School board faces mural dilemma: free speech or racial justice
The debate over a controversial mural had reached a fever pitch.
Those who wanted to destroy the racially charged fresco at Washington High School argued that preservationists were asserting white privilege to save an offensive painting.
Those who wanted to save it held that erasing the mural is no better than book-burning censorship.
San Francisco was split in two, with opposing sides facing off over which progressive value mattered more: free speech or racial justice.
The city’s school board chose the latter, voting last week to paint over the mural, which features slavery and white settlers stepping over a dead American Indian, calling it a form of reparation for historic racial injustices against African Americans and Native Americans.
But the debate is far from over. Mural supporters have threatened to sue. The school board’s vote left open the option of covering the art with panels rather than painting over it if jumping over the legal hurdles to destroy it takes too long.
Still, the decision reverberated across the city and around the country, stirring intense emotion and debate at a time of national reflection over race and reparations for historic atrocities as well as what to do with public displays that reflect that ugly past.
“I understand the position where people believe you should leave the murals and the monuments up so we don’t forget,” said James Taylor, University of San Francisco politics professor. “The problem is on a daily basis, unless that’s contextualized, it causes injury to young people and to their families and to the staff.”
Does intent matter?
As the school board mulled the fate of the mural, Gov. Newsom this month apologized for the “systemic slaughter” of Native Americans in the past and signed an executive order issuing an apology.
And in September, San Francisco officials removed from Civic Center Plaza the 2,000-pound, bronze “Early Days” statue of a Native American at the feet of a Catholic missionary.
Norm Mattox embraces Amy Anderson, a Washington High parent, after the school board voted to remove or cover the controversial mural.
Photo: Josie Norris / The Chronicle
The question of what to do with the Depression-era mural has been arguably more complicated, with the fresco’s origins and the artist’s intent far removed from the glorification of the Confederate South or Manifest Destiny.
The 1936 fresco, painted on wet plaster, is the work of Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, and part of the Works Progress Administration public art program under President Roosevelt’s New Deal employment projects. The 1,600-square-foot “Life of Washington” mural features multiple panels with scenes from the life of the first president.
Arnautoff was a known Communist and mentored by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. At the time, his school mural was considered something of a subversive work, illustrating Washington’s connections to slavery and slaughter.
“This mural was meant to correct the whitewashed — in both senses of the word — textbooks of the time that remained whitewashed until recent times,” said Leslie Correll, a 1961 Washington High graduate who knew Arnautoff through her artist father.
That said, the students need to be heard, Correll said.
“My first thought is the tragedy that the students’ feelings were not addressed long ago,” she said, adding that should be a priority regardless of the mural’s fate. “This is my big issue because the people who want to save the mural and the people who are offended by the mural should be on the same side.”
Yet compromise suggestions — like covering the mural with curtain or panels — were discarded as unacceptable by those on both sides prior to the vote.
The decision to paint over or cover the historic mural reverberated at a time of national reflection over racial injustice.
Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
Censorship charges leveled
Much of the debate centered on whether covering or destroying the mural amounts to censorship — a hot-button word that harks back to Harry Potter or Huckleberry Finn book bans, as well as Nazis burning Picasso paintings or Taliban soldiers blowing up sixth-century Buddhas.
In the U.S., censorship is often associated with the conservative right raising concerns over sexual content, offensive language or perceived attacks on social norms. But as the mural debate illustrates, censorship isn’t tied to a particular ideology, said Nora Pelizzari, of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
“Especially right now, censorship is an equal opportunity idea,” she said, adding destroying the mural is unequivocally censorship.
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