Oakland’s second ‘BBQing While Black’ party draws big crowds

OAKLAND — Hundreds of people flocked to the grassy banks of Lake Merritt on Sunday afternoon to BBQ, dance, relax — and make a political statement about racism and belonging.

They were there for the city’s second “BBQing While Black” event, a party started last year with the intention of affirming black Oaklanders’ right to barbecue in public spaces. The tradition started in response to a video that went viral with the hashtag #BBQBecky in April 2018 of a white woman calling the police to report several black men using a charcoal grill at the lake. The video sparked a conversation about racism and gentrification, with the woman at its center facing questions about whether she called the police because the people barbecuing were black — a claim she denied. (Barbecuing was allowed in the area where the men were, but charcoal grills were not.)

On Sunday, the scene of that video was crowded with throngs of people having a good time. The air was filled with music and the smell of cooking meat as families and friends clustered around dozens of portable grills, reclined on picnic blankets or lounged in chairs. Children and dogs played in the grass. A dance party broke out at the amphitheater, and couples twirled and spun to salsa music. Police were stationed at intersections along Lakeshore Avenue, directing traffic and preventing revelers from blocking the road.

For 64-year-old Morris Jackson, an African-American man who has lived in Oakland his whole life, Sunday’s party was about more than having a good time. It was about reminding people of their right to be there.

“We’ve come a long way,” Jackson said as he relaxed on a bench on Lakeshore Avenue and watched groups of people walk by. “From the back of the bus to the front of the bus. And now we can barbecue.”

Oaklanders hosted the first “BBQing While Black” event in May 2018, the month after the “BBQ Becky” video went viral. A year later, the video has faded somewhat from the public consciousness, though the underlying issues — including gentrification that is pricing many of Oakland’s African-American residents out of the city —  remain a hot-button issue.

Lonnie Fields, 41, wasn’t thinking about “BBQ Becky” as he grilled two racks of ribs while his children played in the grass at his feet. In his mind, Sunday’s events were only tangentially, if at all, related to that video.

“I think it’s a good excuse to come together and have fun,” he said.

Fields said Oakland could use more of these types of events.

“With all of the violence that goes on in the city, it’s nice to see that we can come together for something positive,” he said.

Oakland native Marci Wood, 57, said she came out to Lake Merritt to support her black sisters and brothers.

“You never get to celebrate good stuff — our African-American heritage,” she said.

Wood was there with her nephew, who was making and selling tacos for his company, Stone Soul Catering.

“Everybody’s laughing and talking and getting along with each other,” Wood said. “It’s beautiful…I’m having a lovely day.”