By Thomas K. Pendergast
The writing is on the wall for the controversial murals on the life of President George Washington at his namesake high school now that the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has voted to cover them over.
The only question left is whether they will be covered with paint or with solid panels.
One option before the SFUSD’s Board of Education was to cover the mural with a curtain, which will cost around $375,000.
Another option is to cover them with solid acoustic panels, at a cost of somewhere between $645,000 and $825,000.
The third option is to paint over them, at an initial estimated cost starting at $600,000. According to district staff, the painting option is likely to cost more than that. It is also estimated that the painting project might take up to three years to complete, because painting over them would make an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) necessary, plus additional legal steps might be unavoidable.
Plus, as reported in the San Francisco Examiner, the federal government might have a say in the matter because the 13 frescos which comprise “The Life of Washington” mural by the artist Victor Arnautoff were created through the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project. According to the Examiner, a letter sent in April to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews from the chief architect of the federal General Services Administration’s (GSA) Jennifer Gibson, stated that they were researching whether or not the murals are federal property.
The artwork depicting the life of the first U.S. president is controversial because it includes images of Afro-American slaves that he owned and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation (Native American) warrior, with President Washington standing off to the left and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 83-year-old murals say these images do not belong in a high school because they may traumatize some students.
At a special meeting of the SFUSD Board of Education on June 18, Commissioner Gabriela Lopez made her position clear.
“I think I need to start by saying how exhausting it’s been hearing the months of argument rooted in white supremacy culture,” Lopez said. “I’m a teacher for social justice and I don’t shy away from teaching history and the racist past and present of this country but I don’t brandish it all over my classroom.
“This is not about destroying history or erasing it. This is about glorifying a history that destroyed a race of people. To see this much pushback … to keep something that is hurting the youth every day, who don’t have a choice in this, on a public site … protecting property over people is white supremacy culture, bottom line.” she said.
Commissioner Alison Collins agreed with Lopez and expanded on that view.
“As a black woman … constantly seeing your history portrayed in a negative way is emotionally draining to say the least,” Collins said. “I know my history as a black person and I think most black people do. It’s kind of in your face all the time. As a Native American it’s also in your face all the time, so when people say it’s really important to remember history my question is, ‘who needs to remember it? Who needs reminding?’ I don’t need reminding.”
During public comment at that meeting, however, Andrea Morell, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, spoke against removing the murals.
“There’s a trend today among liberals, and even some who claim to be socialists, of attacks on freedom of speech, of attacks on freedom of assembly and freedom of artistic expression,” Morrell said. “The attempt to destroy the mural at Washington High School is part of this destructive trend, in this case, in the name of shielding Native American and African American youth from harm.
“Defacing this mural, and similar acts, have nothing to do with the fight to eradicate exploitation and racial oppression. Instead, they undermine the fight. Battles for social and economic justice need to be waged in this country,” she said. “We need the most robust freedom of ideas to discuss and debate what will be effective and what will not. We cannot allow it to become a norm that some of us can decide for all of us which ideas, whether (in) words or images, are acceptable and which have to be suppressed.”
The district’s program coordinator for the Indian Education Program, however, views the word “censorship” from a different angle.
“You say it’s censorship,” Paloma Flores said. “What about censorship when you dig up our belongings and you sell it to the highest bidder?
“No one has the right to tell us, as native people, or our young people who walk those halls, how to feel,” she said. “You’re not in their shoes. You don’t feel what they feel unless you’re living it.”
“I don’t have to read in books about the insult of this history,” Mary Travis-Allen said during public comment. “I’ve lived that insult. Why must we always struggle to have to explain why we are offended by those things that inflict injury on us?”
In the end, however, practical considerations like time and money had as much to do with the decision as anything else.
The district’s chief of facilities, Dawn Kamalanathan, said staff was recommending that they cover them with panels because it would be the quickest solution. Painting them over, she explained, would by law require hiring consultants and doing an EIR, they must also allow for public comment on the report and respond, plus there is an appeals process available to the public.
“It’s a complex process. I’ve done a few of them,” Kamalanathan said. “And I’ve never been able to complete an EIR in less than a year. And that’s just to get the report ready for public consumption.”
Chief general counsel for the SFUSD, Danielle Houck, backed Kamalanathan up on this point.
“The option of painting over the mural will necessarily take much longer than the other options and we understood part of the direction from the board, and from the superintendent, was to look for a more expeditious resolution so that our children were not continuing to walk past these murals and view them every day,” Houck said.
Kalamanathan added that the option of solid panels would only require a “negative declaration,” a much faster process.
Board President Stevon Cook then asked Kalamanathan where the money will come from. She said that a funding source has not been determined yet.
“If we move to paint over it, it will take longer, it will cost more and there’s not an identified source to cover something that’s already going to be incredibly expensive,” Cook said. “That’s what’s pulling me in this other direction of not trying to do something that’s going to produce an unnecessary price tag when the objective of covering the mural would be accomplished with the recommendation that we have from the staff,” Cook said.
Board Vice President Mark Sanchez moved to amend the motion by prioritizing the painting option but having the panels available as a backup plan if the paint plan proved too time consuming. Either way, he noted, they are both expensive.
“It’s not an undue term to use right now, that this is ‘reparations.’ Basically, we can do our small part, after offending not just one culture but many cultures for 70 years, with this set of murals,” Sanchez said. “It’s about time that we stood up and paid for everything, and this is one way that we can do it. So, the cost factor is not insurmountable and we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Sanchez was asked what he thought would be too much time to spend on the paint-over approach. He said three years.
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