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How Oakland Community Organizers Are Preserving Street Art That Captures A Historic Moment

Babette Thomas
Two murals cover the windows of a storefront on the corner of Franklin and 12th streets in downtown Oakland. One is the profile of a Black person's face with the words "Black Lives Matter" in an arc above the head. The other is of multi-colored cat faces.

There’s been some changes to the downtown Oakland's landscape in the past few months. There are lots of murals — over 1,000 total. They’re painted on the plywood that businesses used to cover their storefronts during anti-police brutality protests back in June. These murals, by an assortment of Bay Area artists, have brought a lot of color to the area. But what is going to happen to them after they come down? 


The murals stretch from 7th street all the way up past 20th street; scattered on main streets and side streets. There are ornate portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There are paintings listing and honoring the names of other Black people who’ve been killed by police. And there are other murals with phrases like “Set Us Free” and “Black Lives Matter,” like one at the corner of 12th and Franklin, on the side of a shop called Pacific Range Hoods. Blane Asrat says the mural looks something like this: 

It’s a black and white portrait of an African person with like, kind of Eastern African features. And it says Black Lives Matter, exclamation point, in an arc over the top.

Blane Asrat is artist who painted this mural, back in early June. She’s based in San Francisco, but when she heard about some of the damage done to businesses in downtown Oakland, after anti-police brutality protests, her and her friends decided to come help out with a group called Bay Area Clean Up.  Except when she got there, she was told that most of the clean was already done. 

So instead, Blane was told to paint white over some graffiti on the plywood that businesses use to cover up their storefronts. 

And so we just looked around and we found the first open sheet of plywood — ’cause there was a ton of artists already painting murals. I'd had no idea that that was going to be happening. And I was like, Oh, I can't really just paint a white board and leave like that's, that's this is too good of an opportunity. Then I just started drawing. I'd had no plan to do it, but the opportunity presented itself.

Blane is used to working solo in an art school studio. She says, this felt different.  

Those murals represent a moment, because they were so spontaneous for the most part. And it was such a community thing of like, mostly East Bay folks, of which I'm not one, but it was just like I could see there was so much solidarity there.

In many ways, these murals are physical reminders of this historic moment — of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. Now the question is: how do you preserve these murals — these objects that encapsulate this moment? Carolyn Johnson or CJ has been trying to answer this question:

I'm CJ Carolyn Johnson. I'm the executive director of the East Oakland black cultural zone collaborative.

The Black Cultural Zoneis a collective of organizations, businesses and residents, trying to uphold the presence of Black people and Black culture in East Oakland. And a couple months ago, some of the murals started being buffed over and taken down, without the artist’ consent, so CJ got involved.

So I began to make a few calls to the city of Oakland and a couple other folks wound up getting connected with the group we're working with.And we wanted to make sure that it was held for black people and for blacks to decide. So we stayed engaged in the process with this group.

And this group that CJ is talking about? It’s a mix of local arts and culture organizations collaborating to preserve these murals. The Black Cultural Zone is leading the effort, with the support of organizations like, the Spearitwurx Foundation, the Oakland Art Murmur, and the Oakland Museum of California. Here’s Oakland museum’s director and CEO, Lori Fogarty:

Early on we connected with the Black cultural zone. And very much have positioned ourselves as being available with the resources and the staff and the expertise that we have to do whatever we can to support this effort.

And the idea that this group of organizations came up with?  Free online and in person programming where people can engage with these murals, through public installations and conversations with the artists. It’s part of an initiative called “Art For The Movement” 

According to CJ, these events are all leading up to an exhibition, where the murals will be installed at Eastmont Mall in East Oakland. This show, tentatively scheduled for the end of this year,  will take viewers on a journey through Oakland’s history of protests, ending with this latest wave. And for CJ, having this exhibition be public and in East Oakland is really important: 

The majority of black people in Oakland live in East Oakland and again, we never really see--the art did not make its way down to us. And I think that message, of how it makes black people feel that there are so many folks who acknowledge what's going on, that they care, and that they're upset about it; it means something to people that you care about. And if you don't see it? You don't know.

But before any exhibition a few things need to happen. First, the Black Cultural Zone needs to determine who painted these murals, which is tricky because some of them are anonymous. So, the Black Cultural zone has been working with local artists to put together the pieces of this puzzle: hosting conversations over zoom, scouring instagram and doing field research downtown. After the Black cultural zone helps identify the artist of a mural, they also have to figure out who exactly owns them. Here’s CJ again:

Creative work is something that’s copyrightable. It belongs to the artist. The board belongs to the person who acquired the board. The window on which the board is placed is a building that is owned by somebody. So they're potentially three claims to ownership of the board for different reasons. We try to understand all three of those parties and to make sure that all three of those parties are informed and that negotiation is between them.

They then, coordinate the transportation and storage of the mural, until the exhibition. There are lots of steps to make sure that these boards are publicly exhibited. But, if there’s one thing that CJ knows for sure, it’s that, down the line, she doesn’t want to see these art works, hanging on a wall in a restaurant. 

Someone's life was lost, the breath was literally pushed out of his body while he called for his mama, as he died for public view. And so in no way should the what happened be privatized, it belongs to the world, it belongs to the community as a story that needs to be told forever. So that that will never happen again.

CJ and the Black Cultural Zone Collaborative are making sure that Black people and Black artists in Oakland, particularly in East Oakland, not only hear this story, but also have a say in how it’s told.   

The Black Cultural Zone will be hosting three free virtual programs on their YouTube channel as part of the larger initiative organized by the BCZ along with Black-led organizations and Black artists, with support from Oakland Art Murmur, Oakland Museum of California, and other community allies. The events are on Wednesday, October 7, Wednesday, November 4, and Wednesday, December 2 at 6 p.m. You can find more information here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In an earlier version of this story, Blane Asrat's name was misspelled. It has been corrected.