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Black Vendor Group Flourishes on Oakland’s Lake Merritt

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Entrepreneur James Copes and Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas discussing the Lake Merritt Black Vendors Group activities. Photo by Jordan Long Copes.

What started out to be a protest against a purportedly racial-bias incident on the shores of Lake Merritt near the Cleveland Cascades in April 2018, has turned into a weekly, weekend gathering where vendors can showcase their products and services to the public.

The incident was sparked by an individual known as ‘BBQ Becky.’ Becky called police on a Black family who were peacefully having a picnic at the Lake. At first, there was a protest staged by members of the victimized family that brought out musicians, poets dancers and other entertainment as well as vendors selling crafts, clothing, wares and food. Every weekend since that incident, Black folks have been gathering at the same area, barbequing and staging community activities.

In the past few months, Black entrepreneurs (mostly micro-businesses) have been pitching their tents, displaying their products and selling everything from ice cream, to T-shirts, to hair products at the Lake. The enterprise is thriving full-force, which includes dozens of entrepreneurs and first –time sellers that have bolstered the area’s Black economy.

While City officials aren’t completely supportive of the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black vendors have met and have implemented plans to ensure health and safety codes are not being violated by the vendors.

Spokesperson James Copes of ‘Old School Copes’ noted that precautions to ensure health and safety guidelines are in place and being practiced. “Each vendor booth participating at our event is supplied with free face masks and hand sanitizers for our customers when they visit our booths,” Copes noted.  “Additionally, all vendors along Lakeshore are encouraging people to social distance while browsing among the booths.”

“We don’t have the ability to force people to follow certain safety rules, but we make it a point to inform them that when entering any booth, they must adhere to the regulations we have set in place.”

Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, whose district covers the Lake Merritt area, has been supportive of what the Black vendors are doing.  “This marketing enterprise is encouraging and brings a much-needed boost to the economy of the Black community,” said Bas.

“Especially during COVID, we have to follow the rules and policies set forth by the County and City and to work with the City Administration to ensure the public’s safety. Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission will be meeting on August 12th on how the public can use the parks, including the Lake Merritt.”

“The vendors will continue to serve customers on the Lake,” said Copes.  “It’s important to them economically. People are wondering how they’re going to make it and pay their bills.  This has been one way to help people subsidize their income and develop and grow their business.

“But it’s not just about selling products; we are bringing people together and having conversations about our daily lives and how we can work collectively. We are creating community.”

“We are buying and spending monies with each other.  This is helping people to become self-reliant.  That’s how Black enterprises should work.  Additionally, non-profit groups have joined the vendors to do fundraising projects.”

“We will continue to be respectful of the people who live in the neighborhood.   We will remind people not to park in people’s driveways, and we will shut down at 8:00 p.m. and clean up the areas around each booth.”

For more information on the Black vendors’ group, email oldschoolcopes@gmail.com.

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