Art, politics, the “founding fathers” and what it will take to get beyond this world of oppression
Since the San Francisco School Board voted in February to destroy murals critical of George Washington on the grounds that its depictions of slavery and genocide of Native Americans are “traumatic” for students, this has become a huge controversy, covered in the national media. People opposed to the school board decision have mobilized and forced the board to take a step back. They now say they will just cover the murals rather than destroy them. Most recently, a number of prominent African-American leaders have spoken out against whitewashing the mural, including the actor and George Washington High School alumnus Danny Glover, who compared efforts to destroy the murals to book burning. Groups like Van Jones’ “Color of Change,” some parents, self-identified “white allies,” and others have mobilized to “paint it down,” and some have even attempted to shut down events in defense of the murals.
Because of how much this controversy concentrates in terms of whether or not people will confront reality and act to change it radically, the Revolution Club jumped into this wild mix with a sharp polemic, “Identity Politics Hustlers Sanitize ‘Life of George Washington’.” This elicited a number of thoughtful responses. On the basis of this polemic, Revolution Books in Berkeley put together an important group of people for a panel discussion:
Lope Yap Jr.—filmmaker and vice president of the George Washington High School Alumni Association. Author of the op-ed, “The San Francisco School Board is flunking history.”
Matt Gonzalez—Chief Attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. He previously served as president of the SF Board of Supervisors. Author of the article, “Don’t whitewash history: Historic murals depict uncomfortable truths about our nation’s past.”
Rafael Kadaris—Revolution Club member and author of the article, “Identity Politics Hustlers Sanitize ‘Life of George Washington’.”
Dewey Crumpler—Associate Professor of Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and artist who created the “response murals” at George Washington High School. See “Professor Dewey Crumpler defends GWHS murals.”
In the spirit of discussion and debate between ardent advocates of opposing views, we invited the SF School Board and some of the parents who’ve spoken out in support of painting over the mural—but none of the people representing that position stepped up to speak on the panel.
About 75 people—artists, professors, high school teachers, lawyers, labor organizers, GWHS alumni, Cal students, and others—packed into Revolution Books for the event. These were mostly people opposed to the destruction of mural.
Lope Yap spoke first, describing the political battle he’s waged against the school board’s decision. He talked about the importance of depicting the actual history of slavery and genocide, and the challenge of arguing against people who base themselves on emotional appeals rather than logic, history, and facts. He argued against treating these young adult students as if they are little kids, sheltering them from the world.
Matt Gonzalez argued against the paternalism embedded in the idea that looking at these murals is “traumatic,” emphasizing how traumatic the world is right now and how traumatic it is to have the current leadership in power. He spoke to the significance of telling, in the 1930s, the real story about Washington, and the great act of subversion it was for this to have been done by a communist, Victor Arnautoff.
Rafael Kadaris began by describing another mural, by the Mexican artist David Siqueiros, which was also whitewashed because the truth that it told was deemed to be too disturbing. Drawing from Bob Avakian’s book BAsics, he talked about the importance of confronting reality as it actually is—especially at this moment when white supremacist fascists are in power and fomenting a new civil war. He argued against identity politics and “safe spaces,” and why the whole way of thinking embodied in the campaign to destroy the murals is a big obstacle to making the revolution we need to get beyond this world of oppression. He denounced the role of these identity politics hustlers who have no problem with George Washington but have targeted murals that expose Washington’s crimes, condescendingly hiding reality from the youth in order to promote getting in on this system and the “American dream,” as opposed to getting rid of this system and acting to stop American crimes. Read the whole speech here.
Professor Dewey Crumpler talked about the evolution of his thinking about the Arnautoff murals. He described his initial anger upon first seeing those images when he came to George Washington High School for a football game in 11th grade, and the anger at that time of many Black students at the school, and how he came to be commissioned to do the response murals—which show Black, Latino, Native, and Asian people rising up against oppression—which he sees as being “in dialogue” with Arnautoff’s murals. He talked about the trip he took to Mexico to study mural art and how he came to appreciate Arnautoff’s murals—the influence Diego Rivera had on him, his use of metaphor, and the truth he told about George Washington. He talked about what a revelation it was that Washington owned slaves, because no history book told him that, and how this led him to become a student of history, to uncover what else had been “whitewashed” out of history. He spoke powerfully about the importance of truth, the role of art in getting at truth, and why it is necessary to confront “trauma” because “we are living in trauma right now.”
The discussion afterwards was lively! Someone asked Crumpler to talk more about the content of his response murals. A high school teacher from Oakland talked about the hypocrisy of the school board complaining about students being “traumatized” by murals while doing nothing to address the real trauma that students are facing. A high school art teacher from San Francisco talked about the lack of arts education in the schools, that students are not taught to interpret art, that we are turning out people who don’t know how to figure things out and think critically, who only know how to think literally and have everything prepackaged.
A Choctaw Native American storyteller spoke powerfully about the importance of these murals documenting, providing “our visual evidence,” that the genocide happened. He said that the imagery in the murals makes him angry, just like the anger he felt when his mother told him about being beaten for speaking her language, an anger that drives him to fight to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Some of the panelists and people in the audience expressed shock at the level of vitriol being spewed by the people who want the murals destroyed, labeling people who are opposing them as “colonized” and using unprincipled methods to railroad through the decision to destroy the artwork. People have attempted to shut down discussion of other panels using tactics that one would use with your enemy and not among people who are broadly all on the side of opposing white supremacy. People were trying to sort out why this is happening.
Toni from The Bob Avakian Institute raised that part of the role of art throughout history has been to chronicle the past in anticipation of the future—what happens if the stories depicted of the actual history of this country are not told, and who it will serve if these things are whited out and destroyed. She put the mural controversy in the context of what is going on in the world, and that it is not a good situation for people to be aiming their fire at art that is doing a great service, while allowing monuments to slavery to hide in plain sight.
She went into what the Revolution Tour has been doing in Los Angeles and Chicago—including taking on broader trends, especially among the middle class, to turn away from the reality of what the Trump/Pence regime is doing to the planet right now, to turn inward and become more obsessed with safety and order, rather than taking the great risks needed to stop what is happening. There have been decades of training people in the universities in the outlook of identity politics, reformism, and individualism, which has resulted in the paralysis and complicity of huge sections of people more worried about ME than what is happening to humanity.
After the event, a Cal freshman from the Netherlands said that the main thing he got from the event was that too many people are retreating into “safe spaces” in the face of fascism. An African-American freshman said he was so excited to discover Revolution Books because he stayed up till four in the morning the night before arguing with a friend about James Baldwin and reform or revolution, and this event related to everything they were talking about but took it in a new direction. An artist said that Rafael Kadaris’ speech helped her understand what’s behind identity politics and how it is driving these people to oppose the mural.
This was a very important conversation that began to open up channels of inquiry that break through the fog, and that need to continue especially on the campuses this fall. We need a generation of students who start pulling back the curtain on this kind of fraud, calling it out and leaving it behind, and saying we want to change the whole world!
Video of the “Life of George Washington Mural” Panel Discussion at Revolution Books Berkeley, 8-22-19
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