On the Friday before Halloween, ten days before the midterm elections, Lukas Smithey parked a bread truck-turned-mobile sound system outside the New Parish in downtown Oakland. He wore reflective overalls, and beside him was a large fluorescent painted papier-mâché cat head. Riding along were friends in similarly cat-themed rave garb. One was DJing; the gutted delivery truck’s rollup door opened to reveal a wall of speakers, blasting the queued show-goers with techno and sampled meows. “We just got chased off Telegraph,” Smithey said, “The cops gave us 40 seconds to bounce.”
Smithey and his friends represent the Oakland Guild of Space Cat Voters, a loose-knit outfit promoting democratic participation and a progressive slate of candidates and causes on the local and state levels. Outside the New Parish, they distributed glossy cardstock flyers bearing the loud graphics of a rave handbill—but, upon closer inspection, they were in fact emoji-embellished voter guides. Cat Brooks, the activist challenger to incumbent Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, earned five beaming cat faces.
Smithey approached the line outside the venue, where the Extra Action Marching Band were headlining a sold-out gig, holding a megaphone attached to a toy keyboard modified to play two octaves of meows. The Space Cats formed in 2014, he recalled, inspired by the irreverence of the League of Pissed Off Voters in San Francisco and energized by the Oakland mayoral campaign of civil-rights organizer Dan Siegel, who’d notoriously resigned as Jean Quan’s legal advisor to protest her approach to Occupy Oakland.
The dozen or so members of the Space Cat endorsement board, who deliberate in group texts and Google docs, are largely artists and musicians. Smithey helps organize and promote underground dance parties, often featuring the sound truck, through word-of-mouth and hotlines. Teri Sage, who was also canvassing, lives at the artist colony at the Fifth Avenue Marina. “I hated flyering when I was in a band,” she said. “People are more receptive to this. No one comes up and thanks you for promoting your own show.”
A wobbly passerby approached, shouting, “I wanna join! Do you have lasers?” Yes, Smithey said, and asked if she was registered to vote. “I love lasers,” she responded. “Can I wear your hat?”
After a New Parish security guard told the Space Cats that most of the crowd was already inside, they climbed back into the truck and proceeded along San Pablo Avenue, where a stranger leaped into the side door and screamed, “It’s lit!” Smithey, back behind the wheel, said he got the truck three years ago; the phrase “ALL BUBBLES BURST” appears in block letters on one side. “The speakers, there’s four subs and two 21-inch drivers,” he said. “They’re bootleg Turbosounds someone brought back from the Czech Republic.”