The wall murals at the Women’s Building on 18th Street reflect San Francisco’s diversity and the resilience of women across the world. (Courtesy photo)

A brief history of walls being used as political tools

On New Year’s Day, the southern state of Kerala in India experienced a never-before-seen phenomenon. Pledging and demanding gender equality, millions of women of all ages came together to form a 385-mile wall. Pictures of the event were electrifying. Kamala Thiagarajan, a reporter for NPR, quoting government estimates, said that “somewhere between 3.5 and 5 million women lined up on National Highway 66, a long stretch of road that runs along the country’s western coast.” It was a defining moment for the feminist movement in India. The protest was dubbed “Vanitha Mathil” or Women’s Wall.

The first few days of 2019 have reinforced the importance of walls as a device to divide, apportion, shelter, confine, reinforce, secure and repel.

The issue of a border wall is behind the partial government shutdown now in its third week. Demanding $5 billion in funding for his “beautiful” border wall, Trump has engineered a stalemate in Congress, with no sign of give on either side.

According to Republicans, building the wall is imperative, and a national issue which will effectively stop migrant workers from entering the United States without documentation. For Democrats, border security is a regional problem, not a national one. “What we don’t believe in is that the wall that the president proposes to build, which he said was going to be paid for by the Mexican government, we don’t believe that’s a very effective tool,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md in an interview on PBS News Hour.

Putting up a tall wall plays into anti-immigrant fears that President Trump has exploited cleverly. Trump supporters, animated by the idea of a concrete, physical fortification, have been donating generously via a GoFundMe page with the title “We the people will fund the wall,” raising over $19 million in 21 days from 323,557 people, at the time of this writing.

This is not the first time that walls have fired up populations in different ways.

Walls have been used as political tools at least from the time of Nehemiah. According to the Knowing Jesus site, there are 58 Bible verses about walls, and many of them built for deterrence.

The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, as a strategy to keep some out, and others in. The divisions, represented by the “iron curtain,” became psychologically embedded in German minds even after the wall was torn down in 1989. When I visited Berlin two years ago, the broken-down wall stood like scabs of a nation split apart and struggling to reunite.

The Great Wall of China was built along the country’s northern borders to keep invaders out, and history indicates that while the wall had some moderate success, it wasn’t foolproof, with nomadic tribes often finding their way in. The Manchu invasion imploded the myth of the Great Wall being an unbreachable deterrent to invaders.

In some cases, walls become platforms to advance ideology and creativity.

The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem was once the outer retaining wall of the holy Temple Mount. After the war of 1967, it evolved into a place of worship, where thousands come to worship and slip written prayers into the cracks of its edifice.

Here, in The City, on 18th street, midway between Valencia and Guerrero, the Women’s Building serves as a pretty spectacular canvas for artistic expression. The MaestraPeace Mural across two walls of the building’s façade resulted from the collaboration of seven leading muralists in 1994: Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez. The wall is a testimony to the times, a reflection of San Francisco’s diversity, leading edge artistry, and the resilience of women across the world. As I feasted my eyes on the artwork, dissecting each piece and reflecting on its significance, I experienced a sense of the mural’s soaring monumentality.

It seems to me that it’s not the actual wall, but what the wall signifies that situates how we feel about it. Too often, there is implicit power and prestige resting on one side of the wall and hopes and desires on the other side. Walls are reassuring to some and a roadblock to others. Walls divide the haves from the have nots. Walls identify places of refuge and entitlement, as well as places of deprivation and want. Walls restrict movement and to some degree, ideas. Walls also secure our private moments and delineate our private possessions.

The same President Trump who is determined to push ahead with constructing his border wall today, once tweeted in 2013, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges. Isaac Newton.”

He (and Newton) are both right.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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