This month marks the two-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, which sparked protests around the globe. Analysts calculate that Floyd’s death gave rise to the largest protest movement in U.S. history, with between 15 and 26 million people in all fifty states and Washington, D.C., taking to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter. International protests were organized in sixty countries and on every continent.
The unprecedented scale of community solidarity with Black lives lost at the hands of the police was made even more visible by what Oakland-based independent curator and Folklife Magazine contributor Ashara Ekundayo has dubbed “rage-and-joy-informed creative practices.” In D.C., local artists painted “Black Lives Matter” across two downtown blocks in bright yellow, forty-foot-high letters that can be seen from space. Oakland, California, quickly followed suit, followed by twenty-seven states and three countries, while, seemingly overnight, boarded-up stores and city walls bloomed with vibrant murals, from Minneapolis, D.C., and Oakland to Aleppo, Nairobi, and Berlin.
“In Oakland, painters took to the walls, showing us all the pain, knowledge, heart, and soul that we were all holding inside,” writes EastSide Arts Alliance (ESSA) founding member Elena Serrano. “Writers and poets did the same, singing and dancing the pain, getting stronger and more sure of what must change.”
ESSA, an Oakland-based collective of artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color, is working with a local not-for-profit publisher, Nomadic Press, to document the visual and written art that emerged in tandem with the protests that began in May 2020. In their research, Serrano and Nomadic publisher JK Fowler collaborated with numerous activists and organizations to include the work of a hundred artists, a dozen poets, and fifteen thought-leaders.
The resulting book, Painting the Streets: Oakland Uprising in the Time of Rebellion, functions as an exhibit of nearly a hundred murals with locations, artists’ tags and statements by muralists and graffiti artists in solidarity with the Black liberation struggle. The paintings simultaneously signify the past with portraits of historical figures—Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who died while the protests were happening—and chronicle the present. They include reminders from Native peoples that “We Are on Stolen Land” and the names and portraits of recent victims of police brutality. They map possible futures with glittering Afrofuturist imagery, flowering gardens, and Indigenous goddesses beneath phrases like “Black Futures Matter” and “Black Dreams Matter.”
Protest poems from such luminaries as Sonia Sanchez and the late Amiri Baraka, both leading figures in the Black Arts Movement, and Oakland poet James Cagney, winner of a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and Academy of American Poets James Laughlin Award, capture the images in word. Essays by activists and cultural workers like Leslie “Dime” Lopez, who recounts the dangers of being a young grafitera, and poet and performer Cat Brooks, who co-founded the Anti Police-Terror Project, offer context and organization strategies, while an introduction by Alicia Garza, the Oakland organizer who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter in response to the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, assesses the past decade of unrest.
Oakland, which has been called an open-air museum for its more than 1,000 murals, has a long tradition of public art, ranging from community murals organized as part of urban renewal projects to the graffiti and aerosol art within hip-hop culture. So in 2020, the nonprofit Bay Area Mural Program, which had already been engaging communities in beautification projects, pivoted to organize the Oakland BLM street mural with ENDEAVORS, a grassroots initiative for uplifting BIPOC voices, and called upon their artist partners to paint boarded-up businesses.
The murals evoke the community energy pulsing through Oakland streets two years ago, where demonstrators resisted daily onslaughts of police tear gas, and hundreds of volunteers assembled with aerosol cans and buckets of paint. “Painting on the streets and on the plywood on the windows was a way for us to document our thoughts, our feelings and our stories,” says Cece Carpio, an artist featured in Painting the Streets and public art advisor for the city of Oakland. “Many times, our public artworks serve as altars—a place where people gather to acknowledge what is going on, seek resolutions, and a place to gather and heal. What happens when the protests on the streets were over? The book allows our stories to live and be documented beyond that very specific moment of time.”
Art has always played a critical function in Black expression and liberation. The rich flowering of music, literature, and art in the 1920s and 1930s known as the Harlem Renaissance helped set the stage for the eventual civil rights movement. The Chicago Black Renaissance (1930s–50s) similarly combined artistic expression with community organizing, while the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s and 1970s saw poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals using the arts to build a Black nationalist movement.
From the 1930s to ’50s, Black American visual artists were further galvanized by the work of Mexican muralists, who had been charged by their post-revolutionary government with crafting a new national self-image that would honor the Indigenous struggle and unify the country.
“There is no question that painting murals was considered the most important function of the political artist,” art critic David Bonetti says. “Murals resided in the community where all could see them, and they could speak vividly about political ideas to illiterate and uneducated people.”
In 1930, Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas embarked on a series of murals at historically Black colleges and universities to celebrate Black history and inspire the next generation of leaders. In 1943, Charles White completed a similar mural at Hampton College (now Hampton University) documenting Black contributions to democracy. In 1967, William Walker and members of the Organization for Black American Culture painted the landmark Wall of Respect, a mural depicting some fifty heroes, in Southside Chicago. The Community Mural movement spread quickly to other cities, providing a voice for poor communities of color, and protest art has since come to encompass street and aerosol art, as well as site-specific installations and performance.
Oakland’s murals are a mirror of recent national and global history, and the movement’s universal appeal is evident in the use of Spanish and Arabic and in the many expressions of group solidarity like “Xicanas for Black Power,” “Indigenous Peoples 4 Black Lives,” and “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” The city is a fitting location for tracking the rebellion. Oakland has been a center of Black culture and social activity ever since the Second Great Migration (1940-70) and became synonymous with Black resistance in 1966 with the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Through his newspaper covers and silk-screened handbills, graphic artist and Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas was instrumental in spreading the party’s message of self-reliance, cultural pride, and self-defense against police brutality. Now a community elder, Douglas continues to work around the world with the African, Asian, and Latin American liberation movements that have always inspired him, and to inspire others.
Visual artist Binta Ayofemi, one of the artists featured in Painting the Streets and founder of Ground, an Oakland organization that restores vacant lots and buildings for Black use, talks about painting a series of affirmative murals “in conversation with Emory Douglas.”
“Protest art can be political education in the street,” says Tongo Eisen-Martin, movement worker, educator, and poet laureate of San Francisco, whose actual conversation with Douglas appears in the book. “The increase of mass-esteem and will to reabsorb social power; an interruption of the day-in/day-out trance of imperialist hegemony; and the announcement of a new day.”
Douglas himself advises that “Protest art should be to inform and enlighten, giving a visual interpretation of the social justice concerns that it communicates as a visual language and hopefully can be inspiring and healing.”
In an essay on principles for protecting protest art, the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative describes its efforts to catalog over 420 artworks and preserve 55 that have been removed from buildings as a way to preserve Black lives, families, and land: “This protest art is not an aesthetic addition to social change—it is the vibrant vein that runs through the movement, which inspires transformation, ignites our resilience, and channels our healing from the trauma of state-sponsored violence and racism.”
This centering of cultural practices in resistance and recovery is echoed by Greg Morozumi, who cites Malcolm X’s 1964 speech at the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in his contribution to the book: “Culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle. We must take hold of it and forge the future with the past.”
And yet, despite the awareness and gains of the past two years, the rate of fatal police shootings in the United States has actually not decreased. Black Americans continue to die at the hands of police at a much higher rate than any other race. Nomadic Press’s Fowler writes eloquently of trying to create a “tribute to Black lives lost, as well as a window, a glimpse into a period of time where so many of us had reached our limit, yet again.” The problem is as old as the nation, and this two-year anniversary should activate, not memorialize.
“Those of us who would see a society reorganized around principles of humanism have some vows to renew,” Eisen-Martin says.
The long road ahead will require taking inspiration from the past and building community for the future. Many of the artists highlighted in the book work with youth, combining history, culture, and art lessons to prepare the next generation. As Emory Douglas, who’s been doing this work for more than half a century, advises, “You’ve got creative folks now, and they have to determine what contribution they can make on a consistent basis and how they can come together collectively.”
Hope and art are also essential components to the struggle. Garza writes, “Hope is why beautiful political murals can line the streets of boarded-up businesses after weeks of protests.”
It is no coincidence that we’re experiencing yet another flowering of Black literary, visual, media, and other arts, though the artists themselves point out that they’ve always been doing the work. The only change since 2020 is greater mainstream interest and access.
“Even before this pandemic, we have been painting the struggles, our fight, and the victories of our communities,” Carpio explains.
In discussing her contribution to the book, pioneering playwright and Oakland’s first poet laureate Dr. Ayodele Nzinga says, “Art is a calling card, a clarion, a thermometer, the newspaper and the historic chronicle of civilization. ‘Protest art’ is art. Art tells the story of what is and articulates what is missing or unwanted—it calls for/invites/makes a demand for what comes next. Art is a light in the window of the world welcoming our humanity home.”
Hopefully home isn’t too far on the horizon.
Faith Adiele is an award-winning author, speaker, editor, and art/cultural critic. She is co-founder of BIPOC Writing Party, an online writing community formed in response to the pandemic and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and African Book Club at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. She teaches at California College of the Arts and calls Oakland, Finland, and Nigeria home.