Oakland comes out to celebrate BBQ’n While Black

Thousands of families came out this past Sunday to gather, grill and eat in celebration of black food, black music and black culture for the second annual BBQ’n While Black at Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Nearly all the eastern side of the lake was one long series of blankets, beats and BBQ grills.

“The best part of this is just seeing blackness personified for what it really is,” said Logan McWilliams, one of the co-founders of BBQ’n While Black (BBQ’nWB). “This entire event is really just like a huge family reunion. I’ve gotten ice from strangers today. And extra plates and meals and hugs and it’s just a beautiful experience.”

“The best part of this is just seeing blackness personified for what it really is.” — Logan McWilliams, BBQ’n While Black co-founder

BBQ’nWB has an infamous beginning. In May 2018 a white woman called the police over two black men barbecuing at Lake Merritt. The woman — often referred to as “BBQ Becky” — claims she reported the men because only certain zones along Lake Merritt are open to grilling, but her actions sparked a nationwide conversation about racism. She has come to represent a larger issue of white people calling police on black people doing everyday activities. Many believe she would not have called the authorities on a white family doing the same. OPD did not issue any arrests that day.

Still, McWilliams had had enough. “This whole thing was birthed out of my discomfort with my comfort. How things have become so normalized. How racism and gentrification have become so normalized,” she said. “So when the BBQ Becky situation happened, I almost was a little numb. And I was uncomfortable with that feeling.”

McWilliams decided to do something with that discomfort. She put up a Facebook post shortly after the initial incident, calling on friends to come out and barbeque while black. “I was in expectation of seven to 10 of my friends. And upwards of 2,000 people showed up,” she said. “It’s even bigger this year.”

“This crowd,” she said, gesturing towards the lake and the thousands of people grilling in a public park, “is like what we had around 5 p.m., like around the end of the event last year. And we’re only halfway through.”

McWilliams describes herself as an “accidental activist.” It’s always been important to her to work for the values she believes in — McWilliams has lived in Oakland all her life and teaches second grade at Madison Park Academy in East Oakland — but she hadn’t thought of doing something so large and demonstrative until BBQ’nWB.

“This isn’t a typical protest,” McWilliams admits. “It is more of a creative protest, in that really we’re just asking to be accepted and celebrated as is and to not be propagandized,” she said. “Whatever activism looks like to you, is OK. Ours looks like a barbecue.”

“I think we weren’t even aware how much we needed it and wanted it,” she said, “just reminding the city — reminding racism — that this is who we really are as a people. We are peaceful. We are full of joy. We are full of unity.”

“The importance of BBQ’nWB is essentially preserving the culture,” said Jhamel Robinson, also known as “Hometown Hero,” a fellow Oakland native who co-founded BBQ’nWB with McWilliams. “Preserving black culture in the face of gentrification. We’ve been pushed out, even myself,” he said. “I live in Sacramento now.”

Robinson headed up the permitting and fundraising for this year’s event. “Last year was so organic. It literally came together in 10 days,” said Robinson. “This time it took us about two to three months.”

While both last year’s and this year’s BBQ’nWB took place in a public park, Robinson and McWilliams knew they wanted an event that was large, celebratory and only slightly more disruptive than an extended family reunion at the lake. Which is, more or less, what BBQ’nWB is. And they both want it to be an annual expression of what Oakland is and what it can be. They wanted the cooperation of the city. Which also meant involving OPD, the same agency involved in the initial BBQ Becky incident.

Because BBQ’nWB started after a family was harassed for enjoying a public park, Robinson wants to promote a culture where people feel secure in blackness, where safety and security come from within the culture rather than being forced on it from the outside.

“Sometimes people don’t feel safe with the police around,” said Robinson. “And that’s just real. Not even because they themselves went through something with the police but just look at what’s going on in America.”

Robinson agreed to have OPD at this year’s event, with the further agreement that he would hire private security for within the event, while OPD would direct traffic and intervene in the event of any escalating arguments.

“Even with the police being here, I think it adds even more of a level of security,” he said. “Police are here showing that we just everyday people like you and me. ‘We’re not going to bother you, we’re just going to direct traffic,’ that’s cool.”

Both McWilliams and Robinson want everyone to feel welcome at BBQ’nWB the same way they want black people welcomed everywhere else. “My view on racism is that people are taught it. People are not born racist,” said Robinson. “Let’s continue to support each other. We told folks, ‘Hey if you’re an ally, come.’ If you’re going to show up, show up as an ally.”

“You should experience family,” said McWilliams. “You should feel like you are standing right next to your cousins, eating with your aunties, dancing with your uncles, loving on your children, enjoying good food, celebrating culture, celebrating the real Oakland. It’s a peace that surpasses.”

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