Column: After artist’s murder, mural work takes on new meaning in Oakland

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When 27-year-old artist Antonio Ramos was shot and killed last fall while painting a mural under a highway overpass in West Oakland, the story of his death captured national and international headlines.

But very little was reported about Ramos, the self-taught artist whose passion for social justice and illustrating the stories of indigenous people was recognized by those who knew him best. (Ramos himself had roots in Mexico and in Puerto Rico’s Taíno tribe.)

I walked through the doors of Attitudinal Healing Connection (AHC) one week after the shooting. AHC has worked in West Oakland for more than 25 years and leads the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, an effort to transform six blighted underpasses into large-scale murals designed by local youth. Ramos was helping paint one of them when he was gunned down.

That Ramos died working on a mural about peace and non-violence was not lost on the press.

AHC co-founder Aeeshah Clottey greeted me with warm eyes, open arms, but also had words that stung me for their truth. “Where have you been? We’ve been trying to get media coverage of our efforts for decades. Now with blood in the streets, you’re here.”

Then she invited me to sit down.

I’ve called Oakland home for most of my adult life, and as a documentary filmmaker who has made films about anti-violence efforts in the Bay Area and as far away as Russia, words like these are important to hear. They cut to the heart of what many people at AHC and throughout Oakland are still feeling about this tragedy nine months later.

Within hours of the shooting, reports of yet another killing in Oakland dominated the news cycle. That Ramos died working on a mural about peace and non-violence was not lost on the press. Speculation about the circumstances leading up to the murder abounded. Did the subject matter in the mural provoke the violence? Was the crime an attempted robbery? Next to none of these explanations resonated with the artists working with Ramos that fateful morning, when an armed man took their friend’s life. The truth of their feelings were eclipsed by reports of his violent death and tired narratives of crime-ridden Oakland.

“In a situation that was just so senseless, there were news reports connecting what happened to Antonio with how gentrification isn’t making Oakland better,” AHC executive director Amana Harris told me. “As if gentrification is what it takes to make a city better. That’s the kind of narrow-mindedness we’re fighting against. We have to be looking at core issues for our people, ways to build better resiliency with our community members.”

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For Harris, 44, art like the murals project is key to building healthy, resilient communities. The Oakland native has been bringing art classes to the city’s under-resourced schools for decades through AHC’s ArtEsteem program and Self as Superhero curriculum, which encourages students to re-envision themselves as superheroes improving their communities. West Oakland Middle School Students inspired the images Ramos was helping to create when he died.

Ramos’ name is back in the news again with developments in the criminal case, and with a lawsuit filed by his family against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — owners of the stolen firearm reportedly used in the shooting. Meanwhile, AHC has started up work on a fourth Oakland Super Heroes Mural with students at Hoover Elementary. It will be painted across the street from the wall where Ramos was killed. But that work has disappeared from the public’s eye.

When I began to capture the completion of the mural last fall in the aftermath of Ramos’ death, I didn’t know where my storytelling would lead. But I knew I wanted to tell a different story than I was seeing displayed in the media, one that better represented Ramos, Oakland, and the role art plays in empowering youth and making our communities stronger. I hope this video offers a glimpse of the creativity and courage, grace and forgiveness that is reflected not only in the life of Antonio Ramos, but in the lives of the artists, friends and family members who carry his spirit forward.

This report originally appeared on PBS member station KQED. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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