Newsletter: The toppling of the statues

Activists toppled and put red paint on a statue of Junipero Serra at Father Serra Park in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday.
Activists toppled and put red paint on a statue of Junípero Serra at Father Serra Park in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, June 23, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Depending on whom you ask, Father Junípero Serra was either a saint (quite literally, as the Catholic Church made the controversial decision to canonize him five years ago) or one of the great villains in California history. The 18th-century Franciscan priest served as the principal architect of the California mission system during the era of Spanish colonization. The mission system cemented Catholicism in California but also nearly eradicated several indigenous tribes, pressuring assimilation while exposing thousands to foreign diseases, wiping out villages, native animals and plants.

Serra had been a controversial figure years before Pope Francis canonized him in 2015, and my colleague Carolina Miranda writes that statues of him “have long been a flashpoint among indigenous activists.”

On Saturday, a group of indigenous activists gathered in downtown Los Angeles near Olvera Street to topple a statue of Serra from its pedestal in Father Serra Park. Miranda wrote that the Los Angeles action was peaceful, with no police present and a vibe that was “more familial ceremony than protest.”


[Read the story: “At Los Angeles toppling of Junipero Serra statue, activists want full history told” in the Los Angeles Times]

As elected officials, corporations, celebrities and everyday Americans continue to evaluate their own roles and complicity in systematically racist systems, scrutiny of the monuments that have been chosen to celebrate our collective heritage in public spaces has also intensified. All of this comes amid weeks of nationwide anti-racism protests, sparked by George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police, as well as the 401 years of American history that preceded Floyd’s death.

Across the state in San Francisco, city workers were busy Saturday power-washing graffiti from statue-less pedestals in Golden Gate Park. Protesters had taken to the park the night before to topple a 30-foot replica of Serra, along with several other historical statues.

On the other side of town, a statue of Christopher Columbus near San Francisco’s Coit Tower had been removed early Thursday morning and placed in storage. The reason for removing the statue, which came at the direction of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, was twofold. First, it did not align with the city’s “commitment to racial justice,” according to the group that oversees the care of the city’s civic art collection. But there were also safety concerns around a planned protest that called on citizens to topple the statue, which is made of bronze and weighs several thousand pounds.

Breed’s decision came a few days after California legislative leaders announced that a marble statue depicting Columbus would be removed after leaders decided it is out of place “given the deadly impact his arrival in this hemisphere had on indigenous populations.” It’s not yet known when or how the statue, which has been the centerpiece of the California Capitol rotunda since 1883, will be taken out of the area.

The felling (or attempted felling) of statues in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is far from a California phenomenon. Similar protests and official removals have played out in too many other places to name, including numerous Confederate monuments toppled or removed in the South, along with statues with racist and colonial legacies removed further afield in the U.K. and Belgium.

Some, like the Confederate monuments and Columbus statues, have been the subject of community ire and public debate for years. Other targets were more surprising.

Statues of former President Ulysses S. Grant and lyricist Francis Scott Key were among those toppled Friday night in Golden Gate Park. Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Grant led the Union army to victory against the Confederacy as a general and fought for African American voting rights as president. Both men were slave owners.

Key, a lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, attacked the abolitionist movement in several high-profile cases as a district attorney, according to the Smithsonian. Grant married into a slave-holding family and himself briefly owned a man named William Jones for a period of time in the 1850s, before emancipating Jones, according to the White House Historical Assn.

A man walking his dog in Golden Gate Park early Saturday morning decried the removal of the statues as “mob rule” to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, saying he didn’t think people taking down statues would be satisfied “until they’ve removed every book and canceled every TV show.”

But the removal of statues as a means of rewriting the narratives of power is nothing new, and certainly not an invention of “cancel culture.” After Augustus became the first emperor of Rome, official portraits of his likeness were sent across the sprawling empire. When a Kushite army invaded Roman territory in Egypt in 24 BC, they decapitated the mighty bronze head of an Augustus statue — a fate that serves as “one of countless examples of the deliberate destruction of art in human history,” according to art historian Erin L. Thompson.

The practice also extends to the early days of American history. Just days after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, soldiers and civilians tore down a gilded statue of Britain’s King George III in New York.

“I think a statue is a bid for immortality,” Thompson, the art historian, told the New York Times. “It’s a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people. So that is what’s really at issue here. It’s not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent. And these are statues in public places, right? So these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.”

Writing in the Washington Post opinion section on Monday, columnist Eugene Robinson advocated for tearing down all of the country’s Confederate memorials. Robinson posited that “the question of monuments to other white supremacists” was a bit trickier, but still not rocket science. In his view, there was no “slippery slope” — we as a society are perfectly capable of evaluating the ambiguities and deciding which historical figures are worthy of honoring, and which aren’t.

“What about non-Confederate historical figures who were white supremacists?” he asked. “If every statue of a racist were taken down, we’d mostly have empty pediments and plinths. It should depend on the person, the context and the memorial itself.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

The increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations tell a “sobering story,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. Newsom said hospitalizations from COVID-19 grew 16% over the last two weeks as the state reported more than 46,000 new cases of the virus, marking significant increases as more Californians begin to return to a sense of normalcy. Los Angeles Times

Newsom agreed Monday to largely abandon the far-reaching spending reductions he had proposed as necessary without new federal coronavirus relief funds. The governor struck a budget pact with leaders of the California Legislature that relies on a more optimistic economic outlook as the basis for fewer spending cuts and protection of public school funding. The compromise, announced in a brief statement released by Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders, came one week after legislators passed a placeholder budget that met a constitutional deadline, avoiding the forfeiture of their pay. Formal approval of the full deal with the governor isn’t expected until later this week. Los Angeles Times


Calls to defund the police spread to L.A.’s transit system. Activists and community groups argue that on a system where violent crime is relatively low, the money used to police the transit system could be better spent: on free fares, on better and more frequent service, on homeless outreach workers. Los Angeles Times

LAPD officers stand guard inside the 7th St/Metro Center subway station in Los Angeles
LAPD officers stand guard inside a downtown subway station in March. The cost to police Metro’s 1,433-mile service area, including 93 rail stations and nearly 14,000 bus stops, is almost $650 million over five years.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has been receiving death threats. On Monday, as Los Angeles County announced it would reduce news briefings on the virus to once a week, Ferrer revealed details of written attacks and physical threats she has received over the past three months in response to the county’s stay-at-home orders.Los Angeles Times

A slew of drive-in style movies are coming to the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena this summer. Tribeca Enterprises, IMAX and AT&T will be hosting screenings at the venue every weekend from July 2 to July 26. Los Angeles Daily News

An L.A. comedian watched her mom die of COVID-19 on an iPad. Laurie Kilmartin’s live tweets wrenchingly captured the enormous grief, anger and occasional absurd comedy of watching a loved one die over FaceTime during a pandemic. Los Angeles Times

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President Trump is set to expand a measure restricting visas to the United States to target many temporary foreign workers, limiting immigrants from coming to the country for employment in industries including technology, academia, hotels and construction. Yet it also comes with broad exemptions. Los Angeles Times


Joe Biden doesn’t elicit the same rancor as the last Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and that’s complicating President Trump’s reelection effort. Biden is “not a good enough bad guy” to make the focal point of a negative campaign, as a longtime Republican operative put it. Los Angeles Times

For decades, law enforcement unions in California have held powerful sway over local and state politicians, wielding the cash and clout to punish those who crossed them and to reward those who didn’t. They’ve seen their clout crater amid protests — but for how long? Los Angeles Times


A lawsuit alleging violent abuses of power by Los Angeles police during recent protests has been greatly expanded to include more details on demonstrators’ injuries and their allegations of mistreatment, as well as explicit claims of poor leadership among top police brass. Los Angeles Times


Social gatherings help fuel rising coronavirus spread in parts of California. Some public health officials have expressed concern that people are assuming they can get back to social gatherings, instead of social distancing. Los Angeles Times


For some teens in California’s agricultural communities, school closures have meant long days working in the fields. As fall approaches, administrators and teachers are scrambling to figure out how to help these students return to classes and catch up. Advocates worry some students could decide to continue working instead of going back to school if they feel they have lost their educational footing. Cal Matters

Thousands of L.A. community college students withdraw after a lost semester amid coronavirus. With nine colleges and an annual enrollment of more than 200,000, the Los Angeles Community College District serves some of the most vulnerable students in the state’s systems of public higher education. An estimated 1 in 5 were homeless before the pandemic, and more than half were food insecure — circumstances exacerbated by the crisis. Los Angeles Times

Pickle Patch Deli — the top-rated restaurant in the Sierra foothills town of San Andreas — could be yours. The vintage-style eatery and venue, which includes gardens set on an acre of land, is for sale. Calaveras Enterprise

A San Diego couple tied the knot at an Escondido senior complex so the bride’s quarantined grandma could attend. The couple were willing to change nearly all of their wedding plans, but the 91-year-old’s attendance was non-negotiable. San Diego Union-Tribune

Solvang has closed its main thoroughfare to vehicular traffic as the tourist-dependent Santa Ynez Valley town reopens. Visitors have applauded the move, but retailers are divided. Lompoc Record

A poem to start your Tuesday: “Great Art” by Tim Dlugos.

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 71. San Francisco: partly sunny, 64. San Jose: sunny, 89. Fresno: sunny, 103. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Emi Hattori, who writes of returning to Los Angeles after the forced relocation and incarceration of her family during World War II:

My family returned home to L.A. from the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. After school, Irene, Dorothy and I would take the Pico Boulevard trolley to the Central Library downtown, losing ourselves in the stacks, reading books by the yard. Afterward, we would stop at Googies, a ‘50s-style diner with its angular roofline. Sometimes, Irene and I would go the Biltmore Hotel for its famous chicken salad. Walking through Pershing Square, we met people from skid row. One man was an expert on European history. We watched a young teen intently play chess with another man. It was a safer era for three would-be musketeers.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.