Newsletter: What will become of San Francisco’s controversial George Washington mural?


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Aug. 13, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Get the Essential California newsletter »

The painter has been dead for 40 years. But all of San Francisco — and, increasingly, the rest of the country — is talking about his work.

The Depression-era mural, which depicts black slaves and dead Native Americans in Colonial-era scenery, is in the lobby of George Washington High School on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco’s Richmond District. The 13 frescoes, known collectively as “The Life of Washington,” were painted by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936, and funded by the New Deal Works Progress Administration.


Arnautoff, who was a student of Diego Rivera and an avowed Communist, was commissioned to paint a mural of the nation’s first president. In turn, he created work that is “among the most honest and possibly the most subversive of the W.P.A. era,” according to New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.

The 1,600-square-foot “Life of Washington” is far from a presidential hagiography. It depicts Washington with slaves (America’s first president, like at least 11 other U.S. presidents, had slaves), and shows the president “directing settlers westward as they step over the body of a dead Native American,” as our editorial board put it. The murals undoubtedly depict the ugly history of American racism. But critics have argued that the art itself is racist, and offensive to students of color — regardless of the muralist’s intent.

“Kids don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning,” George Washington High School student Kai Anderson-Lawson, who is Native American, said at a school board meeting, according to KQED.

In late June, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to cover up the mural, sparking a public uproar that has only gathered steam in the weeks since. The mural’s supporters have commissioned public opinion polling, 500 artists and academics signed an open letter decrying its proposed destruction and a potential ballot measure is in the works. Even culture war chronicler Bari Weiss has weighed in.

But as our editorial board noted, the firestorm over the mural’s fate is hardly defined by the typical left-right divide. This is no “Piss Christ” pitting the church against the outré art world, or even a Robert Mapplethorpe portfolio testing the limits of what constitutes obscenity.

Instead, in ultra-progressive San Francisco, “the fight is primarily among liberals — those who want the mural removed because they consider it a traumatically offensive reminder to Native American and African American students of a horrible past, and those who defend the mural as an honest and anything-but-racist representation of the nation’s history, including its less-than-admirable aspects.” Leaders from San Francisco’s black community have also stood up for the preservation of the mural, with the head of the San Francisco NAACP speaking at a news conference on the matter last week.

The mural has been controversial for more than a half century. In the 1960s, student members of the Black Panther Party protested the mural; those protests spawned black artist Dewey Crumpler’s response mural “Multi-Ethnic Heritage,” which was completed in 1974 and is also on view at Washington High. (Crumpler opposes removing the “Life of Washington” mural from the school.)


Now, nearly two months after the unanimous vote that propelled the mural into the national zeitgeist, the school board appears to be reversing course. The issue will be raised again at Tuesday’s school board meeting, where the board president says he plans to introduce a measure to preserve the frescoes while covering them with “panels or another similar treatment,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The Trump administration took one of its most aggressive steps yet on Monday to target legal immigration, publishing new rules that could deny green cards to immigrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance, and potentially making it more difficult for some to get legal status in the U.S.

Federal law already requires those seeking green cards and legal status to prove they will not become a “public charge,” or a burden on the U.S. But the new rules, made public Monday, outline a broader range of programs that could disqualify them. The new rules could also have major ramifications on the California economy, according to experts and advocates. Los Angeles Times

A California Highway Patrol officer was killed and two other officers were wounded in a wild shootout Monday evening off the 215 Freeway in Riverside that left the gunman dead and motorists dodging bullets. Los Angeles Times



The Equinox developer targeted by anti-Trump protesters is a big player in downtown L.A. Los Angeles Times

Long Beach Poly High School’s class of 1989 was treated to quite the 30th reunion, courtesy of fellow graduate Snoop Dogg. Snoop chartered a bus from the high school and rented out a downtown L.A. theater for the reunion after-party. Long Beach Press-Telegram

Pet salons, poolside cabanas and yoga studios: top-priced apartment complexes are expected to have it all. L.A. landlords are facing serious competition for tenants who can rent the city’s most expensive apartments, and new projects are now coming loaded with amenities previously unheard of in most apartment buildings. Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.



Ethnic studies may soon be mandatory in California schools. Can we get it right? Los Angeles Times

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo wants to make his city the nation’s first community to require gun owners to carry liability insurance. San Francisco Chronicle

The search for Fresno’s next police chief lacks transparency, according to critics. Fresno Bee

Much recent attention has been focused on horse deaths in the horse racing industry, but the sport is also dangerous for humans: jockeys have one of the highest fatality rates of any occupation. Now, California wants to become one of the first states with a concussion protocol for horse racing. Capital Radio



Seven women report being drugged while drinking in Davis. Three were sexually assaulted, police say. Sacramento Bee

Sexual misconduct allegations against California doctors have risen sharply since the #MeToo era began. Los Angeles Times


President Trump overhauled enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Critics predict more extinctions. Los Angeles Times

Uncooperative parents block California’s effort to investigate “fake” vaccine exemptions. San Francisco Chronicle



How “microcracks” undermined San Francisco’s new $2.2-billion Transbay bus terminal, which reopened Sunday. Wired

“Strawberries, a three-billion-dollar industry in California, are sensitive indicators of the national mood — bellwethers of environmental change, labor crises, consumer expectations,” writes Dana Goodyear. Knowing that, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the latest innovation from California-based berry behemoth Driscoll’s is a millennial pink-colored rosé strawberry. Needless to say, the lighter-hued berries are “limited edition,” and they don’t come cheap. New Yorker

Uber said it’s stopping its service at Ontario International Airport next month because of fee increases. Ontario Airport is east of downtown Ontario, in San Bernardino County. Los Angeles Times

This guy spent 24 hours riding an electric longboard across California, from San Francisco to the Nevada border. SFGATE

The Holy Grail of stone fruit is in season. Get it while (and if) you can. Los Angeles Times



Los Angeles: sunny, 83. San Diego: sunny, 77. San Francisco: sunny, 76. San Jose: sunny, 91. Sacramento: sunny, 100. More weather is here.


“Los Angeles? That’s just a big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco.”

— John Lennon

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.