SF State Alum turns Anger into Action: Viral photo becomes mural to celebrate 2020 grads
Photo Story by Aaron James Bistrin
June 26, 2020
Louis Michael, carrying a piece of cardboard under his arm, topped his Black Lives Matter T-shirt with a graduation gown, popped on his graduation cap and headed to downtown Oakland. Written on that piece of cardboard was; “Young Black College Grad. Which Part is Threatening?” Later that night, during a heated exchange between protesters and police, Michael stepped in front of the crowd and unknowingly became the subject for an iconic image. Head bowed, first raised, he became unwittingly immortalized by the flash of SF State alumna Sarahbeth Maney’s camera.
Maney’s image has been shared across the world and now graces a wall of downtown Oakland named “Turning Anger into Action.” Maney, a Black photojournalist and first-generation college graduate, named the mural after a discussion with the artists and volunteers.
“I was always told– since junior high– that I probably wasn’t going to go to college, that I couldn’t afford college. It was never an idea in my mind that I’d actually get a degree. So I feel the title reflects both education and the movement,” Maney said.
It is one of many murals painted for the collaborative Oakland Mural Project, organized by Aireon Tavares. John Christie, an art teacher in Oakland, headed the artistic direction and involved many of his students in the process.
This Saturday at noon, the mural will become a meeting place for 2020 graduates, as @blm_art_oakland is hosting a celebration of their accomplishments. The event will feature leis, graduation garb and discussions about the making of the mural.
“Getting an education or degree as a Black person or person of color is challenging,” Maney said. Pursuing a degree in journalism with a concentration in photojournalism from SF State in 2019 was a way of turning anger into action for Maney.
The photo and its message were spread far and wide across the internet, which provided an insight to exploitative practices Black creators often face at the hands of media companies. Entertainment Tonight and Buzzfeed are among the outlets that used the image without compensation for Maney.
Though media outlets have, in recent weeks, made efforts to promote creators of color, Maney feels “like they’re just checking off a box and act like they’re amplifying these diverse voices,” without actually compensating their artists and workers.
Instagram, however, properly licensed the image for a film called Take Action, which was published on Juneteenth. Maney felt that Instagram did everything right. It paid both her and Michael for their roles in creating the image. According to Maney, compensating the subject of photos is rare practice for media companies. The Bay Area-based, freelance photojournalist has been published by a multitude of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, TIME, Vanity Fair, CNN, The Guardian U.S., The Boston Globe, Forbes, Refinery29, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
“If I’ve learned anything over the course of these few weeks, it’s the importance of knowing how to protect your work. I think it’s important for Black creators to know their worth. A lot of people don’t have knowledge on how to properly price things and how to make license agreements. I think that’s a really big issue.”
For example, Buzzfeed reached out to Maney, asking for permission to use her images. When she responded that they could properly license (pay for) use of her photos, Buzzfeed did not respond and instead posted the image without her permission. The editor received backlash from the photo community for this decision, and the image has since been taken down. According to Maney, “exposure” is not adequate payment for work.
The mural’s collaborative process came as a relief to Maney during the battles for her image rights and compensation. She felt the organizers of Oakland Mural Project were dedicated to ensuring Maney’s vision, while also incorporating Michael’s voice.
Maney is now working on a multimedia project focusing on the recent grad for the San Francisco Chronicle, which will detail Michael’s journey from his very first protest– where he unknowingly became an internet sensation– to his newfound role as a community activist.
This Saturday, Michael will be speaking about the meaning of the image and the entire process of bringing it to life on Oakland’s streets. This year’s graduates are encouraged to come down to celebrate in front of Turning Anger Into Action at 1333 Broadway, right across from Oscar Grant Plaza.
(Photo 1) Aireon Tavares is the organizer of the Oakland Mural Project, who did everything from cleaning walls to calling local Black artists. The goal was to adorne downtown Oakland by highlighting Black excellence through art. In a matter of a day, he had murals going up all around downtown Oakland. Tavares chose the photo of Michael to capstone the Oakland Mural Project. His vision, coupled with the muralists’, have turned downtown Oakland’s streets into a Black art gallery.
(Photo 2) The Oakland Mural Project is now far from the blank boards it started as. Turning Anger Into Action has been in production since June 5, 2020. Artists Joy Johnson and John Christie tape out dimensions on the first day of planning.
(Photo 3) From the start, Turning Anger Into Action has been a collective effort from the community. Kennel Boxing club of San Leandro came down with the muscle and helped get the wall primed for the muralist to go to work.
(Photo 4) The photo of Louis Michael, taken by Sarahbeth Maney, SF State Journalism Alumni. Tavares, project organizer, stated that the photo was chosen to become a mural due to its controversial nature. Louis Michael said, “A Black College Grad. Which Part is Threatening?”
Michael’s fiance, Destany Barnett stated, “Turning Anger Into Action is celebration of life and not another wall dedicated to the martyrdom of a black man.”
(Photo 5) Turning Anger Into Action has been led by women of all backgrounds and age groups; from mothers to students, to recent graduates and established business owners. Every inch of Turning Anger Into Action has the stroke of powerful women embedded in its creation.
(Photo 6) Art teacher John Christie goes over the next steps for Turning Anger Into Action with one of his high school art students.
(Photo 7) Joy Johnson is one of the leaders and organizers of Turning Anger Into Action. Joy has taken on the role of managing the social media and fundraising efforts to continue the work of @blm_art_oakland and bringing Black-led murals to city municipalities across the Bay Area.
(Photo 8) The family of Louis Michael came to see the mural for itself. Louis is a first-generation college graduate, only compounding the significance of the profound statement he made the evening of May 29th. Louis has taken the lead for organizations focused on removing police from Vallejo schools and reallocating city budgets to better serve the communities he is fighting for.
(Photo 9) The progress of Turning Anger into Action has sparked awe in every day of the process. The local support from the downtown Oakland community has been a driving force for the team working on the mural. Turning Anger Into Action is located at 1333 Broadway right across from Oscar Grant Plaza.
(Photo 11) Saturday will be the capstone and finishing of Turning Anger Into Action. Louis Michael and Sarahbeth Maney will both be speaking about the meaning of the image and the entire process of bringing it to life.
Graduates of the class of 2020 are encouraged to come down and be involved in the finishing strokes of Turning Anger Into Action.