San Francisco Public Library accused of censorship and Islamophobia over mural project
SAN FRANCISCO — Organizers of a mural project and their supporters are accusing the San Francisco Public Library of censoring a mural and failing to be an inclusive and equitable community space.
“Wall + Response,” a project organized by the Clarion Alley Mural Project inviting 16 Bay Area poets to respond to four murals on Clarion Alley in San Francisco, was scheduled to open at the Main Library branch on March 12 and have public programming at the library all summer.
However, a week before the event, the San Francisco Public Library informed project organizers that one of the murals, “Arab Liberation Mural”, had to be removed in order for the event to take place.
“Arab Liberation Mural” features six Arab leaders, including Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, Moroccan educator Mehdi Ben Barka and photojournalist Yasser Mortaja.
The mural also includes a crowd of people holding signs saying “Sanctuary for All”, “No Shellmound Holy Land in Jerusalem”, “Zionism is Racism” and “No War!” »
The mural was created by a diverse group of community organizations, artists and Jewish allies to express the struggles against racism and xenophobia among Arabs, Muslims, people of color, immigrants and refugees.
The artwork for “Wall + Response” arrived at the library during the first week of March. When the library’s exhibits team examined the murals, “the phrase ‘Zionism is racism’ stood out in the Arab liberation mural,” according to a statement from the San Francisco Public Library. .
“The slogan, ‘Zionism is racism’, is widely considered anti-Semitic and staff feared that if displayed in an open public space it would cause harm to members of our community and library workers. “said the director of the library. statement said.
Library communications director Kate Patterson reached out to Megan Wilson, a representative of the Clarion Alley Mural project and one of the “Wall + Response” curators, on March 3 to voice library staff concerns and discuss the ways to advance the exhibition.
During the initial conversation, Wilson suggested she might remove “Zionism is Racism” from the mural, according to the library statement.
The library decided to accept Wilson’s offer in a March 3 email, writing that “As a compromise, we could pursue your suggestion to remove the phrase ‘Zionism is racism’ from the image. detailed in Photoshop and show only the 16 poems. We are also happy to continue the planned poetry programs. You would be welcome to project images of all the murals on the screen during the program. And finally, we would like to inform the public that the entire folio is available for the public to view in the Center for Special Collections and History.”
Patterson also added in the email that “The Library has been caught in the middle of the Palestine/Israel debate and we have learned from experience that it is incredibly painful for all parties. As I mentioned on the phone, our people have had a very difficult few years, and in many ways we are still picking up the pieces.
Wilson disputes that his suggestion to photoshop the “Zionism is Racism” sign was ever serious.
“Without thinking, I adopted her [Patterson’s] your sweet sweet tone, the one institutions often use to deliver bad news, and said, ‘Oh we can photoshop it, that’s no problem,'” Wilson wrote in a June 2 blog post at about his telephone conversation with Patterson. “My head [was] spinning with a million different thoughts; none of them included the intention to modify the work. On the contrary, I was being sarcastic,” Wilson wrote.
Later, in an email to Patterson, Wilson clarified that she was “sarcastic in response to how deeply offensive, Islamophobic and in violation of our freedom of speech” she found Patterson’s remarks at the telephone.
The weekend passed, and on March 8, a collective of artists, poets and organizations involved in “Wall + Response” emailed library staff a joint letter expressing “serious concerns over the San Francisco Public Library’s decision to avoid growing global recognition of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians by censoring the Arab Liberation mural” and calling on the library to reinstate the exhibit with the original mural .
The letter adds that the library’s decision “is particularly concerning given that the SFPL featured the prominent poster campaign, ‘all are welcome,’ but actively excluded parts of the San Francisco community.”
They cited the American Library Association‘s Library Bill of Rights, which they believed the library was flouting in trying to censor their mural. They also cited the Urban Libraries Council Statement on Race and Social Equity, of which the San Francisco Public Library is one of the signatories.
After receiving the letter, the library informed Clarion Alley Mural Project in an email on March 9 that the mural could be included if it removed the “Zionism is Racism” sign on the mural because “We believe that this action is in the best interest of not fostering manifestations of anti-Semitism in the community.”
Clarion Alley Mural Project and their affiliates working on “Wall + Response” responded that they would not remove the panel, and they “request that the San Francisco Public Library restore the Wall + Response exhibit in its entirety to maintain the integrity of community voices and the process that led to the work,” in a March 9 email.
The library responded that it was postponing the exhibition and public program scheduled for the weekend.
Clarion Alley Mural Project posted a blog post on March 10 announcing that the exhibit would not be opening this weekend and that the public program scheduled for March 13 was no longer taking place.
“By confusing Zionism with Judaism, it is clear that the San Francisco Public Library is giving in to right-wing and Islamophobic rhetoric. Zionism is a political ideology, which is used to defend an apartheid state,” the blog reads. “Confusing Zionism and Judaism is like confusing white supremacy with Christianity; it’s not the same thing.”
The next public issue, scheduled for April 30, also did not take place.
In May, City Librarian Michael Lambert met with representatives of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, one of the organizations involved in creating the mural, and San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin to discuss of the way forward.
The parties could not reach a compromise on the removal of the “Zionism is racism” sign from a public display of the artwork at the library, and the library decided that it “cannot not proceed with the exhibition,” according to their statement.
The Arab Center for Resources and Organization was dismayed by the library’s decision.
“The public library is meant to be a space that fosters critical thinking and centers marginalized communities in San Francisco,” said AROC spokesperson Sharif Zakout. “We are deeply disappointed that the city librarian has chosen to take an Islamophobic stance in support of Zionism and censor a mural created by working-class Arab SF youth.”
The organizers of “Wall + Response” then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California.
On June 23, Hannah Kieschnick, one of their lawyers, e-mailed Lambert, writing that “the decision [to cancel the exhibition] raises serious concerns about the First Amendment. Public libraries play a special role in the education of community members and the free exchange of diverse ideas and information. This role is seriously compromised when a library devalues some viewpoints over others. I urge you to reverse your decision to cancel the Wall + Response exhibit and instead use the exhibit as an opportunity to foster open dialogue about the perspectives expressed in the Arab liberation mural.”
The letter details why the library’s decision violates the First Amendment, citing legal precedent and explaining that “basic political discourse, including expressions of ideology and issue-based advocacy, represents ‘the essence of First Amendment speech.’ Such speech, including in the form of art, may express controversial and provocative ideas that are nevertheless fully protected by the First Amendment.”
Additionally, organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Chinese Progressive Association, SoMa Pilipinas, Media Alliance, San Francisco Urban Film Festival, and United to Save the Mission have all written letters to the San Francisco Public Library asking to restore exposure. and not censor “the fresco of Arab liberation”.
Media Alliance, an advocacy group for communications in the interest of peace, justice and social accountability, contacted the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization that supports equality between Palestinians and Israelis, requested a meeting with the management of the San Francisco Public Library.
“This censorship is another example of how Palestinian voices are being excluded from public spaces by the false confusion of anti-Semitism with criticism of Zionism and the politics of the State of Israel,” said Ellen Brotsky of the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Zionism is not Judaism. Throughout history, and in growing numbers today, American Jews reject this amalgamation. We will continue to oppose Israeli apartheid and its racist privilege of Jews Israelis over Palestinians. We are building a Jewish community beyond Zionism that stands in solidarity with all who are oppressed by racism in all its forms.”
The position of the San Francisco Public Library is unchanged. In a statement Wednesday, the library said that “as part of this proposal document, CAMP [Clarion Alley Mural Project] was encouraged to review the Library’s Exhibits Policy and Guidelines, which state that the Library has final authority over the review, selection, and organization of all exhibits at the San Francisco Public Library. It also states that the Library reserves the right to determine the suitability of any proposed exhibition for inclusion in the Library’s exhibition program. The Library also reserves the right to reject any part of an exhibit or to change the mode of presentation.”