Mike Barnes poses for a portrait in a gaudy marijuana costume at the 420 Hippie Hill event on April 20, 2022 in San Francisco. (Amaya Edwards)
Content Warning: This article contains multiple uncensored uses, including a recording, of derogatory phrases which some may find highly offensive.
Last month, we arrived at San Francisco’s Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park on 4/20, excited to document the return of the stoner celebration. Among the crowd were primarily young, Black and Brown people enjoying themselves—far more than you typically see in one space in modern-day San Francisco.
We—Julian, the reporter, and Amaya, the photojournalist—were looking forward to collaborating on a photo essay that centered Black and Brown entrepreneurs and artists. We wanted to help foster a sense of pride, and capture how folks who look like us have shaped California’s cannabis industry.
Instead, as Black journalists, we experienced an angry harangue from a white man named Mike Barnes involving aggressive use of the n-word. In a follow-up conversation, he used it many more times, and doubled down on his right to say it.
Barnes is a fixture in press coverage of Bay Area cannabis events, and appears to openly court media attention. We’ve decided to give it to him.
Yes, With a Hard 'R'
At Hippie Hill on April 20, we see someone who we think would make an interesting addition to our story. He carries himself with the energy of a total character, dressed in a gaudy, black suit and bucket hat adorned all over with green marijuana leaves. It was hard to miss this large, middle-aged white man, so we identify ourselves as journalists and stop him for an interview. He agrees, and introduces himself as “Big Mike.” Neither of us expect what happened next.
After Amaya snaps some photos of him and we kick off the interview, Big Mike begins boasting about how many times he’s been in the media: Rolling Stone, KTVU, the San Francisco Chronicle—he’s something of a minor celebrity in the Bay Area cannabis scene. He says he’s a weed grower just there to have a good time.
Pretty standard answer so far. Then he suddenly launches into a story about an interaction he had with Mike Tyson while the former boxer and cannabis entrepreneur spoke on stage earlier in the day. He gets visibly angry as he describes how, in his version of events, Tyson swatted away the handfuls of weed Big Mike decided to throw at him while he spoke.
“I said, ‘Fuck you, nigger,’ and turned around and walked away,” Big Mike says aggressively. “You don’t want my weed? You want the whole bag?”
Hear Mike Barnes’ interview in full below:
At this point, I’m stunned into silence. My eyes go wide and I size him up. He’s a big dude: about 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds. Now I’m thinking about our safety. Centuries of generational trauma tell me that when a white man uses the n-word with that much vitriol, it’s either time to fight or get the hell out. Hearing that word could have meant life or death for our ancestors. It still can. But my journalism training tells me to let the source finish his statement.
And he does: “Let’s just say I’m not a Mike Tyson fan anymore,” Big Mike says. I half-expect to hear an apology or a joke, but he keeps doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on disparaging Tyson.
Finally I get out. “Have a good day, man,” I say, maintaining an air of professionalism and respect towards an interviewee who showed neither to us. I walk away and end the recording as he continues with his rant.
Did a white man dressed in a weed suit he ordered from Amazon really just say the n-word with a hard "R" without any provocation at a 4/20 festival? The absurdity of the incident made me feel like I was in an episode of Atlanta. This is an event that’s supposed to be all about good vibes and relaxation, not hatred and bitterness.
Amaya laughs the way you do when you’re trying to hold back tears. “He can’t be serious,” she says.
It turns out, he absolutely was serious.
Who Is Mike Barnes?
Big Mike’s real name is Mike Barnes. He is a 52 year-old resident of the Berkeley area. He’s a former Army airborne combat engineer, he says, who previously ran a dispensary called the Hayward Patients Resource Center, which is now defunct. Today, he is self-employed, earning a living by doing “handyman things” and growing marijuana for “a small group of private individuals for medical reasons.”
Barnes has a habit of popping up at cannabis-related events. Photos of him in his eye-catching suit at previous iterations of the 4/20 festival have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, SF Weekly and KSL TV. Barnes was photographed for a San Francisco Chronicle article as far back as 2005 (in a shirt that read: “The DEA took my medical marijuana away!… and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!”).
Barnes was photographed and quoted in Berkeleyside and The Daily Cal at the ribbon-cutting for Berkeley’s first legal recreational marijuana sale at the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary. His photo also appeared in a Sacramento Bee opinion article on Proposition 64, which legalized the use of recreational cannabis in California. In the photo, Barnes is pictured smoking inside of his “420 Limo.”
We decided it was important to hold Barnes accountable for his words, so we called him on May 6 to inform him of our intention to publish the interview, and to see what he had to say for himself.
“Well, make the spelling N-I-G-G-A if you do it,” he says. “It’s like, people say nigga all the time, and it’s acceptable if you’re a Black man, but if you’re a white man, and you say nigga, then it’s completely racist, which is just, you know, completely hypocritical.”
He began rattling off other racial slurs against Latino, Asian and Black people, arguing that they only refer to the “lowlives” of each ethnic group and, in his eyes, are therefore OK to use. In the same breath, he asked us not to publish his quote, even though he gave it to us knowing full well that this was an on-record interview.
“I meant it in a disrespectful way towards [Tyson] specifically, nobody else,” Barnes says. “So if anybody else takes offense at it, well, fuck them. I wasn’t talking to you.”
'Deeply Disturbed,' Says Friend and Dispensary Owner
Barnes is a white man gaining clout, attention, and potentially income from a drug that has been used to criminalize Black people for decades. (Barnes told us that he’s been raided by law enforcement four times, but never charged with a crime.)
We’ve seen white people profit the most from the corporatization of cannabis in recent years while people of color continuously get left behind. The Associated Press reports that the cannabis industry was worth $33 billion in sales in 2021. Of all cannabis business owners in the United States, 81% are white, while just a little over 4% are Black, according to a 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily.
Not to mention that hundreds of thousands of Black and brown people are still sitting in jail for marijuana offenses. According to a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the national Black population is still nearly four times more likely than the white population to be arrested for marijuana possession, even after weed became legal in several states. These arrests have detrimental impacts, running along intersections of class and income, for communities of color.
Etienne Fontan, co-owner and vice president of Berkeley Patients Group, whom Barnes called “a friend of mine” who he has known for “a long time,” wrote in a statement to KQED, “I, along with the team at Berkeley Patients Group, do not tolerate racism or hate speech and this is the first we are learning of any accusations relating to Mr. Barnes’ use of such language.”
“I am deeply disturbed to learn that Mr. Barnes, who apparently attended public events held by BPG several years ago, expressed such views,” Fontan continued. “Such rhetoric and actions in no way reflect my or my company’s values.”
Watch Mike Barnes' and Mike Tyson's stage interaction below, filmed by Rich America Production Co. & Jamal Trulove:
Mike Tyson and Harmful Stereotypes
Barnes using the n-word to describe Mike Tyson is especially unsettling, considering that Tyson has often been portrayed in popular media as a Black Brute, a caricature of Black men that portrays them as dangerous, animalistic, sexually aggressive and unintelligent. This framing was especially prominent in the ’80s and ’90s, when Tyson was at the height of his boxing powers. (Representatives for Mike Tyson did not respond to requests for comment.)
Since the event in San Francisco, the media has covered Tyson for his “angry” interactions with fans, the first of which occurred April 21 aboard Tyson’s flight departing from San Francisco. A fellow passenger repeatedly harassed Tyson, according to reports, which led the former boxer to punch the man multiple times. (Authorities declined to file charges against Tyson for the incident.) On May 3, a fan in Las Vegas attempted to stick their finger up Tyson’s nose, which prompted an annoyed reaction.
Barnes' behavior—throwing things at Tyson while he is on stage attempting to give a speech—is in this same category of fans going too far. Many people, it seems, feel entitled to violate Tyson's personal space.
Tyson is not perfect. He has done some reprehensible things. But to portray him as a brute is a reductionist and racist point of view of a complicated man. Regardless of one's image or status, no one deserves to be called a racist slur.
The So-Called 'Progressive' Bay Area
Barnes’ comments should not only make us interrogate one dimensional views of Mike Tyson, but it should also make us think critically about how we view race relations in the Bay Area. Often, the Bay is hailed as a racially enlightened, progressive haven where everyone is respectful of each other’s identities, culture and humanity.
But as a Black person in this country, living in a “progressive” place does not mean a reprieve from the smothering presence of racism; it just means your suffocation happens in the shadows. Our experience encountering anti-Black hate speech is not an isolated one. We just happen to have it on tape.
This incident is about more than just one word said by one man on one day. It’s a case study; a harsh, slap-to-the-face reminder that anti-Black racism is alive and very well, even in San Francisco. Barnes weaponized the power he holds as a white man in this country to disarm and dehumanize both Tyson and ourselves—a microcosm of the racial power dynamic inherent in the United States.
Taking the Power Back
Black people must get through each day with a cloud over our heads, knowing that as our proximity to whiteness increases, so does the likelihood that we may be the victim of racism. Power coupled with ignorance is a terrible combination. It’s why everyone should strive to better understand the ways in which the n-word has been and continues to be weaponized.
That word from the mouth of a white person is a reminder of the ideology used against our ancestors to justify the inhumane atrocities of chattel slavery. It was the word shouted in hate by white mobs as they lynched Black people without due process of law. It was the word ordinary Black folks heard through ringing ears as they were brutalized by police simply for demanding their right to vote. It was the word painted onto the barrel of the Buffalo shooter's gun. A white person saying the n-word is a reminder of the things that have been denied to us; the ways we have been treated as subhuman; how we have been forced to make a way out of no way.
So, in that grand tradition of those who came before us, we are attempting to create something proactive out of a negative experience. Hopefully we are not presumptive by saying that we speak in the interests of not only ourselves, but for many other Black people who don’t have the opportunity to do so.
Barnes’ actions should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who feels emboldened to use that word in such a hateful way. For all of our sakes, hold your tongue—or be ready to face the consequences if you don't.
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