The Watsonville Parks and Recreation Commission will have a tough decision on its hands at its Nov. 3 meeting, as it is expected to make a recommendation to the city council on the fate of the much-debated George Washington bust in the City Plaza.
Parks and Community Services Director Nick Calubaquib at a Tuesday night virtual town hall revealed the results of a month-long online survey that asked the community for opinions and suggestions regarding the statue. Calubaquib said the City received more than 1,200 responses to the survey and that roughly 60% of respondents wanted the bust to stay. About 35% of respondents wanted it removed, and the rest were indifferent.
Only roughly 500 respondents were confirmed by the City as Watsonville residents, according to Calubaquib. Responses from Watsonville residents mirrored those of all respondents, Calubaquib said, as 59% of residents wanted it to stay.
Those results did little to sway a contingency of both Watsonville and Santa Cruz residents at the town hall from urging for the statue’s removal. Some called into question the math used to present the results and asked Calubaquib to release the raw data. Others had concerns that the survey skewed toward property owners and people with internet access. Those in attendance were also disappointed the survey did not gather information on ethnicity, gender and age, among other things.
There was no action taken during the meeting, which at times became a heated kerfuffle between supporters and detractors of the statue. The results of the survey and a shortlist of recommended decisions will be presented to the commission next month.
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 city 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 historic park. The accompanying plaque on the pedestal reads “George Washington, 1732-1799, Father of His Country” and “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”
For two decades it sat mostly unnoticed at the park, nestled into the center of the city along with a handful of other historic elements. But the debate around the bust began amid a nationwide racial reckoning and as several monuments to presidents, historic figures and the Confederacy across the country were removed—both voluntarily and not.
Revolunas, the group leading the campaign to remove the bust, circulated an online petition and staged a sit-in protest around the bust on July 17 to call for its removal. That group was met by a counter-protest consisting of several local veterans led by former Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano and his father Alex Solano, a well-known local veteran and community leader.
Soon after that protest, Manny Solano circulated his own online petition and organized a rally on July 31 back at the City Plaza.
That second meeting between the groups was reportedly contentious. Members of Revolunas said one member of Solano’s group shouted “white power” and another told a member of Revolunas to go back to Mexico.
In addition, a photo of a person flashing an “OK” hand gesture, which the Anti-Defamation League has said can sometimes be associated with white supremacy, surfaced from the July 31 rally. That rally caused concerns among several community members that the statue was attracting people who support white supremacy.
Survey responses echoed those concerns. The majority of respondents who want the bust removed said it is a symbol of white supremacy and racism. They also said that it does not reflect the values of the community and that Washington’s support of the genocide of Indigenous people and ownership of slaves were also reasons for it to be removed.
Those who want to leave the statue in its place said in the survey that it honors Washington’s actions that created and improved the country and that it is a reminder of the country’s history that should not be replaced.
Some who replied to the survey said they would be willing to compromise by adding an adjoining plaque to the statute that would put Washington into historical context—flaws and all. But about a dozen speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were not willing to accept that option and wanted it removed and placed elsewhere, a compromise that most supporters of the bust at the meeting said they would not accept.