Measure M, if passed by Arcata’s voters, would prohibit changing or removing the statue of President William McKinley and the base it rests upon from the center of the Arcata Plaza.
Summary of the “pro” ballot arguments: McKinley opposed slavery and was a Union veteran, the last to be president. The statue was erected in the wake of his assassination and has stood in the center of the Arcata Plaza for over 100 years. It will cost the city money to remove the statue, perhaps many more dollars than the city’s estimate of $60,000 to $65,000. Removing the statue would be erasing history, and the statue’s defenders have found the crowds demanding its removal uncivil.
Summary of the “con” ballot arguments: McKinley’s presidency harmed the people of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, the Philippines and Hawaii, as well as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. The statue does not reflect Arcata’s current values and its continued presence on the plaza insults and excludes indigenous peoples and people of color. The estimated cost of removing the statue is less than 0.2 percent of the city’s $40 million 2017/2018 adopted budget.
Our view: As we wrote here over a year ago, “Either McKinley was guilty of imperialism, warmongering, white supremacy and genocide — or he wasn’t. These are serious charges. … Let the facts be heard, and then let Arcatans pronounce their verdict by ballot.”
The Arcata City Council, though, had other ideas. Instead of kicking the simple question to the voters — should the statue be removed? — the council, in its 4-1 vote this February, began McKinley’s eviction. They saw their chance, they took it, and in doing so, they pretty much brought Measure M upon themselves.
But Measure M is not asking Arcatans whether or not the statue should be removed. Measure M is asking Arcatans to prohibit its removal. That’s a distinction with a difference. And it’s why Arcatans ought to reject Measure M.
The removal of the statue has been proposed in fits and starts since at least 1958, for various reasons. Its ultimate disappearance from the plaza will do no irreparable harm to the history of a town that in decades past showed its respect for its bronze absentee non-forefather by draping him in Christmas costumes and subjecting him to the drunken grapplings of Humboldt State students on many a Halloween. Nobody was burned at the stake for desecrating the idol.
The truth of the matter is that there’s a statue of President McKinley in the plaza of a city he never visited not because of his deeds, but because he was assassinated while in office. McKinley died at in 1901 at age 58; George Zehndner commissioned the statue in 1905. Had McKinley ducked his assassin’s bullet, he would have been around 73 when Zehnder died in 1916 at the age of 91. And then Arcatans might today be arguing for the umpteenth time today over the fate of the gazebo they never would have knocked down to make room for a statue that never was, much to the always and ever equal parts amusement and horror of their neighbors to the north in Minorsville. Without McKinley’s untimely death, Congress wouldn’t have asked the Secret Service to pay more attention to the safety of presidents, and there might stand today another statue in the Arcata Plaza, and a totem pole in a nearby Taftsville to boot.
Now that would be rewriting history.
At the end of the day, there’s a statue in the plaza because Americans agree that killing presidents isn’t preferable to voting them out of office. As sentiments go, it’s solid. But it’s a sentiment not magically bound only and always to the bronze effigy of William McKinley. On Nov. 6, Arcatans can choose to chain this sentiment to that symbol — or they can let the statue go, and be free to choose another symbol for themselves and their city’s future.