After hours of peaceful marching Saturday, about 200 demonstrators damaged and tore down a statue of Catholic missionary Junipero Serra on the east side of the state Capitol grounds according to the California Highway Patrol. The action comes as activists continue to demand the removal of monuments that they say glorify historic violence against Black and Native people.
Morning Star Gali, a Pit River Tribe member working with the Statewide Coalition Against Racist Symbols, says the group had been writing to California lawmakers for several weeks requesting the Serra statue be taken down. But she says they weren’t aware of protesters’ plans to destroy it this weekend.
“I see that there’s a little bit of justice that’s being served,” she said. “Whether it was done through legal processes or not, it was time for that statue to come down.”
The group was also holding community conversations about the problematic legacy of John Sutter when Sutter Health opted to remove a statue of the gold rush settler from 28th and L streets in mid-June.
“We held a number of events two weeks ago, those events were to de-Sutter, de-Serra and de-Columbus Sacramento in this larger conversation of un-monumenting,” Gali said.
Serra was a Spanish priest who helped build California’s mission system in the late 18th century. While many religious leaders have commended his work — Pope Francis made him a saint in 2015 — and some scholars consider the missions a key part of California history, recent criticism has centered on the forced labor and cultural erasure that Native Americans say their ancestors endured under Serra’s command.
CHP says demonstrators arrived at the Capitol grounds around 9 p.m. Saturday.
“Members of the group soon began beating on the statue and then spray painted it and tried to set it on fire,” the agency's press release reads. “Before CHP officers could intervene, demonstrators wrapped heavy-duty tow straps around the statue and pulled it down in an apparent planned act of vandalism.”
There’s an ongoing investigation of the incident, and CHP is asking anyone with information about the people responsible to call in.
Serra has been making headlines all over the state in recent weeks. San Francisco protesters took down a statue of Serra in Golden Gate Park last month. Officials in Ventura are planning to remove a Serra statue from their city hall.
Back in 2018, Stanford University thoroughly examined the presence of Serra on its campus and made several changes, including renaming the street on which the university sits.
Diocese of Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto wrote in a statement Sunday that Serra’s work deserves to be acknowledged, and that vandalism “does little to build the future.”
“While Father Serra worked under this colonial system, he denounced its evils and worked to protect the dignity of native peoples,” he wrote. “His holiness as a missionary should not be measured by his own failures to stop the exploitation or even his own personal faults.”
One of the biggest points of contention around Serra relates to whether he forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism.
Steve Hackel, a history professor at UC Riverside and author of a book on Serra, said Native Americans came to the mission voluntarily, but were then punished for trying to leave. He says they were encouraged to assimilate to white culture and leave their Native practices behind. And his study of birth and death records from the missions show the living conditions were dismal.
“His missions were an existential threat to Native peoples, because of not just the cultural challenges he posed for Native peoples and their lives, but demographically Native peoples’ population plummeted dramatically within a few years of their arrival at the missions,” he said.
Hackel said the current push to remove Serra statues reflects a shift in thinking around mission work.
“We don’t live in a world today where we believe it’s appropriate to say to one group, ‘Our religion is the truth, yours is a bunch of superstition so give it up.’” he said. “A figure as controversial as Serra need not be in the public view if it provokes Native peoples who rightly feel that their ancestors were oppressed in the missions.”
He suggested moving Serra statues into churches and missions instead.
The Statewide Coalition Against Racist Symbols and other groups say everything from museums to school curriculums edit out the Native perspective. In recent years, educators have criticized the longstanding practice of California fourth-graders building models of missions.
At the Capitol, a statue of colonizer Christopher Columbus remains in the rotunda, even though lawmakers announced in mid-June that it would be taken down. Some politicians have voiced opposition to the statue’s removal.
Gali, of the coalition, said the Columbus statue has been a point of frustration.
“Why is it that when we’re in a time of truth-telling, where we’re addressing the complications and asking these questions for why these statues are still standing, why is there such an effort for these statues to stay in place?”
A representative from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office said the Columbus statue is still slated for removal, but would not provide an expected removal date.
The Saturday demonstration that ended with the destruction of the Serra statue was originally organized with the goal of demanding the removal of the Columbus statue.
CHP would not comment on any plans to protect Capitol grounds or any specific monuments during future demonstrations.
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