Two Oakland-based arts organizations are boycotting the San Francisco Public Library after it declined to publicly display a mural that included the phrase “Zionism Is Racism.”
Nomadic Press, a nonprofit publishing house, and the East Side Arts Alliance & Cultural Center, a community impact and arts group, announced on Aug. 28 that they would not be attending the opening of an exhibit they helped create at the library’s main branch. They also told the SFPL they want their exhibit removed unless the library reverses its earlier decision to cancel “Wall + Response,” which included the controversial mural. And they vowed to boycott SFPL programming until library officials do so.
Library officials said in March they would not publicly display “Arab Liberation Mural” because of the phrase “Zionism Is Racism,” which they said is “widely considered to be antisemitic.” The library asked exhibit organizers Clarion Alley Mural Project to remove the phrase, but they refused. The controversy drew limited media attention until this summer, after CAMP published a June 23 letter to library officials from the ACLU raising censorship concerns. A petition titled “SF Library Censors Palestine” from a local activist group garnered more than 1,600 signatures.
Nomadic Press and the East Side Arts Alliance are now calling on the library to remove “Painting the Streets,” an exhibit they developed that celebrates Oakland murals created around the time of national protests against police brutality prompted by the murder of George Floyd. It is currently on display in the main library’s African American Center.
“Nomadic Press and East Side Arts Alliance firmly stand with the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) and denounce the library’s decision to prohibit the Wall + Response exhibition to open without censoring the image of the project’s Arab Liberation Mural,” the statement said.
The groups said they were “fully aligned” with CAMP’s view that the library, in its decision to block an unedited version of the mural, was “avoid[ing] the growing world recognition of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.”
In an email to J. on Thursday, the library said it had “agreed to cancel the opening program” planned for Aug. 28 but was still hoping staff could work out an agreement with Nomadic Press and the East Side Arts Alliance to keep “Painting the Streets” on display. The exhibit had been planned to remain through November.
“Our African American Center Librarian has reached out to the contacts at Nomadic Press and East Side Arts Alliance in the hopes that we could discuss the issue and encourage them to reconsider,” Kate Patterson, SFPL director of communications, wrote. “We had already created beautiful blown-up images of the work. But if they are determined to remove the exhibit, we, of course, will abide by their wishes.”
Nomadic Press did not respond to a list of questions from J. The East Side Arts Alliance did not respond to an email from J.
In an interview Friday, a CAMP spokesperson, Christopher Statton, said the arts group was “definitely grateful for the support and show of solidarity” from Nomadic Press and the East Side Arts Alliance. CAMP had not contacted them or encouraged them to protest on its behalf, he said.
When the exhibit was pulled, we felt like it was a missed opportunity to create a discussion and educate people.
“Obviously nobody wants to fight the public library,” Statton said. “But we feel that the decision by East Side Alliance and Nomadic Press demonstrates that these decisions the library makes are not just arbitrary, but they have consequences. The community does respond to this.”
Reiterating CAMP’s disappointment with the library’s decision, Statton said the group had proposed a compromise: adding a “trigger warning” to the exhibit to warn viewers about its content.
“When the exhibit was pulled, we felt like it was a missed opportunity to create a discussion and educate people,” he said.
“Wall + Response” remains available for viewing by request at the main library’s Special Collections and History Center.
In an earlier interview, S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council CEO Tye Gregory, who spoke with library officials about the issue in the spring, said, “Arab Liberation Mural” raised serious concerns, not only because of the phrase “Zionism Is Racism” but also because it celebrated two Palestinian militants, Rasmea Odeh and Leila Khaled, who targeted Israeli civilians. The mural was created by, among others, activists with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a pro-BDS group.
“This is a classic play by some of these anti-Israel BDS groups, where they are given permission to come do their artwork, and then of course it crosses the line into offensive content,” Gregory said. “This is part of the city of San Francisco. And it’s totally inappropriate to have this kind of content.”