SamJam Venice a “Block Party” without the Block
Jay Penske sanctioned gentrification party desecrates First Baptist Church of Venice; takes over Oakwood Park for the day.
Sunday July 1, 2018— What was supposed to be another one of our weekly three hour Sunday spiritual gatherings at our First Baptist Church of Venice ended up being a 6 hour protest and public outreach session. Our weekly gathering was disrupted by an event called “Sam Jam: Annual Venice Block Party.”
SamJam Venice Desecrates Historic Black Landmark
Apparently, this is the third Sam Jam to take place in Venice but the first at Oakwood Park. It was organized by two “local” organizers, Winston House and 2332 Collective, which as far as I’ve gathered appear to be individual promoters. The Penske’s hands were in the mix for sure because the entirety of E.L. Holmes Square on 7th and Westminster was turned into a Beer/Vodka garden for (mostly) out of town hipsters. The Venice Chamber’s name popped up on their online event media but I can’t confirm to what extent they were involved, if any, this year.
Sam Jam promotion media says they donate all proceeds of the event to an L.A. wide non-profit called Inner City Arts. Sounds innocent enough right? Of course the devil is in the details. I had to trust my gut when I first saw the Sam Jam flyer for the event a few days before the event and it read “Inner City Arts” which, along with the design of the flyer, instantly gave off a white-savior vibe to me. Even more so when no one in my circle confirmed they had ever heard of it or knew what it was I knew it couldn’t be good. In briefly researching Inner City Arts I did find that a woman by the name of Vera Campbell is on their founder’s board and happens to be a key adversary of the Defend Boyle Heights coalition because of her substantial involvement in displacing families in that area. I have also received more than a few testimonies that they are predominantly gentrifer ran organization.
The organizers and whatever community agencies they were working with did a terrible job of informing the community about the extent this event would infringe on their public space. The Sam Jam event closed off the street perimeter of Oakwood Park, plus 7th Ave & Broadway (the event entrance) all the way to California, and every one of those streets in between was closed off to 6th Ave. A handful of residents I spoke with stated that the “No parking/towing” signs didn’t go up until Friday and that many of the signs were merely handwritten. When I arrived on the scene about 11:45 am I received word that at least 20 cars had been towed. I’m sure the numbers had to be at least double that by the day’s end.
How do you have a block party and not invite the block? Anyone who walked in could see the mostly Black and Brown -real locals- posted up on the apartment lawn at 7th & Broadway. Most had been kicked out of the park that morning from the benches on the northside of the park they always frequent. What made it even more messed up is that the whole duration of the event they didn’t even use that space. About half way through the event, and probably in attempt to quell our protestive energy at the entrance, they sent a local sister to give us wristband passes. By this time most of the couple dozen or so locals were upset and just chilled on the lawn on the entrance corner, only occasionally cruising in to the event to check it. The after-the-fact gesture to give us wristbands was a step in the right direction for the moment. However, the disrespect was already firmly set. It was clear that the Black, Brown, and non-gentry only earned an after thought because of our protesting.
Since the whole Oakwood Park perimeter was illegally blocked off from even sidewalk traffic, we couldn’t access our Church for our weekly Sunday prayer gathering. In fact, that day the entirety of E.L. Holmes Square was intentionally designated as an alcoholic playground for hipsters. The steps of the First Baptist Church of Venice was turned into a vodka bar, the ultimate disrespect.
This, of course, was sanctioned by the “nice” Penske family who are the current title holders of the church properties. The “Vodka Garden” and playground obviously could not be set up without their permission and the Penske trucks helping with logistics just reaffirmed the obvious. This is how the Penske’s and every organizer involved in this event show “respect” and regard for our beloved Black history/legacy and spiritual space in Venice. We took it as nothing less than a deliberate middle-finger to our church and to the ancestors whose legacy we defend.
Considering the negativity and mess that was SamJam, our Save Venice crew decided to make the best of it and set up shop at the event entrance (7th/Broadway) with our banners, flyers, petitions, and our megaphone. Our crew distributed at least 500 flyers and got about 400 signatures as I was educating the incoming crowd about the gentrification dynamics they were walking into and surrounding the First Baptist Church of Venice. I would say about 15% of the crowd was polite in receiving the information we were offering them.
The words we expressed revolved around the sentiment of:
“Welcome to Venice- Enjoy yourself, but please respect our church and our community..take notice of what you’re seeing here.. The lack of diversity at the event, generational residents, mostly Black & Brown posted outside the event, unwelcomed. The 109 year old church being desecrated as a vodka bar and playground for mostly out of towners.”
Security was laid on thick, I noticed 3 tiers: The “yellow t-shirt” crew of mostly younger hefty dudes, a little more serious mannered and older black polo shirt crew with stitched logos, and an undercover dude in a grey hoody that wasn’t fooling anybody and who just happened to look like Mark Sokol’s unconfirmed racist nephew at the Hotel Erwin protest in May. L.A.’s finest was also present.
I also observed that in the morning when I was there with David Busch, as he was arguing with a couple of the black polo shirt security officers, and at different times, they had their “Will Hawkins (VNC) church arguments” down good. They were repeating, almost verbatim, the same false points and narratives that were first publicly uttered by Hawkins, then by Jay Penske, and now by all their other anti-Black supporters advocating to destroy the historic church.
People with the privilege of not being affected or seeing the issue might ask “Whats wrong? It was good music and for a good cause.” Anything wrapped in some good intention buzzwords, in and of itself and devoid of context, will always sound innocent. Aside from the burden on the community, the numerous cars getting towed, and what was very likely an illegal public sidewalk closure, it was just another disappointing exercise of gentrifier entitlement.
Planting the event smack dab in the heart of the historically Black and Brown community without ensuring they were welcome as you pimp out their neighborhood is rude. Setting up an alcoholic playground on a historical spiritual landmark and a highly contentious area of Venice at that, clearly reveals the spirit of arrogant settler-colonialism still ever prevalent in the behavior and tactics of our local gentrification agents. Whether the organizers were conscious or not, and I believe they were, after all, if the security guards were thoroughly versed on how to “argue” that the church “no longer exists”, surely the organizers had to know about the value of the church.
Whether they were conscious or not one thing is certain. They didn’t give a fuck. Not enough fucks to consider, ask about, or to research the community they are going into. It’s typical top-down white-savior crap. The “inner city” doesn’t need charity. We need SOLIDARITY. Solidarity in our fight against displacement, gentrification, and its accompanying forces. The people have the solutions, we don’t need anymore top-down saviors. If one really wants to help the “inner city” then check your privilege, support what we are demanding and be an ally on our terms, not yours.
One last but important observation: the recent Venice trend of having parties in politically contentious areas. This event reminded me a lot of the graffiti art event that took place on Rose & Third a few months ago that pitted the homeless community against the Chicano graffiti art community. Third & Rose is one of the biggest politically contentious spaces in Venice, as is the First Baptist Church of Venice which, in its desecration as a Sam Jam alcoholic playground seemed to be the center of the event. Let’s keep an eye and ear open for these type of events shall we?
We need to scrutinize such “well intentioned” “good causes” by “nice people.” Especially if they are gentrifiers, or by the name most of them call themselves now, “locals.” It is in these seemingly innocent areas and good causes that agencies of displacement and marginalization go unrecognized and unchallenged, often serving as a prime hiding place for those looking to advance their gentrification goals behind a skillful guise of (false) altruism.