weeks makes. Following the election of Donald Trump, Schaaf, along with a number of equally arrogant progressive mayors around the nation, warned us they would defy the Rule of Law because it didn’t align with their ideological sensibilities. Like so many of her colleagues, Schaaf is convinced she is pursuing a “higher calling” that allows her to transcend such “pedantic” concerns as safety and security for Oakland residents.

Tellingly, artist Derick Ion Almeda, the master tenant of the doomed warehouse, had a similar take on the Rule of Law. His Ghost Ship Collective was comprised of a number of bohemian artists and musicians who worked — and lived — in the “permitted warehouse.” And since the fire, it has emerged that Oakland fire officials had been investigating a neighbor’s “complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building.” There were additional complaints over the last year as well, “citing cramped conditions, electrical wiring issues, and residents living inside,” the Daily Mail reported. Moreover, Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who lives a block from the building, revealed it “has been an issue for a number of years.”

In other words, the Rule of Law was ignored.

Builder Matt Hummel, who has done several warehouse renovations in the San Francisco Bay Area, had visited the warehouse six months before the blaze. His description of the place is telling. Hummel saw a collection of meandering corridors with no marked exit routes, makeshift walls comprised of wooden pallets so flammable they would become “chimneys” that would create “a superhighway” exacerbating the breakout of a fire. “They were so busy on what it looked like, they didn’t pay attention to how it worked,” he said.

Hummel also explained that he and other visitors noted the warehouse’s problems had been apparent for some time, and Almeda had been warned about them. That assertion has yet to be confirmed. But what has been confirmed is the fact that Danielle Boudreaux, an acquaintance of Almena for several years, contacted the parents of Almeda’s wife, Micah Allison, in 2015 because she was concerned for the safety of the couple’s three children. Those children were ultimately removed by child protection authorities.

In a Facebook posting, Almeda blamed “AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY OF DEAR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES” for their removal, even as he revealed he and his wife are “finished with 3 months of anger management classes and parenting classes … Currently enrolled in domestic violence and twice weekly sessions of 3 hours each psychological evaluation and therapy. I piss in a cup twice a week for nearly a year and have NEVER tested dirty.”

Allison’s father Michael asserted otherwise, claiming both parents were “heavy drug users.” He also believed Almeda should be in prison.

Nonetheless, the children were returned to the couple this year.

Former Ghost Ship resident Shelley Mack was furious with Almeda. “I would like to see the same thing happen to him that happened to those people, honestly. Because he deserved to be in that fire, not them. Because it was his fault,” she insisted. Mack claims she didn’t know the warehouse was an illegal residence until after she moved in, and adds she was instructed to tell visitors it was a 24-hour workspace.

Mack then lowered the boom on Oakland officials. “I spoke out and nobody did anything. And now everybody’s trying to say, ‘If the police only knew, if the housing office only knew, if the people who attended only knew.’ But, people did know. There are police records, showing that people did tell them. They just didn’t do anything,” she insisted.

It’s precisely that same calculated indifference to the law that animates the sanctuary city movement. The one, as indicated by the murder of of Kate Steinle by seven-time felon and five-time deportee Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, that also leads to avoidable tragedy.

And make no mistake: this was calculated indifference. “Mayors from [now-California Governor Jerry] Brown to Libby Schaaf have embraced Oakland’s thriving underground art scene and its more recent transformation to a global happening place that has garnered the East Bay city international attention and helped make it a tourist destination,” reveals the East Bay Times. “Schaaf often arrives at parades and other events in a fire-breathing art car in the shape of a large snail, fabricated by Burning Man artist Jon Sarriugarte, and has attended events in converted arts spaces around town. She has pledged to do all she can to preserve and promote the arts and spaces for artists in Oakland.”

At what price, Ms. Schaaf?

Artists interviewed by the Times indicate a similar defiance-of-the-law worldview shared by their city’s Mayor. “There’s going to be a draconian overreaction to shut everything down,” said Chris Dunn. “That would only add to the tragedy.” Katelyn Charvoz, of West Oakland agreed. “People are getting worried [the fire] is gonna be used against us,” she stated. “The city’s gonna paint us as some ugly, crusty, punk kids that are up to no good. If they buy up all the warehouses on every street and kick everyone out, it will just hurt the arts community here.” Sarriugarte worries that “if we start sending in all the city agencies going after each space, it will be the demise of underground spaces, which have been a very important incubator for all the beautiful stuff that happens here.”

In other words, firetraps are a “reasonable” tradeoff for preserving artistic expression.

Such astounding indifference to the loss of life is shared by Almeda himself. “Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone,” he posted to Facebook. “Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound … [I]t’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope … to be standing now in a poverty of self-worth.”

Alameda County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly described rescue crews finding bodies of people that had been “protecting each other, holding each other.” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley states she is contemplating charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder, with investigators telling fire and police officials to treat the warehouse as “a potential crime scene.” The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Ironically, Schaaf was booed at a Monday vigil held for the victims — no doubt by many of the same people who would applaud her sanctuary city stance. Perhaps, when the emotional intensity of this apparently avoidable tragedy fades, they will begin to understand that when feckless progressive politicians decide some laws need not be enforced, enforcing all law becomes optional. And some people pay a deadly price for that bankrupt mindset.

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