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Max Harris testifies that Ghost Ship was ‘very autonomous place’

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Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris said Monday that there weren’t any hard and fast rules at the 10,000-square-foot building in Oakland where 36 people died during a fire during a music party in 2016. Harris is taking the witness stand in his own defense in the trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

Harris said of the arrangements at Ghost Ship:

“It was more like an agreement where you would try to pick up after yourself and if something was bothering you, you could talk to your neighbor and friend about it.”

Dressed in a suit with a large pocket square, a tie and an orange shirt and sporting large earrings, tattoos and a ponytail, Harris, 29, described the warehouse as “a very autonomous place where everyone brought their insights and contributions to the table.”

Harris said:

“There was a shared understanding about what was appropriate behavior and conduct.”

Alameda County prosecutors allege that Harris and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, who faces the same charges, are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs. Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.

But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn’t have prevented.

Harris estimated that about nine to 12 people were living at the warehouse, which functioned as an artists’ collective, when he moved there in late 2013 after he responded to an ad on Craigslist but said the number fluctuated.

Harris said he initially paid $750 a month in rent but later was able to live there rent-free in return for doing work there. Harris said he grew up in Connecticut, earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree from the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design in Boston in 2012, works in various forms of art, including sculpture and jewelry, and is a practicing Buddhist.

But Harris added:

“I wouldn’t say I’m not a Christian and would say I’m a Christian, a Jew and a Buddhist.”

Harris, who hasn’t yet talked about the night of the fire, will resume his testimony after the lunch break on Monday.

Almena is expected to testify later in the trial.

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