Text by Melissa Batchelor Warnke. Photos and video by Luisa Conlon.
Around 200 people gathered at a vigil Wednesday morning to honor the life of Antonio Ramos. Ramos, a West Oakland-based artist employed by the nonprofit Attitudinal Healing Connection (AHC), was shot and killed Tuesday while working on a mural on West Street between 35th and 36th Streets, under the 580 freeway. The Oakland Police Department has not identified an official suspect or motive in the case.
The vigil was held at the same site where Ramos was killed 24 hours earlier. On the sidewalk under the freeway, Ramos’ family and friends laid out brightly colored blankets, hundreds of candles, red roses wrapped in clear cellophane, and a yellow skateboard with “Shred forever, Tony” scrawled on it in Sharpie. The diverse crowd assembled included Oakland City Council Members Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) and Dan Kalb (District 1), Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, the City of Oakland’s Community Capacity Builder Shomari Carter, Ramos’ colleagues, loved ones and neighbors. Most were dressed in heavy layers, as it drizzled throughout the service. Pieces of printer paper were hung around the vigil that read “#oaklandsuperhero,” “#artistlivesmatter,” “#artheals,” and “#power2thepeaceful.”
Amana Harris, executive director of the AHC, convened the service, at which mourners filled half the length of the underpass and one of the lanes of the road. “This young man was a fallen soldier in our midst and in our community,” Harris told the crowd. “We will continue to bring love and hope and beauty and color into our communities forever.” The crowd clapped and cheered; one woman cried “Speak, Amana!”
Guillermo Ortiz led the group in a traditional Aztec ceremony, in which each person turned to the four cardinal directions, raised their hands to the sky, and then knelt on the earth. “Great Spirit, help us to release those qualities within us that no longer serve us or our community. Help us to let go of those parts of us that are not loving, that are not kind, that are not generous,” Ortiz said to the crowd. “Antonio is now one of our ancestors. Welcome him with beauty, and with the love that he carried in his heart.” Ortiz, who is the President of AHC’s board of directors as well as a healer with a background in spiritual peacemaking, held a bowl of smoking incense and a blue and yellow feathered wand, which he used to comfort those who grieved.
During his remarks, a passerby began directing traffic around the crowd. Cars honked incessantly as they passed; a motorcycle revved its engine. As Ortiz blessed the family, placing his hands upon their heads, a cellphone rang in someone’s pocket. No one appeared to notice. “He’s here, I’m sure he’s here,” an attendee whispered to his friend. “Help me, Lord,” an older woman shouted. Two young men greeted each other as they might on any other day—“Hey, what’s up man? What’s good?”—but after several minutes, as one began to weep, the other placed his arm around his friend’s shoulders, then embraced him. Many stood in silence.
Ramos’ family gathered at the front, where his sister rested on the blankets, sobbing and at one point screaming. Some attendees carefully stepped over the lit candles as they made their way forward to comfort the family. Ramos’ sister, who was on crutches, was lifted to a waiting SUV and later onto a stretcher. Onlookers said an ambulance was called because she appeared to be in danger of fainting from stress.
Margie Turner lives in the house behind the stoplight near the mural, and she heard the shot that killed Ramos. At first, Turner thought a car had backfired, so she continued talking on the phone. But when she looked out her window approximately ten minutes later, the police were there. She left the house in her dressing gown, and was told that Ramos had been murdered. “Now that stays in my head,” she said, standing at the mural site after the service was over. “Things had been improving around here.”
“He was a young man just doing what he do,” she continued. “He was such a beautiful artist.” She said she’d been watching Ramos’ progress on the mural, encouraging him every time she passed it; they last spoke on Friday.
Javier Rocabado, who is the lead artist on the project and was with Ramos when he died, said he was in disbelief. “I saw my friend standing up and getting shot, and next thing he is on the floor dying for nothing. There was no confrontation, there was nothing. And it’s the senseless death of a great artist; he had a great future. He was doing a community service in his own community, in his own neighborhood,” he said.
The Attitudinal Healing Connection has been focused on this neighborhood since its inception in 1989. AHC hires artists and activists from within West Oakland to help community members cultivate skills in personal development, leadership and the arts. Their organization is based on the principles of attitudinal healing, the first of which is “the essence of our being is love.”
The Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, a six-mural multi-year endeavor on the 580 Freeway intended to positively transform to the West Oakland/Emeryville area, is one of their most visible projects. Ramos connected with AHC as a volunteer on their first mural in 2012. Artist Dave Burke, who worked with him on that project, said that “Antonio just walked up, loved what we were doing and started volunteering his time. He showed up every day, and I’ve known him since.” Burke said there has never been another volunteer who came daily to work on the murals. “That’s the thing about Antonio: He’s exceptional,” he said.
For the mural on the 3500 block of West Street, their third, Ramos was hired as a paid artist. The artists were scheduled to work on the mural with local middle school students on Wednesday. Scaffolding, paints, and other materials remained at the vigil site, but the project is now on hold. Rocabado said that the team will grieve this week and return to work on October 5. The 4,000 square foot mural will be dedicated to Ramos’ memory.
AHC staffers are already thinking about how to protect their artists moving forward. Rocabado said the most important security measure the community can take is to press for gun control. “Artists, we don’t carry guns. Criminals do,” he said. “If the guy wasn’t with a gun, probably he would be fighting my friend, but he wouldn’t be killing him.”
Harris said that she has asked the OPD to have a presence at the underpass, and will employ a private security company for when police are unable to patrol the site. She spoke about love as a tool for peacemaking. “A lot of times people are so afraid of our communities,” Harris said. “There is so much incredible love and heart here. And that needs to be uplifted, that needs to be seen, that needs to be plastered everywhere. Because that is what will heal our communities. Yeah, there is a lot of crazy stuff going on, but there is a lot of love.” The community is currently running a funding campaign to support Ramos’ family.
In the mural, teenage superheroes appear to float above the houses of West Oakland in what Harris has called a “block party scene.” Ramos was painting a purple house the day he died. Each superhero in the piece has their own special capability, and reflects the vision of the West Oakland Middle School students who worked with Rocabado to conceptualize the project. For instance, Ja’Khi is the princess of knowledge; her ring and gold tooth help her to spread positivity and speak golden words. DJ Justice plays uplifting music that brings people together.
Now, the AHC staff is looking for a way to reflect Ramos in the piece. In fact, there’s already a figure in the mural who some of them think looks familiar. “We’re trying to think about now, how do we incorporate Antonio into this wall?” said Harris. “And we were all like, man, it’s a trip because the Latino boy actually looks like him, the one on the far end.”