San Pedro statue vandalized

Vandals sprayed the word "colonizer" and poured red paint onto the head of a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at Cabrillo Park in San Pedro. A nearby sculpture of former US Senator Stephen Mallory White was also defaced. A resident noticed the graffiti early Sunday, June 21, and a group of volunteers spent about 3 hours cleaning it. (Photo courtesy of George Matthews, San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew)

San Pedro residents learned “colonizer” had been sprayed onto a statue of a Spanish conquistador at Cabrillo Beach and red paint was poured onto another depicting a supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act, so they rushed to clean them before crowds arrived to celebrate Father’s Day on Sunday, June 21.

A member of the community was at the beach at about 7 a.m. when she noticed that blood-red paint had been poured over the heads of statues resembling Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and former U.S. Sen. Stephen Mallory White, said San Pedro resident George Matthews, of the San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew.

He and a group of five or six people got together at about 8 a.m. and spent three hours using rags, paint thinner, graffiti remover and turpentine to dissolve and wipe away the paint.

“I don’t want visitors on Father’s Day to walk away with a bad impression of our city,” said Anthony Barrera, a San Pedro resident who aided in the cleanup effort. He added that “I don’t condone what they did, but I have civic pride,” referring to Cabrillo and White.

No group had publicly taken credit or explicitly stated a motive for defacing the monuments as of Sunday evening. Los Angeles Police Department officials did not immediately announce a formal investigation into the matter.

The statue of White is made of bronze, and was completely free of paint as of Sunday afternoon, except from a few deep crevices, Barrera said. The sculpture of Cabrillo is made of a porous material with a coating, which beach staff worried might be damaged by the chemicals used by volunteers. Residents were told that a work order was submitted, and the restoration will be finished by city employees.

The beach where the vandalism took place is named after Cabrillo, who is credited with discovering and exploring the surrounding region in the 16th century. He is also known for advancing the encomienda system that brought Native/Indigenous people into forced labor and compelled them to give tribute to Spain.

White was a lawyer originally from San Francisco who served as the Los Angeles District Attorney. He won a legal battle with the railroad industry that set the stage for the development of the Port of Los Angeles. He also joined the State Senate, where he argued in support of federal legislation in 1882 that passed and prohibited Chinese people from immigrating to the United States. It also barred them from becoming naturalized citizens, and was based on “xenophobic arguments,” according to the U.S. State Department. It was called a “historic mistake” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who supported the measure’s repeal in 1943.

Demonstrators protesting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis Police custody and against institutional racism in the United States have targeted several monuments commemorating the Spanish settlement of the West, slave owners and Confederate soldiers. Statues of Junipero Serra, a Catholic saint credited with opening nine missions in California, were toppled by activists in San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Barrera and Matthews said they can appreciate the outrage some feel when they view monuments honoring those whose legacies are mired in racism or colonialism. However, they said it was unfair to the community as a whole when people act destructively and without building a consensus with those who live in the area.

Matthews said that if a vote was taken and San Pedrans decided to remove the statues, he would not have any opposition to the move. But he added that monuments don’t just glorify the people they depict. They can be reminders of the violence that helped found the United States, and possibly a gateway in coming to terms with the country’s complex past.

“When decisions are made out of haste, following tragedy, mistakes are also made, and there’s not time for reflection,” Matthews said. “Erasing the past will not erase the actions. We have to learn from the past.”

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