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Total Recall: Politics are Local in San Francisco

DeWitt Cheng


Victor Arnautoff, "The Life of George Washington"  (detail), mural at George Washington High School, San Francisco. The mural depicts the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the continent.

A partisan flap from two years ago has lately revived, rather like a bad horror-movie sequel. The new monster is the recall campaign against three members of the board of the San Francisco Unified School District — Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga — in a political struggle either justified or outrageous, depending on your politics. The old monster was that board’s 2019 decision to paint over the Depression-era murals by Victor Arnautoff in San Francisco’s George Washington High School, in which depictions of nonwhites that were progressive in the context of that time (but not inflammatory, since the artist understood the boundaries) were now seen as derogatory to persons of color. At the time I argued that this proposed censorship was erroneous and short-sighted. Later I counseled moderation on both sides once the board devised a compromise preserving the murals while respecting the sensibilities of distressed GWHS students and families.


Victor Arnautoff, “City Life” (detail depicting the artist browsing

social magazine titles) mural at Coit Tower, San Francisco.

However, civilized discourse at least occasionally collapsed during the proceedings. I attended two meetings on the mural issue, and was saddened during the first that the board members initially dismissed the idea of using the mural to educate students about changing social mores. At the second meeting, the theatrics of radicalized censorship advocates, who shouted “Genocide!” repeatedly for ten minutes, disrupted a panel discussion by pro-mural advocates []. 


My objections to the board's shortsighted views on art and its acquiescence to Karen-style grandstanding were reinforced by the board's apparent preference for political correctness (which I generally support) over practical problem-solving. The reopening of San Francisco schools was delayed by the board’s principled objection to a contractor who had previously worked with charter schools.

The board also attempted, unsuccessfully, to rename 44 schools bearing the names of politicians now in disfavor, this at a time when the school district was in financial peril and in danger of being taken over by the state. In addition, Collins, whose anti-Asian tweets caused a firestorm of anger, responded by throwing fuel on the fire, filing an egregious $87M libel lawsuit against the city, which was deservedly dismissed. Supporting the recall movement was a petition of over 80,000 signatures (which I signed), based on grievances against the board’s errors and missteps, enumerated by Incidentally, the recall opponents never mention these gaffes, or, as one Facebook paid ad termed them “distractions.”


But as in all San Francisco politics, things got complicated, and the city’s straitened economics during the pandemic, with businesses shuttered and tourism decimated, have only exacerbated tensions. The mistakes of the board are only one factor in the current donnybrook. Opponents of the recall point out that the three threatened board members have been dutiful in protecting the rights of minority students, historically given short shrift, and in preparing the city’s aging schools for the safety challenges of opening. They also point to political agendas behind the recall movement, which was largely funded, to the tune of $1.5M, by wealthy non-residents with connections to the charter school movement, a corporatist attempt to gain access to public-school facilities and revenues without the federal restrictions that public schools must heed. Remember Trump’s financially compromised Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos? See Will Jarrett’s breakdown of the finances of the pro-recall forces.


Three members of the SFUSD board up for recall: Gabriela Lopez, Alison Collins, Faauuga Molina

In addition, the school board has been a traditional steppingstone to higher office, frequently the city and county’s 11-member Board of Supervisors. So if Mayor London Breed — whom progressives consider too status-quo and compromised by her 2016 support for charter school advocate Mike Bloomberg — should gain new allies on the board, as a result of a successful recall, who win re-election in November, her position will have been substantially strengthened. San Francisco may be a liberal enclave, but it is not immune to the machinations of outsiders or even its own elites.


Not surprisingly, there are contending factions based on race and class. The recall’s proponents tend to be wealthier and more conservative. In addition, Asians feels slighted by the current board, with its focus on black and Latinx students; and, considering the tiger-parent emphasis on education, they undoubtedly resent the windfall admissions at top-rated Lowell High School of minority students who benefited from a pandemic-mandated lottery rather than on entrance tests, which are dismissed as discriminatory by recall foes.


San Francisco Mayor London Breed

There is also the question of the legitimacy of recalls, since the pro-recall petition was paid for largely outside interests. The attempted GOP recall of Governor Gavin Newsom remains fresh in voters’ memories — as does the successful GOP ouster of Gray Davis in 2003. The threatened three school board members will come up for re-election in November, so why the expense and upset now? The pro-recall argument is that they will select a new Superintendent, and that damage can still be done. As to whether the recall process is democratic or not, let us dream of a time when all public officials, including presidents, governors, senators and judges, even Supreme Court justices, took seriously their accountability to the public; the devil is in the procedural details, as always. Listen to public radio station KALW’s balanced take on this.


The more I delve into the issue, the more complicated it becomes, revealing itself as a matter of balancing priorities, not choosing ultimate good over absolute evil. I am torn between throwing the incumbents out on the one hand, and standing up for progressive values, however misguidedly implemented, on the other. San Francisco has its challenges at the moment. We need people in government who can balance sound principles with smart pragmatism while modeling civil civic engagement. Are the current incumbents the best we can expect? Can we do better, City That Knows How, or do we again make the safe defensive play?

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