A controversial statue of a former San Jose mayor and captain in the Mexican–American War is one step closer to the chopping block after the city’s Art Commission on Monday night endorsed its removal.
After months of collecting public input and hearing from historians, the arts commission unanimously recommended that San Jose officials remove the Thomas Fallon statue from its prominent downtown San Jose location on St. James street and place it in storage. The city council will make the ultimate decision whether to follow the commission’s recommendation at its meeting on Nov. 9.
“The fact that this piece causes such deep turmoil for so many — those of you who have made this city what it is — it is unacceptable to me,” said commissioner Audrey Rumsby. “… To me, this is a very simple decision.”
Commissioner Richard James, who said that the idea of hiding art and history was typically “repugnant” to him, acknowledged that the piece had “morphed into a contentious and unwelcome symbol.”
Under the commission’s recommendation, the roughly 12,000-pound piece of art will permanently sit in storage unless a history museum or academic institution is interested in displaying it exclusively for educational purposes. If that day arises, the city would be required to go through a full public review process to approve the statue’s new purpose. It would never be permitted to be reinstalled on public land in San Jose.
“If there is some future date where it can be displayed in proper context in a fuller sense of history by an outside entity, say a historical museum of some kind, then it should be available for that purpose,” said commissioner Charlie McCollum. “But until then, I think it’s time for it to go into storage.”
Despite some opponents concerns that the statue would remain on display, Kerry Adams Harper, San Jose culture affairs director, said it is unlikely that the city receives any immediate interest — or interest whatsoever — from outside agencies to display the statue
“The reality is that this work of art is very large; it is not very portable; it needs to be reconstructed when it is reinstalled,” she said. “… That whole process will be quite expensive and I wouldn’t expect that that is something the city would want to choose to pay for unless there was some type of outside funder or organization.”
The bronze statue of Thomas Fallon depicts a little-known event during the Mexican-American War in which Capt. Fallon and another rider on horseback in 1846 hoisted the American flag in San Jose as a symbol of the U.S. claiming California and much of the Southwest from Mexico.
The merits of the statue have been debated since the day community members got word of it back in the 80s, but the matter was once again thrust into the spotlight last year amid calls for racial justice after the police killing of George Floyd.
The statue, which was commissioned in 1988 under then-Mayor Tom McEnery without any public process, sat in storage for about a decade because of community protests before it was finally installed in 2002. Within the last year, people have spray-painted the statue, splashed it with red paint to resemble blood on Fallon’s hands and attempted to set it on fire.
Opponents of the statue argue that it serves as a symbol of imperialism and a celebration of the subjugation of Mexican and Native American residents. During an emotional forum earlier this year, opponents argued that the statue celebrated “oppression,” “racism,” “White supremacy” and even “genocide.”
“We had broad support 30 years ago and we continue to have broad support,” resident Kathy Napoli said at Monday’s arts commission meeting. “It’s not just the Latino community that supports this issue of removing the statue. It’s a large group of our community that thinks that it should not be where it is.”
Some historians, however, dispute the true nature and facts related to Fallon and the extent of his involvement in the Mexican-American War.
Local historian April Halberstadt submitted a 14-page report to the commission hoping to prove that Fallon was not involved in the genocide of Native Americans and urge the commissioners to keep the statue in place.
“Only perseverance and continued discussion will allow the San Jose community a reasonable resolution to the deep unhappiness that we have now been hearing,” she said. “Only accurate information, based on truth, can make a difference. We can’t change history. We can find peace.”
Although Mayor Sam Liccardo also said he felt there was some widespread misinformation circulating about the actual event depicted by the statue, he asked for the statue’s removal in February saying that it was time for the city “to move on.”
Taking down the statue will require barricading and shutting down a lane of traffic on St. James Street, jackhammering the concrete foundation, operating a crane to remove it and transporting it to storage. The estimated value of the statue — $6,000 — and the estimated value of melting the bronze and selling it are not enough to cover the cost of removing it, which comes with an estimated price tag of up to $150,000, according to the city.
Under San Jose policies, artists of city-commissioned public artwork must be offered the first chance to buy the artwork before it is removed. In this case, the statue’s artist, Robert Glen of Tanzania told city officials that he was not interested in buying it back but asked the city not to melt it. The nonprofit organization History San José also declined an offer by the city to take the statue, citing its racist symbolism as well as a lack of space and security to protect it from vandalism.
If the removal of the statue is approved by the city council next month, it will be the second time in recent years that San Jose leaders removed a public piece of art memorializing a controversial historical figure. In 2018, San Jose officials took down a statue of Christopher Columbus that previously stood in the City Hall lobby.