No McKinley genocide plaque any time soon

A digital mock-up of the plaque containing the preliminary draft language. The plaque would be hung at eye level in front of the McKinley statue.  Courtesy HSU Armenian Students Ass’n/City of Arcata

A digital mock-up of the plaque containing the preliminary draft language. The plaque would be hung at eye level in front of the McKinley statue. Courtesy HSU Armenian Students Ass’n/City of Arcata

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.




  1. Jeff Nelson said:

    Marb, context is important. You might as well put up a plaque about the horrors of the crusades. McKinley had as much to do with those as he did the Native American genocide. There is also the fact that this plaque was more about the Armenian genocide, which you failed to acknowledge.

  2. Marb said:

    Actions speak louder than words. When 3 out of 5 politicians vote no to have a plague detailing a more truthful narrative of history especially that not only on this continent in North America but also half a world away, then it says a lot about them. Voting against having the plague in a public space where the public can see it is completely disrespectful to the decedents of the Armenian Genocide as well as the Native American genocide that still continues through cultural oppression. In other words this is a denial of the history of genocide.

  3. norcalguy101 said:

    You people truly are sick. Keven Hoover has prostituted the plight of many victimized by crime in Arcata through his juvenile re-writings of the Arcata Police Department logs. This plaque only further validates Humboldt County is the sink trap that collects the scum of nut cases who gravitate to this area.

  4. setnaffa said:

    This is rather patently ridiculous. And I’m ashamed to have been born in Arcata whose City Council didn’t laugh these alleged protesters against genocide out of town.

    There are real attempts at genocide going on in the world. Every day Hamas and Hezbollah send rockets and mortar shells into Israel. ISIS and their affiliates around the Mediterranean are slaughtering Christians, Muslims, and others who don’t meet some arbitrary scale of piousness. The Kurds are under attack from just about everyone. And yes, Armenians were slaughtered by Turks.

    And this bunch of self-appointed victims wants to attack the country that’s giving them shelter.

    That’s rich.

  5. Marb said:

    “open to mounting a plaque elsewhere in Arcata” more like never. Just goes to prove that some people even those in government choose to be on the wrong side of history. Truth is they just don’t want to acknowledge the Native American Genocide.

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