San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is calling for the removal of the controversial Thomas Fallon statue, a decision that comes days after overwhelming pleas from the community.
“For the third time in three decades, debate over the Thomas Fallon Statue has reopened old wounds and deepened divides,” Liccardo wrote in a blog post explaining his decision. “I am calling for the commencement of the City’s standard process to remove the Fallon Statue. At the conclusion of that public process — barring some startling and dramatic change in the facts — I’ll support the removal of the statue. It’s time to move on.”
Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, president of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, said listening to the community and removing the Fallon statue was the right move on the mayor’s part.
“The world is changing, and people want to make sure their city is reflective of that,” Chavez-Lopez said. “History is our legacy. I think being able to free ourselves from trauma is something very powerful. You’re able to move forward and think of the future when you’re able to heal some of the past.”
On Jan. 29, passions ran high as residents demanded the removal of the statue from downtown San Jose during a public forum. Some suggested relocating the statue to History Park. Others wanted it destroyed.
Almost 150 people attended the virtual meeting called “When art provokes: Sharing and Learning from Community Views about Public Art.” Most speakers said the statue represents racism, oppression and genocide and needs to go. Only one person openly disagreed.
“Since when do losers of laws make the rules?” said a phone caller who didn’t want the Fallon statue removed. “You’re erasing history.”
The forum — hosted by Liccardo, the City Manager’s Office, the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs and San Jose Arts Commission — was held to discuss and understand divergent views on the city’s public art.
Activists have long demanded the city remove the Fallon statue. The statue of one of San Jose’s first mayors was commissioned in 1988 to memorialize the raising of the U.S. flag in the city in 1846, but Fallon is a divisive figure because of his hostile treatment of native people and embodiment of American imperialism, after he claimed the city shortly after the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846.
The statue, which sat in an Oakland warehouse for more than a decade due to criticism, was vandalized during protests and a petition was launched to topple it.
Then last month, controversy exploded when city officials removed a public art exhibit, titled “Holding the Moment” from the airport three days early because critics — reportedly police officers — said one piece depicted violence against law enforcement.
The piece, called Americana by artist Eric Bui, shows a person sitting atop what appears to be a police cruiser. The person is holding an upside down flag, which is a signal of dire distress, and there are two red splatters on the windows.
“This past year’s been filled with many challenges,” said Deputy City Manager Angel Rios, Jr. “As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, we find ourselves divided… largely along racial lines, and this division and this tension also spills into the public art domain in our city.”
Liccardo acknowledged the need for public dialogue around racism.
“This is the moment in our history for difficult conversations, particularly difficult conversations about race,” Liccardo said.
‘Equivalent of a confederate statue’
Downtown resident Lidia Doniz said there’s a difference between art starting conversations on race and statues that uphold white supremacy.
“The Fallon statue is the equivalent of a confederate statue of the south,” Doniz said. “With my lived experience as an indigenous mother of brown young men it’s a painful reminder of the violence against black and brown men… dating back to the stealing of indigenous land and to this summer with George Floyd’s death.”
Doniz objected to the removing of public art at the airport without a formal process.
“The fact that a small group of people have the power to influence the city manager… is an abuse of power,” Doniz said. “The taking down of Americana is a city silencing much-needed conversations about racism… and the use of violence by the police department.”
Peter Ortiz, a trustee for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, said the fact that art which offended law enforcement was removed without hesitation while art depicting a murderer who dehumanized native and Mexican populations still stands is an example of continued lack of respect.
Ortiz on Monday said he wants to thank the mayor for his call to remove the statue, but the move was long overdue.
“By taking this outdated symbol of white supremacy down, it’s sending a message to the diverse community of San Jose that this city welcomes everyone and is not only for a select few,” Ortiz said.
Deputy City Manager Kim Walesh said the city manager had to make a difficult and timely decision to take down the airport exhibit due to safety concerns that Americana might incite violence against police officers.
Walesh said the city had met its commitment to have the exhibit up for 30 days and only took it down a few days early.
Resident Vivian Dai said replacing the Fallon statue with civil rights activist Caesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta would be a good place to start in healing relationships with marginalized communities.
Some residents questioned the mayor on his willingness to voice public support for the removal of the Fallon statue during the forum.
“I’m very open to a public process that would ultimately result in the removal,” Liccardo said Friday before announcing Monday his decision to remove it.
Liccardo said he would like to have more information about Fallon’s historic record.
“I would be very much helped by those of you who may have access to historic records, who may know more, who may have access to historians, who can help us better understand his historic record and thereby easily justify taking down the statue,” he added Friday.
The costs of removing Fallon
The mayor acknowledged community members’ anger and resentment towards this statue — but also the costs of removing Fallon from his downtown home.
“That is certainly sufficient enough basis for us to say we’ve got to find a way to take it down,” Liccardo said. “On the other hand, …the cost is $400,000 to do so and move it … and we’ve got a lot of needs in this city.”
It’s unclear where funding would come from for the statue’s removal, and Liccardo’s office did not immediately answer questions about it.
Barbara Goldstein, a former city public art director, said two criteria for removing artwork from the city’s collection apply to the Fallon statue: public engagement and sustained public objection.
“With those two criteria, you don’t have to prove whether Fallon committed something historically,” Goldstein said. “You’ve just basically met the two most important criteria for removing the artwork.”
Resident Jose Villarreal said he’s disappointed San Jose’s leaders have not removed the statue sooner.
“You say you want to do good,” Villarreal said. “But the lack of action shows otherwise.”
Kerry Adams, the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the city has a process and policy for removing art. Ultimately, the public art committee would forward a recommendation to the Arts Commission, which would then forward a recommendation to the City Council, she said.
The mayor’s proposal to remove the statue is headed to the council’s Rules Committee on Feb. 10.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]