Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 25, 2020

Looking at Statues: Public Protest or Vandalizing?

I have one more thing to say about the attention being focused on statues of historical figures.

In my previous post, I described an act of public protest/defacement (your choice) of  the statue of the Spanish explorer, Juan Cabrillo, who commanded the first European exploration of the coast of California in 1542.

Cabrillo statue Brad Nixon 1997 sm

About a hundred yards from that molded concrete statue is a later one, less stylized, cast in bronze: Stephen M. White.

Stephen M White statue Brad Nixon 1594 (440x640)

You almost certainly won’t recognize that name.

Born in San Francisco in 1853, White studied law, was admitted to the bar and moved to Los Angeles, where he became the county’s district attorney.

In the 1890s, White led what became known as the “Free Harbor Fight.” Downtown Los Angeles is a number of miles inland from the Pacific. It lacked a port, which left the city unable to compete with San Francisco to the north and the small town of San Diego to the south, both of which were perched at the edge of easily accessible ocean harbors.

Railroad baron, Henry Huntington, began building a huge wharf into Santa Monica Bay, due west of Los Angeles. His goal was simple: If he owned the port, he and his railroad could collect fees on every ton of freight in and out of the growing city.

Twenty-five miles south of downtown, San Pedro Bay offered the prospect of an equally accessible, larger port. Already the home of the region’s nascent tuna and mackerel fishing industry, the bay served as the focus of an effort White directed with other civic leaders to establish it as the Port of Los Angeles. Here’s a small slice of the port today.

LA Port Brad Nixon 5805 (640x472)

To cut to the chase, White and the Free Harbor proponents prevailed. Today, there’s no sign of of the massive railroad wharf Huntington built in Santa Monica. The Port of Los Angeles, protected by an extensive breakwater begun early in the 20th century, originated by White, is now the busiest container shipping port in the United States.

I wrote more about White and the Free Harbor Fight at this link.

That statue of White looks out at the harbor he helped create.

LA Breakwater Brad Nixon 8386 680

On the night of June 21, 2020, protesters who defaced the nearby statue of Juan Cabrillo — presumably in protest of an oppressor of Native Americans, which he was — also dumped red paint on the White statue. Here, in a still from a fuzzy video from an eyewitness, posted on the website of The Daily Breeze newspaper.

White Screen Shot 2020-06-24

That surprised me. Local hero? Founding father of the port? What’s THAT? Why? Mob violence? We’re spray painting the Cabrillo statue: Let’s paint all the statues?

Mr. White’s career progressed from being L.A. district attorney to a seat in the California state senate. Eventually, he served one term as California’s first native-born U.S. Senator. During his time in the California senate — I now know — he argued in favor of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That act prohibited citizens of China from entering the United States, and denied Chinese citizens already resident here from attaining U.S. citizenship.

That’s likely the reason his statue was smeared with red paint.

His motivation? It’s probably impossible to say. It may have reflected some portion of his point of view. It may, though, have been a point of political expediency.

Anecdotal evidence from his life indicates Senator White had a considerable degree of empathy with Chinese immigrant families. His own state, California, was almost literally built on the backs of Chinese immigrants. Thousands of Chinese laborers  — “coolies” was the derogatory term, imported from British colonial India  — as well as other immigrant Italians, Irish, Poles, built the railroad grades, tunnels that opened California to the rest of the world, under almost impossibly severe conditions: freezing cold, broiling heat, short wages, near-starvation rations. At one point, approximately one-fourth of the daily laborers in California were of Chinese descent.

A wave of anti-immigrant fervor (read: anti-Asian; immigrants from Europe, including Poles, Czechs, Italians, Irish were streaming to the U.S., working at the same time on railroads, meat packing plants, for the same starvation wages) promoted president Arthur to put forward the Exclusion Act.

It’s one component of a long and notable career.

Looking at a statue? I’ve seen Mr. White’s statue, and the port he helped build. I’m there all the time. Looking, thinking. I think I’ll go take another look.

Across the main channel of the port from White’s statue is Terminal Island, once home to several thousand citizens of Japanese origin. The center of the biggest fishing industry on the west coast; 400 boats went out every day, the canneries worked 24/7. In 1942, we sent ’em to concentration camps, bulldozed their town, which they charmingly called “Furusato,” something equivalent to “home sweet home.”

There’s a statue there, helping us remember.

Japanese memorial M Vincent 2137 680

Welcome to Manzanar, Poston, Tule Lake, Lordstown, citizen. We’re all part of the melting pot, aren’t we?

Manzanar Brad Nixon 3668 680

The characters on the monument in the photo above, in the cemetery at Manzanar National Monument, read, approximately, “Soul Consoling Tower.”

What does a statue, a monument say? Nothing. It just stands there.

What do we say? That’s up to us. History is complex. It’s not one thing. It’s everything, all together, at once. Let’s use this opportunity to consider what statues say … and what is up for us to say.

I invite your comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Video still © George Matthews, San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew, The Daily Breeze, June 21, 2020


  1. […] at Statues: Public Protest or Vandalizing?”, by Brad Nixon, Under Western Skies blog, June 25, […]


    • A good capsule history of Mr. White’s career. The photos of his statue’s moves from downtown to the harbor are excellent background.
      This is not a simple subject — nor is any attempt to recapture a distant era.
      Thank you.


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