The Watsonville City Council at Tuesday night’s meeting voted to move the George Washington statue from the City Plaza to the Watsonville Public Library.
The motion, put forth by councilwoman Rebecca Garcia, passed 5-2 with council members Ari Parker and Lowell Hurst dissenting. Parker and Hurst said they wanted the issue to be placed on the ballot for voters to decide the bust’s future.
A hot-button topic since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked national social unrest, the fight over the donated sculpture of the nation’s first president has elicited an outpouring of opinions about its preferred location, as well as historic preservation, racial oppression and social justice, among other things.
Dueling petitions and protests got it on the city’s radar, and subsequent heated Parks and Recreation Commission meetings further drove a wedge between people on opposite sides of the issue.
The Parks Commission recommended the City Council remove the statue. That was despite the results of a survey in which 60% of roughly 1,200 respondents said they wanted to keep the statue in its current location at the historic park in the heart of the city.
City parks staff recommended that the City Council leave the statue where it is and add a “bilingual plaque on the podium of the bust that describes a broad historical perspective about George Washington.”
Garcia’s motion included the addition of the plaque. She said she made the motion because of Washington’s role in the genocide of Indigenous people and enslavement of Black people. Those actions, she said, did not make him a “man who practiced the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“His bust is a reminder of the dehumanization experienced by slaves and natives,” she said.
The relocation will cost the city between $7,000-9,000, Parks and Community Services Director Nick Calubaquib said. The fabrication of the plaque will cost about $2,000, Calubaquib added. That does not include the cost associated with creating the written historical perspective of the nation’s first president.
It is unclear when the city will move it and where in the library it will be placed.
Part of a $100,000 gift from the Alaga Family Estate as a dying wish of Lloyd F. Alaga, the bust has called the City Plaza home since 2001. The council unanimously approved the gift from Alaga in 1999, using $70,000 to create the bust and the rest to help restore the fountain in the park. Alaga, a Watsonville native and immigrant from Croatia, also donated $200,000 to the Watsonville Public Library.
For two decades it has sat mostly unnoticed at the park nestled into the center of the city, but debate around the bust began as several monuments to historic figures across the country were removed as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Online petitions—both in favor of and against the bust—were circulated, prompting city officials to bring the item to the Parks Commission for a “study session” in August 2020. The majority of the commission voiced its support for removing the bust, and called for the issue to be agendized by the City Council. The city instead circulated the aforementioned online survey to gather more input and held a town hall in September 2020 to release the results.
The majority of respondents who wanted the bust removed said it had turned into a symbol of white supremacy and racism. Many of them have cited a reported cry of “white power” that rang out during a rally organized by supporters of the statue in July 2020. In addition, a photo of a person flashing an “OK” hand gesture, which the Anti-Defamation League has said can be associated with white supremacy, surfaced from that rally.
Respondents also said that the statue does not reflect the “values of the community.”
Those who wanted to leave the statue in its place said in the survey that it honors Washington’s actions that created and improved the country, that it is a reminder of the country’s history that should not be removed, and that his actions should not be judged under the lens of today’s societal norms.
About 25 people talked during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s virtual meeting. At least five of them were in favor of keeping the statue in the Plaza. That included Rory Odegaard, who said he was a fourth-generation Californian and a longtime resident of South County.
“Why are we discussing this when we have a slam dunk 2-to-1 survey that said keep the bust?” Odegaard asked.
But the majority of the callers were in favor of removing the statue, and most of those in favor were return callers from previous meetings over the last seven months. As they have before, they said the survey was incomplete because it did not tally race and age—something councilwoman Garcia also said was essential to understanding if the vote was reflective of Watsonville’s largely young Latinx population—and that many people did not receive the survey.
They also said that a vote to keep the bust would be a “tone-deaf” decision after just two hours earlier unanimously voting to fly the Black Lives Matter flag during Black History Month in February.
Victoria Bañales, a Cabrillo College English professor, said that the survey results might be indicative of today’s social climate in Watsonville, but added that many social justice and civil rights causes are largely unpopular in the moment.
“It might not be popular, but it is the right thing to do,” Bañales said. “When you look back, historically, you’re going to say that was the right thing to do.”
Mayor Jimmy Dutra said the real issue is not the bust itself but the racial divide that the city has seen since the two sides began circulating petitions last year.
“We need to get back to a point of healing—this community needs to heal,” he said.