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Black insurgent aesthetics and the public imaginary


This article analyzes the spontaneous production of graffiti art and murals covering the entrances of businesses in the central business district of Oakland, CA, in the wake of the global protest movements, in 2020, against state violence and systemic racism. I argue that the art made legible what gets hidden through the violent processes of gentrification, neoliberal urbanism, and displacement/dispossession. The paper rethinks what borders, policing, and reclamation mean in a time of economic instability and a global health crisis, through the placement of these vernacular expressions in Downtown Oakland. What is revealed through the art is the convergence of two co-constitutive publics–a segregated, decaying city mostly inhabited by poor and working-class Black and Latinx residents and laborers, and a modern, prosperous, neoliberal city that caters to a privileged class of white residents and tourists–especially as the city grappled with the management and regulation of public space in the midst of a global pandemic. The article thus theorizes public space as layered and always contested, and not simply a space of conflict but also collective engagement.

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