Big, colorful block letters spell out 'Reparations Now' on the street. The mural had been painted over by a city worker and the grey paint from that cover-up remains.
The “Reparations Now” street mural in front of Malcolm X Elementary School in South Berkeley was repainted by neighbors over the weekend. The City of Berkeley workers painted over it earlier this year after receiving a graffiti complaint. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Two months after a city worker covered up a mural calling for reparations in South Berkeley, the colorful block letters are back on Ellis Street.

Over the weekend, community members repainted the words “Reparations Now!” on the street next to Malcolm X Elementary School in a show of their continued commitment to the issue. The gray paint that a city worker responding to a graffiti complaint used to cover up the mural is still visible beneath the new, colorful letters.

“We’re not going to stand for it. That mural is permanently there until traffic wear it down,” said Richie Brook-Cole Smith, who is known as “Ms. Richie,” or the “Mayor of South Berkeley.”    

Neighbors and members of Friends of Adeline, a South Berkeley advocacy group that Smith helped found, painted the mural in July 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. The mural traced the footsteps of protesters, who started a march for Black lives a few blocks away, and paid tribute to the life of neighbor and activist Margy Wilkinson, who died that summer.

Like the original mural, the new one does not have a city permit. Community members said they wanted to get the mural back up before the Juneteenth celebration this weekend and the city permitting process took too long, but said they still hope to get one in the future.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who helped paint the first mural, said it inspired him to pursue reparations in Berkeley. The city council voted to hire a consultant to lead the reparations process this year, but they have yet to post an opening for the position. What could be included in the city’s reparations programs is still being determined, but a report prepared by Bartlett outlined several steps, including a public apology, wealth creation through housing and cash payments.

Elsewhere in California, the effort for reparations is heating up, though funding for recommendations delivered by state and local task forces remains uncertain. The state task force on reparations will deliver its recommendations to the Legislature July 1. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed opposed a request for $50 million to start a new city office in charge of implementing reparations. The Berkeley school board has begun its own reparations effort, forming a task force to explore first how the district could pay reparations for students with enslaved ancestors

“Now the community has reinvigorated itself and re-executed the mural,” Bartlett said. “This mirrors the real life process. You create a call to action that meets resistance to try to erase it. It cannot be erased and the people’s will overcomes the obstacle.”

Not all the Ellis Street neighbors were supportive of the mural and while reparations have gained traction in California in the last three years, the idea remains controversial.

Tajmal Payne, the president of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP who lives a few blocks away in South Berkeley, used tools from his hardwood flooring business to help prepare the street for the mural on Saturday. He said he helped put the mural back up because reparations is “a cause that I really want to stand up for,” he said. 

Payne’s personal vision for reparations centers on education, which he believes will allow Black people “to create better lives for themselves and their children going into the future.”

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,...