Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The strips of suggestion-hungry butcher paper on the walls of the D Street Neighborhood Center may as well have been invisible, as they were entirely ignored at the Dec. 4 City Council Study Session on Arcata’s William McKinley statue and the historical plaque across from Jacoby’s Storehouse.
The posted paper was supposed to receive ideas for dealing with the statue and plaque, with the ideas then rated by sticky dots placed on those which people favored. But attendees preferred oral testimony, speaking from a podium placed next to the seated City Council at the front of the hall.
While a handful of citizens defended the statue, the overwhelming majority of speakers condemned the statue and plaque in stark terms, and demanded their removal.
McKinley, according to multiple speakers, embodies the values of colonialism, white supremacy and genocide that led to the decimation of native peoples locally and in the foreign adventures his administration pursued.
Suggestions that the matter be put to a vote displeased some McKinley opponents. They aren’t confident in the result, want the council to order the statue’s immediate removal and view the council’s failure to do so as an example of profound moral blindness.
Mayor Susan Ornelas cautioned attendees at the meeting’s start that it was a study session, and that no decisions would be made that night.
The first speaker, Bob Fallis, opposed the statue and plaque’s removal. “Why would the city even consider doing these things?” he asked. He soon found out.
Chris Peters, president of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, said the statue perpetuates paternalism and represents “a value system laced with racism.”
Lisa Pelletier was the first of a number of speakers to declare that Arcata is “Wiyot land,” referring to the indigenous tribe all but wiped out by the European-American settlers who established the town. She said the statue “disrespects and insults people.”
Another woman disagreed. “It’s a very nice statue and represents our history,” she said. “Leave our statue alone.”
Janette Heartwood said the statue has “outworn his welcome” and should be relocated somewhere else in town. “that gives us the opportunity to re-imagine the Plaza as a more useful place,” she said.
Tia Oros Peters, executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund, said the Plaza was used for trafficking in native peoples’ body parts, and even the selling of children. The statue, she said, “legitimizes brutality” and “continues to injure the entire region.”
Jim Williams said the statue and plaque play a useful role. “We should learn from our mistakes,” he said. “I can’t see where it’s going to change history a bit [to remove the statue and plaque].”
“Shame on white people,” said Eli Vargas. “It is disgusting to have the gall to defend the statue.” He said it is “one sick example of the thousands of things that make Humboldt unsafe for people of color.”
McKinley and the statue were further pilloried by those advocating removal, though some wanted it re-contextualized with an educational plaque. One person called it “a monument to death.”
As the meeting drew to a close, McKinley opponents seemed unsatisfied and engaged the council in an informal colloquy.
Peters said an election would be inherently unfair, since many native people don’t live in Arcata and can’t vote. “I don’t see how a bunch of white people can make a decision that affects indigenous people,” he said.
A City Council meeting on the Plaza is set for Jan. 8, and the statue and plaque will be specifically considered at a Feb. 21 council meeting. City Manager Karen Diemer said that meeting will include staff reports on the costs, legalities and logistics of statue removal.