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Protesters tear down statue of Spanish missionary and saint Junipero Serra in Sacramento

Vincent Moleski, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A statue of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who helped to establish the Spanish missions in California, was torn down by protesters in Sacramento's Capitol Park on Saturday night after a day of marches throughout the city.

Demonstrations across the country Saturday had a focus on the rights and historical struggle of indigenous people, partly a response to the annual celebration of the Fourth of July.

In Sacramento, protesters advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement marched from the Tower Bridge to the Capitol, where they joined another group. Some carried a banner that read "decolonize the streets," emphasizing the significance of America's colonial beginnings. The Los Angeles Times reported on a protest featuring Black Lives Matter protesters as well as several indigenous groups who referred to the national holiday as "the Farce of July." President Donald Trump's appearance at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota on Friday also set off protests from Native American groups, who claim the site as sacred ground.

Serra, a Roman Catholic priest born in Spain in 1713, was one of California's earliest colonizers. According to the California State Capitol Museum, his statue in Capitol Park was erected in 1965 to honor his missionary work. Serra founded the first nine Spanish missions of the 21 that dot the California landscape. He was canonized as a saint in 2015 by Pope Francis, who characterized him at the time as "the evangelizer of the West in the United States."

The Spanish priest has long been a subject of controversy over his treatment of Native Californians.

"Even by the standards of the day Serra was more of a religious fanatic, and these missions were basically forced labor camps," said Tony Platt, of the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California-Berkeley at the time of Serra's canonization. "The canonization is an insult to native people and an insult to all of us in California, because Serra stands symbolically for the worst moments in the origins of this state."

 

A livestream taken during Saturday's protest at Capitol Park, which was viewed by Sacramento Bee journalists but has since been removed from Facebook, showed a large crowd gathered around Serra's statue around 9 p.m. One man standing in front of the statue shortly before its toppling waved a flag featuring three arrows, an anti-fascist symbol dating to opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany. Another took an aerosol can and, using a lighter to ignite the contents of the can, burned the face of Serra to a chorus of cheers.

A number of protesters began striking the statue with various objects, including the man with the three-arrow flag, who wrapped it around a sledgehammer. He and several others wrapped straps around Serra's head and pulled the statue down in a matter of seconds. The crowd began dancing and jumping on the desecrated statue as California Highway Patrol officers moved in to clear out the park.

The CHP's Capitol Protection Section identified those who congregated around the statue as the same "previously peaceful demonstrators who were marching on Sacramento city streets."

"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," the agency said in a statement.

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