DIY Solidarity Shines at Denver's Ghost Ship Fire Benefit

Icy roads, internal squabbles and even evictions failed to stop Denver's arts community from throwing a benefit show for the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire.

Two weeks after flames coursed through Ghost Ship and killed 36 people, Denver's arts community mourned, played music and danced Saturday night to raise money for Gray Area Foundation for the Arts Fire Relief Fund.

The Saturday night event was originally slated to take place at Rhinoceropolis, one of Denver’s own storied DIY warehouses, but city officials shut the venue down, along with the adjacent space Glob, a week after the Oakland fire, evicting eleven residents and lobbing the owner with a string of fire code violations Community Planning and Development Communications Director Andrea Burns says were "life safety concerns."

Show organizer Luke Thinnes scrambled for a new venue. Grassroots arts activists put out fiery calls in the wake of the eviction to established arts institutions, asking leaders to defend artists who have lived and worked in Rhinoceropolis and who were just trying to raise money for their extended community in Oakland when the city shut them down.

Thad Mighell, an executive assistant and business manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art, joined forces with Thinnes to secure the nearly-century-old, dilapidated Aztlan Theatre for the night, a venue with an aesthetic that echoes the ramschackle Ghost Ship.

The run-down theater is in Denver’s thriving Santa Fe Arts District, a shiny example of how the arts community and developers can irrevocably transform a neighborhood — and ruin it, as one audience member who had lived nearby before being priced out grumbled at the fundraiser.

Members of the Milk Blossoms, Wheelchair Sports Camp and the Titwrench Collective all rallied for the cause — not as performers, but as part of the audience.

The musicians who played, including Kali Malone, Thug Entrancer and Suo, represented a breadth of styles, from ambient drone to hardcore, most with an experimental edge.

Mala Mente, an anarchist, anti-racist power-violence hardcore band led by a mixed-race crew of musicians, railed against the "white-cis-hetero-patriarchy," the Denver Police Department and the forces of gentrification that displace poor people of color.

The members interrupted their so that their bassist could read a tribute written by his friend Gus Allis about their friend Feral Pines, one of the people who died in the Oakland fire.

"Remembering slowly how I know Feral Pines moved to the Bay to survive and to access the things that she needed for said survival. Realizing that the Bay, and Oakland specifically, is the only place people like Feral and I feel we can live. And we can't even survive there either. I blame the housing crisis, and I blame how bad it is out in the non-coastal areas for freaks and queers and punks and trans people. We move to the Bay to survive, and then we die anyway." 

After his reading, audience members shouted out Feral's name.

Later in the night, the Itchy-O Marching Band crashed the concert, with raucous, drum-pounding, confetti flying, post-apocalyptic spectacle. The group was characteristically aggressive and showy, domineering the theater and, in some cases, people's personal space.

As Itchy-O's set ended and the band filed out, one black-clad musician with a white speaker affixed to his back bro-punched audience members — an aggro, nonverbal goodbye; one spectator returned a blow at the masked marauder, who stumbled and looked back.

After the marching band's performance, some in the crowd reflected on their never-ending Itchy-O enthusiasm; others argued about the troubling race politics of the troupe's borrowing a mishmash of Zapatista Day-of-the-Dead garb and a massive Chinese dragon, all in the name of, what, partying?

Between sets, musicians and artists mingled at the bar, chatting about how terrible 2016 has been: the Ghost Ship fire, Donald Trump's win and the rise of the white-supremacist alt-right.

Denver's DIY scene, with all its code violations and its share of internal squabbles, continues to struggle to survive against economic and political pressures in a rapidly changing city. Fears rippled through attendees that everybody from police to white supremacists on 4Chan are trying to bust up the DIY scene, here in Denver and nationally.

But the community that thronged to the Aztlan Theatre Saturday night wasn't just rebuilding a local scene a week after the evictions at Rhinoceropolis and Glob.

Many in the crowd, including people who had been kicked out of their home, were showing up in full force for friends, known and unknown, in a DIY community suffering through so much worse 1,250 miles away.