San Francisco’s Toppled Statues

The targeting of historical statues is tied to growing intolerance for partial narratives.

For over a century, a 30-foot bronze statue of Father Junípero Serra stood at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse. He struck a triumphant pose — arms are raised in victorious praise as one hand clutches a towering cross.

Two weeks ago, on June 19, demonstrators tied a rope to the base of Serra’s cross. A video posted to Twitter and viewed by over 2.7 million people captured the moment when the statue began to wobble before it swiftly crashed down amid cheers from onlooking demonstrators.

The concrete base Serra stood atop for nearly 113 years was inscribed with a partial telling of his legacy: “Founder of the California Missions.” 

In the aftermath of the statue’s toppling, the U.S. Embassy of Spain emphasized Serra’s “support of Indigenous communities” via Twitter, and San Francisco’s Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone voiced criticism of the act of civil disobedience — writing that Serra “made heroic sacrifices to protect the Indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors.”

Yet many historians paint a different picture, noting that Serra brutalized American Indians and acted as an agent of the Spanish Empire’s colonization efforts. 

Nicole Meldahl, the executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a non-profit organization founded to preserve the history and culture of western San Francisco, says that the statue of Serra was not only “deeply offensive to Indigenous groups,” the bronze memorial was a gift to the city from San Francisco’s former mayor, James D. Phelan, who, she noted, was “a notorious white supremacist.”

“These monuments say more about how specific groups choose to remember the past than they actually say about what has happened in the past,” Meldahl said.

Despite the complicated histories of statues like the one of Serra, President Donald Trump recently made a sweeping condemnation of individuals who topple or vandalize historical monuments, calling them “vandals,” “hoodlums,” “anarchists,” “agitators,” “left-wing extremists” and “bad people” who “don’t love our country.” 

The White House recently released an executive order reinforcing existing punitive consequences for the destruction or vandalism of historical monuments, including up to 10 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the targeting and toppling of monuments, fueled by the immediacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, shows little sign of slowing down. In recent days and weeks, demonstrators have vandalized and toppled an estimated 150 statues emblematic of racism, conquest, colonialism, and white supremacy in and around San Francisco, in other parts of California, in cities in at least 22 other states, and even outside of the U.S.

The targeting of historic statues seems offers a window into the current cultural and historic reckoning taking place throughout the country. That reckoning looks different in California than in Southern or Northeastern states — as University of San Francisco Associate Professor of History James Zarsadiaz explained. 

Whereas many of the statues being targeted in other states are symbols of the Confederacy, Zarsadiaz noted that, in California, the statues considered problematic are oftentimes figures seen as “reinforcing colonialism.”

“Our public imagination of California history starts not with the Indigenous populations, but with Spanish colonization,” Zarsadiaz says. “We may not have a statue of Robert E. Lee, but we have statues like Father Serra. When he was canonized a few years ago, that brought back feelings of anger [and] frustration and reignited this discussion around settler colonialism, colonization, European conquest, white supremacy, and the forced proselytization of Catholicism and Christinaity on Indigenous people.”

The viral video of the Serra statue’s toppling was taken during a June 19 demonstration in the park, which several hundred people attended, according to the Chronicle. Demonstrators also vandalized the statue of the 17th-Century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote,” damaged drinking fountains, pathways, and benches — and took down the statues of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and “Star Spangled Banner” lyricist and slave-owner Francis Scott Key. 

Key worked actively for the anti-abolitionist cause, which “makes his patriotic ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ extolling the virtues of our republic as the land of the free, particularly hypocritical,” Meldahl says. 

The take-down of Grant’s statue received a significant amount of condemnation, including from the White House, with defenders of his legacy pointing to his success as the leader of the Union Army during the Civil War. 

“President Grant led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, enforced Reconstruction, fought the Ku Klux Klan, and advocated for the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed freed slaves the right to vote,” stated President Trump’s recent executive order.

Yet Meldahl notes that Grant did briefly own a slave and also led troops into battle during the Indian Wars, “a painful history for Indigenous groups.” 

Notably, this is the second time Grant’s statue has been pulled down as an act of protest. The statue was first toppled in 1896 by members of the stonecutters’ union who objected to the use of prison labor to construct the base for Grant’s monument, believing this dishonored the former president’s legacy. In response, a new base was created.

The reasons for targeting the bust of Cervantes remain unclear. Cervantes himself was imprisoned and enslaved for five years. Despite this, demonstrators sprayed red paint on Cervantes’ eyes and tagged his statue with the word “Bastard.” Perhaps delirious demonstrators mistook the monument to the author of the world’s first modern novel as a memorial for a giant racist policeman.

In response to the demonstration at Golden Gate Park, Mayor London Breed released a critical press release, saying the damage done “went far beyond just the statues that were torn down.”

“Every dollar we spend cleaning up this vandalism takes funding away from actually supporting our community, including our African-American community,” Breed said in the release. “When people take action in the name of my community, they should actually involve us. And when they vandalize our public parks, that’s their agenda, not ours.”

Kristina Mays, a Black San Francisco-based artist, noted that she saw “very few faces of color actually tearing down monuments.”

“As Black individuals, we’re more concerned with caretaking for our communities, trying to find ways to stay safe in the midst of the coronavirus and trying to avoid being killed by the police,” Mays says. “Even though the catalyst for all of this has come up around Black Lives Matter, I think the pot has been boiling for a long time.”

The conversation over removing monuments that celebrate or honor figures with controversial legacies is, however, hotly debated. 

The day after the demonstration in Golden Gate Park, the Western Neighborhoods Project — described by Meldahl as a “mild-mannered, friendly history group” — asked its Instagram followers how they felt about the previous day’s events.

“And whew! People told us how they felt about it,” Meldahl says.

The nearly 200 comments on the social media post ranged from sentiments of support (“Monuments reflect our values. We need updated monuments for updated values.”) to expressions of frustration (“What a terrible example of uneducated millennials. Sad. Sad. Sad.”)

For Meldahl, the conversation extends beyond the limits of the statues themselves.

“It’s a broader questioning of what’s appropriate for public art, what stories should be told [and] who should tell them,” she says.

A Long Time Coming

In late 2018, the “Early Days” statue, depicting a largely unclothed Native American lying on the ground, seemingly vanquished by an upright Spanish cowboy while a missionary attempts to convert him, was removed from the San Francisco Civic Center. This followed decades of public outcry, concerted efforts by a Facebook group organized specifically to see to the statue’s removal, an ensuing appeals process, and a formal approval process by The Historic Preservation Committee.

The meticulousness of this formal process might seem a stark contrast to the almost instantaneous take-down of statues in recent days by determined demonstrators.

Despite its quick toppling, however, the Serra statue, as well as the Christopher Columbus Statue at Coit Tower, were both statues of “conquest” that The San Francisco Human Rights Commission recommended be removed in a report from 2007. While demonstrators saw to Serra in recent weeks, Mayor London Breed ordered the Columbus statue be removed on June 18, one day before protestors planned to take it down themselves and 13 years after it was initially recommended for removal.

Around the U.S., four other statues of Serra and 25 other statues of Columbus have either been taken down, targeted, or planned for removal.

The destruction and vandalism of historic monuments has reignited a critical debate over whether removing these objects erases or otherwise edits history.

Zarsadiaz says it is often assumed historians want to protect historical monuments because they are relics of the past. 

“These are just things,” Zarsadiaz says. “Americans will not forget figures like Robert E. Lee or Father Serra or Christopher Columbus because it’s ingrained in our curriculum. The logic that if we take down these statues that people are going to forget the past, I don’t know if that holds. We absorbed a way of thinking about American history and European conquest in ways that are inescapable.”

The conversation has also focused on whether it’s appropriate to judge historical figures using a framework of modern morality. Meldahl says she believes it is important not to assess historical figures or events out of context, but she also acknowledges that “history is always evolving.”

“Look at the thinking around the mission system and how that’s changed in just my lifetime — I’m 35 years old and what I was taught to begin with [versus] what we accept as the proper narrative now is totally different,” she says. “History is also incredibly nuanced, and there’s just no way to capture that nuance in stone.”

What we’re seeing now is also part of “a long-term movement questioning the use of public imagery and history,” Meldahl says. One of the most recent nationwide movements to remove Confederate monuments and flags and rename public schools and roads occurred in the aftermath of the 2015 killing of Black worshippers in South Carolina by a white supremacist.  And that was preceded by decades of debate over the symbolism of the Confederate flag.

The targeting of historical statues is also tied to a growing intolerance for partial narratives, says San Francisco State University Associate Professor of History Kym Morrison.

“The people who are vehemently opposed to these narratives are saying [the statues] represent a forced celebration of oppression and public funding of a narrative of oppression,” Morrison says. “The types of things we celebrate are war, […] colonialism and the conquering of a land, and we don’t talk about the human loss that has gone along with that. It’s been the partial telling of a story and forcing large segments of communities that have been hurt by those particular monuments to believe that they […] should participate in celebrating things that have harmed their communities.”

One supporter of the removal of these structures is Ramekon O’Arwisters, a Black artist who has lived and worked in San Francisco since 1991. O’Arwisters says he sees the statues that have been targeted, including the ones taken down in and around San Francisco, not so much as public art but as a kind of “propaganda,” serving as “very subtle reminders that colonialism founded the country” and that “colonialism through […] economic oppression still dominates the land.”

Moving Forward, Looking Back

San Francisco itself is named after a mission — the Mission San Francisco de Asís a la Laguna de los Dolores, named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. There does not currently seem to be any serious conversation about renaming the city or the county, but several San Francisco schools, including one named for Francis Scott Key and another named for Junípero Serra, may now change their names.

Although there are no publicly displayed Confederate monuments in the Bay Area, Mays, a San Francisco native, still believes there is work to be done. She noted the irony in the dichotomy of San Francisco being a sanctuary city yet having a boulevard named for John Drake Sloat, credited for having “claimed California.”

Upon moving to San Francisco four years ago, Morrison remembers her disbelief upon seeing the since-removed “Early Days” statue in front of City Hall.

Morrison, who is the only Black person and one of only a few people of color in SFSU’s History Department, says the targeting of historical statues represent long-term projects and deep-seated concerns from people who have been “excluded from more formal political channels.”

“When people in power know there is a wrong that has generally always existed in their communities, then let’s not wait for the formal process,” she says. “Let’s let the leaders of the city, the leaders within the state say, ‘We just need to correct this now.’”

If the statues that have been removed, toppled or otherwise targeted in San Francisco are taken down for good, Morrison says replacement artwork could celebrate diverse communities, pointing to the mural on The Women’s Building as a point of inspiration. Meldahl said local artists and historians could be commissioned to install temporary, rotating pieces that spark dialogue on “our complicated and shared past.” 

Mays admits that she isn’t sure what the right replacement would be, saying “we just need time to assess.”

“As a community here in the Bay Area, we need just pause for a moment and decide how we want to move forward and what it is we want to see,” Mays said. “It might just be that the bases of these monuments just sit there for a little while.”

Hannah Holzer is an intern covering news and culture.

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