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Oakland’s Black Hole of Despair

After more than a decade of mediocrity, the Raiders are finally fielding a contender. It’s a bittersweet moment for the most notorious fans in football, who can’t stop loving the team that’s trying to abandon them again.

Aaron Dana
Aaron Dana

It’s pouring in Oakland, and Senor Raiderman is pissed off, the condensation rising like a cloud of steam from the enormous black mug he carries in his left hand, the liquid pooling on the edge of the Corona-branded tent above his head and caroming off the plastic wrap that protects his sombrero. The hour is not quite 11 on a Sunday morning, and the asphalt parking lots outside of O.co Coliseum are colluding to form one massive puddle. Senor Raiderman, a massive goateed human being in his mid-40s wearing sunglasses, a full football uniform, and silver-and-black face paint, begins our discussion by telling me a story about the Raiders’ majority owner, Mark Davis.

The way Senor Raiderman remembers it — and given that the mug he clings to is filled with an alchemical mix of multiple brands of Mexican beer and a massive chunk of ice, let us forgive him if his memory is not entirely crystalline at this moment — it was during the preseason earlier this year, and the Raiders were at training camp up north in Napa, and several of the hardcore Oakland fans who make up the group known as the Black Hole were granted an audience with Davis. The Black Hole became a thing not long after the team moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995; its members, inspired in part by Cleveland’s Dawg Pound, purchased season tickets in the front row of the south end zone, and some of them, like Senor Raiderman (whose real name is Sean Camacho), began dressing up in costume to support their team. Because they root for the Raiders, the costumes did not come in the form of, say, a sad-sack hound like in Cleveland; the costumes were conjured straight out of the Mad Max universe, and were designed expressly to emotionally intimidate the shit out of opponents and visitors.

So anyway, here were all these diehards, meeting with the owner of the team that has long inspired them to rampant fanaticism — a team that embodies a lifestyle — and one of them told Davis that if he chose to abandon Oakland for Los Angeles or the increasingly likely possibility of Las Vegas, he was going to lose many of his most devout fans, the ones who had stuck with his family for decades as the team bounced down to Los Angeles and then fled back north again more than a decade later, toting a nasty reputation in its wake. These were the people who had patiently endured 13 years of mediocrity and ineptitude in the waning years of the life of Al Davis, Mark’s father; these were the fans who endured some preposterous personnel decisions and now find themselves on the verge of being abandoned just as the Raiders, now 5–2 and atop the AFC West, appear to have found a path toward winning again behind young talents like quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper, and pass rusher Khalil Mack.

"And he says, ‘I can live with that,’" says Senor Raiderman. "I can live with that. Can you believe it?"

I tell Senor Raiderman that I can’t believe it, because he is a large man who is currently enraged and I don’t want to hurt his feelings any more than they’ve already been hurt. But the truth is that Davis’s response is entirely believable, because these are the Raiders, a team born out of slights and insults and trapped for its entire existence in a state of defiance.

"It’s really hard," another fan tells me, "to love this team and despise this team at the same time."

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Getty Images

This is an age-old story by now: fans getting fucked over by circumstances out of their control, by the push and pull between city officials and millionaires. It’s happened in Cleveland and Baltimore and St. Louis (twice) and Houston; it could happen in San Diego; and it’s happened once already to Raiders fans, when Al Davis absconded to Los Angeles in defiance of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s wishes back in 1982. That act of rebellion is the root of the bad feelings in Oakland that linger today, because the city issued nearly $200 million in bonds in order to build luxury boxes at the Coliseum to lure Al Davis and the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995, and Oakland taxpayers are still paying off that debt. In the ensuing years, the Coliseum has devolved into a crumbling dump, the worst stadium in professional football (and professional baseball, since the Athletics are stuck there too for the moment). The toilets are notoriously prone to overflow and leakage, and problems with power and lighting are an ongoing issue; the concession options are minimal, and the stairways are pocked and rusted.

Now both sides appear to be at a stalemate, with the city refusing to advance a serious plan that would involve public money and Mark Davis continually exploring relocation options. The move would require a three-quarters majority from NFL owners if a vote is even called, which is far from a certainty at this point given the intense political maneuvering in both cities and within the league itself. Two weeks ago, the Nevada Legislature approved $750 million in public funding toward a $1.9 billion stadium project in Las Vegas, and a couple of days later, Davis said he was finished attempting to negotiate any deal with Oakland. In response, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf continued her insistence that she would not negotiate any deal involving public funding. Davis, one of the least wealthy owners in the league, cannot afford to finance a stadium on his own.

Some of the fans I speak with blame the city for this seemingly insurmountable gulf; some blame Mark Davis. Most blame some combination. Regardless, there is an increasingly hollow feeling in Oakland. The Raiders capped the 2002 season with a Super Bowl appearance, but they haven’t managed a winning record since, and yet, amid all the ignominy of their failures, season-ticket purchases have grown. Even on a miserable morning like this, perhaps one of the last football Sundays in Oakland, the parking lots are filled with tailgaters. In a region that feels increasingly correlated with wealth and artifice and virtual realities, the Raiders feel like one of the last connections to the pre–tech boom Oakland. Their fans reflect that, which may be one reason why they have the reputation that they do.

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"I’m not rich, and my buddies aren’t rich," says "Black Hole Rob" (real name: Rob Rivera) one of the founders of the Black Hole. "We’re check-to-check kind of guys. But this is one of the richest places in the world. You mean to tell me these people don’t have the business acumen to present a win-win scenario?"

That seems to be an increasingly remote possibility. In a fundamental way, the old Raiders would appear to have died with Al Davis, because Mark Davis, while certainly an idiosyncratic weirdo, is not the same type of renegade his father was. Unlike his father, Mark Davis is not a football man, nor is he a billionaire, which makes him an awkward fit in a room of NFL owners who tend to slot into one of those two categories. That also makes him an outsider, one who is essentially just seeking a way to maintain a place in that cabal without having to sell the team. Which, perhaps not coincidentally, is similar to the way Oakland Raiders fans have long defined themselves.

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Getty Images

Even when the Raiders resided in Los Angeles, it felt to their most devout fans that the team belonged to Oakland and to the East Bay, a largely working-class region (at least until recently) that had long been overshadowed by the more picturesque and more wealthy city on the opposite side of the San Francisco Bay. The Raiders were renegades, and Oakland was a place that bred renegades, from the Hells Angels to the Black Panthers, which is why their on-field and off-field reputations dovetailed so closely. This is the attitude that Al Davis, then the coach and GM, bred beginning in the early 1960s; it used to be, one longtime Raider fan told me, that the fans were tamer than the players, but at some point that flipped. In 2003, Hunter S. Thompson wrote an ESPN column that described Raider Nation as "the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single ‘roof,’ so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world," and critics cherry-picked several incidents that made it seem like attending a Raiders game was to take your life into your hands.

Of course, the Black Hole encouraged such mythologizing by adopting the motto, "Football’s Most Notorious Fans," and by making dressing up a full-on thing. The way Senor Raiderman retells it, there was one fan, known as Darth Raider, who dressed up in the old days, and then a dude who called himself Violator in Los Angeles, but once the Black Hole came along, creating characters became a widespread phenomenon. Today, you go to a Raiders game and you see people wearing black bondage masks and biker jackets and chains — many of them, as Rivera tells me, with "more goatees and tattoos" than the general population. It is easy to stereotype, which is why Raiders fans still carry a reputation as the nastiest in professional sports.

And yet those same strangers are also likely to offer you beer and food; those same strangers insist that most of their intimidation tactics stop short of actual physical altercations. The fans in Oakland ascribe their violent reputation to the atmosphere that built up when the Raiders were in Los Angeles; Senor Raiderman tells me he went to games in Los Angeles strapped with a pair of firearms, and that friends, fearing the perceived presence of violent gang members in the crowd, would tell him to bring extra ammunition just in case. Another Black Hole member, Cisco Ortega, tells me he once made the mistake of waving an Oakland Raiders flag while at a home game in Los Angeles and got told by a group of guys "who looked like extras from [the gang movie] American Me" to put it down.

"Fuck Oakland," they told him. "This is L.A."

Ortega tells me that people still ask him all the time how threatening the atmosphere is at Raiders games, and he tells them it isn’t really dangerous at all. (In recent years, 49ers fans have been declared more problematic than Raiders fans by several local officials and journalists.) Ortega says that a Chargers fan friend of his once wore a vintage Dan Fouts jersey to a game at the Coliseum and received nothing but compliments for it. He says he’s been taking his now-17-year-old son to Raiders games for 13 years, and if you ask him if he’s ever seen a fight at a game, he’d tell you no. Once, Ortega says, his son asked, "Hey pop, how come they talk bad about the Raiders?"

"When they came back from L.A., those first couple of years, it was the Wild West, man," Rivera says. "But for many, many years, it hasn’t been that way."

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This is the Black Hole’s contention: Its members embrace the Raider ideology without crossing the line into violent behavior, as they believe fans did in Los Angeles. These days, the Black Hole has its own beer sponsor, a salsa company that provides food for tailgates, and several satellite chapters in other cities; they’ve branched into charity and community service work in order to help alter their reputation. There is no membership fee to join or attend a tailgate, and there are only two rules, says Victor Danhi, an attorney who helps run the Black Hole: "Don’t Bring No Crap" (bad energy, bad vibes, etc.), and "Wear Black." There is an open bar under the tent, and there is a copious amount of drinking, but several people tell me they’ve never once felt threatened, and just as I’m asking Senor Raiderman/Sean Camacho why he dresses up in costume, he poses for a picture with a group of young children, and he tells me he wears the costume "for the little kids, mostly."

In real life, Camacho drives a delivery truck for DHL. He became a Raiders fan while growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, when he would ride a bus from Pomona to Bakersfield and then take an Amtrak train to the Coliseum to watch the team two or three times a year. Eventually, he moved north to Hayward, a city in the East Bay. When the Raiders returned to Oakland, he became one of the earliest members of the Black Hole. Senor Raiderman uses his high school football shoulder pads, a jersey numbered 69 for the year of his birth, and a pair of tight football pants that one of the Raiders’ equipment guys bequeathed to him.

At some point, Camacho and a few other Black Hole members appeared in a beer commercial, and they all still have their Screen Actors Guild cards. They’ve appeared in magazine photo shoots, and they’ve hung out at bars with Raiders legends such as Ken Stabler; Camacho used to have parties at his house and some of the players would show up.

"I’ll always be a Raider fan," Camacho tells me. And then, as if arguing with himself, he says, "But if Davis goes to Vegas, he’s gonna lose all of his fan base here. He’s never gonna have a home-field advantage. Everybody there’s gonna be a goddamn tourist."

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This is the thing with the Raiders and Oakland: Because they’ve left once, the people here have already learned how to deal with their absence. Most did not abandon the franchise when it went to Los Angeles, in part because the ethos of Raider fandom transcended geography, but also because it was easy enough to hop a quick flight or take a trip down Interstate 5 to Los Angeles a couple of times a year to maintain a connection with the team. The same holds true for Vegas, if that’s where the Raiders wind up, which is why most of the fans I speak to in Oakland are stuck. They are more committed to their team than they are to their city. They don’t really know how to let go, even if they wanted to.

"I’m an original fan, and this is my 57th season of Raider football," says Steve Mortara, better known as "Raider Mort." Raider Mort, who grew up in the city of Vallejo and has run several nightclubs, is the closest thing the Raiders have to an unofficial team historian. He has watched the franchise evolve as his life has evolved, with the team taking on Al Davis’s maverick reputation, and then fleeing, and then coming back once more.

Raider Mort tells me he hasn’t missed a home game in Oakland since the Raiders began playing at the Coliseum in 1966. He blames the city for letting the Raiders get away by refusing to make a serious offer to build a new stadium; he peppers our conversation with several extended and uncanny recitations of historical facts about the franchise, but when I ask him how he actually feels about this team potentially moving again, it’s almost as if he doesn’t know what more to say that hasn’t already been said. And maybe this is the thing about being a Raiders fan: You most likely embraced the team in the first place because of its recalcitrant spirit, because of its obstinate leadership, or because of the way it consistently defied the corporate status quo of the NFL. So, if this franchise does so again — if its owner chooses to move to a place referred to as "Sin City" — should you really be surprised?

"It’ll change," he tells me. "The East Bay is blue collar and the Raiders were a blue-collar football team. It’ll be a different scene when they move."

So it goes with Raider Mort: He uses the word "when," not "if." He’s been around long enough, and he has enough institutional knowledge, to accept the impending loss of this franchise once more, even though it has yet to officially happen.

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In a way, Vegas feels like a viable destination for the Raiders, if they choose to abandon Oakland once more. Constructed by gangsters, Vegas is a city that thrives on vice, and there is nothing more Raideresque than that, is there? Maybe in some perverse way it makes more sense for the Raiders to be in Vegas than to be in Oakland at this point, now that Oakland has become increasingly gentrified, now that the once-gritty neighborhoods of the East Bay are giving way to artisanal restaurants and craft-beer spots. Maybe you could argue that the Raiders have run their course in Oakland — except that the fans keep showing up at this decrepit stadium and keep supporting a team that has at various points over the past decade wagered its future on failed experiments like JaMarcus Russell and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

The ethos is bound to change regardless: Even if the Raiders build a new stadium in Oakland, the atmosphere would no doubt be altered, and many of the fans who can afford season tickets today would likely be priced out. A new stadium would very likely be targeted to appeal to a more corporate crowd, to a more tech-oriented crowd, to the new Oakland rather than old Oakland.

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"To me," Ortega says, "I love the stadium the way it is. I think it’s great. I’d like the concessions to be better, but I don’t need a Yahoo Fantasy sports lounge like they’ve got at Levi’s Stadium (the home of the 49ers, in Santa Clara). I bought a ticket to see this game. But if it means I can no longer afford season tickets, and my team is still gonna be in Oakland, I’m fine with that."

Things like the Yahoo Fantasy Football Lounge are the reality of modern professional football. Nobody is more aware of this than the fans at the Black Hole, but here they are, finally gifted with a team worth rooting for, and now they’re on the verge of losing them for good (or at least for a generation). And even as Vegas becomes more and more of a likely possibility, the fans who stuck with this team even when it jilted them once before are left with a curious blend of furious indignation and irrational faith. Ortega tells me about a booster club meeting he attended at which a Raiders employee dropped Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s name, either as a potential purchaser of the team or a potential financier for the new stadium (he wasn’t sure which). These are the moments the Black Hole clings to amid the bleakness that surrounds them.

"I’m not worried," says Javier Moreno, as we stand under that Black Hole tent, listening to the rain pelt the canvas above our heads. "Of course god put them here, and god is a Raiders fan."

I have no idea, at first, if Moreno is serious. I tell him that certain people might feel precisely the opposite about the Raiders, given the way some people under this tent are dressed, but someone else points out to me that another Black Hole stalwart, who dresses up in a gorilla costume and calls himself Gorilla Rilla, is also an ordained minister. There is a cresting wave of acceptance, now that Davis says he is "committed 100 percent to Las Vegas," but amid all that there is still an underlying assertion that the Raiders belong here in Oakland, and will someday, somehow, return to this promised land. They’ve seen this before, and they’re not going to let go easily; their team came and went, but sometimes, if you wait long enough, things come back to you again. There is so much fury mingled with so much love under this tent, and this is why Senor Raiderman can barely contain himself. Nearly 20 years after purchasing his first season tickets, the Black Hole is home to him now.

"These are my people," he says. "The first time I came out here [to the Coliseum], I fucking cried, man. These are my people."

And maybe it’s just the rain, or maybe it’s a stray droplet of beer. I can’t be sure, because he’s wearing sunglasses in a downpour, but I swear I see a tear running down Senor Raiderman’s face.

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