The National Coalition Against Censorship Urges the San Francisco Public Library to Reinstate/ Reschedule Wall + Response Exhibition
Community Continues to Demand the Public Library Adhere to First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech
After four months of planning, the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) abruptly informed Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) that it would not allow the exhibition Wall + Response to open without censoring the image of the project’s Arab Liberation Mural. The mural was created by a diverse team of community organizations, artists, and Jewish allies that included Art Forces, the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Arab Youth Organizing, and Clarion Alley Mural Project to express the struggles against racism and xenophobia of Arabs, Muslims, people of color, immigrants, and refugees. Specifically, the mural portrays Arab leaders, thinkers, and journalists who have resisted state violence. Tragically, this theme continues to be timely, as beloved Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by the Israeli state on May 10, 2022, as she reported on an Israeli military raid in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Wall + Response features 16 Bay Area poets responding to the social, political, and racial justice narratives of four murals on Clarion Alley. Participants include San Francisco’s current poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, preceding SF poet laureate Kim Shuck; SFJAZZ poet laureate Genny Lim; San Mateo’s current poet laureate Aileen Cassinetto; and El Cerrito’s first poet laureate Maw Shein Win.
In response to the Library’s announcement, all the collaborating artists, poets, and community-based organizations signed a letter expressing “their serious concerns about the decision of the Public Library to avoid the growing world recognition of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians by censoring the Arab Liberation Mural” and asking the Library to reinstate the exhibition in its entirety.
After multiple requests for reinstatement of the exhibition, and an in-person meeting with AROC, SF poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, city librarian Michael Lambert, and chief of community, programs, & partnerships at SFPL, Michelle Jeffers, the Library continued to make an exception of Palestine and discriminate against the experience of Palestinians, while giving space for the free speech of other communities who have faced human rights abuses. The artists then reached out to the ACLU of Northern California, who stands by the position of the artists and organizers.
You can read all communications between the curators and the SFPL here.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) stated in its letter to San Francisco’s city librarian Michael Lambert:
“Critiques of Zionism are controversial and often–erroneously–called out as antisemitic. Zionism, however, is a specific political ideology and should not be confused with Jewish identity. The cancellation of the exhibition over one representation of an opinion critical of this political ideology not only undermines the Library’s mission, but it precludes a meaningful opportunity to foster conversation between its diverse communities on exactly what the words on the sign mean in context.
SFPL is a public institution that must serve both the critics of the work and the artists who created it, and all those who agree with it. If the Library were to remove all content that might generate an objection from some section of its diverse constituency, its offerings would be catastrophically reduced and its mission derailed.
Censorship often appears to present an easier solution than facilitating dialogue around contested subjects, but the latter is critical in a functioning democratic society. In this, libraries play a critical role through their support of free speech and the open exchange of ideas, despite perennial calls to censor their offerings. In the face of such attacks, it is regularly (and rightly) pointed out that the presence of a given book on a library’s shelves does not mean that the library endorses the ideas expressed therein. The same principles apply to artworks and exhibitions presented at libraries.”
Read the full letter from NCAC to the SFPL.
In July the ACLU of Northern California also denounced the SFPL’s censorship of the Wall + Response exhibition, stating:
“The First Amendment bars the library from discriminating based on the viewpoint expressed in the Arab Liberation Mural.
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.
The Arab Liberation Mural addresses important issues of political and public concern related to Israel’s treatment of Palestinian citizens and refugees through imagery and text that enjoy full constitutional protection. That protection is not undermined by the possibility that some viewers may feel uncomfortable due to the message of the work.”
Read the full letter from the ACLU of Northern California to the SFPL.
Over 1,700 people have sent letters to San Francisco’s City Librarian to demand the reinstatement of the Wall + Response exhibition.
ADD YOUR VOICE HERE!
Organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, the Chinese Progressive Association, SoMa Pilipinas, Media Alliance, San Francisco Urban Film Festival, and QUIT have all written letters calling on the SFPL to reinstate the Wall + Response exhibition and not censor the Arab Liberation Mural. Media Alliance has also brought the censorship to the attention of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and Jewish Voice for Peace has requested a meeting with SFPL’s leadership. Read their letters here:
Jewish Voice for Peace
Chinese Progressive Association
San Francisco Urban Film Festival
QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism/Queers for Palestine)
Additionally, human rights organizations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Yesh Din, and B’Tselem, as well as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and Harvard Law School have all determined Israel to be an apartheid state.
As stated by San Francisco’s current poet laureate and Wall + Response poet Tongo Eisen-Martin:
“When a group of Israeli soldiers were questioned about their 74 years of military occupation of Palestinian land, including systemic killing, restriction of all movement and even access to water and the other necessities of life; they replied ‘Everything we do to the Palestinians, the Americans did to the Indians.’
Backed by the US War Machine since 1948, Israel is a settler colonial system. The US Empire and the colonial project of Israel are founded and perpetuated by an ideology of white supremacy. Israeli and US police trade practices, weapons, and tactics on population control and repression of resistance under the framework of the War on Terror. Israel is the US Empire’s staunchest ally in suppressing oppressed peoples’ liberation movements around the world—especially Black peoples’ liberation. Erasure and silencing are powerful weapons in their hands.
As educators and poets whose liberation, even survival, depends on challenging white supremacy, it is our responsibility to support all efforts at breaking through the silence. It is our responsibility to struggle for the liberation of all oppressed peoples everywhere.”
and Emory Douglas, Wall + Response artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers:
“The Arab Liberation Mural and all the murals that were to be included in the exhibition have been exhibited publicly for many years in the world-famous and celebrated Clarion Alley, which is about a twenty-minute walk from the SF Public Library. CAMP welcomes thousands of visitors from all walks of life coming to see the broad perspectives of amazing creative art works year-round for 30 years. To me, Clarion Alley Mural Project is a reflection and a continuation of what the SF Public Library is supposed to be; so I ask the question: why does the San Francisco Public Library practice censorship for this exhibition that is as public as it gets?”
Wall + Response curators Megan Wilson and Maw Shein Win had been working closely with the Library’s exhibition team for four months, including extensive reviews of all the works to be included, two walkthroughs of the exhibition space, and several rounds of mockups. Both Wilson and Win expressed that the experience working with the exhibitions team had been very positive and were therefore shocked by the Library’s proposed censorship and subsequent cancellation.
Megan Wilson, curator, Wall + Response and CAMP Co-Director:
“We are extremely disappointed by the San Francisco Public Library’s decision not to present this powerful and inspiring project by censoring the experience of Palestinians. The Arab Liberation Mural is what compassion and collective solidarity looks like in the fight for racial justice.”
These are the discussions on racial disparity that must be given voice in spaces such as our public libraries to address the history of structural and institutional racism, including in San Francisco’s delivery of services to the public and the City’s internal practices and systems as defined in City Ordinance No 188-19, which established San Francisco’s Office of Racial Equity (ORE) in 2019.