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Town Destroyer

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Town Destroyer explores the ways we look at art and history at a time of racial reckoning. The story focuses on a dispute over historic murals depicting the life of George Washington: slaveowner, general, land speculator, President, and a man Seneca leaders called "Town Destroyer" after he ordered their villages destroyed during the Revolutionary War.

The murals, at San Francisco's George Washington High School, were painted in 1936 by leftwing artist Victor Arnautoff, a student of Diego Rivera. The murals both praise Washington and—rare for the time—critically depict him overseeing his slaves and directing the bloody seizure of Native lands. Most controversial is a provocative image of a dead Indian—life-size, eye-level, and at the center of the school.

Opponents of the murals, led by Native American parents, demand the School Board order them painted over. For them, the murals' graphic depictions of slavery and genocide are racist and harm students, Native students in particular. Defenders of the murals warn of the dangers of censoring priceless works of art, and urge the Board to `teach the murals.' Heated debates spill into the community and make national headlines. The fight—taking place in the wake of battles over Confederate monuments across the U.S.—becomes a catalyst for a national discussion about censorship, reparations, generational trauma, the ways in which America's history of genocide and slavery is taught and memorialized, and the differences between monuments built to further white supremacy and art that critiques racism.

How should a changing society deal with controversial works of art? Do the intentions of the artist matter? or just the impact on viewers? Is it censorship to destroy murals that show painful histories? What does our country owe people who have been historically wronged?

On our journey we meet with art curators Rick West Jr. (Cheyenne) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), artists Dewey Crumpler and Judith Lowry (Maidu-Pit River), UCLA Historian Robin D.G. Kelley, and others who speak to the difficulty and imperatives of listening to each other.

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