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"Bang the Hate" Mural Pushes Limits

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

May 4 -- In February, Santa Monica High School’s walls were disfigured by hateful slurs. Now some students want to cover one with a mural that combats racism, but say they’ve run into a wall of opposition from school officials.

After the senseless killing of their friend Eddie Lopez, students in Against All Odds, a multiracial high school club, asked their friend, artist Jun Cha, to create a picture that would express their shock and anger.

“We need to come together and stop fighting ourselves and start fighting the hate that’s dividing us,” said Cha, an Advanced Placement art student. The image expresses “what us kids are about.”

Image courtesy of Jun Cha Click to enlarge image

Cha created a sketch showing a field of angry men of various races attacking a wall with the words “INJUSTICE” and “HATE” written on it. Prominent among them is a figure of a young man wearing jersey number 28, Lopez’s number. Behind the men on a banner are the words “BANG THE HATE!”

A police helicopter hovers in the orange and red sky behind them. Behind the wall, the word “PEACE” is written in stylized letters, flanked by such heroes as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X.

They’re joined by gangsta rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.

But district administrators didn’t see the image the same way the students had. While most administrators contacted by The Lookout were reluctant to discuss the contents of the mural, the image of angry men storming the wall seemed to have disturbed them.

“It looks like it has a prison setting,” Principal Dr. Ilene Straus said she told the students when they showed her the sketch. “It’s well drawn,” Straus told The Lookout Wednesday, but said she was concerned about the picture’s tone.

“It’s not getting a good response,” Cha admitted.

Like the other members of Against All Odds, Cha wanted to do something positive in response to Lopez’s senseless murder.

The slogan “BANG THE HATE” tagging the picture is designed to divert negative energy in a positive direction, he explained.

“Bang” is an expression used by “gangbangers” that means asking someone “where you from” and then shooting him, Cha said.

He uses it in the picture to exhort people, like friends of his who “did gangbang, do gangbang,” to refocus their energy on breaking down the “wall of division” that oppresses them, Cha said.

Cha and his fellow students have found a champion in School Board member Oscar de la Torre, whose nephew Frankie is a founding member of Against All Odds. They turned to him for help when Straus rejected their project, de la Torre said.

But Straus said it was never up to her to approve or reject the mural. That’s the job of a school committee composed of staff and, in this case, PTA members.

Many people want to put things on the walls at SAMOHI, she said. “It’s not the principal’s decision.

“We will fairly consider the students’ request,” Straus added, saying that the students should have an answer from the committee next week.

The student club has asked to put the painting up on the main wall of the administration building at the center of campus, already the site of an ongoing “re-landscaping” project sponsored by the PTA, Straus said.

The site they want is problematic, not just because it would interfere with the plantings already in place, Straus said. It’s in a central location, and sets the tone for the school.

Anything that gets put on the walls should “stand the test of time, and give the message we want it to give,” Straus said, adding that it’s important to consider how the mural affects all groups at the diverse high school.

De la Torre doesn’t see it the same way. When he worked as a student counselor at SAMOHI, he was the driving force behind the mural at the school’s traffic circle that celebrates Cesar Chavez and Latino farm workers.

He thinks the new mural belongs at the school.

“It’s a beautiful image. It shows people working together for peace,” de la Torre said. “If you have angry graffiti, put a peaceful mural over it.”

He thinks the controversy over the mural is symptomatic of a profound “disconnect” in the school’s culture.

“The values of the group that’s in power dictate everything that happens at that campus,” de la Torre said. Officials are going to look at the image and say, “’Oh, that’s garbage, it looks ugly,’” he said. “What’s being missed, we’re dealing with a hate crime, a death, a hard impact.”

De la Torre, himself, doesn’t agree with everything in the image, but doesn’t see why the administration can’t send Cha back to the drawing board to make it more acceptable.

Some have told Cha the image is “too violent, too many angry men,” the artist admitted.

Cha is willing to make some changes, add women to the crowd, maybe some people in business suits, “more different classes,” and insert Rosa Parks in the pantheon of heroes.

But he isn’t willing to change the aesthetic. “We’re not going to change the way it looks,” Cha said.

Cha thinks it would be in Straus’ best interests to support the mural.

“This could be a positive thing for her, too,” he said. “There’s been a lot of things happening at the school. A lot of people are not happy.”

Cha and his friends are determined to see their project through. “It’s going to take a lot of time and convincing,” he said. They are circulating a petition and want to make a presentation to the Board of Education, hoping it will intervene in their favor.

Board President Julia Brownley, who’s seen the image, told The Lookout that the elected officials will give the students a hearing.

“They’ll get their three minutes,” she said, referring to public comments that are open to all, and maybe more than that.

“Everyone will have a chance to weigh in,” Brownley said. “As one board member, I certainly would want to hear from the kids.”

As to the image itself, Brownley didn’t want to comment. “I think we need to talk about it collectively at the board,” she said. “I can’t talk to my constituents through the newspapers.”

A district official who does not want to be identified said it will be on the agenda at the May 18 board meeting.

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