Mural swastika jolts a quiet Cedar Rapids council race

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Want to spice up a sleepy City Council runoff campaign? Toss in a swastika.

In this case, the swastika appears on a mural in the Cedar Rapids City Council Chambers, painted in 1936 when the building was a federal courthouse. It decorates a Native American teepee in a scene depicting “witchcraft and superstition.” In that context, according to local experts on the mural, it’s most likely a nod to the swastika’s long pre-Nazi place among native symbols, and not an artistic tip of the cap to the Third Reich.

But that swastika doesn’t sit well with District 5 City Council candidate Ashley Vanorny, who has been frequently sitting in the council chambers over the past several months. On Thursday, her concerns landed on The Gazette’s front page, in a story by B.A. Morelli headlined “Candidate calls to remove swastika from Cedar Rapids City Hall mural.”

This got some attention. Did I mention the runoff election is on Tuesday? She’s challenging incumbent Council member Justin Shields.

So Vanorny spent much of Thursday fielding calls and responding to outcry over the story on social media. She individually addressed numerous critical commenters on The Gazette’s Facebook page. Her campaign, which had been about housing, public transit, neighborhood and other city issues suddenly was swallowed by a debate over history, symbols and political correctness.

I was one of those callers. I think removing the swastika is a bad idea. But after speaking with her I get the impression Vanorny is far more interested in providing some additional public information and context explaining the chamber’s four murals than she is in covering the swastika with a swipe of paint.

“I think, at the very least, you have to have that context,” Vanorny told me. “And I think that it’s missing now. I’m actually really happy there seems to be a lot of people who understand the symbolism behind the swastika, but I guarantee there also are just as many who do not.

“If they see that, or they see some of these other images, I don’t want them to feel unwelcome in City Hall,” Vanorny said.

Shields called the issue “ridiculous.”

“Obviously, the symbol had been around for thousands of years,” Shields said in a voice mail message. “The Nazis, as you know, stole a lot of things.”

When Vanorny sees the swastika, she thinks about her grandfather, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany shipped to an Australian internment camp by the British in the late 1930s. She understands the symbol’s long history, but the swastika’s modern role as a symbol of Nazi oppression and mass murder is burned into her family history.

The murals have stoked debate before. Four artists set to work on them in July 1936 in what was a third-floor courtroom. According to a Gazette article at the time, it was the largest public art project ever undertaken by the U.S. Treasury Department. It’s worth noting that July 1936 remains the hottest-ever month on record in Iowa. Hardly an optimal time for toiling near a third-floor ceiling.

On May 1, 1956, according to The Gazette, workmen began painting over the murals. Lawyers and judges found their images, in particular a scene depicting a lynching, “inappropriate.” There was talk of removing the murals for display elsewhere, but painting was deemed more feasible. The murals were uncovered in the 1960s, inspected and painted over again.

When the city took over the courthouse in 2011, and the courtroom became the council chambers, officials decided to restore the murals to their original condition. They were to be uncovered and displayed both as art and as historic artifacts, warts, controversies and all.

In fact, when it was discovered a part of an original mural had been removed at some point — displaying newspapers with the mischievous, suggestive headlines “Sweden Defeats Syphilis” and “Play Ball!” — the restoration crew was directed to recreate it.

And I think the city’s commitment to historic authenticity is the right call, even if the mural spawns controversy.

I, too, have spent considerable time looking at the murals during council meetings. At first glance, they depict a heroic version of Midwest history and social progress, from, for example, lynch mobs to courts of law and from superstition to science. But look closer and there also are Depression-era misgivings about our American march to modernity, with depictions of forced labor, displaced Native Americans and tenements.

Like so many things of this nature, pulled from another era and displayed in this one, it’s complicated. And there are multiple images in the mural than might offend 21st Century eyes. If we start wielding a brush to cover over all offenses, we’re going to need quite a bit of paint.

And, no, this isn’t really akin to some Confederate monument created to glorify a historic wrong and perpetuate its poisonous legacy long afterward. The swastika wasn’t cast in bronze and placed on a pedestal in Greene Square as an atta boy to goose-stepping brown shirts.

Instead, it’s an artistic window into our history. There are cracks, flaws and facets that may skew our individual view. And there’s no guarantee you’ll like what you see.

But Vanorny makes a fair point about providing maximum context. The city does have pictures and explanatory material posted outside the council chamber, information on its website and sponsors lectures on the murals. Three are scheduled for December, January and February. An earlier lecture is posted online.

Even if you disagree with Vanorny, you have to at least give her credit for how she’s tried to engage her critics. A lot of candidates would have run for cover.

“I don’t think we need to tear everything down and pretend things didn’t happen. I certainly would be the last person to say that,” Vanorny said. “But I think we need to have a community conversation about it.”

Mission accomplished. The conversation is on.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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