A California town’s effort to remove a statue of former President William McKinley shows that the leftist bent for erasing politically incorrect figures from the public square no longer is reserved for slave owners, Confederate generals and segregationists.
On the heels of the Confederate monument purge across the South, the town council of Arcata, California, voted to take down a statue of the 25th president, despite McKinley’s sterling record on civil rights.
Among other things, McKinley fought to abolish slavery in the Civil War, resisted demands to fire Catholic state workers as governor of Ohio and appointed a record number of blacks to federal positions as president.
But activists cite McKinley’s mistreatment of American Indians and policy of territorial expansion as grounds for the statue’s removal. McKinley signed the Curtis Act of 1898, an amendment to the Dawes Act, which broke up tribal governments in Indian territory and paved the way for Oklahoma to become a state in 1907.
David LaRue, a longtime Arcata resident petitioning the council to put the statue’s fate to a popular vote, said the wave of iconoclasm spreading across the country will “destroy a great deal of our nation’s monuments and historical displays” if left unchecked.
“It is an important fact that no one generation has the right to destroy history for future generations,” Mr. LaRue said. “It is a bad precedent to start tearing down U.S. presidents and U.S. history. The idea of ‘erasing’ history by removing the remnants of the past is wrong. Removing this piece of art will change nothing because you can’t change history.”
Arcata is a coastal city in Northern California with a liberal reputation. In 2016, President Trump bested Green Party candidate Jill Stein there by just 11 votes.
In February, the City Council voted 4-1 to get rid of the 8½-foot-tall bronze statue, which was erected in 1906 — five years after the president’s assassination. Removing the statue would cost $65,000.
Arcata Mayor Sofia Pereira, a Democrat who voted with the majority to remove the statue, equated McKinley to the Confederate soldiers he once fought.
“Is there a difference between honoring McKinley and Robert E. Lee?” Ms. Pereira told the Los Angeles Times. “They both represent historical pain.”
Chris Peters, an activist who heads the Arcata-based Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous People, said McKinley was a proponent of “settler colonialism” that “savaged, raped and killed” American Indians.
“Put a rope around its neck and pull it down,” Mr. Peters yelled at a recent protest of the statue.
Arcata Council member Paul Pitino said removing the statue was “correcting a 112-year-old error of judgment.”
“When you take the totality of everything he was responsible for, what happened during his presidency, you look at it and you go, ‘OK, positive, negative,’ ” Mr. Pitino said last week on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “If today I was offered that statue, as a city councilman, I would say, ‘No, thank you.’ “
Other presidential commemorations have met with similar fates:
• Princeton University removed a wall-sized photograph of former President Woodrow Wilson in 2016 because of the former university president’s racist views.
• A church in Alexandria, Virginia, known for its ties to George Washington and Robert E. Lee removed monuments memorializing both men because the first U.S. president, who owned slaves, and the Confederate general, who released the slaves he inherited, made people “feel unsafe or unwelcome.”
• Students at New York’s Hofstra University are petitioning the school to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves.
Mr. LaRue said he needs 961 signatures to place an initiative on the ballot that would override the City Council’s vote to remove the McKinley statue.
He accused activists of engaging in the very intolerance that they purport to deplore.
“Our nation’s history is not for just one group of people. It’s for everyone,” Mr. LaRue said. “Just because you don’t like something doesn’t give you the right to destroy it.”