A group in favor of preserving the George Washington High School murals demonstrates outside San Francisco Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday.

School board votes to cover controversial mural rather than paint over it

Board faced intense political backlash, threat of a ballot measure and lawsuit

A mural at the center of a national debate over the value of preserving public art memorializing historical oppression will remain intact but covered from the view of students at George Washington High School, the San Francisco School Board decided with a 4-3 vote on Tuesday.

In June, the board unanimously voted to paint over the mural to address the concerns of black and brown students, their families and some teachers at the school who found the 1936 mural, which depicts slavery and genocide, offensive and traumatizing.

That decision, however, elicited an intense backlash from arts preservationists and members of the high school’s alumni association — who have likened the move to censorship and even threatened to place the issue before San Francisco voters by way of a ballot measure next year. The mural itself, supporters note, was intended by the artist as a critique of the dark side of American history and not a glorification of it.

The resolution the board voted on Tuesday — a compromise proposed Friday by Board President Stevon Cook — instead calls on San Francisco Unified School District staff to assess “a range of alternatives” while developing a project that removes the mural from public view “using solid panels or reasonably similar equivalent material, means or methods.”

The resolution passed, with commissioners Gabriela Lopez, Alison Collins and Mark Sanchez voting against it.

“I don’t get why people are standing up for this. There are black and brown boys dying. People are making noise about this [mural] and I’m confused — is this a smoke screen?” said Commissioner Faauuga Moliga, who initially voted to paint over the mural but on Tuesday said that he wanted to throw his weight behind more pressing issues affecting the district.

“I’m here today because I have had to choose my battles, as much as it breaks my heart to go the route I need to go — tonight I need to support the recommendation put out by the district,” he said.

District staff had initially recommended the board move to cover the mural, but board members amended that proposal this summer to instead paint over it completely.

The cost of painting over the mural was estimated at about $600,000, due in part to the expected expense of conducting a legally required environmental impact report. The cost of covering it with panels or textile was estimated at between $375,000 and $825,000. Funding would likely come from the district’s deferred maintenance program or general obligation bond program.

An amendment in the initial vote left room for the board to reverse course and physically cover the mural in another fashion should painting over it “result in an undue delay.” On Tuesday, the board determined that would be the case.

The process of covering the mural with panels will still have to undergo a mandated environmental review, as prescribed by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Minutes before the board’s vote, Commissioner Alison Collins introduced an amendment to the resolution that would have allowed the district to explore removing the entire wall that holds the controversial panels of the fresco mural called “Life of Washington,” which among other things show slaves shucking corn and colonists towering over a dead Native American. Other panels of the mural show indigenous people with scalps attached to their waists.

The amendment failed to gain enough support among the board members. Cook indicated prior to the hearing that removing a wall within the school could cost as much as $5 million.

Collins said that the debate over the mural “may seem like a frivolous issue but this is an example of the fight we have ahead of us if we really want to remove structural racism and white supremacy from our educational system,” and stood firm behind her belief that the mural should be removed from the school.

Earlier this year, the district convened an 11-member community advisory committee to address “longstanding public concerns over objectionable content depicted in the 13-panel mural, which was commissioned by the U. S. Government in under a New Deal era art program.

Protests over the mural’s contents date back at least 50 years, and in the 1960s inspired a series of response murals within the school highlighting the achievements of black and brown communities.

Victor Arnautoff, the Russian artist behind the mural, painted using the fresco technique, a method done on wet plaster that makes the image an “integral part of the wall it was painted on,” the district said. The committee supported permanently removing the “offensive content of the mural” by painting over it.

Supporters of the effort to paint down the mural on Tuesday condemned the board for backtracking on its unanimous decision to paint over it.

“We participated in good faith and believed there was honesty and integrity in your process. But here we are with the all too familiar feeling of broken promises,” said Mary Travis Allen, an indigenous elder. She reminded the board of its obligation to provide a “safe and healthy” learning environment for all students.

Students who spoke at past board hearings and again on Tuesday attested to feeling uncomfortable with the mural’s imagery.

“Over 2,000 students have to go to this school every day and should never have to hear, ‘I’ll meet you at the dead Indian.’ We deserve respect,” said George Washington High School junior Sharez Brown.

An advocate said the mural’s supporters have few ties to the school’s community, other than membership in its alumni association.

It is unclear whether the Coalition to Protect Public Art, which threatened to bring the issue to the March 2020 election, will drop efforts to pursue a ballot measure. The group’s executive director, Jon Golinger, indicated in a statement on Friday that the group continues to oppose putting up an impenetrable barrier that blocks anyone from seeing the murals.

“While it is certainly a step in the right direction to take destruction off the table we will continue to strongly oppose spending $825,000 to permanently wall off the murals so nobody ever has the choice to see them, debate them, or learn from them,” said Golinger in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner.

“In the coming days we will evaluate this decision, consider all political and legal options, and decide how best to proceed to ensure a wide range of options is considered to achieve a resolution that protects both students and public art,” he said.

In recent weeks, the campaign to preserve the mural has gained support from the local chapter of the NAACP and actor Danny Glover, who attended Washington High School. In a statement on Monday, Glover condemned the “horrors of human bondage and the mistreatment of native peoples,” and said the mural served as a reminder of the country’s unsavory past.

He also likened blocking the murals from view to “book burning.”

“To destroy them or block them from view would be akin to book burning. We would be missing the opportunity for enhanced historic introspection this moment has provided us,” Glover said.

Commissioner Gabriela Lopez, who on Tuesday voted against covering the mural with panels and pressed for it to be painted over, pointed out that the historical oppression showcased by the mural will continue as long as the voices of those most impacted by it on a daily basis are being silenced.

“The argument that students aren’t affected shows me that you’re not listening to students coming here demanding the mural’s removal for decades,” said Lopez. “The argument that this is the only way to teach about racism leads me to believe that you don’t understand education.”

Amy Anderson, the mother of a Native American student at the high school who three years ago revived conversations about how it was impacting students in the present day, told reporters after the vote that she is sympathetic to the board’s decision to shy away from painting over the mural, but would continue to push for its removal from the school.

“I understand that this mural issue has created so much attention that the superintendent and school board have not been able to get work done on major items that are very important and related to all students in our school district. I also understand that I am not going away,” said Andersen, adding that she has received threats due to her advocacy.

“My son and I have felt very outnumbered,” said Anderson. “This is not stopping for us. Were going to stay in it until we see that social justice is truly a core value and it is acted upon in our school district and that one day, the mural will be painted down.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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A group in favor of painting over the George Washington High School murals demonstrates outside SF Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A group in favor of painting over the George Washington High School murals demonstrates outside SF Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Stevon Cook, President of the SF Board of Education, speaks about the George Washington High School murals during a news conference at SF Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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