After the election of President Trump, the lake is where liberal Oaklanders showed up to hold hands around the 3.4-mile circumference. When the Ghost Ship fire took 36 lives in December 2016 — many deeply connected to the community — the lake is where people came to hold vigil. And for 16 years — from 1982 until 1997 — the beloved Festival at the Lake captured the essence of Oakland.
If you stand at the amphitheater on the lake’s southwest corner and look left, you’ll see the Alameda County courthouse. In 1968, protesters and Black Panthers party members stood on the courthouse steps, holding signs that said "Free Huey," during the murder trial of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton. Turn your head, and you see 1200 Lakeshore Avenue. Newton later lived in the penthouse there, with an all-too-perfect view of those same steps, as he descended into drugs and paranoia and the party crumbled around him.
It was also here in 2015, right at the amphitheater, that a group of black and brown drummers celebrating a red moon had police called on them by a white resident.
The history of the lake tells a story of race and space, who gets to belong and who is permitted access to public space in Oakland. Lake Merritt has been fought over and policed, controlled and patrolled, by residents and city officials alike.
The lake became a flashpoint this summer, after a white woman called the police on two black men who were barbecuing. One of those men was Kenzie Smith.
“This lady said that she owned Lake Merritt,” Smith said. “She also told us we were trespassing. Do you not understand how crazy this is?”
Smith said it was here at the lake, a place he’d been coming to since he was a child, that he saw his life flash before his eyes as he watched the woman on the phone with police. “In my mind, psychologically, I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I was like, this is how it ends.”
The incident went viral, becoming a kind of metaphor for the erasure and pushing out of black people by gentrification and a rising tide of racism. It also became one of a wave of stories of black people having police called on them by white people, for what many said was just being in public.
Travis Watts lives by the lake, and he said that morning he headed out, like he does almost every Sunday morning, to hang out. “I packed up my baby girl, we got the stroller set up, I had a chair, a little bag and we just took a walk down.”
Watts said he could smell the barbecue smoke from his house, and as he drew closer he saw more and more people, gathering and grilling, even early in the morning.
“It was brothers out here, no shirt, flipping slabs of ribs, like he was in his backyard,” he said.
“I saw people bringing out brand-new grills,” Watts said with obvious joy. “They went to Target and Home Depot to buy a grill.” It was as if, Watts said, the whole community came together to say, “Oh no no. We're going to BBQ today.”
Watts organizes an event called the Fam Bam at Lake Merritt every Fourth of July. But the "BBQing While Black" event transported him back in time.
Watts stood by the pillars on the northeast side of the lake and pointed across the water and over the rolling green and concrete walkways at its edges. “From right here, it was just packed, packed. It was the best,” he said smiling. “That was the closest feeling to Festival at the Lake I have gotten to since then. That denseness of, and that variety of, black.”
Festival at the Lake
Festival at the Lake was part music festival, part block party. From 1982 to 1997 it was a gathering of folks from across the town — a multicultural meeting point for all of Oakland to come together.
For many who grew up in Oakland in the '80s and '90s, it was “the place to be,” said Nicole Lee.
Lee, who grew up in Oakland and went to the festival in the '90s, now organizes 510 Day at Lake Merritt.
“The daytime was kind of like Art + Soul Festival, or the county fair,” Lee said. “There were booths, and your Girl Scout troop, or your dance class from Mosswood Park might perform there and everyone would come out. There were also blues singers, I remember. I think I saw Etta James, actually.”
“It was one of those signature events,” said Davey D Cook, known as Davey D. He's a journalist, DJ and Lake Merritt resident. Like Freaknik in Atlanta, or Taste of Chicago in Chicago, Festival at the Lake was a destination for black people to see and be seen.
“You don’t have a full appreciation of it, until you look back and be like, 'Wow,' ” Davey D said. “This is when black folks really came out, were here in full tilt, when Oakland was a chocolate city. And anybody who was anybody would come to this festival.”
While acts like Etta James performed on the main stages during the day, the draw for many young people came later. “I never even went to the festival. It wasn’t even about the festival for me,” Travis Watts said.
“The evening would be when all the teenagers and young adults would come out,” Lee said.
Lee was sitting with Kenzie Smith, who joined in laughing. “Yes, we would,” he said. “My first Festival at the Lake was like when I was 14. I’m not even gonna lie to you all, I went to Festival at the Lake ‘cause of girls.”
That is one of the reasons Watts went, too. “It was just bonkers,” Watts said. “Streets packed, sidewalks packed, people overflowing into the streets.”
He remembers dressing up in his finest outfits, like one baby-blue number he described as a giant raincoat, deeply impractical and like a sauna in the hot summer sun. There was “a lot of flirtation, a whole lot,” he said. “You wore your best. You got cut, shaved up, you had your best outfit on, the women were looking good. And everybody was out flirting, strolling around.”
“You had to bring your A-game,” Smith said. “When I say your A-game, I mean you had to have your shoes matching with your outfit. You had to have your hair done, if you had gold ones in your mouth, you had to make sure they were super clean. 'Cause like, women knew, they knew dirty gold. They were dudes walking around the lake with snakes wrapped around them. Like, literally, it was just going down.”
Young women got all dolled up, too, said Nicole Lee: “You would put your cutest outfit on, and at that time, you know, best friends would match. So we would like go to Bayfair and get special." She paused and shook her head, laughing. “So embarrassing. We would get airbrushed T-shirts and matching outfits and go to Festival of the Lake.”
“It was a beautiful, beautiful event,” said Watts, sitting on the benches by the pillars. “I mean, right here. It’s like it was yesterday."
Trouble at the Festival
Like so many things from one’s childhood, Festival at the Lake is now tinged in the rose-gray light of nostalgia.
“We all think of that in some ways as the renaissance era of our lifetime in Oakland,” Lee said. “It also was a challenging era. The early '90s was a hard time in Oakland, you know. It was the height of the crack epidemic. So yeah, it was a complex time in the city of Oakland.”
It was also a time when the war on drugs was amplifying the over-policing of black bodies, especially when they gathered en masse, said Boots Riley, Oakland activist, frontman of The Coup, and director of this summer’s breakout film, "Sorry to Bother You."
“Festival at the Lake, like every year, there was something where at about 6 o’clock, the police would be like, 'OK everybody go home,' " Riley said. “And people are there standing, and they’d start trying to clear people out. It would get to pushing, then pepper-spraying, and that happened a few times before there was rebellion in ‘94.”
Fights broke out and other types of violence, too. In a video posted on YouTube from around this time, you can see some young men sexually harassing and possibly assaulting young women. Eventually, cruising laws made it criminal to drive more than once around the lake.
People would drink and sometimes become violent, said Davey D. But he said it didn’t have to be that way.
The festival itself, he said, was geared toward older people, even though it was clear young people from across the city were hungry for this kind of celebration. “When the Festival of the Lake was happening, I had meetings at my house with some of the people who were really reluctant to have hip-hop acts and acts for younger people ... they didn’t know how to deal with that 'cause they were getting a large influx of younger people.
“Instead of saying, 'Hey, there are popular groups out that would appeal to them,' ” Davey D said, listing off Digital Underground, Souls of Mischief, Too Short, “they were like, 'No, we're not going to go there.' ”
“So you have 100,000 people at Festival at the Lake, you have a good percentage of them being younger folks, and you had very reluctant folks who were putting it together to do something to be very intentional about occupying and accommodating them,” he said.
Giving young people something to do, Davey D said, could have changed what happened next.
“The tactics used to try and contain and control was a form of social engineering,” he said. “You could of socially engineered it another way, like putting a good party together and making sure that everyone leaves happy and satisfied, versus frustrated and angry.”
The festival was disbanded after violent incidents broke out, and the organizers ran out of money.
“It really got disbanded,” Davey D said, “because after long days, in the evening, about 6 o’clock when everything was shutting down, people were just hanging out, you’d have a crowd control problem. And one year I was out here, you had aggressive police.”
'Black Folks Love This Lake'
What many remember so vividly about Festival at the Lake was a time when the lake was occupied by everyone.
“You know, just people being out, enjoying the city, looking cute, feeling like they could take up space, public space, in the city that belongs to us,” Nicole Lee said.
For Davey D, it was a lost opportunity. “I don’t think the city of Oakland at that time could fully appreciate how significant that was. I think the city has always kind of — in its leadership over the years — has always kind of taken for granted or downplayed things of significance that have a very different perception elsewhere.”
"In the '90s Oakland was a cultural center for the country,” Lee said. “Like the music that came out of this city changed the face of hip-hop music. Really, literally. This city and black history, black culture and the legacy of black radical activism, you cannot separate those things.”
On Sundays after church, this is still where many black families come to grill and hang out. That has taken on a different meaning as many of them have moved out to surrounding areas and return home to Oakland on Sunday to go to church, and afterward to meet up at the lake.
“Black folks love this lake,” Travis Watts said. “This is a place where we have great memories, this is where we get to see each other en masse. That’s very important, especially in these times where we are kind of being marginalized even in our own city. This is a city where we really felt like, OK, this is where I’m home. Outside of Oakland I feel like a minority, on my job site I feel like a minority, but in Oakland we were the majority, we were the majority population here. And it felt like a place of rest. It was a place where we could just be comfortable.”
Oakland was never quite a majority black city. At the height of its black population in 1980, two years before the Festival at the Lake started, Oakland was 47 percent black.
In the 20 years since the Festival at the Lake ended in 1997, that number has been in steep decline, and is now just under 25 percent.
Travis Watts pauses. He knows that some of the newer festivals, like his own Fam Bam, or 510 Day, have worked to keep the lake alive for all of Oakland. But even he can’t escape the deeper changes in the city.
“It just used to be ... you could just see more of a black presence, you know,” Watts said.
“When you get dirty looks walking into a restaurant in Oakland, and you’re like the only black person in a restaurant in Oakland, that’s weird.”