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Barred from Viewing Controversial SF Murals

Sometimes San Francisco really sucks. It sucked one cold, foggy day last week when I tried to get into George Washington High School to see the controversial murals painted in the 1930s, under the aegis of the New Deal, by a commie named Victor Arnautoff. The friendly Samoan security guard told me “No Way. No entrance.” When I asked him what he thought of the murals he told me, “It's history. History sucks. You can’t cover it up.” Those are my sentiments, exactly.

History doesn’t always offer pretty pictures. You can't cover them up, though some San Franciscans want to do just that. They want to paint over the past and hide what’s real. Critics of the murals say that they “traumatize” young people because they depict a dead Indian and enslaved African-Americans. My San Francisco pals say, “Life traumatizes young people.” One pal, an ex-school teacher, told me about a former student of his who was raped and shot on a street in Oakland. “That’s real trauma,” he said. “Stuff like that happens almost everyday.”

The real school problem in the city isn’t the murals, but the fact that public education in San Francisco is in many ways a travesty of real learning. One member of my family, who was for years a school principal, and who still works for the SF school district, told me that some schools are in such horrible shape that they ought to be closed down, or else thoroughly repaired. She also said that inexperienced and under-qualified teachers are often sent to schools where the majority of the students are brown and black. White kids get the experienced, qualified instructors.

What’s more, the public school system doesn’t have a social studies text for kids because the authorities can’t agree on what ought to be in the text. Those are some of the real issues in San Francisco, not Arnautoff’s murals.

On the day I went to George Washington and was barred from entering, a longtime official of the teachers’ union joined me. He told me that the union has not taken a stand on the murals because the membership is divided down the middle. He also said that some union members would like to throw paint on the controversial murals. Joe Hill must be turning in his grave, along with Harry Bridges and Victor Arnautoff.

San Francisco has a reputation as a city that welcomes and endorses freedom of expression. Citizens point to the murals in Coit Tower and to the many murals on walls in the Mission and other neighborhoods. True enough, artists are encouraged to express themselves. But San Francisco also has a long and dishonorable history of censorship and intolerance. City Light’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and put on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” For a time, Coit Tower was closed down; the public couldn’t see the murals because, in the words of a banker, they “might be interpreted as communistic propaganda.”

After public pressure, Coit Tower was reopened and the public allowed inside, but not before an image of a banner that read “Western Worker,” and another image of a hammer and sickle, associated with communism, was removed. The Coit Tower muralists protested the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center because it included an image of Lenin. One can understand why Rockefeller’s gang wouldn't want Lenin staring them in the face, but the decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to destroy the images at George Washington is incomprehensible, immoral and reactionary. 

It’s true that the school board changed its mind. The murals won’t be destroyed. Still, the offensive images will be covered-up. Kids won’t be traumatized by art. Just by the violence and the obscenity of life in the Bay Area.

Public art has never been widely accepted in San Francisco. It still isn’t. And that sucks. The only reasonable thing to do is to go on defending freedom of expression and to go on making art, whether it’s controversial or not.


  1. izzy September 4, 2019

    Deconstruction of the ‘Shining City Upon The Hill’ has jumped into overdrive, even before actual construction was complete. And the road ahead is a mess.

  2. Pat Kittle September 4, 2019

    The White Replacement agenda requires mocking & condemning everything associated with Evil Whitey — before casting it into the Memory Hole.

    Meanwhile, it’s absolutely essential to condemn & mock any resistance to the agenda.

  3. Terence A. Redmond September 5, 2019

    The dark chapters in US history must be taught to our children in order that they not repeat them. To date, the SF School Board has not identified one student who met with a school counselor to complain of “trauma” as a result of passing by the murals. Please note for those who are not allowed in the school that the murals are at one entrance to the school. Students do NOT pass them daily to get to class or to enter the school. There are multiple entrances to the school and a student’s schedule could easily allow that the student would never see the murals because of their location. I graduated from Washington in the 1960’s when the school was far more integrated than it is today. I knew of no one who was “traumatized” by the murals. And among my friends were a Native American with whom I grew up from grade school through high school and whose younger brother is leading the opposition to the defacement of the murals and many blacks. Today, just 4.5% of the studentbody is black and .2% is Native American. The school board refused to meet with any representatives of the 6,000+ alumni association before it made its bookburning decision. Moreover, most of the board members had not seen the murals in person before voting to whitewash them. As the author said, the decision to destroy the art and hide history is “incomprehensible, immoral and reactionary”. It is also cowardly.

  4. Jonah Raskin Post author | September 5, 2019

    Thanks greatly. You have expanded my body of information. I am truly appreciative.

  5. Rick Hauptman September 6, 2019

    I really want to see the Mural. How do we do that? Ask the School Board, the Principal, the School Superintendent? What is the process?

  6. Jonah Raskin Post author | September 6, 2019

    That is a good question Rick. I have not yet succeeded in getting in though I have tried.The security guard on duty when I tried to get in suggested that I email newsline@sfusd
    You could try that and see what happens.

  7. Marilyn Davin September 6, 2019

    Thanks for writing this, a subject near and dear to my heart. Kids can take the truth, and will be better off and respect their elders for speaking it and showing it in their art. What they cannot abide, and what sets them up for adulthood cynicism, is hypocrisy. To destroy and whitewash the past, including its art in all its forms, so obviously flies in the face of the daily direct and indirect deaths the United States perpetrates and promotes around the world, all in non-Caucasian countries, and sets kids up for the contempt they will feel, for both us and their country, when they grow up.

    • Pat Kittle September 6, 2019

      Western countries are controlled by their Israel lobbies — which is why we continue to fight criminal wars in the service of the Israeli Empire.

      Meanwhile, Jewish groups (SPLC, ADL, ACLU, HIAS, etc. ad nauseum) sanctimoniously demand that Western countries welcome literally everyone on Earth — even as Israel builds truly monstrous border walls & Israeli Jews throw violent anti-Black race riots as they routinely steal ever more Arab lands.

      Yes, we know, simply stating these FACTS (!) makes us “anti-Semitic.”

      Far more historical truth is yet to be revealed…

  8. Jonah Raskin Post author | September 6, 2019

    Absolutely right, Marilyn. You hit the nail on the head. Kids seem to recognize hypocrisy instinctively. Donald Trump isn’t helping matters, nor all the little Trumps everywhere. It always feels good to me to leave the U.S. and get out of the bubble and be in another culture with different ways of seeing the world.

  9. Darryl Sapien September 6, 2019

    The mural’s critics are so consumed with their own righteousness that it’s made them blind to seeing the mural objectively. If you can’t see what’s in front of you you’ll never be able to look at yourself and know who you are. Censorship is never the proper response to a controversial issue, at least in a democracy. The school board ought to be teaching civics, instead they’re teaching kids to hate art.

  10. Jonah Raskin Post author | September 6, 2019

    Absolutely right on the mural’s critics and that what they are teaching is to hate art and probably also to be in fear of censorship.

  11. Betsy Franklin September 6, 2019

    I take heart that the next generation of students will uncover the mural, face our dark history, feel proud that they survived, and vow that it will never happen again.

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