Grey blocks of paint on a quiet city street
The ‘Reparations Now!’ mural on Ellis St in South Berkeley was painted over by a city worker. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside / Catchlight

For nearly three years, a colorful mural called for “Reparations Now!” on a South Berkeley street across from Malcolm X Elementary School. 

Painted in July 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, the big block letters traced the steps of Berkeley protesters who marched for Black lives down Ellis Street. Councilmember Ben Bartlett said neighbors’ push to create the mural inspired him to pursue reparations in Berkeley.

Now, with the state, the city and, most recently, the Berkeley school board taking more concrete steps to pursue reparations, the mural has been removed. Responding to a graffiti complaint, a city worker painted over the mural, which never received a permit, with gray and black paint a few weeks ago.  

“City staff did respond quickly, as they strive to do to respond to resident requests,” city spokesperson Matthai Chacko wrote in an email. “However, in this case, they didn’t understand that this paint on this street had rivaling views.”

Bartlett said the complaint might have been handled differently had it come to the attention of department heads. “They might have waited on that to check on it further. But [the complaint] just went straight to the staff and they just kind of took care of business,” he said.

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Credit: Todd Matthews

Many members of the group described shock and disappointment at the mural’s removal. “It’s baffling to me that, perhaps one person complained, and then they just did something so drastic to erase what the community had done,” said Erin Le. Masha Albrecht said she supports people painting on the street, but understood why the city covered it up.

On Saturday, the group decided not to immediately repaint it, opting to hold a community barbecue and facilitate conversations about reparations. 

“[W]e decided that building these conversations is more important than the painting right now,” Albrecht said.

The reparations mural was initially painted as a “request for reparations for the people of color … that have been neglected and misused because of their ethnicity,” said Richie Brook-Cole Smith, who is widely known as “Ms. Richie,” or the “Mayor of South Berkeley.” 

Friends of Adeline, the South Berkeley advocacy organization that Smith founded, played a role in the creation of the mural, but painting it was a neighborhood-wide affair. Councilmember Bartlett said he and his daughter were among those who helped do the painting. 

The mural honored Margy Wilkinson, an advocate for the poor and homeless with Friends of Adeline, who lived on Ellis Street for 40 years and died in June 2020.

“This was an affirmation of what she would want,” said Tony Wilkinson, Margy’s husband, who still lives in the house across the street from the mural. “For the neighborhood, this is carrying on that legacy and a legacy of the Black community that has been here and the issue of restoring the right for people to return to the community and not be exiled and pushed out.” 

Tony Wilkinson holds up a sign for the South Berkeley Mutual Aid Project, which his late wife, Margy, organized during the pandemic. Community members painted the reparations mural in Margy’s honor. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside / Catchlight

As is evident from the graffiti complaint, not everyone is on board with the mural, which was painted without proper permitting from the city and advocates for a cause that, though it has gained traction in California jurisdictions in the last three years, remains controversial.

One neighbor, who didn’t want to give her name in fear of alienating neighbors, described passing the mural every day as “kind of heavy” and would prefer that it wasn’t repainted to keep the neighborhood as a neutral, apolitical space, though she didn’t plan to step on any toes by advocating against it.

Readers regularly write to Berkeleyside to criticize reparations for people with enslaved ancestors, arguing that other forms of historical discrimination aren’t compensated for today or that reparations won’t address root causes of poverty. 

It’s not clear if the graffiti complaint came from a neighbor or from someone outside the community.

“Every call for economic justice is always met with resistance and this is nothing different. It’s just a bump in the road,” said Bartlett. 

After helping paint the mural with his daughter, Bartlett said he felt moved to pursue reparations in Berkeley, eventually issuing a report documenting the various forms of reparations — including a public apology and cash payments — that the city ought to pursue. 

Bartlett says reparations are back payment for work that was never paid for — in this case, for slavery. 

“When you work a job, and you, let’s say, you die before you get your last paycheck, that check goes to your family. And if [there’s delay in getting the money] to your family, there is interest and penalties,” Bartlett said. “Despite all the confusion and all the backlash, it’s really that simple.”

Le said she wondered whether the complaint was the product of progress being made on reparations. 

“I think a big question that we’re all asking is, why now?” she said. “Why after three years?” 

In addition to the city’s reparations program, Berkeley Unified announced its own reparations task force in March to explore giving cash payments to students with enslaved ancestors. San Francisco, which began pursuing reparations in 2020, has already shared a list of over 100 recommendations for reparations, including its most ambitious idea: $5 million cash payments to eligible Black residents. 

A state reparations committee will share a complete list of recommendations — which are expected to include a public apology and cash payments — in July.

A neighbor sits on the porch of her house next to a lemon tree. The photo is taken from down below.
Margy Wilkinson holds up a sign stating “No Justice, No Peace” on the front porch of her home across the street from Malcolm X Elementary School during the March to Bury Racism on June 6, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

The mural’s call for racial and economic justice is intertwined with South Berkeley’s history of advocacy on behalf of the Black community and the area’s declining Black population. “It’s the story of a neighborhood,” Wilkinson said. 

Black people have been leaving Berkeley for decades, a change that is particularly visceral in South Berkeley. Black residents, barred from living east of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, then known as Grove Street, moved to South Berkeley during World War II. As home prices have risen, the city’s Black population has declined.

Today, Berkeley’s Black population is just a third what it was half a century ago. In South Berkeley, the Black population shrunk by 30% in the last 10 years. Some Black people sold their homes in exchange for larger lots in the suburbs, while others were pushed out of apartments they could no longer afford.

Edythe Boone, the artist and activist who designed the block letters and colors of this mural and who is behind several other murals in the city, is one of the people who left.

Bartlett said he wanted to help the community get a permit for the mural and repaint it if they choose to take those steps, whether that means supporting them in raising funds or going through the logistics of permitting, which can take a long time.

Getting a mural permit involves applying for approval with the Civic Arts Commission and requires some information about the art, two letters of support and approval from the appropriate agency. It’s not clear whether the community will repaint the mural or seek approval for the city for it.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...