Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA CITY HALL – In a historic decison, the Arcata City Council voted Wednesday night to remove the state of William McKinley from the Arcata Plaza. The statue has been located at the Plaza's center since 1906.
While McKinley has always been an odd fit for Arcata, never having been to the town, objections have intensfied in recent years. McKinley's politics, policies and conquests have become synonymous with racist oppression. The objections have been particularly fierce among local Native Americans, some of whom consider McKinley's continuing presence a symbol of the genocide visited on indigenous people during settlement by European Americans.
The council meeting was preceded by a rally on the Plaza by anti-McKinley activists, who then marched to City Hall for the pivotal meeting.
Councilmember Paul Pitino was ready at the meeting's outset to make a motion to remove the statue and the "Indian troubles" plaque designating the Jacoby Building a historic landmark, but the council held action until after public testimony was taken.
Councilmember Michael Winkler said he wanted to put the matter to a vote of the people.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas offered a lengthy explanation to the effect that weighing all the statue's assets and liabilities, and the diverse opinions of constituents, she was "of two minds" on the matter.
Councilmember Brett Watson advocated for a ballot measure, suggesting that the estimated $65,000 removal cost might be better spent on a homeless shelter, but that citizens should decide.
Mayor Sofia Pereira said the arguments for removing the statue were most persuasive, but that she supported relocating it.
With that, oral communication began, with citizen testimony overwhelmingly in favor of removing the statue and plaque. Dozens of speakers implored the council to get rid of the statue. Speakers, many of them Native Americans, said the magnitude of McKinley's imperialism, and the atrocities committed in the Phillipines and elsewhere under his administration, compelled the removal of his effigy. Some non-Indian speakers said they saw it as a way to correct the wrongs committed by their ancestors. Many said a vote of Arcata citizens, with its minute Native American demographic, would be inherently unfair.
Throughout the hearing, and despite repeated admonitions by Pereira, members of the crowd erupted in cheers, jeers and applause over statements that pleased or displeased them.
Just one citizen, Owen Moore, defended President McKinley. He described the 25th president as someone who'd fought for the oppressed, was elected twice and took a bullet "to free slaves" during the Civil War.
But he was shouted down, and had to abbreviate his remarks.
Editor's note, and correction: Moore's remarks were halted twice by jeers, fragmenting his testimony into three segments of 1:05, 0:43 and 0:12 seconds, for a total of exactly two minutes. Later speakers spoke for significantly longer than the specified two minutes. View the video here – Ed.
The council's choices were to do nothing, possibly leaving the matter for citizens to pursue as an initiative, or to place an advisory measure on the ballot.
Pitino made his motion to remove the statue and plaque, and it was seconded by Ornelas.
Winkler held to his position of putting the matter to a vote of the people. The crowd was not pleased, reacting with loud objections that brought another plea for calm by Pereira. "All you are thinking is, you want to yell," Ornelas told the audience. "When you do that it just makes me feel like shutting down and not sharing what I'm actually feeling," she said, ending her remarks.
The previously ambivalent Ornelas called the matter "an important leadership step that needs to happen." She still defended the idea of a ballot measure though, suggesting that it would increase voter participation.
Watson said he felt the best way to represent Arcata voters was to turn the decision over to them.
Suddenly, Ornelas said she wanted to hold two votes – one on the Jacoby plaque and one on the statue. Pitino saw no need. "You're forcing an uncomfortable vote for some people," Ornelas told him. But Pitino refused. With that, and to the crowd's dismay, Ornelas rescinded her second of Pitino's motion. Pitino accused Ornelas of "arm twisting me."
But Pitino then moved to remove the statue, with a second from Ornelas. The vote was 4–1, with Watson switching his vote in favor and Winkler dissenting. The Council Chamber immediately erupted in a roar of approval from the crowd.
Pitino then moved to remove and replace the plaque, and Winkler seconded the motion. The council voted unanimously in approval. The plaque vote was all but superfluous, since Jacoby's Storehouse co-owner Bill Chino had already arranged for its removal and replacement.
Mayor Sofia Pereira, Vice Mayor Brett Watson and others who participated in the council meeting will appear on the Thursday, Feb. 22 KHSU 90.5 FM Thursday Night Talk to discuss the council meeting and next steps. The show begins at 7 p.m. Other guests are Amy Mathieson and Erin Youngblood-Smith, organizers of Humboldt State University's "We Are Your Community" initiative. Call in your questions at (707) 826-4805.