This piece was originally written in August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. But as we return to semblances of normality, the reopening of businesses and the the art work from Black Lives Matter protests disappears, I bring back this work as a reminder that this is not yet over.
Oakland has seen small and black-owned businesses quickly disappear as the construction of luxury apartment buildings and trendy shops take their place. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, artwork emerged around the area of the protests. My initial goal was to document the artwork as it stood, but as I observed I realized that they were not just murals but calls for change and I pivoted to capture the intricate work and the buildings they were on.
In fear of looting and damage, business boarded up their windows. The city looked almost dystopian covered in planks of plain wood and metal fencing. But artists saw it as a blank canvas to express pain and call for reform and change through beautiful artwork and powerful messages.
The irony of the medium was not lost on me. Oakland is no stranger to gentrification. The highrise buildings and the artisanal shops are responsible for pushing out the same black people who built Oakland. The artwork on these boards acknowledge the hypocrisy in businesses protecting themselves from the communities they disenfranchised.
Messages echoing around the buildings I read were powerful. The names and portraits of the victims of undeserved violence were everywhere, reminding passerby’s that the victims are not just headlines.
This message was driven home by a mural explaining “The City is Covered in Our Dead Friends Names.” Not only are these murals a reminder of the tragedies, but the city itself serves as a sort of obituary in scale, honoring their deaths and mourning their lives.
The realization juxtaposed against the sterile designs of modern architecture leave an uneasy feeling, balancing shame and hope. How did we get here? We must fight to improve.
Due to the current pandemic, the streets are emptier than normal and the uncertainty of when regular life will resume makes one wonder how long these boards will stay up.
It is also worth acknowledging the temporality of the murals. They will be taken down once the business owners feel safe, and though it is better to trend to altruism, police brutality and structural racism will persist. And the likenesses of Breonna Taylor gone.
However, the artists are aware of this, because it is not about the work itself, but being heard and sending a message.