Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – After a massively attended hearing at the Community Center last week, the Arcata City Council made no change to its Feb. 21 decision to remove the statue of William McKinley from the Plaza.
A March 7 “suggestion” from Councilmember Susan Ornelas to consider destinations for the Plaza-expelled statue – a measure considered by some, including Mayor Sofia Pereira to be a “Trojan Horse” scheme to retain the statue on the town square – was, after considerable public testimony, withdrawn.
The removal decision triggered an environmental review process to assess impacts associated with the statue’s relocation.
A staff report indicated that staff was working to identify a voting process, but the Humboldt County Elections Office told the city that Ornelas’s multiple-choice draft ballot proposal was unworkable, and that any ballot proposition must be answerable with a yes or no.
Speaking before an audience of hundreds at the Arcata Community Center, Ornelas explained that she wanted to get citizens involved in the Environmental Impact Report, which always includes a no-project alternative, in other words and in this case, leaving the statue where it is.
Ornelas said that the educational process she’s undergone have led her to believe that “it is an offensive statue” and that “he shouldn’t be in our living room, as we’ve termed it.”
Ornelas, whose wordy explanations from the council dais of late have not won her many allies on any side of the controversy, further stepped in it with an offhand “joke” involving the historic decimation of indigenous people locally.
Referring to the statue educational process, which might have included public lectures as have been offered on other subjects, Ornelas said, “The joke is, ‘My Favorite Lecture’ – genocide.”
As a murmur of outrage rose from the crowd, Ornelas stumbled on, then tried to walk it back. “But, um... it’s just, um, something that... I apologize. That was terrible. That was a terrible thing to say, I realize. I apologize.” But the die was cast, and later speakers were to call out Ornelas for the reckless utterance.
Community Development Director David Loya said the statue can’t be removed while the CEQA process is underway. City Manager Karen Diemer said it would take several months to develop alternatives for the statue that will mitigate environmental impacts. City Attorney Nancy Diamond said the CEQA document will involve some type of polling or survey to incorporate the will of the public.
Numerous speakers urged the council to stick with their Feb. 21 decision, and that any reversal would be historically resonant with the broken promises made to Native Americans by the federal government.
Many of the speakers stated that “this is Wiyot country,” many thanking the descendants of the area’s original inhabitants for allowing their residence in present-day Arcata.
Other speakers, fewer in number, defended the statue as an Arcata tradition and William McKinley the president as a war hero who had battled slavery in the form of the Confederacy.
A letter from the Eureka branch of the NAACP urged the council to censure Michael Winkler for his statement about the Feb. 21 meeting “likening the atmosphere of the council meeting to that of a ‘lynch mob/vigilante’” situation, terming it “racially inflammatory.” The organization offered its backing for removal of the statue.
Another speaker praised Winkler for his “courage in speaking out,” but ultimately, the council took no action to discipline him.
After hours of public testimony and more lengthy explanations by Ornelas, she withdrew her multiple-choice ballot suggestion. She apologized profusely for her ill-received genocide joke. Ornelas also claimed that her "suggestion" for a ballot measure to consider relocation sites – including the Plaza – had been "twisted by the media."
The March 21 council meeting may be viewed on Access Humboldt here.