Juneteenth Celebration at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif.

DJs playing music for festival-goers.

Arlie Sarnicola

Oakland celebrates the first federally recognized Juneteenth at Lake Merritt.
Photo Essay By Arlie Sarnicola, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

OAKLAND, Calif. – Any Oakland native knows Lake Merritt as a great place for a morning jog, a picnic with friends, or a summertime barbecue and the place to join a weekend drum circle.
This year, it was also the location for the city’s second-annual Juneteenth celebration, and the first year it has been recognized as a federal holiday. The Pioneer attended this year’s festival to document the goings-on by the lake.
Juneteenth, also referred to as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and Black Independence Day, has been unofficially celebrated across the country since 1866, to mark the end of slavery in the U.S.
It originated in Galveston, Texas, the final state to abolish slavery. This year, Congress passed a bill later signed by President Biden to make it the first new federal holiday since the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
The Pioneer reached out to Dr. Nicholas Baham III, Professor, and Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at California State University, East Bay, to hear his perspective on the federal recognition of the holiday.
Baham discussed with The Pioneer that for him, the federal recognition of the holiday is “A confirmation. We [the black community] were going to celebrate it anyway. But it’s a recognition of the validity of the holiday. For us, Juneteenth is our independence day.” He also stated that he does not believe the federal recognition of the day is a coincidence, but that it comes as a result of all the activism and volatility of the summer of 2020, in which people across the country demanded an end to police brutality and pushed to defund police departments.
When asked if he thinks the new holiday is somewhat of an empty political gesture in the face of this activism and its demands, Baham said the federal recognition is important to him, but that “what I don’t want is for people to get into a space where they think ‘oh there’s a holiday, we’re all good.” I don’t think there’s any serious activist that says this.” He argued that he is both appreciative of the federal holiday, and hopes that it does not make people complacent.
In Oakland, crowds of up to 10,000 people gathered all around the lake, eating from the many food vendors, dancing to music performances by Grand Nationxl and a host of DJs, and enjoying the art installations spread throughout the amphitheater. All across the event, the red, black, and red Pan-African flag flew prominently, a symbol of black solidarity and liberation. The event lasted throughout the day and well into the evening, filling the Lake Merritt amphitheater with music, good food, and speeches. People from all across the San Francisco Bay Area gathered at Lake Merritt to celebrate the holiday, which they would have done, like Baham, regardless of any federal validation of the day.
Tragically, several suspects were later reported shooting into a crowd a mile and a half away from the official festivities. The shooting occurred at approximately 6 p.m., six hours into the festivities, resulting in one fatality and six others injured. So Oakland, a community events foundation involved in organizing the event, issued a statement to say the shooting was in no way affiliated with the official Juneteenth festival and occurred on the opposite side of the lake. They emphasized that the festivities at the amphitheater were “peaceful, joyful, therapeutic and drama free.” Two suspects were later apprehended in connection with the shooting. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the shooting appeared to be related to an S.F. gang-related conflict.
The Pioneer attended the event in the afternoon and would like to note the safety, cleanliness, and organization of the event in the amphitheater. There was tremendous energy surrounding the festivities, a sense of positivity and joy that permeated the celebration.
The day was a vibrant celebration of black independence and culture. The actions of a few individuals cannot take away from the overall success of the event at the amphitheater, where friends and families gathered safely throughout the day and into the evening.
The second-annual Oakland Juneteenth festival was hosted by L.E.G.I.T., Afrocentric Oakland, and Alena Museum in conjunction with So Oakland.