Over the decades, this quiet coastal hamlet has earned a reputation as one of the most liberal places in the nation. Arcata was the first U.S. city to ban the sale of genetically modified foods, the first to elect a majority Green Party city council and one of the first to tacitly allow marijuana farming before pot was legal.
Now it’s on the verge of another first.
No other city has taken down a monument to a president for his misdeeds. But Arcata is poised to do just that. The target is an 8½-foot bronze likeness of William McKinley, who was president at the turn of the last century and stands accused of directing the slaughter of Native peoples in the U.S. and abroad.
“Put a rope around its neck and pull it down,” Chris Peters shouted at a recent rally held at the statue, which has adorned the central square for more than a century.
Peters, who heads the Arcata-based Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous People, called McKinley a proponent of “settler colonialism” that “savaged, raped and killed.”
A presidential statue would be the most significant casualty in an emerging movement to remove monuments honoring people who helped lead what Native groups describe as a centuries-long war against their very existence.
The push follows the rapid fall of Confederate memorials across the South in a victory for activists who view them as celebrating slavery. In the nearly eight months since white supremacists marched in central Virginia to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, cities across the country have yanked dozens of Confederate monuments. Black politicians and activists have been among the strongest supporters of the removals.
This time, it’s tribal activists taking charge, and it’s the West and California in particular leading the way. The state is home to the largest Native American population in the country and more than 100 federally recognized tribes.
In February, San Francisco officials said they planned to remove a prominent downtown monument depicting a defeated Native American at the feet of a vaquero and a Spanish missionary. In March, the San Jose City Council booted a statue of Christopher Columbus from the lobby of City Hall.
Other states are joining the movement. The city of Kalamazoo, Mich., said last month it would take down a park monument of a Native American in a headdress kneeling before a westward-facing pioneer. In Alcalde, N.M., and El Paso, statues of the conquistador Juan de Oñate have become subjects of renewed debate.
In Baltimore, a city councilman has vowed to replace a smashed Columbus monument with something that better reflects “current-day values.”
In Arcata, a city of about 17,000 about two hours south of the Oregon state line, a long-simmering debate over McKinley caught fire after Charlottesville. Area tribes and activists launched a petition campaign and descended on City Hall. The protesters said they couldn’t watch Confederate monuments fall without thinking of their own statue.
By the winter, the plaza played host to regular protests. McKinley became a symbol of Arcata’s sins against Natives and, by extension, other races too, forcing the city to confront some of its embarrassing history. In 1886, for example, Arcata passed a law calling for the “total expulsion of the Chinese.”
McKinley also became a target for anger at President Trump, who has stoked racial tensions with his comments — including his continued insistence that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville.
One Arcata resident was so incensed over McKinley that he protested 26 days straight on the plaza. He held a sign that read, “This Christmas, give the gift of not supporting racism and murder. Remove the statue.”
The debate culminated in February during a long and anger-filled City Council meeting, when dozens of residents packed City Hall to testify on both sides of the issue. In the end, the council voted 4 to 1 to get rid of the statue.
“Is there a difference between honoring McKinley and Robert E. Lee?” the mayor, Sofia Pereira, who was part the majority, said in a recent interview. “They both represent historical pain.”
The land that is now Arcata was once inhabited by the Wiyot Tribe. Then in the 1850s the logging boom began — and pioneers seeking wealth began rapidly grabbing tribal lands. In 1860, settlers massacred dozens of Wiyots, whom tribe members still mourn today. Wiyot children were commonly abducted and forced into servitude.
McKinley, a Republican who was president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, never set foot in the region. But after his death dozens of memorials to him popped up across the nation.
In Honolulu, there’s McKinley High School. In Philadelphia, a McKinley statue stands in front of City Hall. Chicago has McKinley Park neighborhood, with a statue of the president at the entrance to its main park.
The highest mountain in North America, Alaska’s Mt. Denali, was named Mt. McKinley until it was officially returned to his original name in 2015. Unlike other sites, the mountain got its name before McKinley died.
Just north of Arcata is an unincorporated area called McKinleyville.
The McKinley statue has been in Arcata Plaza since 1906, when a local businessman commissioned and gifted it to the city to honor “the first modern president.”
The city eventually grew into a haven for hippies from the Bay Area who sought a quieter life and cheaper land. Marijuana growers flocked to the area, as did activists who enrolled at Humboldt State University for its environmental and Native American studies programs.
But the statue remained as a vestige of a more conservative past. Locals embraced the president as a mascot, dressing him as a lumberjack, and placing bunny ears on his head for Easter. Pranksters have been known to put condoms on his outstretched fingers and stuff cheese in his ears.
Local tribes long resented the statue but remained silent on the matter, figuring there was little chance it would ever come down.
“The Native people here have avoided that square for years,” said Ted Hernandez, chairman of the 620-member Wiyot Tribe, which is based on a reservation about 20 miles south of the city. “Why do we have this man standing in this square where they used to sell our children?”
Hernandez’s tribe is one of more than a dozen whose members showed up in Arcata or sent letters of protest over the months against McKinley.
Bernadette Smith, who recently drove four hours north from the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians rancheria to protest the monument, described getting rid of the statue as “bigger than just a small victory for our community.”
“What happened is going to inspire Natives across America,” she said. Smith, 31, said the win in Arcata spurred her to launch a campaign to rename the Garcia River that divides her tribe’s land back to its original name of P’da Hau.
The McKinley statue also has its supporters. Dozens showed up at City Hall in February to make their case before the vote. They came again in March when the City Council briefly floated the idea of opening up the statue debate to a citywide vote.
David LaRue, an Arcata resident for the last 22 years, started a Facebook group called “Let the people vote on our McKinley statue” and is now gathering signatures for ballot initiative to do just that.
He said that unlike Confederate leaders whose monuments are no longer widely accepted, McKinley fought for the Union in the Civil War. LaRue also pointed out that McKinley defied the norms of his time in appointing several African Americans to federal posts.
“Certainly by today’s standards, he had different ways of looking at things,” he said. “But looking at Abraham Lincoln by today’s standards, you could also say he was a horrible racist.”
The debate has also divided families.
Former Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, who has lived in the city since 1979, said tearing down McKinley would take away from the city’s culture. He said he couldn’t imagine the square, home to the Saturday farmers market and nearly every major city festival, without the McKinley statue there.
“I don’t read much into it,” said Ornelas, who is Mexican American. “It’s not Robert E. Lee. If it was somebody who is known to fight their cousins for the right to have a slave, I would be offended. But during his time he got pushed around by a Congress that was hungry for ... expanding the American empire.”
I don’t read much into it. It’s not Robert E. Lee.
He sees things differently than his wife, a councilwoman who was mayor last year when the push to remove the statue resurged.
“We are in a small northern part of Northern California where Native people are active in our lives daily,” Susan Ornelas said. “It’s not just a lost thought. McKinley didn’t back Native Americans at all. He backed the Curtis Act, which took away Native rights on a lot of land. Natives were so misused in that era. He didn’t really directly hurt them locally but he did through federal laws.”
Susan Ornelas suggested allowing residents to vote on the statue’s fate before taking back that proposal.
For now, the former president stands in Arcata with his days numbered. The city estimates it will take eight months before he’s gone. California law requires a lengthy environmental review, a process that is expected to bring the total cost of removal to $65,000. Anti-statue activists say they will raise the money.
A veterans hall seven blocks away has offered to house the president.
Other monuments protested by Native peoples are also getting private caretakers. The Columbus statue in San Jose was moved to the hall of the Italian American Heritage Foundation, where the group said it will be enclosed as protection from vandalism.
In San Francisco, the city has considered moving the “Early Days” statue to a museum, though a legal challenge has kept it up for the time being.
Another Columbus statue — the most widely seen in the world — appears to be staying put. It stands 76 feet high at the center of Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
After the Charlottesville violence, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to examine all “symbols of hate.” While the city decided Columbus would stay, the mayor promised “new historical markers” near the monument to contextualize it as well as a new monument honoring “indigenous peoples.”
Pereira, the Arcata mayor, said simply adding context to the McKinley monument would amount to too little, too late.
“I would not try to guess or tell other cities what to do,” she said. “If you think of presidents of our country, I don’t think people would even know who McKinley is. But we do. And here, we want to set the right example.”