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San Francisco Public Library accused of censorship, Islamophobia over mural project

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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, 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 through the summer.  

However, one week before the event, San Francisco Public Library informed project organizers that one of the murals, "Arab Liberation Mural," had to be removed for the event to proceed.  

"Arab Liberation Mural" features six Arab leaders, including Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, Moroccan educator Mehdi Ben Barka and photojournalist Yasser Mortaja. 

"Arab Liberation" mural
"Arab Liberation" mural that started controversy with the SF Public Library. Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) via Bay City News

The mural also includes a crowd of people holding up signs saying, "Sanctuary for all," "Hands Off Sacred Land from Shellmound to 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 of 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 exhibitions team looked at the murals, "the phrase 'Zionism is Racism' stood out in the  Arab Liberation Mural," according to a statement from San Francisco Public Library.

"The slogan, 'Zionism is Racism,' is widely considered to be anti-Semitic and staff was concerned that, if put on view in an open public space, it would cause harm to members of our community and library workers," the library's statement said.  

The library's director of communications Kate Patterson contacted Megan Wilson, Clarion Alley Mural Project representative and one of the "Wall + Response" curators, on March 3 to express the library staff's concerns and to talk about ways to move forward with the exhibit.  

During the initial conversation, Wilson suggested she could photoshop out "Zionism is Racism" from the mural, according to the library's statement.

The library decided to take Wilson up on the offer in an email on March 3, writing that "As a compromise, we could proceed with your suggestion to remove the 'Zionism is Racism' phrase from the detail image in photoshop and display just the 16 poems. We are also happy to proceed with the planned poetry programs. You would be welcome to project images of all of the murals onto the screen during the program. And finally, we would let the public know that the entire folio is available for public viewing in the Special Collections & History Center."

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 staff has had a very rough couple of years. In many ways, we are still putting the pieces back together."

Wilson disputes that her suggestion to photoshop out the "Zionism is Racism" sign was ever serious.  

"Without thinking, I adopted her [Patterson's] saccharine sweet tone, the one that institutions often use when delivering bad news, and said, 'Oh, we can photoshop that out, it's not a problem,'" Wilson wrote in a blog post on June 2 about her phone conversation with Patterson. "My head [was] spinning with a million different thoughts; none of which included any intention to edit the work. Rather, I was being sarcastic," Wilson wrote.  

Later, in an email to Patterson, Wilson clarified that she was "being sarcastic in response to how deeply offensive, Islamophobic and in violation of our freedom of speech" that she found Patterson's remarks on the phone to be.  

The weekend went by, and on March 8, a collective of artists, poets, and organizations involved in "Wall + Response" emailed the library staff a joint letter expressing "serious concerns about the decision of the San Francisco Public Library to avoid the growing world recognition of Israel's oppression of Palestinians by censoring the Arab Liberation Mural" and calling on the library to reinstate the exhibition with the original mural.  

The letter added that the library's decision "is especially disturbing given that SFPL has exhibited the prominent poster campaign, 'all are welcome,' yet are actively excluding parts of the San Francisco community." 

They quoted from the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, which they believed the library was flouting by trying to censor their mural. They also quoted the Urban Libraries Council's Statement on Race and Social Equity, to 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 they removed the "Zionism is Racism" sign in the mural because "We feel that this action is in the best interest of not furthering expressions of antisemitism in the community." 

Clarion Alley Mural Project and their affiliates working on "Wall + Response" responded that they will not remove the sign, and they "ask that the San Francisco Public Library reinstate the Wall + Response exhibition in its entirety to maintain the integrity of the community voices and the process that went into the work," in an email on March 9.  

The library responded that they were postponing the exhibit and the public program scheduled for the weekend.  

Clarion Alley Mural Project put out a blog post on March 10 to announce that the exhibit was not opening that weekend and the public program scheduled for March 13 was no longer happening.  

"By conflating Zionism with Judaism, it is clear the San Francisco's Public Library is caving to right-wing and Islamophobic rhetoric. Zionism is a political ideology, which is being used to defend an apartheid state," the blog post said. "To conflate Zionism and Judaism is like coalescing white supremacy with Christianity; they are not the same."  

The next public program, scheduled for April 30, also did not take place.  

In May, the city librarian Michael Lambert met with representatives from 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 how to proceed.  

The parties could not reach a compromise about removing the "Zionism is Racism" sign from a public presentation of the artwork at the library, and the library decided they "could not proceed with the exhibit," according to their statement. 

The Arab Resource and Organizing Center was dismayed by the library's decision.  

"The public library is meant to be a space that fosters critical thought and centers marginalized communities of San Francisco," said AROC spokesperson Sharif Zakout. "We are deeply disappointed that the city librarian chose to take an Islamophobic position in support of Zionism and censor a mural created by working class Arab youth of SF." 

Organizers of "Wall + Response" then reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California. 

On June 23, Hannah Kieschnick, one of their staff attorneys, emailed Lambert writing that "The decision [to cancel the exhibition] raises serious First Amendment concerns. Public libraries play a special role in the education of community members and the free exchange of diverse ideas and information. That role is severely undermined when a library devalues certain viewpoints over others. I urge you to rescind your decision to cancel the Wall + Response exhibition and to instead use the exhibition as an opportunity to foster open dialogue about the perspectives expressed in the Arab Liberation Mural."

The letter details reasons why the library's decision goes against the First Amendment, citing legal precedent and explaining that "Core political speech, including expressions of ideology and issue-based advocacy, represents 'the essence of First Amendment expression.' Such speech, including in the form of art, can express controversial and provocative ideas that are nonetheless fully protected by the First Amendment." 

In addition, organizations including Jewish Voice for Peace, the Chinese Progressive Association, SoMa Pilipinas, Media Alliance, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, and United to Save the Mission have all written letters to San Francisco Public Library calling for them to reinstate the exhibit and not censor "Arab Liberation Mural."  

Media Alliance, an advocacy group for communications in the interest of peace, justice and social responsibility, has reached out to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.  

Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization that supports equality for Palestinians and Israelis, has requested a meeting with San Francisco Public Library's leadership.  

"This censorship is another example of how Palestinian voices are excluded from public spaces by the false conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Zionism and the policies 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 conflation. We will continue to oppose Israeli apartheid and its racist privileging of Israeli Jews over Palestinians. We are building a Jewish community beyond Zionism which stands in solidarity with all those oppressed by racism in any form." 

The San Francisco Public Library's position is unchanged. In a statement Wednesday, the library said that "As part of that proposal document, CAMP [Clarion Alley Mural Project] was encouraged to review the Library's  Exhibition Police and Guidelines, which state that the Library has final authority over the review, selection and arrangement of all exhibitions at the San Francisco Public Library. It also states that the Library retains the right to determine the suitability of any proposed exhibition to be included in the Library's exhibition program. The Library also reserves the right to reject any part of an exhibition or to change the manner of display."

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