Mad River Union Editorial: Vote yes on Measure M to save the McKinley statue, honor history

Arcatans can reaffirm their friendly, small-town values and local history by voting yes on Measure M. Doing so overrides the City Council’s peremptory, anti-democratic ruling of Feb. 21 and keep the statue of President William McKinley where it belongs – at the center of our town square.

The scene at City Council Chamber Feb. 21, where pro-statue comment was unwelcome. KLH | Union

Not the council’s decision

The council’s decision was made during a meeting in which those in favor of keeping our statue were overwhelmed and intimidated – shouted down, flipped off and f-bombed – and made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in offering their opinions at their own City Hall.

Were the ruling to stand unchallenged, it would forever be tainted as one not made by the people, but by cowed politicians. This is a decision that only the people of Arcata can make.

A compromised conversation

The harsh environment is stifling the rich, sometimes nuanced conversation we ought to be having. We aren’t looking for common ground and compromise in dealing with our difficult, shared history. Retaining our statue acknowledges reality and opens the door to more conversation and understanding.   

This historic decision merits a more thoughtful examination of the issues and impacts involved.

The role of public art

Removing the statue will do nothing to address the unspeakable horror visited on the region’s indigenous peoples by arriving settlers in the mid-1800s.

What it would do is eliminate the public art that spurs us to learn about those who shaped our town and culture.

What is the role of public art? In part, it is to shed light on our history; to tell us about the people who set history in motion. The statue itself holds a storied history – wrought by an immigrant sculptor, surviving the flames of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, purchased by a town founder and received with great pomp and circumstance by 2,000 citizens as “a gift to the city of Arcata for all time to come.”

It was on those terms that the statue was accepted, and should remain in its honored place.

Scrambled standards

Had any modern Arcatans ridden into physical battle against actual armies of racists in a war to end human enslavement, and gained three battlefield promotions for valor, they’d be hailed as heroes in this town. There’d be speeches, features named after the person – possibly even a statue.

In Congress and as a Republican Party leader, McKinley supported civil rights reform. He later put actions to his words by appointing African-Americans to posts in his administration.

It’s odd to think how, if McKinley were around today, he might instead be posting and tweeting his abolitionist views online in the form of point-scoring, virtue-signaling zingers rather than accomplishing anything – and collecting kudos for the progressive blurts.

Oversimplified history

Another question trampled in the burly debate around the statue and the man it represents is to what extent politicians create history, and how much they create it.

The foreign adventures so often cited in oversimplified fashion as evidence of McKinley’s genocide-mongering are anything but the damning evidence statue opponents cast them as.

To truly understand the military actions in which the McKinley administration engaged, you have to look at the turbulent politics of the time, both domestic and international.

There is a lot of culpability to spread around, and while McKinley could have done more to avert death and destruction, he was by no means driven to kill people as some kind of end in itself. McKinley made his decisions based, according to him, via a mixture of religious searching, economic concerns and national pride.

His foreign adventures forged what came to be known as “non-colonial imperialism” – another example of his attempts to balance realism and idealism.

It was pluralism and participation, not disenfranchisement and domination, that drove McKinley’s intention in eliminating tribal governments.

The guiding theory, championed by the first person of Native American descent to be elected to both the Senate and House, Charles Curtis, was that drawing America’s disparate elements into the democratic fold would bring Indians education and build what today we might call an inclusive society.

Contemporary values

McKinley’s checkered record, like all historical events, is better understood with benefit of hindsight and in the context of his time. But it is only distorted by statue opponents’ cherry-picking and wholesale revisionism – defining a historical figure by the values of right now.

How many of our contemporary political conceits will look silly, even offensive and be subject to subtraction by future revisionists?

If history is any guide, we’re doing a lot of dumb things that we aren’t yet aware of, just as our predecessors past have – even the ones we revere. Spoiler alert: one of those things is trying to expunge unpleasant portions of our past rather than owning them.

Malfeasances, monuments

• As No on Measure M advocates are well aware, even Abraham Lincoln made appalling statements about racial segregation and civil rights.

• Franklin Delano Roosevelt who didn’t allow  the MS St. Louis – a German ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees  to enter the U.S. in 1939. Forced to return to Europe, 254 died at the hands of the Nazis. FDR later created the infamous internment camps for Japanese-Americans.

• The exalted John F Kennedy initiated one of America’s most spectacular and deadly foreign adventures, decried as imperialism and genocide – the Vietnam War.

Viewing these actions with benefit of hindsight, are we now compelled to rename all the streets, schools and towns bearing these historical figures’ names? How is the Lincoln Memorial different from the McKinley statue?

Arcata has a Lincoln Avenue, A Zehndner Avenue, an L.K. Wood Boulevard and a Todd Court. With the precedent of statue removal, these features may also require cleansing. How far are we going to go to cleanse the landscape of history?

Derailing debate

Statue opponents have a host of rhetorical gadgets – some, appallingly for 2018, race-based – to neutralize dissent from their doctrine. Asking where else the history erasure will be applied dismissed as a “derailing tactic” and ignored. But that’s backwards – derailment occurs when discussion is placed off limits.

The plaque for Camp Curtis. Does this go too? KLH | Union

It is completely fair to ask what will become of, for example, the plaque at the northern terminus of L.K. Wood Boulevard marking the location of Camp Curtis. It housed the 1st California Mountaineers Battalion, which actively wiped out Indians wherever they threatened settler interests. Are we going to send that down the memory-hole too? It’s not clear how we benefit from expunging these kinds of historical realities.

It’s been promised that statue removal will usher in a new era of healing and unity, which would certainly be an improvement over the present toxic rhetoric. A cynic might call that holding civility hostage to getting one’s way.

Either way, we’ve seen no sign of improvement, or even acknowledgment of the timely removal of the “Indian Troubles” plaque from Eighth and F streets. The statue debate has only grown more venomous in the aftermath of its removal.

The June 8, 1963 A. Brizard Centennial Celebration, at which the since-removed plaque was unveiled, included ceremonial dances led by Chief Su-Worhrom. That was the remarkable Dale Risling, Sr., a vibrant Indian leader of unquestioned stature and accomplishment.

He, like others, made choices consistent with their time. In context, it would be foolish to fault them, much less make them non-persons – for this.      

It would be interesting to know who, if anyone among our historical predecessors was in proper sync with today’s prevailing views on other important issues.

Take a sampling of some of today’s issues – women’s rights, LGBTQ awareness, wetlands preservation, animal welfare, handicapped access, secondhand smoke, even personal hygiene. Can any of us alive today truly say that had we been born in an earlier time, we would have held contemporary positions on these issues?

If we are to index our awareness of the people of yesteryear to today’s highly evolved moral standards, we may as well issue blank history books. It remains unclear why any historical figures would be  downplayed and deleted for not being politically prescient by decades and centuries.

Classic values

Today, we’re seeing newly repackaged attempts to define each other by our parentage and pigmentation.

While the federal government uses divisive racial rhetoric to inflame the immigration debate, some involved in the statue controversy are told they have less credibility than others in discussing the statue and related issues. It’s ludicrous.

Another person whom Arcata has a street named after – Martin Luther King Jr. – dreamed of the time when people are judged for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

That timeless, progressive principle is more appealing than ever, and hopefully it won’t fall so far out of vogue that his street name is jeopardized.

Inclusive history

Inclusion, by definition, applies to everyone.  Every time you hear it asserted that the McKinley statue has no historical relevance to Arcata, think about the countless tens of thousands of people who have lived and died in Arcata from 1906, when the statue was installed, until now.

They went through wars, the Depression, the disasters, the holidays, the civic ceremonies with their iconic statue, dressing it up, photographing it and embroidering it deeply into Arcata history.

These people raised families, built the town we all use and enjoy, and lived out their lives here. Their history is as real and valid as those who came long before, because we’re all in this together.

There’s another principle we’re confident will survive the winds of political fashion: that this land is  your land, my land and everyone’s land.

Addition, not subtraction

You don’t improve history, or leverage its hard-won lessons, by scrubbing the unpleasant parts. It’s an additive, not a subtractive process.

That’s why we need more reminders of our past, not fewer. The McKinley statue would be well augmented by an interpretive plaque. And if we do nothing else, we need to better elevate, remember and honor the Wiyot People who lived here for thousands of years long before any of us were born. Creation of a Wiyot monument is only a long-overdue beginning to that process.

Let’s open out hearts and minds to all of our shared history, building on what we have. Vote yes on Measure M, to save our statue and take responsibility for our past and future.






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2 Comments

  1. Gordan Inkeles said:

    Bravo!!

    It’s also worth noting that most of the “NO” crowd live in McKinleyville. We’ve heard nothing from them on renaming their own town and expunging the word McKinley from all town records.

  2. kfjs said:

    Excellent, reasoned, and insightful. Erasing the unpleasant parts of history erases the opportunity to learn from them.

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