Thumbs Up at Falling Statues

Statue of former U.S. president William McKinley (with thumb intact) in Arcata, California

Incidents of deadly racist violence in the United States — the neo-fascist demonstration in August in Charlottesville, Virginia and the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting of 2015, to name just a couple — have helped to raise public awareness and reignite public protests over the existence of Confederate statues, monuments and memorials throughout the American South that have long been despised symbols of the legacy of racism, slavery and the oppression of African-American citizens.

There are more than 1,500 symbols of various sorts honoring Confederate leaders, soldiers or the Confederate States of America in general throughout the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a public-interest law firm that specializes in fighting civil rights cases and documenting the activities of hate groups in American society. Of those, more than 700 are Confederate statues and monuments on public property in mostly southern states.

And the public outrage over such symbols hasn’t stopped there.

Statues of Cristoforo Colombo (better known as Christopher Columbus), the Italian explorer who is mythologized in U.S. history books as having “discovered America” in the year 1492 AD, have also been under recent attack in cities such as Buffalo, New York and Baltimore, Maryland.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a statue erected in honor of the late Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner and mayor of the city long associated with racism and police brutality toward the city’s Black populace, has also become a target of public wrath. “Take the Rizzo statue down”, demands Helen Gym, a Korean-American member of Philadelphia’s city council.

And in the college town of Arcata, Humboldt County on the far northern coast of California, where I used to live, the hot issue has been whether to remove or to keep a statue of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, in the town’s square. Protesters over the years have cited his legacy as a right-wing, war-mongering leader in the late 1800s/early 1900s as standing in stark contrast to the town’s proudly liberal image and ideals of today.

Tasting Empire

Smack-dab in the center of this old timber-producing town of Arcata [“ar KAY ta”] — now dominated by a public institution of higher learning, Humboldt State University, and its legions of mostly white, liberal students — stands a nine-foot-tall, bronze statue of McKinley (see photo above).

The statue watches over the Arcata Plaza, a public square around which some of the city’s leading businesses are located. The Plaza is the main meeting place for residents of the city, a place where yearly festivals, a weekly farmer’s market and the occasional anti-war demonstration bring people of the community together. Among the regular visitors to the Plaza to share in that feeling of community were my family and I in the early 2000s, when we lived for a short time in Arcata.

But that good feeling, for me and for others in the city, was often offset by the existence of the statue of McKinley there in the Arcata Plaza — or to be more precise: the imperialist legacy of McKinley as a U.S. president.

A veteran of the American Civil War (he fought on the Union side of the North) and a lawyer by profession, McKinley served as Republican governor of the mid-western state of Ohio and as member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the late 1800s. He was elected the 25th president of the United States in 1896, with support from Big Business and the major news media companies.

President McKinley took the U.S. into the Spanish-American war in Cuba two years later in 1898, against Spain and on the side of the Cuban rebels, more for the future economic possibilities in Cuba than anything else. And for good measure, he ordered the invasion of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico as well. That same year, the United States “annexed” (read: stole outright) the Hawaiian Islands from the indigenous people, as a way to keep the land and its rich resources within U.S. corporate hands. The following year in 1899, McKinley started the Philippine-American war.

“The taste of empire was on the lips of [U.S.] politicians and business interests throughout the country now,” as the late historian Howard Zinn chronicled that period in his classic work A People’s History of the United States. “Racism, paternalism, and talk of money mingled with talk of destiny and civilization.” By the time all the dust raised by McKinley had settled a few years later, the USA had become the de facto owner and occupier of all these nations and territories — politico-economic slavery by another name, but undeniably, slavery all the same.

Far from being universally respected as a great statesman, McKinley was despised in some parts of the world at the time as a bloodthirsty Yankee capitalist who represented America’s elite robber-baron class. In 1901, six months into McKinley’s second term as U.S. president, he was shot to death in Buffalo, New York by a Polish immigrant anarchist, a steelworker, who claimed that McKinley was “the enemy of the good people — the good working people”.

And here’s where the statue on the Plaza comes in: Following McKinley’s assassination, a local businessman in Arcata commissioned the creation of a statue of the late U.S. president by Haig Patigian, an Armenian immigrant artist in San Francisco, in honor of McKinley. The statue was shipped up to the North Coast and erected on the Arcata Plaza on Independence Day, 4 July 1906.

It is safe to say that the McKinley statue at the Arcata Plaza hasn’t seen much peace during the past 111 years that it has been standing there. The statue has been the victim of spray-painted graffiti, assorted costume and wardrobe changes by pranksters, and defilements of many sorts — some politically motivated, others motivated by less lofty aims like partying until you drop.

The Great Missing Thumb Caper

But no disrespect of the McKinley statue seemed to raise the ire of the local populace more than that memorable day in May 2003 when an unknown person vandalized the statue by sawing off, then stealing, the bronze thumb on McKinley’s extended right hand, and disappearing into the night with the metal prize in pocket.

Members of the local white liberal establishment of Arcata, as I recall, nearly lost their minds over this. Never mind that Arcata was generating national and international headlines at that very moment for being the first city in the USA to legally refuse to cooperate with the administration of then-president George W. Bush in carrying out the USA Patriot Act and its various invasions into U.S. citizens’ rights.

Arcata was also pushing to vote for Bush to be impeached as president. I attended one of those heated town hall meetings in which the impeachment of Bush was on the public agenda. It was a great time to be living in Arcata, and to see all the attention that the city was generating for its opposition to Bush and his newly declared “war on terrorism”. Arcata was not the place I was born or raised, but at that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder of the progressive people of that town where we were living.

On the other hand, for many white liberals of Arcata at that critical moment, the bigger issue seemed to be finding the perpetrator of that heinous crime of stealing the McKinley statue’s thumb and getting the thumb back once and for all to its rightful owner. And no local liberal figure stood out more on that score than Mayor Bob.

That was Bob Ornelas, mayor of Arcata at the time — the first mayor of the Green Party to serve in public office in California and a real progressive pioneer in that sense. A self-described “Humboldt Hippie”, Ornelas owned a local beer micro-brewery at the time. It was not uncommon back then to see Mayor Bob out and about the town on his official duties, easily identifiable by an overgrown, cheesy-looking mustache, by his long pony-tailed hair, and his choice of very casual clothing and sandals during official working hours at Arcata City Hall.

As mayor of the city, he was mighty upset at what the unknown vandal had done to McKinley’s thumb on the Arcata Plaza. Mayor Bob offered a reward of $500 of his own money, right out of his pocket, for the return of the missing digit. “I just think it was a stupid, selfish, unjustifiable act,” Mayor Bob told the local press. “It’s public property. I don’t care if you don’t think it was art. Get drunk and pierce your nose, but leave McKinley’s statue alone.”

I ran the whole controversy through my mind at that time and kept coming to the same conclusion: What’s wrong with this picture? The contradictions abounded: Mayor Bob = Green Party, hippie, progressive, left wing — very good. William McKinley = Republican, imperialist, extreme capitalist, right wing — very bad. Green Party progressive mayor fights for arch-conservative Republican harder than Republicans (or Democrats) fight for him themselves. Reward offered by living Green Party mayor so as to save the legacy of long-dead Republican U.S. president. What, indeed, was wrong with this picture?

Well, about a month later, Mayor Bob got his wish: The whereabouts of the McKinley statue thumb were soon determined, the perpetrator voluntarily turned in the stolen thumb to the local police, a welder in the community surgically reattached McKinley’s severed thumb to its hand, and the mayor’s $500 reward was given to an honest local citizen for helping to solve the great caper.

Mayor Bob even got his picture taken by the local newspaper at the police station with the recovered McKinley thumb, a smile spreading across his face as he flashed a victorious thumb’s-up gesture to the camera. As a parting shot, he reminded the public that Arcata had succeeded where even the U.S. government under Bush had failed. “They couldn’t find [Osama] bin Laden; they couldn’t find weapons of mass destruction,” Mayor Bob told the local press. But: “We found McKinley’s thumb.”

And with that, everyone lived peacefully ever after.

Descendants of War

Or so they thought. Bush’s “war on terrorism” from 2001 onward, a direct descendant of McKinley’s imperialist wars of the late 1800s/early 1900s, became Obama’s war and now becomes Trump’s war. Thousands, possibly millions, of innocent people overseas have died in this so-called war, and countless more have become refugees in their own lands. The tragedy goes on. We need to remember that the real significance of McKinley’s legacy as president lies in his role in the empire-building of the USA at an important moment in history: The geopolitical realities that McKinley helped to define through warfare, conquest, and economic domination and exploitation are still very much with us today on the maps of the world and in the news.

In 2005, some local people in Arcata, citing that imperialist legacy of McKinley, got together a petition to remove the statue, though apparently, nothing ever came of it.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the current city government of Arcata under Mayor Ornelas — no, not ol’ Mayor Bob of Green Party fame, but his wife, Mayor Susan Ornelas, a Democrat — is resisting the removal of the McKinley statue from the city’s downtown plaza as being too expensive an undertaking. They have a point there. And besides, the local argument goes, the statue has become an important part of local tradition. But what “tradition” is that? William McKinley never had anything to do with the city of Arcata in his lifetime, as far as we know. And if the U.S. government can remove McKinley’s name from the highest peak in North America (formerly known as Mount McKinley in Alaska) — as U.S. president Obama did in 2015 — then surely the liberal city of Arcata could do the same with a statue that most folks don’t seem to care about anyway.

Some people in Arcata, such as local newspaper editor Kevin Hoover, are proposing a public vote to decide once and for all to resolve the question: Does the William McKinley statue stay where it is, or does it go? “The solution is simple: put the statue removal to a vote of the people via the initiative process,” Hoover told me recently in an interview with LifeTimes. “That way, we’d have a vivid public conversation, we’d possibly clarify the historical claims, and an incontestable decision that represents the will of the people could be made. In fact, I’m guessing that that’s the only way it will ever happen.”

I would have to agree. That kind of referendum seems to be a reasonable solution. It would work in cities like Arcata, California or New Orleans, Louisiana that are open to change.

But then again, in other locales around the United States where the institution of slavery was once firmly entrenched and where the white power structure would still not go for such a “reasonable” resolution today, would people then be justified in bringing the Confederate monuments to the ground, as they have done in some places?

At press time, the protests show no signs of slowing down or running out of steam, at least not yet: Some residents of Memphis, Tennessee — the city where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 — are demanding the removal of a statue honoring the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). New York has recently seen the “beheading” of a statue of Christopher Columbus. And in California, the city council of Los Angeles, a major American metropolis, has voted to remove Columbus Day from the official city calendar and replace it with Indigenous People’s Day.

My final vote in all of this controversy? In the true non-spirit of ol’ Mayor Bob of Arcata, I give two thumbs down for all the statues and memorials left standing, in the South and elsewhere across the USA, that glorify white supremacy and manifest destiny, and are still being allowed to serve as public symbols of a truly shameful past. As the law of moral gravity dictates, what goes up insensitively and without thought for the past or the future is eventually bound to come down. The sooner, the better.

And on the other side: Two thumbs up by me at the sight of all the falling statues across the USA and to all the genuinely concerned citizens who refuse to let this issue rest until more people in society have been informed, woken up and made to directly face the ugly parts of America The Beautiful’s reflection in the mirror of history. There is still much work to be done, and we all need to be part of that public discussion and historical debate in the months and years to come.

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