Death Valley Girls perform a recent concert at Comet Ping Pong. Credit: Matt Dunn

There are no safe spaces. Underground music communities often deny this fact, attempting to provide brief refuge for creatively minded events, but the possibilities of what can and will happen will always prove it to be true. Even if “THIS SPACE IS FREE OF HOMOPHOBIA, SEXISM, RACISM, AND TRANSMISOGYNY” is written above the walls of every venue bathroom and ticket table, we still know that the building is probably owned by a negligent piece of shit, the mayor doesn’t care about human life, and people will be evicted as a “preventative measure” so that their safety is no longer the responsibility of the city or the property owner.

People act in the name of hate all the time. They voted for the new President out of fear, economic insecurity, lack of concern for non-white people, or outright intolerance. The world is not safe because capitalism will never incentivize people to look out for one another. It is only possible to know that life is fragile; to look at our precarious communities and know that mere survival is the incentive to look out for ourselves.

The fire in Oakland last week could’ve happened in any music locale, any congregational space without a liquor license or permit where people gather around music and meditate on the necessity of our shared experiences as artists and friends. Our lives are precious and our communities are held together tenuously. People get together because someone invited them. People go to the gig simply because they need music enough to seek it out.   

The man with the rifle drove specifically to Comet Ping Pong—a music venue with permits and liquor licenses—but this, too, could’ve happened to any DIY music space. This was not a random threat. Although pedophilia and child sex trafficking actually happen all over the world every day, a contingent of neo-Nazis, hate-mongers, and severely confused readers have chosen to troll, harass, smear, and now physically threaten Comet Ping Pong and other businesses on their block. These are terrible conditions for work. Last week an anonymous caller told a hostess at the restaurant next door, “If God doesn’t get you, the militias will.”

Comet Ping Pong and its neighboring businesses have never been home to sex trafficking or pedophilia. Ever. The web of hysterical neo-Nazi conspiracies about Comet function like dream interpretation; any newly introduced fact or fiction is cut to fit the piece missing in the puzzle. No previous history or WikiLeaks reference to the establishment’s criminal activity? Then it must be coded into language about food. This is a music venue for unusual-sounding (and looking) punk bands? They must be occult-affiliated. No basement in Comet Ping Pong? There must be secret tunnels. The man with the assault weapon is a small-time actor with an IMDB page? He’s not one of ours, this was a false flag.

These message boards and conspiracies are a hate campaign. They have nothing to do with protecting children or anybody’s safety at all. That man drove six hours with a rifle designed to murder in combat, in search of non-existent child sex-trafficking tunnels in a family restaurant and show space owned and operated by a queer community of artists and patrons.

The fire in Oakland and the incident at Comet underscore what is unsurprising to most already involved: The arts are not a safe enterprise, and nobody has any money or protection. That the practice spaces are built, DIY shows are booked, and songs are written by people who believe deeply in the transformative power of music is no comfort in the face of rising property value, unaffordable housing, transphobic bathroom laws, and whatever motivates a white man to own an assault weapon in the first place.

Who is to blame for any of this? Our instinct is to point a finger as soon as possible. In Oakland: “It was the ravers and their drugs.” This is not true, eschews the property owner’s responsibility, and is a myth that harms other creative workers and their livelihood. 

In D.C., “it was fake news” is in the right direction, but not specific enough. “It was gentrification and lack of economic security” gets closer. “It was a culture that does not economically recognize artists and exacerbates danger for those with little or no means for survival” is a good start.

The market determines culture and value. Under capitalism, it perpetuates exploitation of labor, curiosity, financial insecurity, and fear. The building in Oakland has an owner and the man with the gun who came to Comet has a name, but the fault lies with the state. It lies with a culture that de-prioritizes the safety of artists, creative cultural workers, and marginalized communities. People of color, women, trans and queer artists, and the working class congregate in non-traditional spaces because their humanity so often goes ignored in other places. 

Safety is directly correlated with money and, in the arts, with commercial value. Non-white, not-wealthy, and non-male artists’ work is, generally and historically speaking, of lesser commercial value. Its creators go uncompensated and unprotected. These are the people who have created an underground time and time again. These are the voices that have so often repeated “What we do is secret,” not as a matter of replicating the exclusionary cycle of erasure, but as a matter of survival.

Economics shapes culture. Where money is (and isn’t) spent legitimizes and erodes the power of cultural workers and their institutions. I’m not talking about some NEA-grant style funding, grants from the government are ultimately subject to the same repressive and unreliable value systems that have built our current climate. I’m talking about real people putting their money towards the work and artists they love. People willingly pay $8 for craft beer in a bar and scoff at seeing an artist who has deeply touched their spirit perform for anything but free because the marketplace hasn’t monetized emotional seismography just yet. I’m not asking you to change your taste, I’m asking you to pay for it.

To be ignorant of the artists who aren’t white, cis, heterosexual, men and who don’t believe in perpetuating the commodification of art at the cost of their truth or community is pretty typical. And yet these are the artists who build the roads that don’t exist yet. These are the ones who speak the truth no one has heard before. We are in grave danger if they have no tools and nowhere to go.

In desperate times, it’s the imaginative who see a way out of the darkness. The ones who aren’t quick to claim they have all the answers because they know the problems are so much bigger than any one of us, and so we’re going to have to collaborate to solve the mystery of How Everything Got So Fucked Up In the First Place. 

If you love music, if you care about humanity, if you’re interested in fighting the fascism we have for so long watched grow, please consider supporting artists from the ground up. Give them the money to tell the higher-ups what to do. They will build, they will protect, and they will grow what panic and fear and despair cannot.