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Gentrifying Artists like Derick Ion Prey Upon Trans, Queer, POC Creatives

Chalk it up as another day in the life of capitalism.

Critics argue that there is plenty of blame to go around for he Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, that has, so far, claimed the lives of at least 36 people. From where we’re standing, most of the blame appears to belong to the man who rented the building: Derick Ion.

Related: Housing Crisis, Not Ravers, Is Responsible For The Oakland Fire

Ion, who founded the Ghost Ship artist collective, reportedly operated the Ghost Ship under false pretenses — he was leasing the building to operate a business, not as a residence for artists living hand-to-mouth, without running water or fire safety systems.

Although Ion (who also went by Derick Almena and Derick Alemany) would consider himself a part of this artist collective, on closer inspection of his financial dealings with his renters, it’s clear — crystal clear — that he embodies more of the slumlord than the low-income creative artist who is barely able to eke out a modest living in this particular community.

Related: 14 Ways Not To Act Like A Gentrifier (As Told By One)

News reports say Ion pays a small monthly rent to landlord Chor Ng to lease the warehouse that housed The Ghost Ship venue, as well as the artist collective called Satya Yuga. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that tenants paid between $500 and $1,500 a month to live in the space — meaning he raked in a profit that would allow him to seek out and secure more plush living arrangements in a much better and safer neighborhood, if he so chose. Or, he had the option of risking his health and life, and that of his family, by staying in the warehouse in order to recommit a portion of the profit pocketed from his renters to some other use.

Derick Ion Facebook post

Derick Ion’s first Facebook post, responding to the fire at the Ghost Ship. He said later that he didn’t realize at the time of the post that anyone had died in the fire.

Based on his initial post where he lamented the loss of his business, we know that during the concert Friday night, Ion’s wife and children were staying in a hotel. It’s highly doubtful that the struggling artists who took up residence in this so-called “beautiful temple” could afford to do that. That puts him on par with plenty of other exploitative slumlords and white gentrifiers. Nine times out of ten, white artists are paid for work that black artists produce without compensation.

Mr. Ion — who, in inflated fashion, thinks of himself as a “photographer” and “installation altar artist” — sounds an awful lot like the classic gentrifier, sneakily adopting and co-opting the persona of the starving artist, falsely identifying with their mission to express their inner creative life against the empirical, capitalist odds, in order to exploit them and make a relatively small killing.

In fact, according to a Heavy.com report, signs of Ion’s slumlordian ways have been there for a long time. He was on probation for receiving stolen goods, and accused by one former resident of “laughing off” warnings that the building was a fire hazard.

Another customer who remembers interactions with Ion describes him as a “violent” and “dangerous” money-grubber whose defining trait is his chronic inability to honor contractual agreements. This same customer also likened the interior accommodations of the building to a “deathtrap,” a pathetic, pitiful trash heap populated by squatters. Until now, he hasn’t faced any consequences. 

Ion may not be able to escape accountability for much longer. Investigators say they are treating the Ghost Ship site as a crime scene, and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said Monday that the investigation could lead to charges of murder or manslaughter in connection with the 36 deaths. Officials also said Monday that they still expect to find more bodies.


For Ion, chalk it up as another day in the life of capitalism.




Antwan is an educator, cultural critic, actor, and writer for Wear Your Voice Mag (WYV), where he focuses on the dynamics of class, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Prior to joining the team at WYV, he was an adjunct professor in the African American Studies Department at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, where he taught African American Literature. He has traveled the U.S. and U.K. showcasing a fifty-five minute, one-person play titled Whitewash, which focuses on the state of black men in the post-civil rights era. Antwan received his B.A. in English and Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and M.A. in African American Studies from University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and NAACP theater nominee.

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