By Thomas K. Pendergast
The latest round in the fight over the George Washington High School murals took place on July 9, when a small group that want them painted over crashed a meeting of mural supporters and chaos ensued.
A panel of the murals’ supporters gathered at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 34 Hall to announce the formation of a new political action committee and to talk about the options still available to them. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Board of Education voted unanimously last month to cover 13 murals at the high school that depict the life of U.S. President George Washington.
The artwork 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 traumatize some students.
Artist Victor Arnautoff painted the series of frescos in 1936, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era. The project was funded through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created many public schools and libraries throughout San Francisco and the nation, including building the Richmond District high school at the center of a national news story because of the controversial murals.
Arnautoff was a Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Because of his political beliefs, Arnautoff’s practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
Harvey Smith of Living New Deal, an organization that documents and promotes art from the New Deal era, told the audience at the ILWU hall that this gathering was not meant to be a debate but a forum to “sum up where we go” after the board’s decision.
“The New Deal was characterized by taking care of the 99 percent, not the one percent,” Smith said. “There was an ideological basis for the New Deal and what it produced. What is the ideological basis for those who wish to destroy a New Deal artwork; particularly one that they have grossly mischaracterized?
“The school board wants to spend roughly three-quarters of a million dollars on destroying artwork, while we’re still lacking textbooks that tell true history,” he said. “Those who advocate destruction of the murals do not seem to have a constructive program in mind, merely a symbolic gesture that has even been referred to as ‘reparations.’ This is identity politics gone off the rails.”
Robert Cherny, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University and the author of a 2017 book on the artist, titled “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,” talked about the painter and his murals.
“In his art he called himself a ‘social realist.’ He also said that the artist must be a critic of his society. Arnautoff, as a social realist, thought that he should be realistic, showing people rather than abstract imagery, but he also had an obligation to be a critic of society,” Cherny said.
Cherny then gave a slide show presentation explaining each of the 13 murals and what the artist was trying to convey with them. When he got to the panel of Washington on Mt. Vernon with the Afro-American slaves he owned, a woman who had been passing out flyers earlier in support of covering up the murals interrupted him.
“Why do you think it’s important to remind African-American children that they’re slaves every day?,” asked Julie Roberts-Phung of the organization Showing Up For Racial Justice.
Several people in the audience shushed her or told her not to interrupt Cherny. He continued with his presentation but Roberts-Phung raised her voice and kept going, so more people in the audience told her to be quiet.
Then she claimed black and native youths were not invited to this meeting, even as more people raised their voices and told her she was disrupting and to stop. She kept repeating herself and getting louder.
She used the word ‘racist’ and the crowd began telling her to leave and started booing her.
“You are being disrespectful, stop disrupting!” someone shouted at her. Many were clapping and someone else shouted “Out the door!” Roberts-Phung kept talking, although by this point she was being drowned out by people shouting “Go away! Go! Go!”
Then many in the audience began chanting in unison, pointing their fingers at her and yelling “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” over and over.
Roberts-Phung jumped up on a small stage behind the panelists and she kept talking but with little effect. When she moved back down onto the floor, another woman from the audience got in her face and started yelling at her, while one of Roberts-Phung’s friends started screaming back at them.
Another woman told her she would have to wait her turn to speak and yet another woman said she could stay if she would do that. That’s when Gerald Smith of the Oscar Grant Committee took the microphone and addressed everyone over the loudspeakers.
“We actually don’t want you to go out,” Smith said. “We want them to raise their hands and participate. But understand this. If your ideas are unworthy, if they can’t be defended through a rational discussion you have to disrupt. The point is they don’t have a rational argument. That is their argument, to disrupt…. We don’t want them to leave. We let them hand their leaflet out. We did.”
“So just understand, for those who might be weak and not understand what happened here,” he said. “They came to disrupt.”
A few moments later another woman who supports covering the murals began yelling about her daughter going to the high school. Several men started shouting “Out! Out! Out!” and she responded by screaming “Genocide! Genocide! Genocide!” repeatedly, as a burly man blocked her off from the crowd, with his arms extended, attempting to herd her out the door.
At that point the whole scene dissolved into chaos with shouting, yelling and screaming. Someone suggested calling the police.
“Get the hell out! You are not wanted here!” one man yelled. “Out! Out! Out!”
The screaming woman said, “You don’t know my daughter! You’re a white supremacist! You’re a liar!”
“Look, nobody wants you here!,” the man responded. “Get the hell out!”
Eventually, all the protesters except Roberts-Phung went outside, to the applause of many in the audience.
Later, after everything calmed down, Robert Tamaka Bailey, a First Nation member of the Oklahoma Choctaw tribe, got up and spoke.
“It’s hard for me to speak after what I just saw,” Bailey said. “These are my relatives. I know where they’re coming from. I know where that hatred comes from.
“When I get angry, it’s because I think of the stories that my mom told me of when she took a beating for speaking her language in the boarding schools,” he said. “This is why I don’t want those murals down.”
Bailey referred to what the SFUSD President Stevon Cook had talked about during a recent school board meeting. Cook said that on a visit to New Orleans he had toured an old plantation with slave quarters that had been preserved and it brought home to him the injustices of the past.
“That’s where I stand with these murals,” said Bailey. “They’re showing the fact that George Washington and others were genociding our people. If you take those murals down what have we got; just our speaking? That’s not going to work…. If somebody tore down those places where they stored those slaves (Cook) wouldn’t have had that emotional feeling.
“Yes, we are angry but if we did not have these visual history pieces out there, how are we going to say ‘it happened’ when they turn around and say ‘Oh, that didn’t happen’?” he said.
“But we can’t let that anger turn into hate and try to make decisions being hateful. That’s not going to get us anywhere,” Bailey said.
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