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SF Board of Appeals to reconsider vote blocking removal of controversial ‘Early Days’ statue

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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)

After blocking the removal of what many call a racist statue, the Board of Appeals on Wednesday approved re-hearing the matter.

The re-hearing is yet to be scheduled and is a victory for a number of Native Americans and their advocates who have fought for decades to remove the “Early Days” statue in the Civic Center.

Many of those who supported the re-hearing request held up signs that read: “Tear down white supremacy.”

The statue, which dates back to 1894, depicts a Native American cowering on the ground before a mission padre and a vaquero, who tower over him. The Arts Commission, which wants to remove the statue, said in a memo that it depicts Native Americans in ways that “are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading, and racist.”

The Historic Preservation Commission had voted that its removal wouldn’t violate state or local preservation laws and would have allowed the Arts Commission to go ahead with its removal plans in short order. But then Petaluma attorney Frear Stephen Schmid successfully filed an appeal in April with the Board of Appeals to overturn the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision, blocking the statue’s removal.

The board’s decision was blasted by city officials, including Mayor Mark Farrell, who said he was “embarrassed” and called for “a resolution to remove this statue from the Pioneer Monument immediately.” He called the statue “a symbol of oppression that runs counter to the ideals and values that we champion in San Francisco.”

The Arts Commission requested the Board of Appeals grant a re-hearing, which was granted in a 4-0 vote Wednesday. Board of Appeals vice president Rick Swig was absent from the meeting.

Board of Appeals President Frank Fung said the board failed to take into consideration the the Arts Commission’s city charter authority around removal of public art and had received new information from the Historic Preservation Commission that warranted a re-hearing.

Board of Appeals commissioner Darryl Honda said when they voted to block the removal, “we got off track and we didn’t discuss the actual merits of the case.”

“The actual sculpture itself is not a landmarked object,” noted Tom DeCaigny, the Director of Cultural Affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission. “It is residing within the landmark district. The question would be whether it’s removal jeopardizes the historic resource district.”

Schmid argued the Board of Appeals got it right last time and there was no justification for a re-hearing. “There’s been no showing of any injustice here,” Schmid said. “I’m only here to see that the law is enforced.”

He added that “art should not be destroyed. Hiding it from the public is tantamount to destruction.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin had introduced a resolution calling for the re-hearing, which was passed by the Board of Suprevisors and signed by Farrell.

“It is really the role of the Board of Appeals to address and cure manifest injustice and I think the right thing is to grant a rehearing and lets get rid of this manifest injustice across the street from City Hall,” Peskin said when addressing the Board of Appeals Wednesday.

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