By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) plan to cover the controversial “Life of George Washington” murals at his namesake high school in the Richmond District was derailed after a judge ruled that the way the district went about it violated state law.
Essentially, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lays out the rules for substantial changes to public buildings, including murals. It is a process the school board was supposed to follow first before making any decisions. Instead the board did the opposite, the court ruled.
“The Board and SFUSD failed in their primary duty to follow the requirements of the law,” wrote Judge Anne-Christine Massullo of the San Francisco Superior Court. “California, as a matter of long-standing public policy, places enormous value on its environmental and historical resources and the people are entitled to expect public officials to give more than lip-service to the laws designed to protect those resources.
“The Board is ordered to set aside all actions and approvals relating to destroying or removing the murals from public view. Specifically, the Board is ordered to withdraw and vacate the Aug. 13, 2019 and June 25, 2019 resolutions, which the Court declares to have been passed in violation of CEQA.”
In 2019, with a 4-3 vote, the Board backed off from a previous unanimous vote to cover more than a dozen fresco murals in the lobby area of the high school with paint, which would have permanently destroyed the artwork, opting instead to preserve them but cover them over with some kind of solid material.
The artwork is controversial because it includes images of Afro-American slaves that Washington owned and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation warrior, with the president standing off to the side and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 85-year-old murals say these images are not appropriate for a high school because they traumatize some students.
Artist Victor Arnautoff painted the series when the building was completed 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 this school.
A Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, Arnautoff practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
Those on the Reflections and Action Committee calling for the destruction of the murals, however, said the artwork does not represent SFUSD values and that the depictions in the mural “glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy and oppression.”
But in the court decision, Massullo agreed with the George Washington High School Alumni Association (the petitioner which brought the lawsuit) that the method for recruiting this committee was skewed to get a certain outcome.
“Petitioner contends that the committee that was formed was deliberately small and slanted to secure one outcome: removal of the murals. The record contains substantial evidence to support petitioner’s challenge,” Massullo concluded. “First, the PowerPoint presentation by SFUSD at the Feb. 28, 2019 public committee meeting expressly stated that ‘the group is deliberately small, and is composed deliberately to represent key perspectives and avoid further marginalization.’
“One of the objectives for the Feb. 28, 2019 meeting was to ‘learn and reflect … on contemporary issues related to Native American student experiences … the experiences of many students of color, including historical trauma, erasure and cultural appropriation, institutional racism, micro aggression and lateral oppression,’” Massullo wrote.
“The PowerPoint also stated that one of the ‘outcomes’ for the Committee was to ‘consider a variety of perspectives related to the mural images … including, critically, the perspectives of student and community members whose cultural history is represented in the mural,’” she continued.
“These public statements, despite their intention to avoid further marginalization, are admissions that respondents selected member for the committee who overwhelmingly shared the objectives of the PAC: to remove the murals,” Massullo said.
By August of 2019, when the board made its final decision, the CEQA process had not been completed or even started.
“The wording of the Aug. 13, 2019 resolution could not be clearer: ‘NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Board authorizes staff to develop a project, assessing a range of alternatives for the purposes of CEQA review that removed from public view the Arnautoff Mural at George Washington High School using solid panels or reasonably similar equivalent material, means or methods,’” Massullo said.
“(The SFUSD) argue that the Aug. 13, 2019 resolution merely demonstrates that they ‘directed staff’ to develop a project for purposes of CEQA review to remove the mural from public view based on what is learned during the CEQA process.
“If the Court only looked at the wording of the Aug. 13, 2019 resolution and no further, respondents’ argument may be persuasive,” Massullo elaborated. “But the analysis does not begin with this one resolution. If that were the case, every arbitrary pre-commitment challenge would simply depend on whether the agency added the phrase ‘for purposes of CEQA review’ to save the day. Instead the court must consider the totality of the circumstances.”
The judge also took into account the events of 1968, in which a group of Black students demanded some of the murals be removed, but instead a compromise was reached for artist Dewey Crumpler to paint alternative murals.
“The history of the murals and the impact of their content predate CEQA,” Massullo observed. “In 1968, school administrators and Board members worked with student leaders of the GWHS Black Students Union, the director of art, and the assistant principal of GWHS, in response to a controversy over the murals. All agreed that a supplemental mural would be planned and artist, Dewey Crumpler, was retained to paint murals that depicted the cultural experiences of Blacks, Asians, Chicanos, and Native Americans in a positive light.
“Dewey Crumpler, the artist who painted the Multi-Ethnic Heritage murals in the 1960s, was not invited to be on the Committee,” Massullo said. “In a June 10, 2019 letter to the Board, Dewey Crumpler stated that when he accepted the commission to paint the Multi-Ethnic Heritage murals, he did so on the express agreement that neither one of the murals – Arnautoff’s or his – would ever be censored or destroyed,”
A spokesperson for the SFUSD, Laura Dudnick, said the district is still reviewing the order and had no comment.
Lope Yap. Jr., vice president of the school’s alumni association. was pleased with the decision.
“The Association is thrilled that the court has ordered the School Board to apply the protections of state law to protect the Arnautoff murals from arbitrary and capricious actions,” Yap said.
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