The Portrait of the Artist as a Criminal

This combination of June 2017 file booking photo shows Max Harris, left, and Derick Almena, at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

A charismatic yet abusive and manipulative guru, derelict building owners who allowed habitation in a warehouse with wiring described as “grossly unsafe,” and an underfunded, mismanaged fire department all contributed to a fire at Satya Yuga, also known as the Ghost Ship, an art collective that was the scene of “the most deadly structure fire in the United States since 100 people died in the Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003.” But who’s taking the blame? Who’s incarcerated? Not the building owners. Not the fire chief. Not the electric company. Not the city of Oakland, California. Rather, as Elizabeth Weil reports at the The New York Times Magazine, it’s Derick Almena the charismatic guru, and also, inexplicably the second man taking the rap is a kind yet hapless vegan artist named Max Harris who first discovered the fire and attempted to put it out before it got out of control.

Yet life can be cruel, and even a person striving toward right thought can set off cascades of events that go incomprehensibly awry.

Satya Yuga had its own logic. You had to tolerate people playing music at all hours of the night. You had to not use your toaster and your teakettle at the same time because the electricity was channeled from Custom O’s auto shop to the warehouse and then dispersed through a complex river system of wiring and extension cords. You had to work on your own art, collaborate with the other members of the collective and also help build the living, breathing art installation that was the warehouse itself. The mock contract people signed upon joining the collective had only one condition: “Be Unconditionally Awesome.”

Around 11:20 p.m., Harris decided to leave his post at the door to go inside Ghost Ship to use the bathroom. As he entered the building, he noticed the light looked strange — a glow on the ceiling. He ran to his studio and grabbed a fire extinguisher. But by the time he returned, eight or 10 seconds later, the fire was out of control. At 11:23 p.m., Carmen Brito, the potter and substitute teacher, who lived in the back of the warehouse, woke up in a room filled with smoke and called 911. Upstairs, as fire rose through the baseboards, people started shrieking, pleading, streaming down the strange staircase.

As details began to emerge, the fire was not understood as an isolated, idiosyncratic catastrophe. It was understood as the product of civic and societal failings. In the years leading up to the fire, the Oakland Fire Department had been chronically underfunded, understaffed and mismanaged. Between 2011 and 2015, the department employed neither a fire marshal nor an assistant fire marshal — and it is the fire marshal’s job to ensure that property owners and tenants follow the city’s building code. To deal with the fallout after the tragedy, the fire chief retired.

They found the prosecution’s idea that Harris held what the district attorney described as “a leadership position in the warehouse” manipulative, infuriating and absurd.

There was no way for Harris to process the situation, no way to assimilate the facts. He always thought that if he moved gently through the world, the world would move gently over him. He thought that if he helped others, good karma or Jesus or both would take care of him. Had he not done enough? Every time he entered the courtroom, he felt the vast weight of the community’s grief and accusation. “It’s just wrong,” he said of the whole situation into the jailhouse phone. He lost friends in the fire. He had his own trauma to work through. How had his life taken him here, with all these bodies laid at his feet?

Read the story