PHOTO: Amanda Fotes
In December, a DIY venue in Oakland known as Ghost Ship became the centre of media attention when a fire there claimed the lives of 36 people. Public support for families of the victims was tremendous, including a campaign that raised nearly $900,000, with multiple major league sports teams adding to the donations. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf pledged $1.7 million to create and sustain DIY art spaces, and later issued an executive order promoting cooperation with DIY spaces instead of shutting them down. Users of the notorious 4chan forums went in the opposite direction.
Following the incident at Ghost Ship, 4chan users began targeting DIY venues, outlining who to contact, what to report and listing potential venues to shut down across the U.S. and Canada. On Jan. 6, Toronto’s punk community felt the effects of this attack when Jason Wydra from Soybomb HQ answered the door to a surprise visitor.
“Out of the blue, we had a fire inspector show up, and they said they were there on a referral from MLS [Municipal Licensing and Standards], and they were there about a blocked fire escape. That’s all they said. They took a look around the place, and pointed out a couple infractions that were fineable but said they were easy enough to deal with. [He said] if we dealt with them that day they would be reduced with minimal fines,” says Wydra.
Later in the day he returned with a senior fire inspector. Wydra says they began questioning him about things unrelated to fire safety issues, and searching odd places, like his fridge. A few days later, Wydra received an alarming phone call from his landlord.
“He was flipping out. He knew we held a handful of wild parties every year with bands and stuff, but they were making it out to him to be some sort of every weekend, Thursday to Sunday night club,” says Wydra.
Wydra believes the inspectors were trying to pressure his landlord into giving them information about illegal night club operations. He thought the entire idea was absurd, since Soybomb isn’t a venue or business – it’s a four-bedroom apartment.
“Soybomb has a handful of glorified house parties every year with some really crazy bands, that’s what we do,” says Wydra. “When they came in for the inspection, they didn’t find any evidence of an illegal night club – obviously, because it’s an apartment.”
Later in the week, Wydra and some friends began searching for a cause of the initial complaint.
After hearing stirrings of a 4chan connection, they found posts where users confirmed that they had reported Soybomb, uploading a screenshot of the email they sent to municipal offices.
“I think they thought they caught some huge fish, some big nasty organization or something, and they were still operating under that idea until this week,” says Wydra.
While Wydra thinks the fire inspectors are starting to realize that Soybomb wasn’t a nightclub, he says they’re still working on a case against them; they’ve since received another visit from fire inspectors wanting to take pictures and follow-up on the investigation. Fire inspectors also asked the landlord to sign a document stating that there would be no events held at Soybomb during the weekend following the inspections, and another saying that no events would be held at Soybomb ever again. Wydra cancelled all future events at Soybomb before these documents were even delivered because he didn’t feel the risk would be worth it.
Following Soybomb’s investigation, Wydra says that a municipal crackdown on DIY venues is under way after city inspectors found evidence of other DIY events and spaces in the city.
“We definitely know that DIY events, alt spaces, smaller art community gigs are in the crosshairs right now,” says Wydra. He explains that other Toronto venues, who requested not to be named, are currently under investigation for the same alleged infractions as Soybomb.
Although Wydra tried to work with the inspectors to keep Soybomb open, he says they were unable (or unwilling) to come to an agreement. He continuously asked what needed to be fixed to bring the space up to code, but was never given a clear answer.
“They’re not trying to make a safer performance space out of these places, they’re trying to get rid of them,” says Wydra. “Their job is to be a safety inspector and if these activities are going on and people want to do these activities, then they should be a part of the process in making them safer, but it doesn’t seem to even be an option in what they’re doing. Instead they’re looking for ways to vilify, demonize and justify why they are doing what they’re doing.”