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.”
Smithey stopped outside the Starline Social Club, which had dancing downstairs and chamber-pop group Foxtails Brigade upstairs. Brady Pisha, a Space Cat who runs his own metalworking company in Richmond, said he has quibbles with some of the recommendations on the Space Cat slate. “But it’s more important to push that voting is interesting, especially during the midterms,” he explained. “It’s not just for suited fuddy-duddies—it’s for cool cats.”
Smithey, meanwhile, found that someone was tagging his cathead while he wore it, and that another reveler was freestyling through his megaphone. Nearby on the sidewalk, where costumed Halloween revelers were out in abundance, Sage was talking to one of Santa’s elves. “I always do my own research, but there’s so little information,” said the elf. “Like the judges, and County Assessor—the f-ck is 'County Assessor'?” (The guild endorsed businessman and attorney Phong La for Alameda County Assessor, a position overseeing residential and commercial property tax assessments.)
Smithey talked more about the endorsement process, likening Colin Dodsworth, another founder of the group, to head of the editorial board. “So, he’ll go, ‘Oh, you only put one unicorn on [Jovanka] Beckles—we should’ve ran unicorns off the page,’” he said, referring to the democratic-socialist Richmond city councilmember competing against Barack Obama-endorsed Buffy Wicks for the Assembly District 15 seat. “Actually we didn’t use the poo emoji much this year at all, only to qualify our support for Gavin Newsom.”
The police eventually shooed the Space Cats from the Starline, so after a snack stop on Adeline Street (Fig Newtons and Kettle chips), the truck stopped at a backyard party. The house windows featured a poster reading “ABOLISH ICE,” and another supporting Cat Brooks, who happened to live next door. Dodsworth, who joined the group at the party, said he’d asked local artist Monica Canilao to paint his cathead. “I got it yesterday and we actually ran into Cat [Brooks] at 7th West,” he said, adding that they took a selfie together. “It was awesome. I mean, you can’t be sure how a candidate will respond to our endorsement.”
In the truck on the way back to the New Parish, where they hoped to catch the crowd as it let out around 2am, Smithey poured oolong tea from a Thermos into a ceramic mug. Dodsworth described internal debates. “The bridge toll, back in June, that was divisive,” he said, but talk turned to “I Voted” stickers. Better, the Space Cats agreed, would be acid-soaked “I Voted” blotter paper. Then someone yelled to the DJ, “Bring the meow back!”