Art & Politics in San Francisco, 2021: Portraits of a City in Upheaval, Again

Murals by Miranda Bergman.

Bay Area artist and teacher, Miranda Bergman, knows by heart the most famous lines in The Tempest. She ought to. Her Old Left parents named her after Shakespeare’s feisty heroine who exclaims, “How amazing! How many wonderful creatures there are here! Mankind is so beautiful! Oh, what a wonderful new world that has such people in it!”

Bergman doesn’t just recite the lines. She also endorses that Shakespearean sentiment, though she finds it more challenging to do so now than at any other time in recent memory. “We’re living in a dire moment,” she tells me. “Pathologically powerful people and social classes, plus patriarchy, hold sway in many parts of the world. Globally, with COVID-19 and climate change, only world-wide cooperation will meet the challenge.”

Miranda carries on now as she has carried on over the past half-century. “Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation,” she tells me. Those words come from an often-quoted talk by the African anti-colonialist, poet and intellectual, Amilcar Cabral, who was assassinated in 1973, shortly before he reached the age of fifty. In San Francisco today his words are still inspiring to activists and artists, poets and writers.

A muralist in a city known for its extraordinary murals, Miranda Bergman has extended and reinvented the tradition initiated by Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and developed and refined by Anton Refregier and Arnautoff, both of them Russian-born American lefties. Miranda has created about 35 murals, many of them works of beauty. San Francisco has had a long love-hate relationship with its murals. Some citizens revere them, others want to remove them from view and destroy them.

For the past seventy-five years or so, the 49-square miles of San Francisco have been a battleground in which the sides have been sharply drawn between the lovers and the haters of art and poetry, and between capital and labor, African-Americans and racist cops, reactionaries and liberals, the counterculture and conservatism and between the LGBT community and the forces that would repress sex, sexuality and the human body.

No wonder that author Rebecca Solnit has written two books about San Francisco, one of them titled Hollow City, which depicts the gangly metropolis as the home of monopoly capitalism, the other titled Infinite City which presents the alternatives to that same global system.

Perched on the edge of the continent, San Francisco has provided artists and writers with a unique vantage point to look back in time and space and see the distance the nation and its inhabitants have traveled from colonial outpost to republic and to empire, and from the Puritans and the abolitionists to the robber barons and the bohemians, to name some of its more colorful figures. Bergman knows the contours of American history, plus the shape of Third World liberation struggles which influenced radicals in the Sixties and that still move Bay Area radicals today.

Bergman recently completed (at the start of 2021) a powerful work of art that’s titled, “We Still Charge Genocide” which has not yet been exhibited. It depicts a portion of the globe, the symbol of the UN, the red petals of a flower, three young, jubilant children, a raised fist and an image of singer, actor and U.S. Communist Party member, Paul Robeson who holds a petition in his right hand that reads, “We still charge genocide.”

“We Still Charge Genocide” by Miranda Bergman.

The text in Bergman’s 2021 mural contains some of the language from the original 1951 petition, “We Charge Genocide,” which Robeson and fellow CP member, William Patterson, presented to the United Nations to alert the world to the “mass slayings” of Black people. In her mural, Miranda has included the names of 42 African-Americans who were killed by the police in 2020.

In fact, as she knows, more than 100 African-Americans were killed by the police in 2020. Some, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, will be familiar to anyone who has followed the Black Lives Matter movement. Others, such as Sincere Pierce, Dijon Kizzie and Priscilla Slater, are less well known, though their names are etched in the hearts of family members and friends who remember their lives and their deaths.

“I like to hold up a lamp and make visible the invisible,” Miranda tells me. Sometimes that means holding up a lamp to genocide. Not surprisingly, it was a European Jew named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959)— who experienced Fascism first hand in World War II—who coined the word “genocide.” Then he tried to own it.

In 1951, when William Patterson and Robeson brought their petition to the UN, Lemkin accused them of serving as agents for the Soviet Union. He insisted that the treatment of Blacks didn’t qualify as “genocide.” Lempkin also called upon the UN to find the Soviet Union “guilty of genocide.” Again, not surprisingly, the word still generates fierce debate today.

Miranda begs to disagree with Lempkin about the treatment of Blacks in the U.S. So does her godson, Tongo Eisen-Martin, a native of San Francisco, and the city’s current poet laureate whose most recent book, Heaven is All Goodbyes, is published by City Lights, the original paperback bookstore that Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded in the early 1950s and that promptly became a beacon for freedom, literacy and insurrection of the sort that art inspires.

Eisen-Martin has a white Jewish mother who lives in San Francisco, and a Black father who is no longer alive. He was named after Josiah Tongogara, a commander of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army who died in 1979 in an automobile accident, or so Wikipedia says. Eisen-Martin insists that Tongogara was assassinated.

His mother, Arlene Eisen, a New Leftist who edited and wrote for the Sixties underground newspaper, The Movement, is also the author of the landmark book, Women of Vietnam (1974), published by People’s Press of San Francisco. Eisen raised Tongo and his brother, Biko, now an actor on stage and on TV and in film. Both brothers have an awareness of the national liberation struggles that rocked the world in the aftermath of World War II and that led to the break-up of European empires.

In 2013, in conjunction with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), Arlene Eisen wrote a report titled “Operation Ghetto Storm” that detailed the “extrajudicial killings of 313 Black people by police, security guards and vigilantes” in 2012. She dedicated the work “to the mothers whose children have been killed” and who have turned their “pain into a struggle for justice and liberation.”

She also dedicated it to her sons “who so far have survived ‘Operation Ghetto Storm’ and my chronic anxiety that they come home safely.” Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles of young Black men in America share those sentiments now, as always.

Tongo Eisen-Martin, Miranda Bergman’s godson, was born in 1980, just in time for the “Reagan Revolution,” though he is clearly a child of the Sixties. “In 1968, it looked like a victory of the proletariat was possible,” Tongo tells me. “The late 1960s are a preoccupation of mine.”

My conversations with him, and my reading of his poetry, tell me that he’s imbued with some of the hopefulness of Sixties folk who wanted to change the world, and also with some of the glumness that hit some of the same people in the Eighties when the empire struck back.

The poems in Tongo’s award-winning book, Heaven is All Goodbyes, oscillate between a world of genocide on the one hand and a world of resistance on the other. They do not whitewash crimes against humanity and the systemic violence perpetrated against people of color. On the contrary, they rub the face of the reader in images of lynching, barbed wire and prisons, as though to provoke defiance.

“Faceless,” the first poem in the book, offers these five lines: “The start of mass destruction/ Begins and ends/ In restaurant bathrooms/ That some people use/ And other people clean.” The last poem in the volume, “The Oldest Then the Youngest,” begins, “Grandmother, why don’t you ever talk about your children who the first world murdered?” The grandmother replies, “Because, son, I haven’t run out of knife handles.”

Sometimes there is gallows humor, as in the poem, “we may all refuse to die at the same time.” (Eisen-Martin doesn’t capitalize that title). A bit further on he writes, “They lynched his car too. Strung it up right next to him.” The poems move from the intimate and the conversational to the provocative and the defiant as in “I Almost Go Away,” which begins, “Sorry I’m late, dear,” and ends, “I am a proletariat-folding-chair class victim.”

Nearly all the poems are difficult. Indeed, they resist easy interpretations, invite rereading and nearly all get into the head and under the skin of the reader. Tongo Eisen-Martin tends to emphasize the bleak side. As a boy and as a young man, he grew up on the streets of San Francisco, which felt like home. More recently, he has experienced the city as a kind of no man’s land, hospitable to no one. San Francisco, he observes, is a “dystopia where even the wealthy are incarcerated.”

An anti-racist curriculum he created nearly a decade before the murder of George Floyd and the advent of Black Lives Matter, is titled “We Charge Genocide Again.” It was inspired by the petition that Robeson and Patterson brought to the UN in 1951, and also by his mother’s booklet, “Every 28 Hours.” In the Introduction to “We Charge Genocide Again,  Eisen-Martin writes, “In 2012, police summarily executed more than 313 Black people—one every 28 hours.” He adds, “The use of deadly force against Black people is standard practice in the U.S.—woven into the very fabric of society.”

Dana Smith, a San Francisco artist, activist and photographer, takes the long view of society and change. Right now she’s working on an historical project that will combine words and images in an expansive collage that will tell an epic tale about her family and U.S. history.

Smith’s great-great-grandfather, William (Will) Garrett Fisher—a foe of slavery, an American patriot and a soldier in the Union Army—fought at Gettysburg and took part in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Siege of Atlanta. Fisher wrote over 150 letters to family members, including his mother, that describe his experiences on bloody battlefields. In one letter he writes with excitement about seeing President Lincoln. Perhaps one day, Fisher will be at the center of a mural.

“We never really ended the Civil War,” Smith tells me. “The invasion of the U.S. Capitol and Black Lives Matter are an echo of ancestral trauma that resonate today.” When Smith arrived in San Francisco in 1982 at the age of 23, portions of the city were in ruins. Financial institutions were on the ropes. “It’s starting to feel like that again,” Smith says. “Over the last few decades, people have been evicted from homes so the tech companies could move in. Now the tech companies are abandoning the city. They’re not loyal to the place or to its citizens.”                                                                               In 1984 Smith protested with many others at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. A punk rocker, she attended concerts such as “Rock Against Reagan” and “Rock Against Rent.” When Dianne Feinstein ran for mayor after the assassinations in 1978 of supervisor and gay activist, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone, she and some friends made a poster that read “Re-elect Frankenstein.” It depicted the candidate with a “Bride of Frankenstein” hairdo. During the decade of the 1980s, many of the people Smith knew and loved died of AIDS.

Still, despite that tragedy Smith tends to see human beings as “endless entertaining, endlessly fungible and endlessly loveable.” Against nearly all the odds, she believes in social amelioration. “In 1860, many Americans didn’t see chattel slavery as wrong,” she tells me. “Now, most do. As a species we are slowly making progress, though we’re still coming to terms with wage slavery.”                              Like Miranda Bergman and like Tongo Eisen-Martin, Smith makes art that’s public and that communicates across the divides that keep people at war with one another and with themselves. Miranda Bergman, Eisen-Martin and Dana Smith are each, in their own ways, San Franciscans who have been shaped by the city and its struggles to find itself and its underlying humanity. They all mean to bind wounds, heal and nurture.

Bergman calls herself  “a transformer.” Perhaps that word also applies to Smith and Tongo Eisen-Martin, who both take something that’s often called “reality,” and, through the alchemy of art, transform it into something that offers beauty and truth. Whether they call what they long for “liberation,” “resistance” or “progress,” they exemplify the best of the city that sits at a crossroads of the world and that looks to Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, all of them places that also turn to San Francisco for inspiration and consolation.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.