To understand why the statue of President William McKinley on the Arcata Plaza is problematic, we need to confront some unpleasant truths about our nation’s past and present. Namely, the white supremacy which scarred our past and haunts us to the present day, distorting our society.
The European people who colonized America had a blithe disregard for people of color, who were massacred, enslaved and mercilessly subjugated. It was a massive act of theft and genocide, from coast to coast.
As American Indians were being killed or rounded up and placed on reservations, plantation owners were importing boat loads of slaves. By 1860, the year before McKinley enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the United States, according to the U.S. Census.
McKinley, to his credit, was a lifelong abolitionist and risked his life fighting to end slavery in the Civil War. That is incontestably admirable. But slavery was just one highly visible part of a profoundly unjust system.
What followed the Civil War was the Jim Crow era. This was a system in which people of color were not only denied basic rights, but they were subjugated, harassed, terrorized and denied economic opportunity – all to the benefit of the majority race – white people.
The racism wasn’t simply a disease of a few corrupted minds. I was institutionalized, legalized, enforced and backed by the United States government, the states, the counties, the police and the judicial system. Our political and justice systems are still riddled with this racist legacy - in some places, defined by it.
White males elected McKinley president of the United States in 1897, making him the leader of America’s apartheid system.
Given his position of power, McKinley could have led an effort to help dismantle the racist system. He could have introduced reforms. He could have spoken out against the lynchings and the ongoing reign of terror.
He didn’t. Instead, McKinley gave speeches and made some minor appointments of minorities. His vaunted civil rights progressivism didn’t go very far beyond lip service.
As a thought experiment, think back on the prime ministers of South Africa during the latter part of the last century, during a time when the country’s system of apartheid was violently enforced. Would you give that country’s pro-apartheid prime ministers a pass? “They were admirable fellows, except for that little apartheid thing.” Of course not. They were complicit in a grossly unjust system. Should their statues stand in town squares and loom over the people they subjugated? No. So how is McKinley any different? He’s not.
McKinley cannot be separated or even distinguished from our nation’s ugly past, in which he was a participant and an enabler. In sum, his nominal civil rights gestures blur into the kind of self-credentialing that ambitious politicians like to cloak themselves in, to build their legend.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that many of those Jim Crow era laws were finally shot down, but their legacies are still with us today. White supremacy still looms over the nation, which is still ruled, overwhelmingly, by white men in government and industry.
While statue supporters often point out that many of its opponents are not Arcata residents, that’s a specious point and another structural injustice. Arcata actively entices people from other communities to come here to work, to eat, to recreate and spend.
Some of these people, on whom our civic life and economy depend, have a very hard time enjoying themselves or even feeling basically safe around a super-sized statue that symbolizes the worst forms of oppression. While there is no legal way to give non-residents a vote, there’s no reason we shouldn’t acknowledge their deeply held views as valid, and act constructively on them.
Are we really so attached to a thing that it merits more consideration than human beings? There may have been a recent or current president of whom you aren’t so fond, perhaps even detest. Imagine that loathed individual’s oversized effigy dominating the Plaza’s center. Now do you get it?
There’s also a practical, physical reason for removing McKinley – doing so will free up a large space in the center of the Plaza. When the statue is gone and the base removed, the city should create a new plan to enliven the town center. Perhaps a simple concrete pad, decorated with appropriate indigenous emblems, can replace the statue, thereby giving townsfolk a wide-open area for concerts, dances and other events. Temporary stages could be erected in the center, or booths for special events.
Besides being wildly, ridiculously exaggerated by statue supporters, the $15,000 or so expense associated with statue removal is trivial in the grand scale of things, and also a non-issue. If McKinley is a noxious non sequitur, morally offensive to so many and inappropriate for Arcata, money is really not an issue. In any event, the city has solid guarantees that any removal expenses are covered.
As for the statue, it could be relocated to some alternative spot in the city and displayed with contextualizing plaques and other informational items to place him in a proper framework. This would make the artwork educational and useful to those who want to understand history, rather than having the menacing metal man placed a pedestal and elevated above everyone.
But even relocating the statue to another public spot is problematic. Redwood Park, which has been mentioned as a new site, is also Wiyot territory. So is J Street, where the Veterans Memorial Building is located. To their credit, the veterans there have raised this very issue, and have suspended discussion of receiving the statue until after the election.
We’ve been arguing about the statue for decades. It’s an endless source of division and anger. In an age of increasing awareness of injustice in all its many forms, the arguments from tradition in favor of retaining this divisive symbol are becoming less and less persuasive.
Statue opponents have predicted – promised even – a new era of healing and unity once the statue blight is gone. That's certainly something we could all use, so let's take them up on it. Maybe then tensions can dial back a bit and we can all finally start to look for common ground rather than endlessly playing up differences.
Our delightful little town of Arcata, so steeped in progressive values, has never fully acknowledged the violent, unimaginably tragic events which surround its founding. The genocide of the Wiyot people and their culture is inextricably woven into Arcata’s history. We have to own that, and doing so goes far beyond removing the most prominent symbol of Manifest Destiny.
It doesn't matter whether it took place a century and a half ago or yesterday. The people so cruelly and mercilessly subjugated weren't just occupants of history books, they were as real as you and I and our grief should be commensurate with the horrific scale of what was done to them – a tragedy which took place right here, where we live.
If we genuinely desire a more equitable future, we must at last confront our past and take concrete steps to break down an unjust system. It’s long, long overdue. Removing McKinley from the Arcata Plaza is one small, symbolic step in the right direction.
Let’s get started. On Nov. 6, vote no on Measure M.