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San Francisco Can Shutter Controversial Statue

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 20, 2019

A California judge refused to intervene in San Francisco's decision to remove a controversial statue from the public square last year.

The "Early Days" statue depicts a Native American on his back, seemingly subdued by a triumphant vaquero standing next to a Catholic priest. It had been on public display for 124 years, but Native Americans and others called it racist and demanded the city remove it.

City officials complied, but two plaintiffs sued to reverse that decision. For now, however, the old statue is history.

Statue is History

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the decision to remove the statue was "motivated by prejudice against people of European heritage and culture." They alleged the city's arts commission wasted public resources by removing the art solely because "it was racist and painful to Native Americans and those who shared the interpretation of it being racist and that its existence represented white supremacy."

Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee said the San Francisco Arts Commission has the right to remove public art following “‘significant adverse public reaction over an extended period of time." Activists had complained about the statue for decades.

"Accordingly the SFAC had discretion to remove the statue based on racism and the Court may not interfere with its decision," the judge said.

Tom DeCaigny, the city's cultural affairs director and a defendant in the lawsuit, said the "decision affirms the Arts Commission's authority to remove racist imagery from the public realm."

'Early Days' Are Gone

Attorney Frear Stephen Schmid, who represented himself in the case, may appeal. In the meantime, American Indians are trying to put the past behind them.

Kevin Grover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, said the end of "Early Days" came at a "tipping point for the politics of Native American memory." He said it's part of a movement by marginalized people pushing back against the history of their oppressors.

"There remains a lot of work to be done," he told the Smithsonian. "But there have been successes in challenging depictions that make us all look the same and render us imaginary."

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