Public Meetings that Matter

As my students saw firsthand last fall, what happens at public meetings—where members of a city council, school board or other governing body vote on constituent matters—can result in important actions. I learned about the public clamor over the Pioneer Monument in August, just a few days before the fall semester began. After discussing the grassroots activism in class and why the statue in Civic Center was regarded by many as offensive, three of my students decided to cover an October meeting as one of their major assignments for the course. Here’s what one wrote:

By Lance Tisuela

After 20 years of opposition, the controversial “Early Days” statue is entering the process of removal after the San Francisco Arts Commission unanimously voted that this statue is no longer appropriate to have in the public realm.

            The statue depicts a Native American man on the ground looking up, as a Spanish vaquero and a missionary stand over him with a fist raised in the air. Those in favor of the removal of the statue held a strong presence at San Francisco City Hall to speak against a figure they believe perpetuates white supremacy.

            Mari Villaluna, an indigenous person born and raised in San Francisco, wanted this statue removed so that future generations “will not grow up and see [our] native peoples disrespected and stereotyped.”

            Of the many First Nations people who spoke in favor of the removal of “Early Days” was San Francisco Arts Commission staff member Barbara Mumby.

            “Today you have the power to help us change the narrative, that we are not weak, conquered heathens, submissive savages,” said Mumby, who took a personal day off to join the discussion.

            San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and Mayor Ed Lee have also both gone on record supporting the removal of the statue.

            The unanimous vote was not reached without dissent. Two people who voiced their opinion in favor of keeping the statue where it was felt that it holds value because of the history behind it.

            “Just as the Aztec pyramids have been preserved, although a site of genocidal supremacy, I still think the Aztec pyramids have grown in value, because things have changed,” said Reid Stuart, who also submitted a three-page essay to the commission on why the statue should be kept.

            The Arts Commission does not have sole authority over the removal of the statue. It still requires review and citation by the Historic Preservation Commission, as well as the Civic Center Historic District.

            “This is a very serious matter, and one that we know will be looked at by our colleagues from around the country in how we act,” said Tom Decaigny, director of cultural affairs. “The current preliminary cost analysis is a rough estimate between $160,000 and $200,000.”

            The “Early Days” statue is part of the “Pioneer Monument” which was originally donated to the city by James Lick, and it was sculpted by Frank H. Happersberger. It was erected in 1894 and survived the 1906 earthquake which destroyed City Hall.

            The conversation surrounding the removal of the statue began in the early 1990s when the monument was to be relocated due to the construction of the new library. Members of the Native American community suggested removing the statue as a whole. In 1993, the statue was moved to its current location, which cost $1 million.

            “If we’re going to represent the oppressed in this city then we have to start by taking down these symbols of white supremacy,” said Commissioner Marcus Shelby.

Postscript:  In mid-September 2018, the “Early Days” statue was finally removed from the Pioneer Monument — nearly one year after the Arts Commission vote and this student’s story was written. During those 11 months, a lawsuit seeking to halt the sculpture’s removal was filed, and the San Francisco Board of Appeals met multiple times before finally voting for dismantling. During the spring semester — several months after my beat reporting course ended — my former student and I were chatting about “Early Days” when he noted, “I cannot believe this is happening all over again.”


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