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California confronts its racist past as tributes to Confederates and colonizers fall

Activists topple the statue of Father Junipero Serra at Father Serra Park in Pueblo Amigo on Saturday.
Activists topple the statue of Father Junipero Serra in El Pueblo de Los Angeles in Olvera Street.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Across California, the massive antiracism protests that have followed the police killing of George Floyd have led to an unprecedented reckoning with public symbols of slavery and oppression.

This month, statues have been toppled. Mascots have been changed. A coastal town’s Confederate-linked name has been reconsidered.

At this moment of global outcry against racism, Californians are saying en masse that, for too long, the state’s history has been whitewashed, the ugly parts ignored.

Marcus Hunter, chair of African American Studies at UCLA, said he thinks the statues are falling at such great numbers and with less pushback than in years past because white people and others who are not Black are joining the protests and helping pull them down. He also believes that people being forced to stay home during the pandemic could not ignore Floyd’s killing and the movement it sparked.

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In Northern California, the coastal city of Fort Bragg has considered changing its Confederate-linked name.
(Robin Epley / Fort Bragg Advocate-News)

“I’ve been calling this the great pause,” Hunter said. “It wasn’t just a slowdown. It was 90 days of shelter in place. Either people are going to change America, or it’s going to remain the same.”

In the Antelope Valley, a high school dropped its Rebels mascot, once depicted as a soldier with a Confederate flag. In Kings Canyon National Park, the name of the 255-foot Robert E. Lee Tree, a giant sequoia that is one of the world’s tallest trees, was removed.

Protesters in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park felled statues of Father Junipero Serra and two slave owners: Francis Scott Key, the writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and President Grant. The name of the Squaw Valley Ski Resort near Lake Tahoe is being reconsidered. So is Negro Bar State Recreation Area in Sacramento County.

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In downtown Los Angeles’ Father Serra Park, Indigenous activists tied ropes around a statue of the Franciscan friar — his bronze form holding a cross and bearing a model of a Spanish mission — and yanked it off its pedestal. In Ventura, where protesters unfurled a banner reading “Father Genocide,” local officials agreed to remove a Serra statue outside City Hall.

Nationwide, protesters are targeting statues of slave-owning presidents. A statue of George Washington in Portland, Ore., was covered with a burning American flag and torn down. Protesters painted the word “Killer” on the base of an Andrew Jackson statue near the White House.

Activists gather near the toppled statue of Father Junipero Serra in Los Angeles' Olvera Street.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump tweeted that he had authorized the federal government to arrest people who deface monuments on federal property and threatened 10 years in prison. On Wednesday, the Army activated some 400 National Guard troops to protect monuments in the nation’s capital.

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Scholars say it is fitting that statues would fall so quickly now — amid protests over the death of Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately killed nonwhite people.

Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, said the country is “in the midst of the largest social movement about rights and racial justice in half a century” and that many of the people Americans have long held up as heroes are flawed.

“The truth is, we do have a racist history,” Orfield said. “We stole all our land from the Indians, we took half of Mexico over, and we kept African Americans in an extreme form of slavery for generations, followed by extreme segregation using the power of law.”

That this is happening now across a state regarded as a symbol of liberal America is not a surprise, said Kevin Waite, a professor at Durham University in England with a focus on the American West, slavery and imperialism.

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Quartz Hill High School
Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley is dropping “Rebels” as its mascot as the nation comes to grips with racial and social issues in the wake of recent events.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“I think part of the reason that this history is hidden for a lot of Californians is because it doesn’t really sit well with the stories we like to tell ourselves about this free state that’s now on the leading edge of cosmopolitan liberalism,” he said. “It seems like anybody with an association with colonial rule and slavery is now a target for removal.”

Earlier this month, Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley dropped its long-debated Rebel mascot after the body of Robert Fuller, a young Black man, was found hanging from a tree near Palmdale City Hall, 12 miles away.

Authorities quickly labeled Fuller’s death a probable suicide, drawing intense criticism from his family and community members who said they did not do enough to determine whether it was a homicide. The case remains under investigation.

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Amid the George Floyd protests, school officials seemed to take years-long efforts to change the mascot more seriously, said Joshua Collier, former president of the Black Student Union, who graduated this month. Collier, 18, said his group’s email account has received numerous racist messages in recent days, as well as messages from angry alumni.

“They have to realize that times do change and the mascot did change and you have to adapt to the change,” he said.

VENTURA, CA
Jack Rose, 15, jogs past the bronze statue of Father Junipero Serra as it stands in front of Ventura City Hall. A joint statement was issued from local political, indigenous and Catholic leaders pledging to remove the monument, originally commissioned in the 1930s but replaced in 1989. “The time has come for the statue to be taken down and moved to a more appropriate nonpublic location,” read the statement, issued by Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

California has grappled with symbols of past racism and cruelty for years.

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In 2009, officials changed the name of Malibu’s Negrohead Mountain (which was itself a 1960s refinement of the N-word, which formed its original name). In 2017, after a counterprotester was killed during the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. — planned in part to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue — a six-foot granite monument to Confederate soldiers in Hollywood Forever Cemetery was carted away in the dark of the night.

No state beyond the South has had as many monuments and place names honoring the Confederacy and its soldiers as California, Waite said. Though it was a Union state far from the major battlefields of the Civil War, white Southerners flocked to California and “basically ran the show in Sacramento,” passing numerous pro-slavery resolutions, Waite said. Public monuments popped up decades after the war, as part of a movement known as the Lost Cause, a fictitious rewriting of Civil War history that glosses over slavery as its root cause.

The current protest movement is also confronting California’s historic cruelty toward Native Americans, with statues of Serra, the architect of the state’s mission system, falling and the removal of a statue of John Sutter, a Gold Rush colonizer who enslaved Indigenous people, from a Sacramento hospital named after him.

“People aren’t taking things so much as a given part of the landscape anymore, and they’re imagining what places would feel like without this assertion of power, this asserting of dominance over certain people,” said Beth Piatote, a professor of Native American studies at UC Berkeley. “Native people, African American people, Asians, immigrants — people are all coming together and saying, ‘We don’t want that message asserted in our public space.’”

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Local activist, Sierra Wooten, takes her turn to speak in front of the Fort Bragg City Council.
(Robin Epley/Advocate-News)

In Fort Bragg, a Mendocino County town of 7,400 named after Confederate army general and slave owner Braxton Bragg, the City Council this week considered several options for its name, including placing a name change on the November ballot or re-dedicating the town to honor another historical Bragg.

On Monday, the Council decided to create an ad hoc committee to discuss next steps but not to put a name change on the ballot.

Fort Bragg was founded in 1857 by Lt. Horatio G. Gibson, who established a military post to control the Native American population in Mendocino County. Gibson named it after Bragg, his former commanding officer in the Mexican-American War. As the story goes, Bragg never set foot in the town.

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A recent biography of the general, who resigned his post under pressure halfway through the war after decisive losses and is regarded as an unsuccessful military leader, is subtitled “The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy.”

The town’s name has been challenged before. In 2015, after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., the California Legislative Black Caucus asked city leaders to consider a name change. They declined.

Ryan Bushnell, who started an online petition to keep the name, said he does not want to see it removed as a “knee-jerk reaction” to current events. The name, he said, ideally could be used to teach the history of the area.

“This is not about Braxton Bragg. Those of us who want to keep the name don’t go home and worship a statue of Braxton Bragg each night,” Bushnell told The Times. “It’s about a tight-knit community. It’s a damn good community, and for the most part we all just get along.”

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On Monday, City Councilwoman Tess Albin-Smith said she was pained by the division over a name change and whether it would “free residents from the albatross and embarrassment of being named after a Confederate general who owned slaves.”

“No one had any conviction that changing the name of our town would solve racial equality either locally or globally. It would simply disassociate us with a racist,” she added.

City officials estimated it would cost more than $271,000 to change the name. Fort Bragg’s economy relies on tourism, which has taken a severe hit because of the pandemic. The city already has cut staff.

Javier Silva, a member of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, asked the council to listen to tribal members who “never ceded this land.”

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“I don’t like the name myself,” he said. “But I just want it to be a reminder that this was a place of oppression, not because of Bragg, not because of that, but because of the Native Americans that were here, the first peoples here.

“We have never been given a voice, and when we have gotten a voice, it’s never gone anywhere.”


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