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Re-vote allows SF to remove racist statue, overturning prior decision

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San Francisco’s Board of Appeals voted to allow The City to remove the “Early Days” statue due to its racist depiction of Native Americans. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s Board of Appeals reversed its prior decision Wednesday and allowed The City to remove a statue considered racist toward indigenous people.

The 1894 Early Days statue depicts a Native American cowering on the ground before a mission padre and a vaquero, who tower over him, which the Arts Commission says depicts Native Americans in ways that “are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading and racist.”

The commission was on its way to remove the statue, when to the surprise of many, the board blocked the removal in April by upholding an appeal filed by Petaluma attorney Frear Stephen Schmid.

The decision was blasted by high-ranking city officials and the board voted in June to rehear the matter on Wednesday.

Some supporters of its removal held signs that read: “End Manifest Injustice.”

“My people are up here crying their hearts out and speaking their minds of things that matter,” said Bernadette Smith, a Native American. “I am glad we are here today in solidarity … so that we can remove it as one people.”

The Early Days statue is next to the Main Public Library in the Civic Center part of a larger Pioneer Monument, which would remain.

While the statue has had critics for decades, it was only after last year’s protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee that city officials advanced plans to remove it.

Supervisor Vallie Brown, who is part Native American, recalled a five-year effort in the 1990s to remove the statue and said she would like The City to “take it and bury it somewhere deep in the basement where I don’t have to see it and no one has to see it.”

“We are always on the forefront of things that are racist or biased,” Brown said. “I can’t even believe we are having this discussion when all over the country, they are taking down these kind of racist statues.”

Schmid argued that the statue’s removal violated historic preservation laws and state law protecting fine art. “I don’t care if a hundred million people show up here this evening and say tear down that statue. The law is it stays here.”

He added, “This is the act of tyrannical people to destroy art.”

But city officials supporting its removal said the work isn’t covered by the state fine art law, which expires 50 years after the artist’s death, and the historic question is whether its removal would impact the Civic Center historic district, a 15-block area.

Rick Swig, vice president of the Board of Appeals, said the commission made a “better” case the second time, and decided it was not against the law to remove the statue because the “one artistic element” does not impact the integrity of the larger historic district.

The board unanimously voted to reject the appeal. The commission plans to remove the statue and safely store it.

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