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City board votes to keep racist statue after all

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“Rehabilitation is what they do in countries where there is genocide.”

The decades-long argument about the “Early Days” statue in Civic Center—a 19th century tableau featuring sanctimonious imagery of a missionary helping a fallen and anachronistically dressed native tribesman—was supposed to be over after multiple city bodies voted to remove it earlier this year.

But there are yet more volleys in this war, as the five-person Board of Appeals voted unanimously Wednesday to keep “Early Days” in place after all.

San Francisco lawyer Frear Stephen Schmidt lodged the appeal, alleging that the city’s Historic Preservation Commission acted inappropriately when signing off on removal plans in February.

Board Vice President Rick Swig argued at the hearing that freedom of expression mandates keeping “Early Days” in place, comparing it to the Holocaust Memorial at Lands End.

“Some might say that should be taken down,” Swig said at the hearing. “Some might say it stimulates thought.”

(Note that the George Segal Lands End piece protests the Holocaust, whereas critics of “Early Days” argue it celebrates colonization. But Swig did not seem to make this distinction.)

“And if you file it under rehabilitation, rehabilitation is what they do in countries where there is genocide, we remove people for ‘rehabilitation,’” Swig added. “That is suppression of thought, that is genocide.”

Most board members focused their vote not on whether it’s appropriate for the city to remove a statue but instead on whether the process made sense.

“The main question is whether the Historic Preservation Commission acted appropriately,” Board President Frank Fung said. “They have consistently looked at issues related to anything in excess of 50 years old and won’t allow any changes to it. I don’t see how they could support this move.”

Board member Darryl Honda scoffed at the commission vote in similar terms, saying, “We don’t remove a window from a house that’s 50 years old but we’re going to take the oldest statue out of City Hall?”

“Early Days” is part of the larger Pioneer Monument located behind the Main Library. In the 1990s, the city placed a plaque in front of the figures explaining that they represent a dated 19th century opinion about the settlement of California by Europeans, although overgrowth now makes the plaque difficult to see most of the time.

Photo by Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia