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.

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[Chris] 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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