Fate of Thomas Fallon statue launches public forum on San Jose art
The statue of Thomas Fallon, which sits at the intersection of West St. James and Julian streets in San Jose, has been a source of controversy since its commission in 1988. File photo.

Some consider Capt. Thomas Fallon an important part of history.

Others call him a symbol of oppression and have long called for the removal of the downtown statue depicting Fallon on horseback raising the U.S. flag in San Jose in 1846.

People on both sides will get a chance Jan. 29 to have their say on an online public forum aimed at helping the city decide the statue’s future. Also on the agenda is the early removal of the “Holding the Moment” exhibition at San Jose International Airport, which caused a public outcry.

On July 14, Black Lives Matter protestors marched from Fallon’s historic house to the statue and on Sept. 23, during a Breonna Taylor rally, the statue was painted red to symbolize the blood on Fallon’s hands during the Mexican-American War.

At the airport, the work of Eric Bui and other artists was displayed in a collection late last year. Bui told San José Spotlight his painting — “Americana” — aimed to condemn police brutality during the Black Lives Matter protests. It depicts a person holding an upside-down American flag, a signal of dire distress, squatting on top of a police car. The background is vivid red. There are also two red splatters on each side window of the car.

However, some airport employees, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and members of the public demanded its removal, saying it could be seen as encouraging violence against the police. The entire exhibit was removed three days early.

Artist Eric Bui’s “Americana.” Courtesy City of San Jose.

Former San Jose Arts Commission chair Peter Allen said because both works were city-sanctioned public art, funded by public dollars and approved by public officials, there is an expectation they would reflect the culture and community they represent.

“The Fallon statue and airport exhibit together show there is a dialogue to be had on issues of racial injustice,” Allen said. “You need to have an open conversation and then decide what to do about it as a community.”

Allen said he objects to the collection being removed ahead of schedule by the City Manager’s Office without community input. He said he’d prefer the city hold public dialogues before putting statues in storage or taking down exhibits.

“It’s just disturbing that there’s a very lengthy process to approve something, but then it can be taken down summarily,” Allen said. “They made the argument that they just took down the whole exhibit early. They were trying to divorce it from the controversy. They clearly stated if it was an individual piece, they would have to go back and get approval or at least have a dialogue.”

Following the toppling of three historic statues — Ulysses Grant, Francis Scott Key and Junípero Serra — in San Francisco of men who were seen as oppressors of people of color, San Jose Mayor Liccardo called for a community meeting about the Fallon statue.

Allen said not everyone is in favor of removing the Fallon statue, as it reflects San Jose’s history.

“They think it is important for us to remember, regardless of how we might feel about it or how controversial the figure might be in our history,” Allen said, “especially in the context of the current community movement towards racial justice.”

Commissioned in 1988 by former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, the 16-foot, bronze Fallon statue has been controversial from the start. Latino activists protested its placement at Plaza de César Chávez in the ’90s, calling it a racial insult commemorating abuses of Indigenous and Mexican people.

The statue was shuttered at a warehouse in Oakland from 1994 to 2002. It currently stands at the intersection of West Julian and West St. James streets.

Liccardo said part of the role of public art is to stir conversations about race and history, which ideally result in better understanding.

“I hope this will give all of us an opportunity to hear each other,” Liccardo said, “and I hope we’ll all be receptive to listening. This has been a time when there’s been understandable righteous protest for longstanding injustice … that needs to be corrected … and I hope this is the first step in getting there.”

To participate in the Zoom meeting, visit: https://sanjoseca.zoom.us/j/94881879091. The meeting starts at 5 p.m. on Jan. 29 and the meeting ID is 948 8187 9091.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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