Two weeks ago, Republican Governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of a mural depicting the history of organized labor in Maine that was commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission and displayed in the state's Department of Labor building in 2008. He also made clear his intentions to rename several meeting rooms that had been named after historic labor leaders, including Frances Perkins and Cesar Chavez. The following are the prepared remarks to be delivered by Maine artist and activist, Robert Shetterly, at a rally held today in the state capital of Augusta:
“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.” Those are the words of Arthur Miller, the great American playwright, author of Death of a Salesman, the Crucible, and All my Sons.
Judy Taylor’s mural has fulfilled Arthur Miller’s definition of the artist’s job -- and now, being censored by this governor, it succeeds, ironically, more than ever. We need reminding of the nobility and courage in our history that confronted exploitation so we might be challenged to do the same today. How wonderful it is that an artist like Judy is there to remind us.
Governor LePage’s attempt to discredit and suppress history serves as another kind of reminder about how easily it can be lost and why. He has tried to neuter the Department of Labor by removing the true soul of its mission. He has tried to tell us that organized labor in defiance of a vastly more organized business community is unfair, not balanced. He would have you believe that organizing to struggle against social and economic inequality is somehow un-American and bad for business. He knows our history so little, or forgets it so well, that he does not know that the only, I repeat, the only, reason we have freedoms and equalities in this country is because of idealistic, organized struggle by people who had been marginalized for others’ profit. And the presumption of removing Cesar Chavez and Frances Perkins, great heroes of our democracy and social equality, as names of committee rooms, is like deciding to tell the story of our Revolution without mentioning Tom Paine or Sam Adams.
Just as we cannot be true citizens if we forget our past history, as citizens today we cannot fail the obligations of our current history. The mural must be returned. We will not fail.
I am reminded by these events of the great Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer who said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I am sick and tired of the crude disrespectful remarks of this governor. I don’t like him telling any president to go to hell. I am outraged that he would call the NAACP an “interest group” and tell them to “kiss his butt.” I am sick and tired of his sexist remarks like those about the dangerous chemical additive BPA, that it might cause a few women to grow beards -- so what’s the big deal? He said he hadn’t seen the science on BPA -- he hadn’t seen it because he’s incapable of understanding it -- except as it effects the bottom line of its manufacturer. And he obviously has no idea of the difference between estrogen and testosterone. Poor man.
And now, I am especially sick and tired of his arrogant and -- how else to call them -- stupid comments about this labor mural. He calls those of us who would stand in the way of its removal “idiots” deserving of his ridicule. If that’s the case, then every conscientious struggle for dignity and fairness, democracy and equality, justice and decency in our history, deserves his contempt. And, I’m sure he would freely give it. He may be arrogant and stupid, but he is not naïve. This was just one more act in the corporate agenda of domestic imperialism.
And LePage’s decision to remove the mural secretly was one of the most cowardly acts I have witnessed. If he believed he was right about removing it, that its eradication was good for the people of Maine, he would have done it in daylight, and been there himself to take credit for protecting us from art as propaganda. In fact, he would be here right now, if he had the courage of his words.
Rarely has an elected leader made clearer the difference between respect accorded to an office and respect earned by its holder. Paul LePage has embarrassed himself, not us. Disgraced himself, not the state of Maine. The embarrassment and disgrace will be ours if we fail.
We demand that the mural be returned, we demand legislative protection for the rights of labor from the predatory attacks of organized capital, and we demand leadership worthy of the good people of this state.