At the end of May, the third month of a shelter-in-place order in the counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, protests erupted daily in Oakland (California) following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. After a spree of early looting, the businesses along Oakland’s main corridors—many still closed to the public today, in November—had boarded up their windows leaving a ready canvas for a host of street artists and muralists to make their mark. The protest works that emerged are both beautiful and politically fraught, exposing some of the most sensitive social and economic divisions in the US. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining steam in mainstream politics and the public awaiting restrictions to be lifted, artists and activists filled the street with a new kind of historical painting, in which history is not depicted so much as made. The murals of Oakland in 2020 testify to a vibrant visual explosion of political and social ideas. Like historical paintings of the nineteenth century that depicted contemporary history in mythic terms, there are moral lessons to be learned here. The country, and the world, need to listen.
This photo essay is intended as a dialectic between language and image, society and culture. We, photographer and critic, socialists and theorists, aim to weave these disruptions into our fabric of urban lore. These images and the movement that they reflect, like so many others in cities around the world, challenge us to contain the multiple layers of social life, radical imagination and human tragedy in the time of COVID-19 and civil insurrection of 2020. The theories of urban experience are countless, from Baudelaire to Benjamin to Baldwin, so this engagement will of course be selective.
The idea to pair image and idea erupted in the early years of the twentieth century with Constructivist and Dada collage. A hundred years later and faced with wreckage piled upon wreckage, like the angel of history we are caught in the wind blowing us into the future with our back turned toward it. The storm propelling us is no longer progress as Benjamin named it in the early twentieth century. As destructive as he found the march of progress to be, we now encounter a politics of regress, whose goal is to unmake the accomplishments of past and current generations and to cast doubt on any truth we know. This dangerous political game—and the deaths it has casually effected—gave way to an outburst of fury in the streets in the summer of 2020, and the civil unrest has not yet abated. So, the words and theories we use to pry open the import of these resulting images aim to salvage a shred of human dignity and a sense of mutual care amidst our current epiphany of darkness. We hope these images may reveal some of the truths so ruthlessly denied by political leaders, so that the reader may see, and our words are an elegy connecting a vision of loss to consciousness of purpose for ourselves and our demos.
Originally published by Project Muse in Theory & Event 23(4 Supplement) pp. S-110-S-126