A planned TV show for CBS about the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, has been scrapped after members of the Bay Area arts community expressed their outrage and reservations over the project.
The show was announced last week as part of a new deal between CBS and Berkeley-based authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (they’re also married). The pair were set to serve as producers on the show, which would’ve been adapted by Elizabeth Weil, who previously reported on the Ghost Ship fire.
In a statement shared with 48 Hills, an independent San Francisco news and culture publication, Chabon and Waldman said, “Over the past few days… we’ve heard from parents of the victims, from friends and survivors, and from conscientious members of the community, appealing to us to reconsider telling the story of the Ghost Ship — because it’s too soon, because the wounds are too deep and too recent and the pain of reliving the experience would be too great. These appeals have been heartbreaking to hear, and they have changed our minds.”
Thirty-six people died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which broke out December 2nd, 2016 during a Golden Donna concert at the DIY venue and living space. Two people were charged in connection to the fire, Max Harris — who served as the Ghost Ship’s “creative director” and was the doorman the night of the fire — and Derick Almena, who converted the warehouse into a DIY space without permits. In September, Harris was acquitted on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, while Almena’s trial ended in mistrial (his new trial will begin March 2020).
News of the potential Ghost Ship TV show prompted a quick backlash among members of Ghost Ship community. “I feel like TV shows tend to sensationalize these tragedies,” says Kitty Stryker, an author and activist (and previous Rolling Stone contributor), who ran in communities that overlapped with Ghost Ship and lost several friends in the fire. “A couple of wealthy white straight people who didn’t directly have any connections to the community were not the right storytellers, especially when so many who died were POC and queer artists. It felt disrespectful, especially when the survivors are artists and frankly, deserve that leg up to tell their stories themselves.”
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Another member of the Oakland DIY community, who also lost friends in the fire, adds that “such a project keeps the emotional scars of family and friends from being able to heal.” The community member — who wished to remain anonymous out of respect for victims — notes that the Oakland DIY community “has always been vehemently anti-corporate media” and that any project meant to profit off the Ghost Ship story would’ve been exploitative unless all proceeds went to survivors and the families of the victims.
As 48 Hills pointed out, one survivor, Jon Axtell, wrote on Twitter, “You have no connection to our community and have no right to tell this story. Profiting off our grief will only bring a firestorm of criticism and opposition from all of us.”
A family member of one of the victims told 48 Hills, “Maybe wait 10 years, or maybe never, for something like this. And make sure it comes from the community, not some outsiders swooping in for money. I don’t care how talented they are or how many awards they have, you can’t just do something like this and not even inform the people who are still grieving.”
Stryker notes that there was some concern over Weil’s involvement as well. Her 2018 New York Times Magazine feature on Ghost Ship and Harris had caused some strife among survivors and victims’ families: “Her piece was so sympathetic to Max Harris — he was being allowed to escape accountability. He wasn’t the only one responsible, sure, but he was responsible,” she says.
Chabon and Waldman both began to respond to the outcry on Twitter, with Waldman even opening up her e-mail to people who wanted to voice their concerns. In announcing their decision to shelve the show, Waldman and Chabon said, “We believe that there is a conversation to be had about the propriety of telling the story of the Ghost Ship, and about the identity and moral responsibility of those who tell it, but clearly it’s not a conversation that can be conducted without causing further pain to the living victims of this tragedy. At this time, therefore, we will not be proceeding, and will do our part to leave the families and survivors to their grief and their loss, in the fervent hope that someday they find not just comfort but also a measure of justice.”