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San Francisco removes Civic Center statue [Updated]

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“When I see this statue, I feel we don’t belong in society”

Photo by David Tran Photo/Shutterstock

[Update: Beginning at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, city workers, accompanied by a crane and jubilant activists, removed “Early Days” from its pedestal, the final result of decades of complaints. The ongoing nationwide campaigns to remove images of Confederate Army figures in other cities spurred the latest, apparently final round of anti-”Early Days” activism.

The sculpture will go into storage. At Wednesday’s hearing, Arts Commission officials said that they had received some interest from other parties in receiving the figures, but did not provide any specifics.

For the time being, the pedestal will remain empty, and the question of whether to place something else may fall to the Arts Commission in the future.]

The seemingly never-ending City Hall battle over Civic Center’s “Early Days” statue hit its climax Wednesday evening, as the San Francisco Board of Appeals reversed its April decision and cleared the way for the statue to be, well, cleared away.

However, this isn’t the end of the conflict. Attorney Frear Stephen Schmid, who has worked to hinder the statue’s removal, told Curbed SF after the vote that he intends to sue the city over the decision.

“Early Days” is one part of the much larger Pioneer Monument that sits behind the Main Library building, originally a gift to the city by oddball business tycoon James Lick in 1894.

The 19th century tableau is supposed to represent the colonization of California by Spain, featuring a vaquero and a missionary helping a fallen Indian (dressed like a member of one of the American plains tribes rather than a California native).

For decades, Native American activists and their supporters have asked the city to remove the statue, calling it racist and demeaning.

In 2007, the city’s Human Rights Commission complained that the image “fetishized or romanticized historically and culturally inaccurate images” of colonial conquest.

A series of votes beginning in 2017 led the city’s Arts Commission and Historic Preservation Commission [HRC] to order “Early Days” put into storage.

But Schmid appealed the decision, alleging that the HPC had abused its authority. In a surprise 5-0 vote, the Board of Appeals struck down the removal order in April. Wednesday was the final word, as HPC and the Arts Commission appealed the appeal.

City Preservation Officer Time Frye argued that HPC acted within its authority by ordering “Early Days” removed because the statue itself isn’t a designated historic asset but rather one of many elements that contribute to Civic Center as a historic district.

“The district occupies 15 blocks,” Frye told board members, claiming that in this case Civic Center is arguably just as historic without one part of one monument.

Speaking for the Arts Commission, San Francisco Cultural Affairs Director Thomas DeCaigny argued that the Board of Appeals would irreparably subvert the commission’s authority if it hindered the statue’s removal.

“It would be unprecedented for the board to issue a decision that prevents the Artistic Commission” from removing a piece of public art, said DeCaigny, pointing out that the commission regularly removes art pieces from public areas as a matter of routine.

Members of the public who spoke at the hearing overwhelming favored removal, with many growing openly emotional and tearful.

“As a 16-year-old Native American, it makes me feel like I’m subhuman,” one young woman who declined to give her named testified. “When I see this statue, I feel we don’t belong in society,” she added.

District Five Supervisor Vallie Brown urged the board to “bury” the statue.

The rest of the monument will remain unchanged.
Photo by Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia

Barbara Mumby, who serves as a director at the Arts Commission, warned board members, “By retaining [the statue], you are responsible for the repetition of trauma.”

Mumby also said she had been harassed over her position on “Early Days,” telling Curbed SF, “A couple of folks have been sending intimidating emails, stalking my Facebook, and publishing my private information.”

Only a few people argued for keeping the statue, most vocally Schmid, who compared his critics to Nazis and the Taliban. He said, “Having been called a racist and a white supremacist, the worst insult I got all night was ‘old.’”

Schmid insisted that state law demands the preservation of the intact Pioneer Monument, arguing, “If a million people show up and say tear down that statue, the law says it stays here.”

In the end the board reversed its previous decision, citing more comprehensive and persuasive arguments this time around.

Board Vice President Rick Swig, who in April energetically defended keeping “Early Days” and compared its potential removal to an act of genocide, was himself visibly emotional before the vote.

“I appreciate your comments, even those that were sort of nasty toward me,” Swig told the crowd in the hearing room, adding, “This is the week of the day of atonement in my tradition, the Jewish tradition, and in that spirit I’d like to apologize.”

The final vote was 4-0 (the board presently has one seat vacant) to uphold the order to remove the statue.

That’s the end of City Hall’s hand in the fate of the contentious figures, but the fight is not over. After the hearing, Schmid told Curbed SF he’s already planning to sue to overturn the city’s decision and is debating whether to pursue state or federal court action.