Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
CITY HALL – The Arcata City Council Wednesday night nixed any near-term hope for a plaque to be placed near the Plaza's statue of President William McKinley.
Proposed by the Armenian Students Association of Humboldt State, the plaque at McKinley's base would have drawn connections between McKinley's reign and various forms of genocide, but a majority of councilmembers found the connections not compelling enough to commit to a plaque.
The plaque (text available here) briefly documented genocides both locally with regard to Native Americans during the 1850s settlement era and later in what is now Turkey, where the Armenian Genocide took an estimated 1.5 million lives.
The plaque was twice approved in concept by the advisory Parks and Rec Committee. The second time, it was placed on the agenda during the meeting, depriving any interested members of the public of any notice that an advisory decision was in the works.
ASA student advocate Araik Sinanyan told the council that the plaque project has been in the works for 10 years. Its intent is to shed light on local and international history and raise awareness.
The plaque found support and opposition by the public.
Citizen Fhyre Phoenix said he supported the "informative" plaque. "This really lays it all out," he said.
Citizen Kent Sawatsky said he always wondered why Arcata has a statue of such a dubious and controversial figure on its Plaza. He thought it even more absurd to put on sign on the statue further souring McKinley's image. "If he’s such a bad dude, why is he there at all?" Sawatsky wondered. He suggested replacing the statue with "an assortment of nice plaques."
Citizen Alex Stillman offered historical context. "There were a lot of feelings in 1906 that are different than what we have today," she said. She suggested returning the pre-McKinley gazebo to the Plaza's center
Joe Bonino of the Humboldt County Republican Party read a letter opposing the plaque. He said the proposed wording "contains falsehoods and calumny," was potentially defamatory and would "distort history and confuse the public." Bonino noted that the second Parks and Rec Committee meeting's consideration of the plaque hadn't been publicly noticed. Approval, he asserted, could lead to a proliferation of requests for special-interest plaques.
Reaction by councilmembers was similarly mixed.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas said the plaque was "too negative" and inappropriate for the Plaza, which she called "the town’s living room." She suggested that the city acknowledge the Armenian Massacre via a proclamation.
Council member Paul Pitino said the plaque "seems like perfect the solution."
"I thnk this is totally positive," he said. "It’s the right thing to do and I absolutely support it."
Having been asked not to interrupt the meeting with bursts of applause, students acknowledged supportive comments with flurries of finger snaps.
Councilmember Sofia Perreira said she supported the plaque "in concept," but didn't think the wording really made the connection between McKinley and the acts of genocide with which it associates him.
Councilmember Mark Wheetley thanked the students for their involvement, but said that "I don’t support this approach for the McKinleyville (sic) statue." Wheetley said it would be better located on the HSU campus.
Pitino thought that ludicrous. " The statue’s there," he said. "The plaque helps us understand the context of the statue. Honor history with the truth."
Wheetley said the plaque "represents a specific political point of view," and called it "divisive."
At this point, the council was tied 2–2 on the proposal so attention turned to Mayor Michael Winkler, whose vote would decide the matter. He said he didn't want the plaque posted near McKinley because it espouses a single political viewpoint.
"This is a divisive point of view, and I think that this is something that I cannot support on the Arcata Plaza," he said. he said he was open to mounting a plaque elsewhere in Arcata celebrating Armenian culture and contributions.
Sinanyan said the project has been in the works for a long time and will come back again. "Why not do something about it now?" he asked. "It will unite Arcata." He said the Plaza is the only appropriate location for the plaque.
Wheetley said he wanted to explore a staff-proposed alternative to "consider other commemorative actions/events specific to the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide or to commemorate more generally historic crimes against humanity and civil liberties."
Sinanyan politely declined to entertain that option. At that, the students filed out of Council Chamber to discuss the evening's events outside City Hall even as the council continued to discuss the matter.
Ornelas lamented that the students' sincere effort had been vanquished, and wondered whether they had been "led along" due to lack of a city policy. "I hate to see them kind of spinning their wheels in a sense."
Something about that pushed Pitino's buttons. "You don’t speak for us, number one, what we want to see on the Plaza," he snapped at Ornelas.
"I don’t feel that Parks & Rec or anybody failed," Pitino replied.
"It was heartbreaking actually for me to see all that work that potentially wasn't guided well," Ornelas said. She said the students had been "led along" to eventual failure, and that she was "almost" tempted to vote for the plaque to spare their feelings.
"I think the system works well," Pitino said.