Mural Debate: Moratorium Resembles 1994 Malcolm X Incident
September 14, 2006 1:20 PM
Twelve years ago a mural was forcibly removed from SF State’s Student Center. And now, at least for the moment, a moratorium prevents any new murals from being painted on the center.
The Associated Students board is challenging the new policy with a resolution supporting a Palestinian mural for the center.
On July 13, President Robert Corrigan vetoed a Student Center Governing Board 6-2 vote approving the mural by placing an immediate moratorium on all new murals for the center, saying beforehand that the mural is “conflict-centered” and “the proposed mural runs counter to values that we hope have taken deep root at San Francisco State, among them, pride in one’s own culture expressed without hostility or denigration of another.”
Ostensibly, it is now almost certain the mural scheduled to be unveiled Sept. 25 will not be completed by deadline because a planned meeting between Corrigan and project members on Sept. 6 has been postponed until later this month.
“If this is such a big issue, he can at least speak,” said Ramsey El-Qare, president of the General Union of Palestinian Students, the leading student group sponsoring the mural that would be what is believed to be the first Palestinian mural at a U.S. university.
It is not the first time Corrigan has intervened concerning a Cesar Chavez Student Center mural.
In May 1994 controversy erupted on campus over a Malcolm X mural, which some students and faculty claimed, contained anti-Jewish symbols. After a week of protests and national attention, Corrigan ordered a squad of police in riot gear to protect painters equipped with sandblasters to remove the mural already painted on the center.
Corrigan did not say what exactly about the Palestinian mural that is controversial, but sources familiar with the project say it revolves around a cartoon character named “Handalah” holding a key on the right-hand side of the mural.
Jamal Dajani, director of Middle East programming for Link TV and former director of San Francisco’s Arab Culture and Community Center, says he knows of the mural and in the past has consulted with Corrigan regarding Arab-Jewish student relations on campus.
The late Naji Al-Ali, a newspaper cartoonist in the Middle East, Dajani said, created the cartoon character. “Handalah,” he said, is symbolic of the Palestinian peoples struggle for liberation and the key the character is holding represents “the right of return” to land in Israel.
Dajani is critical of Corrigan stepping in and undermining the will of the Student Center Governing Board’s vote, calling it “an issue of censorship.”
“This is a reflection of the student’s desire,” Dajani said. “It violates the freedom of expression.”
But the mural, part of which honors the late Dr. Edward Said, a scholar and activist for the Palestinian culture, did not soar through the planning and approving process without concerns over its content being raised.
At the July 13 board meeting, Heather Erez, program director for San Francisco Hillel, the main off-campus student group that represents Jewish students, did object to the cartoon character, “Handalah,” saying it represents the destruction of Israel and does not belong on a public campus.
“It’s a little bothersome for us,” Erez said.
She said Hillel also sent a letter outlining their objections to the board’s Arts Committee in March, but never heard or received word back acknowledging their concerns from anybody from the mural committee.
Students with Hillel, Erez said, would support the mural if it were to be redesigned without the cartoon character and the key it holds.
“These are two things we can’t negotiate,” Erez said.
In the 1994 incident, the original Malcolm X mural – not the current one – contained the Star of David with dollar signs and skulls superimposed over it. Critics of the mural said it was anti-Semitic and racist, but the then Pan Afrikan Student Union said it simply represented Malcolm X’s distaste for Israel.
The issue grew, and before Corrigan called in the riot police and painters, SF State Professor Lois Lyles was arrested for defacing the mural with blue paint, writing “stop racist hate; stop fascism.” The incident found its way to the pages of The New York Times in a story headlined “San Francisco State Destroys Malcolm X Mural After Furor.”
In that case, Corrigan received criticism for the way he handled it. At first, he said he wanted the students to work it out themselves. After all, students, not administrators, govern the Student Center. But when the issue exploded, and Corrigan used the police to subdue it, he was denounced for usurping student power.
And now the Palestinian mural.
In addition to issues over content, Corrigan also justified the moratorium saying before its approval he asked the SCGB to revise its long-term art policy by enacting a set of criteria for murals and a process on how the “finite” space of the Student Center would be used.
But it was after the 1994 fiasco, El-Qare said, that current art policy for the center was created, so he doesn’t buy that aspect of Corrigan’s argument for the moratorium.
“In my opinion, the finite space argument is B.S.” El-Qare said. “He is so afraid of being classified as anti-Jewish.”
The mural is backed by the student groups La Raza, Muslim Student Association, the International Socialist Organization and the League of Filipino Students.
Both Associated Students Inc. and the SCGB have set aside money from their budgets to pay for the painting of the mural.
According to Mirishae McDonald, the mural project chairwoman, the Palestinian mural’s path to approval through the SCGB and the Arts Committee was rarely challenged and that board members were diligent in following the art policy and keeping an open mind to public concerns over its content.
“We did everything and then some,” McDonald said. “There is a big hypocrisy here.”
To date, El-Qare and McDonald say Corrigan has not explicitly told them exactly what content in the mural justifies the moratorium.
“If he can’t tell me what at least the issues are, I am not going to consider altering the mural,” El-Qare said.
In a letter to SCGB members, Corrigan said he would not lift the moratorium until the art policy for the Cesar Chavez Student Center is revised.
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