Arcata, CA–It has now been over three weeks since Arcata’s City Council voted to remove the statue of former President William McKinley from Arcata’s Plaza.
Last year in December, the Arcata City Council held a public forum for community members to voice their feelings on the statue. Just like the most recent city council meeting there were a few people in favor of keeping the statue but the majority of those who spoke, overwhelmingly voiced that they would like to see the statue removed from the Plaza’s center.
Arcata, a small, rural, town in Northern California is no different from places like San Fransisco and other states–whose residents find themselves in the midst of debates about the historical context of statues and monuments and the signals they represent in current times.
At the Feb. 21 Arcata City Council meeting over 40 people spoke during public comment on their reasoning behind why the statue should be removed from the Plaza’s center. There were a few people who spoke in favor, one man in particular noted McKinley as a President who was assassinated. This man then turned slightly to the crowd and asked a group of marginalized and oppressed people, “How many of your people have taken a bullet . . . . . “ which caused an uproar from the audience.
The Arcata City Council voted to remove the statue 4-1 in a motion led by Council Member Paul Pitino. Councilwoman Susan Orneals seconded the motion. The only person to vote against the statue’s removal was Councilman Michael Winkler–although Brett Watson spoke in favor of sending the issue to the ballot for Arcata residents to vote.
After the vote community members who attended the council meeting were labeled as “mob like” in an open letter by Winkler to Arcata’s Mayor Sofia Pereira.
Angry, white, Arcata residents most of whom grew up in Arcata, began to voice their discontent over the city council vote via Facebook. Comment thread debates as well as a Facebook Page Let the people vote on our McKinley Statue was created.
These comments were supported by former Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser, who wrote an open letter threatening the city with legal action over their vote.
Letter from former Arcata City Manager and Mayor Dan Hauser to the City Council:
Madam Mayor and Members of the City Council:
I was disappointed and surprised to see how badly the City Council got rolled by a vocal mob on Wednesday evening. At the same time, having been in similar situations, I can understand the pressure you felt at the time.
I had assumed that you would have put the issue of the McKinley statue to a vote to allow the entire community to participate. However, now that you have made this unfortunate decision, you must make it clear to the proponents of removal that their task is far from over.
To begin with, it would be totally unfair and unreasonable to promote this effort with City funds. If the proponents are so anxious to see the Plaza changed then they must start a fund to pay for it. That would have to include the cost of the General Plan Amendment, the Environmental Impact Report and the cost of removal/relocation.
A number of us and our attorneys will be watching carefully to make sure that City funds are not misused for this project.
At the Arcata City Council meeting last week Mar. 7 City Council member Ornelas presented the council and those who attended the meeting with a McKinley Statue Vote Proposal, to help the council decide on the location of the statue. One location listed was the corner of the plaza. This gave the impression that Ornelas might be attempting to back-peddle on her vote after public pressure. This only fueled distrust from the communities of color in Arcata, who once believed that the city was moving forward with restorative justice efforts from the centuries of murder, rape and oppression endured by Indigenous people from white settlers in Humboldt County.
Now the Arcata City Council finds themselves in the midst of a fiasco and next week their regular city council meeting will be held at the Arcata Community Center. Community members are expected to come out yet again, for a public debate over the statue. What will be said that has not been said before, how did we end up here yet again and how will the community move forward?
Letters to the editor have also been published in local newspapers by community members in support of the statue removal, as well as some wanting it to remain.
At least the Jacoby Storehouse plaque was completely phased out in a move led by the storehouse’s co-owner, Bill Chino. The plaque marked the Jacoby Storehouse on Arcata’s Plaza as a historical landmark.
Arcata’s City Council agreed to change the wording on the plaque, which referred to the oppression of Indigenous people in the area as “Indian troubles” and noting the storehouse as a place of refuge for the white community during those times.
The American Historical Association (AHA) said that to remove a monument “is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history.”AHA also noted that most monuments were erected “without anything resembling a democratic process,” especially from communities of color, so why is everyone so mad now?
In addition, lets not get marginalized communities and white folks who understand history and its effects, confused with real mobs of angry white people who have inflicted VIOLENCE against people of color throughout history for wanting to be involved in America’s democratic process.