Berkeley to paint Black Lives Matter ‘mural’ on downtown street

Berkeley will be getting its own version of a Black Lives Matter street mural, probably on Milvia Street in front of City Hall, and likely completed this week.

Update June 10: Berkeley will paint Black Lives Matter on Martin Luther King Jr., Way, in front of Old City Hall (between Center Street and Allston Way), and paint “Ohlone Territory” on Milvia Street, between Center Street at Allston Way). This was the decision taken by Berkeley City Council at its June 9 meeting. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley is hoping local artists can be involved in making this happen, and the goal is to have the painting be done as soon as possible.

Original story: Berkeley will soon be getting its own version of a Black Lives Matter street mural, probably on Milvia Street in front of City Hall, after City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley indicated to City Councilmember Lori Droste that she approved of the idea. Details will be discussed on Tuesday at the council’s regular meeting, according to Droste.

The concept originated in Washington DC last week when the mayor, Muriel Bowser, had “Black Lives Matter” painted in 35-foot-wide yellow letters on the protest route leading to the White House and abutting Lafayette Park, where President Trump ordered the National Guard last week to forcefully remove protesters in order for him to do a photo-op at a nearby church.

The finished work — three capitalized words that are echoing across the world in this period of civil rights uprisings, depicted in vibrant ‘public works hued’ yellow — is referred to as a “mural,” presumably for want of a better word, as it is not on a wall, but painted on a street.


Other cities have followed suit since then, including Oakland, whose version was laid down Sunday. Berkeley’s could be completed sometime this week.

The first public mention of Berkeley having its own BLM mural appears to have been on Twitter on Saturday when Berkeley architect and Cal lecturer Yes Duffy posted, “Look. It fits” alongside a rendering of giant BLM letters on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín “liked” it and councilmember Rashi Kersawani responded, “Great idea! We’re looking into it.”

Duffy joined the different groups and individuals Sunday who painted the words onto three blocks of 15th Street in downtown Oakland. Inspired by the experience, which he said was “so peaceful and friendly,” he created a template for creating the artwork and penned an email to Berkeley’s mayor and councilmembers in the early hours of Monday urging them to bring the concept to Berkeley. He offered his skills and expertise for no charge and no credit, explaining, “I believe credit may be best left to the vibe of the current movement, no single entity, personal or political.”

Berkeley architect Yes Duffy took part in the painting of the words Black Lives Matter on three blocks of 15th Street in Oakland on June 7. Photo: Courtesy Yes Duffy

“I just assisted with the new one in Oakland,” he continued. “While I was painting, an 81-year-old disabled Black man drove up to me and asked what we were doing today, and when I read ‘Black Lives Matter’ to him he cried. We cried. I made a new friend and I learned so much from him as we talked.”


On Monday, councilmember Lori Droste tagged Berkeleyside on Twitter to say she had confirmation from the city manager work would start work on a Berkeley mural Tuesday.

The reaction to Droste’s tweet was positive, although more than one poster suggested Martin Luther King Jr. Way might be a more appropriate choice for the street mural.

On Monday afternoon, Droste told Berkeleyside that Dee-Williams had subsequently decided to have the council discuss the idea and take stakeholder input, rather than forge ahead with painting the mural on Tuesday.

“We recognize the importance of place-making and the impact that Mayor Bowser had with the DC mural,” Droste said. “It’s a gesture of unity and we’re eager to show we’re rallying behind this cry, but it also has to complement the hard work we have to do to address the racial disparities in our community.”

Although they pack a visual punch — the DC one was even visible from space —  not everyone is a fan of the street murals. The DC chapter of Black Lives Matter wrote in response to a tweet about the DC mural from a Washington Post reporter. “This is performative and a distraction from her active counter organizing to our demands to decrease the police budget and invest in the community. Black Lives Matter means defund the police.”

And, although Duffy is keen to help bring the concept to life in Berkeley, he stresses that painting the BLM letters on streets, while impactful, only goes so far.

“I made the template because I am homeschooling my kids and cannot attend protests in the day,” he said. “I had to put my architect skills to use in an impactful way. While I have quite a story of being a POC and muralist in Berkeley, I truly hope that any of this effort goes straight to addressing real legislative action, and not just a mural,” he said. “That’s what I have been hearing from others as well.”

Tracey Taylor is co-founder and editorial director at Berkeleyside. Email: tracey@berkeleyside.com.