The McKinley statue debate, circa 2005

Note: this story was published Oct. 23, 2005 in the Arcata Eye. – Ed.

Arcata Eye

CITY HALL – Bring us the mischievous, the political, the artistic souls yearning for expression – the statue of William McKinley will remain on the Plaza, as he has for almost 100 years, one hand outstretched to receive the Groucho Marx glasses, the manifestos, the whiskey bottles and the togas.

It took two and a half hours of discussion at the City Council meeting last Wednesday to reach that conclusion, though, with vocal opinion about equally split between those who wanted to see the statue left alone or put to a City-wide vote, and those who wanted to see it moved, sold on eBay or sledgehammered to bits in the name of equality, justice and peace.

“From McKinley to Bush, it’s the same genocidal war,” John Garcia charged.

“Symbols are very, very important,” Brian Willson observed, “and this is a terrible symbol.”

“I don’t give a hoot if his political views were the same as mine,” countered Frances Ferguson. “He was a man of his time…. I suggest we preserve the links to our own history.”

As the clock rounded the bend toward 11 p.m., Councilmember Dave Meserve floated two motions, one to print an informal vote on water bills and one to put a measure on the soonest regular ballot. Both were seconded by Councilmember Paul Pitino, and both were promptly voted down by the other three councilmembers.

“Grant McKinley amnesty, leave him where he is and let’s move on,” Councilmember Mark Wheetley said.

On Oct. 9, 2005, protester Geronimo Garcia mounted McKinley to oppose the war in Iraq. KLH | Eye

How to move a statue

The meaning of McKinley is a regular subject of speculation at council meetings and elsewhere, and according to a staff report, has been so “for well over 30 years of which current staff is aware.” But Wednesday was the first time that discussion has made the leap onto a council agenda, gaining the needed momentum from an informal petition circulated by Sunny Brae resident Michael Schleyer.

City staff cautioned that the signatures collected by Schleyer aren’t legally sufficient to qualify the item for a regular election ballot, which requires the support of 10 percent of local registered voters. Incomplete addresses and post office boxes on Schleyer’s list made such verification difficult, though Deputy City Clerk Alma McCall estimated that about half of the signatures were from Arcata residents. Schleyer debated that figure, saying that by his count, almost 1,000 of the 1,451 names were from Arcata.

Relocation of McKinley would require a General Plan amendment – Policy H-3g lists the statue first among Plaza features to be preserved – and, given the historic nature of the statue, an environmental impact report (EIR) as well. Community Development Director Tom Conlon noted that an EIR could cost about $30,000. The physical removal of the figure and its pedestal could cost about the same, according to the Public Works Department estimations.

The bronze statue was created by sculptor Haig Paitigan, survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and was donated to the City of Arcata by George Zehndner on July 4, 1906.

Bad juju

Those who endorse moving or removing the statue of McKinley draw parallels between that administration’s foreign policies and those of the Bush administration today, arguing that McKinley represents imperialism, racism and all the other morally reprehensible aspects that have historically attended the privileged white male bastions.

Schleyer compared President William McKinley to Adolf Hitler, arguing that both “ordered troops to do the deed for them,” bringing about the deaths of hundreds of thousands. “It doesn’t matter to me if you kill 10 million people, two million people or 10 people,” he told the council. “You’re all in the same bag in my book.”

Economic Development Committeemember Shaye Harty described McKinley as “someone who makes me feel so hurt inside,” suggesting erecting a solar-powered gazebo in the statue’s place.

And several speakers said the racist overtones of the statue and all it stands for are so offensive that the question should not be whether it should be removed, but why it should be kept. “It is not the homeless or the weed smoke that keeps me from the Plaza,” one man accused.

As to the expense of moving McKinley, offers were made, variously, to defray the costs through fundraising, melting the statue down for its bronze, selling it on the internet and having a volunteer pool of laborers shoulder the dismantling responsibilities.

Art, history

McKinley backers didn’t have anything good to say about the president’s decisions while in office, focusing their defense instead on the significance of the near-century-old statue in the town’s history and its value as a work of art. And if the statue were to be removed based on political objections, many asked, where would such decisions stop?

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, one man pointed out, and “If we don’t like Jefferson, why don’t we ban nickels in Arcata?” he joked. Another asked whether Jacoby’s Storehouse should be torn down, since it sold wares to loggers in its early years.

Though some of the suggestions were somewhat tongue in cheek, the idea behind them resonated with many speakers.

Removing the statue, Elizabeth Conner reasoned, will only remove the discussion, not the legacy. “Art should educate and create discussion,” she said.

“Imperialism is part of our history.” She suggested installing a plaque on the statue’s base, detailing the history of McKinley and his administration.

The most common argument, however, was that the decision shouldn’t be left to the five member council, but put to a vote of Arcata residents.

“I don’t want this City Council to decide,” former mayor Bob Ornelas emphasized. “The people should decide what to do with McKinley.”

To her surprise, Kathleen McCormack found herself on Ornelas’ side. “Trust me, I have never agreed with the man,” she said. “Let the entire community vote on this issue.” She also criticized some of McKinley’s critics for wearing Dockers and Nikes and supporting slave labor with their apparel choices. “I think we have an oxymoron here,” she observed.

Vote? No.

With an hour and a half of personal exploration out of the way, the crowd in Council Chambers dwindled to about a dozen stalwarts.
“I love the smell of political dialogue in the evening,” Meserve joked. He made no bones about wanting the statue gone, but he recommended circulating a two-line poll on residents’ water bills to get a sense of the City-wide opinion on the matter, avoiding – at least initially – the cost of a ballot measure. “I’d like to hear what people have to say,” he said.

The problems with an informal poll only multiplied as councilmembers discussed the details, though; not all residents pay their own water bills, for example, and many households have multiple occupants.

“I feel like this is shaping up to be some sort of hanging chad nightmare,” Wheetley laughed.
After initially supporting the water bill idea, Councilmember Harmony Groves shifted her support to a grassroots movement and an official petition to get the measure on a ballot.

And Mayor Michael Machi praised the dialogue, though he said that in a sense, an election had already been held; the long period of developing the General Plan – which ranks the McKinley statue number one for Plaza historical preservation – allowed for plenty of public input, he noted. His own priorities for the Plaza include the creation of a public bathroom, relocation of the Arcata Endeavor, funding for Arcata Police Department bike or foot patrols, removing drug users and panhandlers and maintaining a clean, safe, welcoming downtown for everyone, he said.

Schleyer later said that he had no plans to start circulating an official petition to remove the McKinley statue, though he said he wasn’t opposed to the idea. “For such a politically savvy town, McKinley’s a strange thing to have in the center of your town,” he said. “I wasn’t overjoyed with what happened [at the meeting], but everything happens for a reason.”


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